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.)
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.