Bridie O’Shea discusses why Lady Gaga’s ‘Til it happens to you’ music video is arguably her most poignant one to date.
Trigger Warning: this post contains depictions of sexual assault.
Some may cast Lady Gaga off as a gimmick created by the American music industry to pump out hit after hit, who wears obscure outfits (anyone remember the meat dress?) and has had hair every colour of the rainbow. But whether you love her or hate her, Gaga’s first single of 2015 is more than just another song under her belt; it sends a message about the alarming rate of sexual assault that is plaguing American colleges and draws a startling parallel to the high number of domestic violence cases we’ve seen in Australia this year.
Used as the theme for the campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground, ‘Til is happens to you’ was co-written by Oscar-winning songwriter Diane Warren and Gaga herself. The song is moving from the first haunting notes as Gaga roars in her iconic strong and raspy tone, “You don’t know how it feels until it happens to you”.
“I didn’t want to sugarcoat it,” Warren told The Huffington Post about the way they describe the psychological hurdles the survivors of sexual assault have to overcome. And they definitely don’t.
“After watching The Hunting Ground, I was inspired by the survivors who had the courage to tell their stories,” Warren told deadline.com, “This song, with its message of hope and empowerment, is my heartfelt tribute to them and will also resonate with anyone who has been bullied, lost a loved one or just feels alone in the world.”
But what makes this song so incredibly powerful is the gritty, confronting and unapologetically raw music video directed by Catherine Hardwicke. The black and white video begins with a warning message about the graphic content “that may be emotionally unsettling but reflects the reality of what is happening daily on college campuses”. The story follows four females of different races who are sexually assaulted (believed to be on their campus) and how the attacks have affected their everyday life. These females are left feeling hollow, isolated and worthless after the attacks.
After watching this video (several times in a row I might add), there is a frightening resemblance to our current domestic violence crisis here in Australia. According to a study in the Lancet medical journal in 2014, “16.4 per cent of women 15 years old or older in Australia and New Zealand have been the victim of sexual assault by someone who wasn’t their partner (i.e. other family members, friends, strangers). This compares to the global average of 7.2 per cent.” And with 66 women killed this year alone by domestic violence, Gaga’s video and message couldn’t be more prevalent.
Tackling this issue is going to be a difficult task, but recognising that sexual and domestic violence is an issue that needs to be discussed is the first step. And yet the comments on the video are quite varied. There are a number of people who are complaining that the statistics in the video aren’t accurate, or that Gaga is doing this for publicity because she hasn’t been in the media limelight for a while, or that it doesn’t depict a male rape victim perspective. And while I agree yes, the video should have had a scenario where a male was the victim; these criticisms detract from the video’s main purpose – condemning sexual violence and giving back power to the survivors who had it stripped from them in the most brutal of ways.
And an overwhelming majority of people online have been praising Gaga for this video, explaining their own sexual assault experiences and how important this song and message is. And that’s exactly why we need more people in positions of power to speak up about this issue, otherwise nothing will change.
The final scene cuts to all of the woman walking out of their rooms arm in arm with those who care for and love them. The strength and determination in their faces is powerful as they stare down the camera lens and this is precisely what Warren and Gaga were looking to achieve. “I want [people] to know they’re not alone and they’re not victims,” Warren said, “but they’re survivors”.
Now a music video isn’t the answer to all of our problems, but one as incredibly moving and powerful as this is a very important step in the right direction.