Home > Idiocracy, Justifiable Contempt, Medieval Peasant Logic, Politics, Pop Culture > Westboro Baptist Church, Lady Gaga, and the Parodic Abyss

Westboro Baptist Church, Lady Gaga, and the Parodic Abyss


Fresh from picketing Ronnie James Dio’s funeral, the Westboro Baptist Church has turned its attention to another musician in need of reminding that they’re on a fast track to damnation, creating a new parody of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” called “Ever Burn.” Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Church leader Fred, posted the song to her blog today; like other WBC spoofs, musically it faithfully hews to the original, but Phelps swaps in lyrics about how Gaga is a “devil spawn” whose insistence on teaching “the boys and the girls to be proud whores” will not only ensure that God no longer hears her own prayers, but will also help kill off American troops and “spread the oil faster.”

“Westboro Baptist Church casts Lady Gaga into song parody hell,” AV Club Newswire, June 2, 2010

Pop culture is the engine of the ephemeral, a means of delivering plastic pop baubles to its cheering fans.  Occasionally it simply leaves the audience confused.  In the mercenary world of pop music, Lady Gaga has added precious seconds to her fifteen minutes of fame with a glittery train of spectacular costumes.  Her songs get lost amidst the predictable “Worst Dressed” tabloid fodder and garden-variety industry weirdness.  The crazy costumes sell records and record executives get rich in the process.  Beyond the superficial Bob Mackie-on-angel dust attire, this is business as usual for the music industry.  (See Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson, etc.)

Lady Gaga

Religion is the engine of the eternal, a means of promising a blissful afterlife, and union with God, insofar as Abrahamic theologies are concerned.  The quest for the eternal has produced cathedrals, paintings, sculpture, and literature.  One aspect that has haunted the three major Abrahamic monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is its reaction to homosexuality.  Recent events has seen “the Homosexual Question” tear apart (or destroy) various denominations and religious communities. Can modern pluralistic democracies negotiate with religious groups whose views on the gay community are founded on a perspective hewn from the Bronze Age and Roman Palestine?

Westboro Baptist Church protesting something.

Depending on the ideological contours of the faith community, the negotiation between modern mores and ancient tenets result in either hardline or accommodationalist positions.  The recent swath of anti-gay crusaders caught in gay sex scandals only makes the situation more precarious.  Dogma and desire play across the human body.  The nature versus nurture debate recast as fodder for Leno, Letterman, Stewart, and Colbert.

Rick Warren: homophobia in an easily digestible, mainstream middlebrow package.

At the far end of the spectrum is the Westboro Baptist Church.  Less a traditional denomination than an extended family of shameless fame whores, it has become the easiest church to hate, since its dogmatic positions and public displays, like Lady Gaga, easily turn into self-parody.  How can one ridicule something so inherently ridiculous?

This essay seeks to explore the extremes of parody and self-parody.  What if the Westboro Baptist Church was not a cabal of sincere extremists, but bent performance art?  Less Book of Leviticus than Ole Time Religion, Andy Kaufman-style.

Extremism as Performance Art

The world of religion, like the world of politics and celebrity, is based on finely executed performances.  The term charismatic can apply to all three spheres.  The world has become an information-saturated, mediated, spectacle-loving environment.  It takes a serious effort to get the audience’s attention.  Having achieved that, no mean feat in a world with the Youtube, TV, Netflix, etc., the performer has to keep the audience’s attention.  The typical viewer is not necessarily jaded but overly distracted. It is hard to focus when there is so much choice.  Hence politics and religion arranging Manichean-like solutions.  The choice then involves one of two choices: Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, science or religion, Coke or Pepsi, and capitalism or socialism.  The “either/or” choice gives the viewer a mental respite from 500 channels, 100 kinds of coffee, and other intimidating multitudes.

Do we have your attention yet?

Another strategy to insure the audience’s attention is taking an extremist stance.  Rand Paul’s extremist libertarian ideological purity guarantees he will get the news coverage and press clippings.  He stands out amidst the other newly elected Congressional clones and drones.  Whether this ideological extremism results in a re-election remains to be seen.

A younger, sexier George Wallace.

Westboro Baptist Church occupies the same extremist plane as Rand Paul.  Fred Phelps, the Grand Ayatollah of the Church, is an endless font of hyperbole, sensationalism, and extremism.  He does verbally what Lady Gaga achieves visually.

