Lady Gaga is an icon who’s proved herself more than capable of chucking out some solidly danceable tunes — “Bad Romance” ranks high on the list of the pop genre’s crowning achievements. But somewhere during her meteoric rise, she lost the script. Born This Way happened; appointing herself the spokeswoman for all queer people everywhere happened; Photoshopping her head onto a motorcycle to “make an artistic statement” happened. Then, dear lord, allegedly, “Burqa” happened.
Here is the song:
And here are the words:
I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice
My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face
You want to fancy me cause…woman to love
But in the bedroom, the size of them’s more than enough
Do you wanna see me naked, lover?
Do you wanna peek underneath the cover?
Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura, behind the aura?
Do you wanna touch me, let’s make love
Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?
Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura
Behind the aura, behind the aura, behind the aura
Enigma popstar is fun
She wear burqa for fashion
It’s not a statement as much as just a move of passion
It’s essentially the latest pop song in a year when there’s been no shortage of American pop stars decontextualizing and fetishizing South Asian/Middle Eastern iconography in order to service heavily-sexualized, Westernized narratives.
“Burqa” is an interesting case study in pop music criticism: It betrays the faults and biases native to media outlets serving Western audiences — those which haven’t really been able to educate their readers about pop trends across other parts of the world. In this case, that includes trends popular among Islamic music consumers.
In a time when learning about the minutiae of other cultures and traditions has become as easy as clicking links and reading articles, a piece like “Burqa” comes off sounding staid and medieval. It doesn’t offer a lens into a rich, storied culture that is otherwise frequently the subject of much misinformation. As a consequence, many mainstream outlets which use “Burqa” as a reference point into Islamic cultural identity also come off staid and medieval. In fact, it seems so medieval that it reminds one of this 1944 Maria Montez-starring film Cobra Woman:
The arguments of “It sounds cool” and “It’s just a pop song” are obsolete now. If Gaga intended to mine Middle Eastern pop tropes for her next big single, there’s no reason she couldn’t have gone to one of the genre’s vanguards — perhaps to someone like Haifa Wehbe. Wehbe is a pop idol that easily undermines Gaga’s yen to leverage Orientalist archetypes for the sake of shocking her audiences into buying her latest single.
However, someone like Wehbe — despite her cookie-cutter mid-1990s Madonna aesthetic — is a confusing proposition for our media culture. She’s a practicing Muslim who has frequently drawn criticisms from fundamentalists on her provocative attire and style of performance. To put it plainly, she invalidates this entire idea of a white woman like Gaga invoking the burqa in an ironic context to speak about female empowerment.
In the last several years, equality for LGBT civilians has boiled into an urgent global human rights issue — and with good reason. But the way that members of the LGBT media have been writing about these issues tiptoes towards troublesome: Frustration with the seeming parochialism exhibited by many of these nations has allowed writers at primarily American-based LGBT media outlets to speak out on issues in parts of the world with cultures they have little-to-no working knowledge of. It’s one thing to dismiss and disavow bigoted and hateful politicians bent on advancing agendas of hate; it’s another thing to write off entire nations and cultures.
- On Queerty, an article from last year entitled “What The Hell Is Going On With Uganda’s Kill-The-Gays Bill?” recaps the terrifying homophobia rampant in the African nation, but not before capping this off with this: “It’s like Uganda is the Teen Mom of the world: It keeps digging itself deeper and deeper into fuckery to get attention. But unlike Jenelle, we can’t just ignore this to make it go away.” Also from Queerty: This article about Pakistan’s first Pride parade being protested by religious extremists includes this line: “Islamic fundie [sic] (sorta like our fundamentalists except maybe even worse) organizations responded harshly calling the event “cultural terrorism.'” Sorta like our fundamentalists except maybe even worse. Yikes.
- All of that stands out in stark relief when you consider how oblivious the publication appears to everything that’s problematic with the song.
