Lady Gaga's "Alejandro" video is so rife with religious imagery that you practically need a Ph.D. to understand it all. And luckily enough, we found somebody with one: Josef Sorett, a professor of religion and African-American studies at Columbia University.
With everyone from director Steven Klein and Gaga's fans to Perez Hilton and Katy Perry weighing in on the clip's use of religious (mostly Catholic) images, we decided to ask Sorett for a scholar's opinion on the "Alejandro" video, to find out just what, exactly, all those crosses and rosary beads mean.
"To me, this video is very much about the wedding of the spiritual and the sexual, which, to be quite honest, has been a longstanding theme in popular music, whether it be someone like Madonna or, you know, Marvin Gaye," Sorett told MTV News. "But there's also a tradition of this — using the notions of love or loss to explain the relationship between humanity and divinity — in the Catholic church that goes back much further, obviously."
Sorett pointed to a key scene at the beginning of the "Alejandro" video, in which Gaga, holding a bejeweled heart on a pillow, leads a funeral procession, as an example of this, pointing out both the divine and the human symbolism of it all.
"You have her holding the Sacred Heart, the bleeding heart of God for humanity, and at the same time, the funeral also reminds me of Eva Perón's funeral procession, which was attended by millions," he said. "So you have the symbol of God's sacrifice, but also the love and attachment of the funeral, and, for the Alejandro character, whomever he is."
There are other much-discussed moments — Gaga's latex nun's habit, the scene in which she ingests rosary beads — that are loaded with the same symbolism. But Sorett said Gaga and Klein's melding of the spiritual and the sexual is also recognizable in less obvious touches, too.
"Ever her dancers, who, on one hand, seem to have this monastic feel to them, seem to be playing on desire, too. She plays with the ideals of gender, and, in several scenes, she's put in these positions on a bed that wedge prayer with sex," he said. "When she wears the nun's habit, she blends images that we associate with spirituality with subcultures within sexual worlds. And when she ingests the rosary beads, we think of consumption, the divine consuming us, or vice versa, Holy Communion."
All of that is very astute, indeed. But there was another reason we sought out Sorett: Since he teaches about the intersection of religion and popular culture, we wondered, did he find the "Alejandro" video to be shocking? Or, perhaps more importantly, calculated?
"On one hand it's controversial, and it always will be. Even look back to Kanye West, posing on the cover of Rolling Stone with the crown of thorns. In certain sectors, that still provokes," he said. "But when I talk about this kind of stuff with my students, they tend to have a more cynical response ... you know, 'How much of this is the artist trying to create controversy?' Especially these days. It seems that the provocative has become the commonplace."