Fred Phelps and his ilk represent an easy target for justifiable contempt.  It is easy to hate the Westboro Baptist Church.  One can assert that opinion almost too easily.  The degree of sincerity and seriousness of the Church while uttering statements hateful and outrages comes across as bigoted and sensational.  They espouse a belief system pre-medieval yet media savvy.  The Bronze Age theatrics betray a mastery of modern media.  Fred Phelps is less a fire-and-brimstone hatemonger than an astute performance artist.

Fish in a barrel.

His hate-filled bile has an unlikely antecedent: Tony Clifton.  Stand-up comedian Andy Kaufman created the Tony Clifton character.  Tony Clifton plays like a parody of a Rat Pack nightclub comic.  The parody creates a bleak shadow, like Don Rickles minus the jokes.

Fred Phelps also exemplifies the worst aspects of performance artists, sensational attention hogs that enthrall hipster audiences with vulgarity.  Unfortunately, their swearing and poetry is without meaningful content.

Parody, Self-Parody, and Beyond

“Ever Burn” stands out, unique in its ridiculousness.  Nevertheless, the ridiculousness is like a wormhole, bounded by the two black holes of Lady Gaga and the Westboro Baptist Church.  How can one appreciate this, even from the vantage point of pop culture studies?  A religious group that comes across like a hateful parody of fundamentalist groups parodies a song by a pop music figure that comes across as a cartoonish parody of the pop music scene.  Trying to unravel the different threads of parody is like trying to find the second side of a Möbius Strip.  To Slavoj Žižek, himself a provocateur and parody of the academic establishment the song is like the plot of Lost Highway that exploits “the opposition of two horrors: the phantasmatic horror of the nightmarish noir universe of perverse sex, betrayal, and murder, and the (perhaps much more unsettling) despair of our drab, alienated daily life of impotence and distrust.”

Ironically and predictably, the parody song is not funny.  The lack of humor is not due to the ultraconservatism of the Church’s doctrine.  Political parody songs usually emanate from the right wing, usually on talk radio and allied web venues.  The parody songs succeed because of the over-serious, hyper-orchestrated Bataan Death March associated with the American Presidential election process.  The songs bring touches of humor to otherwise drab news days concerned with the relentless repetition of campaign ads, swing states, and fund raising.

Parody also works when the religious target possesses the same self-serious posture as political figures.  The Pope Benedict XVI-Emperor Palpatine parody has become an instant classic on the Internet.  Because the molestation scandals keep expanding and Pope Benedict’s former position as the “Pope’s attack dog” have given the parody traction.  It has also gained traction due to the “Panzer Pope” and “Nazi Pope” memes growing tired and clichéd.

The Catholic Church represents a vastly different target than the Westboro Baptist Church.  One is a sovereign state with a massive ecclesiarchy and a two-thousand year old tradition.  The global scale and millions of adherents creates a congregation varied and contradictory in its relations with the Vatican.  Catholicism embraces everything from the Opus Dei to Marxist-inspired “liberation theology.”  Capital accrued from millions funds lawyers and public relations teams to give the Church a public-friendly face.

Standing in stark opposition to the staid traditionalism of the Catholic Church is the Westboro Baptist Church.  The Catholic Church officially takes positions against homosexuality and gay marriage, its own sexual peccadilloes notwithstanding.  A multifaceted bureaucracy and sovereign state status further establishes its legitimacy.  The same cannot be said for the Westboro Baptist Church.  A tiny congregation with few outside the immediate family of Fred Phelps, its agenda remains an obsessive one-note farce.  The pathological obsession with damning gays is a parody of other denominations and their euphemistic condemnations.  The Westboro Baptist Church possesses a kind of dogmatic obsessive-compulsive disorder, demanding a “Christian America” as impossible to achieve as Osama bin Laden’s “Global Caliphate.”  Whereas bin Laden and al-Qaeda represent a real threat to American cultural pluralism, the Westboro Baptist Church just comes across as a joke.  Even the Ku Klux Klan has disavowed the Westboro Baptist Church.  The only real analogues are actual parody religions like the Church of the SubGenius and Pastafarianism, although both espouse a comedic posture.  The parody rings true when the target is sincere and serious.