- BuzzFeed LGBT picks out “76 Countries Where Anti-Gay Laws Are As Bad As Or Worse Than Russia” — and it’s highly informative and abstains from cattiness to sincerely educate. There’s no denying that much of the world has a lot of catching up to do with the rest of us. But if we’re comparing developing nations to the U.S., it’s fair to remember that Uruguay has us beat in federally legalizing marriage equality.
- From Out — which tends to be a little more enlightened than other outlets in the niche — comes an item last May about Lady Gaga being forced to cancel a show in Indonesia amid protests. The last paragraph is the most irksome: “Islamic hard-liners—like these protestors who are holding signs that tell Gaga to go to Hell?—and conservative lawmakers said her sexy costumes, suggestive dance moves, and “vulgar” style could corrupt the nation’s youth. If only.” Oh, really?
It’s frustrating because anger at these seemingly far-away parts of the world entitles this subset of mass media to find something like “Burqa” endearing — rather than inspiring them to investigate and learn about the nuances of cultures in that part of the world.
This kind of thinking has influenced how LGBT publications have covered the leak of “Burqa.” Outlets like Towleroad and So So Gay are a couple that opted to take the avoid-the-elephant-in-the-room approach to discussing “Burqa.”
A bigger head-scratcher: These are the same kinds of publications that tend to exhibit gaps in coverage with their global gay culture reporting — more often condemning parts of the world such as the Middle East than looking for regional pop music that can make sense of other cultures.
It’s especially disconcerting that the LGBT media coverage of “Burqa” seems too disconnected with the larger discussions happening at outlets like Jezebel, ThinkProgress, and BuzzFeed, where the magnitude of Gaga’s eff-up is not only palpable, but colossal to boot. Less niche outlets like these amplify the problematic elements of “Burqa,” but they still remain unable to suggest an alternative.
An intriguing foil does come from The Independent‘s Myriam Francois Cerrah, who is able to get over Gaga’s Orientalist tendencies and glean a more empowering message:
Gaga is appropriating Islamic symbols and in so doing, associating her confident sexual identity and power with women typically assumed to be passive and voiceless victims. Partly, this is why people are so shocked. How dare a burqa-clad woman also be a confident sexual being? How outrageous that the niqab be linked to one of the biggest American cultural icons of the 21st century.
What undercuts this argument is the reality we’re living in — one where, in the wake of a post-9/11 culture, discrimination and bias against Muslim men and women is high as ever, with the ACLU now taking it on themselves to protect the religious freedoms of Muslims. Although she may sing about it, Gaga won’t ever face the same consequences for wearing a burqa. She’s essentially a cultural tourist. What’s a way of life for millions of women around the world is campy performance art for Gaga. More troublingly, it’s something Gaga can discard when it no longer serves her album campaigns or whims.
The problem here doesn’t lie exclusively with Gaga’s burqa fixation. A lot of it lies with a culture of Western media which frequently appears incapable of legitimately reporting or covering global cultures until a pop icon like Lady Gaga steps in as an easy conduit into that culture, removing all cultural context in the process. I’m probably complicit in this process too.
A pop star like Lady Gaga’s not going to change anytime soon. After all Gaga’s “Burqa” shocked a chain reaction of reviews, jeers, and insightful criticals — which all set an easy stage for her to launch her proper new single. Trading on threadbare Orientalist stereotypes worked for Gaga in this round. However, the mass media can strive to do better — starting with understanding how vanishing borders in the way music is distributed means that the impetus now falls on them to educate themselves with the way global pop cultures work. Media is no longer limited to what’s “officially distributed” in their regions and can tap into anything that’s available the world over.
If the best we’re getting from a pop singer like Gaga is “Burqa,” then it’s time to find a new idol.
Rohin Guha is a writer currently living in the Metro Detroit area. His work has been featured at Flavorwire, Tumblr’s Storyboard, Gawker, New York Magazine, The Rumpus, and many others. His first book, Relief Work, was released in 2010 by Birds of Lace. He firmly believes that pop music will save the world.