The Westboro Baptist Church is so extreme and so sensational; one wonders if they themselves are sincere?  Alternatively, like Tony Clifton, is the joke on us?  The audience gets offended and they get attention.  One can only hope enough people will avoid giving these inveterate fame whores the attention they crave.  Shameless narcissists and masters of the media age, the Westboro Baptist Church succeeds in feeding its insatiable vanity.  The Lady Gaga parody proves once and for all that they are wasting everybody’s time.  Religious history will regard this claque of hateful dingbats as another footnote.  That is, if the historian bothers to include them at all.

A parody of a parody of a parody of a …

 

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  1. Sooz
    July 18, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    The uber-Christian Taliban in the US are seem to be adamant in their efforts to claim their deity is an unadulterated murderous bigoted a-hold, squared.

    The world who is watching has been motivated by our resident bigots to resist the “spread of freedom” with violence as the reward.

  2. August 1, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Yeah, Lady Gaga Lady Gaga =)

  3. Tracey
    October 2, 2010 at 3:26 am

    I think it’s wrong to say that WBC is on the same extreme as Rand Paul. Rand Paul does not think god hates america and rand paul doesn’t think that god wants soldiers to die. WBC is a hate group.. a cult rather. WBC is ignorant and hateful.

  4. ldsknack
    October 6, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    if you do not believe the US to be the best place to live your life on the face of the planet then please go persuade other people in other lands to follow your beliefs. otherwise, vote for people that will institute term limits in congress and let us begin to bring the US back to its former glory.

  5. JOHN from NYC
    October 24, 2010 at 4:51 am

    To the Westboro Baptist church:

    3701 SW 12th St

    Topeka, KS 66604

    After Adam and Eve died where did the babies come from? Since only the offspring of Adam and Eve were left they would have to breed amongst themselves so the human race would not perish. Those acts were and are acts of incest. So I find it ironic that a religion and church that condemns homosexuality actually had its roots in incest and fornication among “god’s” children. These facts are from your bible, the one like the Torah and Koran that preaches evil and hatred.

    Only self-loathing, insecure people spew hatred in the name of some god. Remember, the bible was written by men, as women were excluded in an act of chauvinism. The world would be a better place if you preached love instead of hatred that grew from a book written over 2000 years ago. Your obsession with the past and religion is called obsessive-compulsive disorder, and there are medications for that syndrome. But I hope before I die I read that your church burns down with all members present.

    You are cowards and don’t have souls as you hide behind the first amendment, and what you teach your children is called child abuse in all fifty states. The soldiers that have protected you and let you taste freedom should surround your church in an act of aggression to rid the world of your overt ignorance. They died and bled so you would have the freedom to speak, and if it weren’t for them you would be talking German or Japanese. But I imagine you are not intelligent enough to realize that. Your cult will destroy itself eventually, or else the free thinkers of the world will have to do it. What you call Christianity was invented by the Romans, and the pages of the bible you read are the same stories written in Sumerian texts 3000 years before your precious bible. Don’t you know that? Thus, the bible is an example of plagiarism. I guess there are not any scholars among your crowd of small-minded humans. Your church is a poison that stifles progress for our species, and when you are destroyed the nation will rejoice without any sympathy. Hope to see you soon.

    • Jennifer
      December 10, 2010 at 2:23 am

      John from NYC, although you obviously do not believe in God, these people are not Christians. Just a group of ignorant assholes.

  6. Wendi
    November 6, 2010 at 1:56 am

    All I have to say is that the people from Westboro are DUMB!

    • Dodson
      November 23, 2010 at 4:55 pm

      Really, really so dumb.. for real!

  7. jdub
    November 19, 2010 at 12:27 am

    The people of Westboro Baptist Church are fucking STUPID. How DARE you protest at a soldier’s funeral? Are you fucking insane?! A funeral is a time to morn the loss of a loved ones death and you go there with signs saying thank God for dead soldiers??? You’re dumb as hell and your stupid little church should be shut down.

  8. Jennifer
    December 10, 2010 at 2:20 am

    I do agree that being gay is not right but how dare you judge a person. Is that not God’s job?? If you actually know anything about our God you would not be so hateful, hateful at all actually. Teaching people right from wrong is not kicking them while there down or ruining the last time they will ever see their family member. The soldiers that go and leave their families to protect this nation that you hate are the only reason you have any right what so ever to run your ignorant mouths about anything. You people are not doing the work of God you are of satan and you will see it in the end. May God have mercy on your souls and forgive you for what you have done.

  1. June 3, 2010 at 11:05 am
  2. June 18, 2010 at 9:36 pm

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