Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want” and Why I’d Rather it was About what it Sounds Like

by sketchyfeminist

Content Warning for discussion of sexual assault and trauma, and for the blogger using this space to think through things like why she is so bothered by sexual-assault-as-metaphor. Please keep in mind that this is only my take on this song, and I do not expect my opinions to be universal.

My first reading of “Do What You Want” was built upon a misinterpretation.

For you see, the first two times I heard Lady Gaga’s “Do what U Want,” it was on the radio. It was functionally contextless. No announcers announced it. I didn’t know who sang the song and I didn’t know when it had been written.

I couldn’t make out all of the lyrics, but I could understand a good chunk of the chorus:

You can’t have my heart
And you won’t use my mind but
Do what you want (with my body)
Do what you want with my body
You can’t stop my voice cause
You don’t own my life but
Do what you want (with my body)
Do what you want (with my body)

And I thought: This song can’t be about what it sounds like it’s about. Because it sounds like it’s about a woman disassociating her “heart” and “mind” from her body, in order to maintain her sense of self during sexual assault.

Because people just don’t make peppy, synthpop songs about that. And if they do, those songs sure don’t show up on the radio.

And then I thought–and I thought about this for a long time: why not? Why not have an upbeat, electronic dance song about a psychological disconnect caused by the trauma of sexual assault? Why not have a power anthem about surviving such assault? Surely there is a place for that. Perhaps this song could be the synthpop cousin of Tori Amos’s haunting, a capella “Me and a Gun,” or the chilling “The Dark I Know Well” from the musical Spring Awakening.

And, sure, there are reasons not to produce such a song: it could be potentially triggering (not that other songs aren’t potentially triggering), to survivors or to others. However, I don’t think that this danger necessarily means that a song of this nature should not exist.

Tori Amos’s “Me and a Gun” is a song designed to make you cry–to encourage you to empathize with and–to an extent–to share in the singer’s trauma. (Or to hear in it an echo of your own experiences, your own trauma.) Depending on the listener, “Me and a Gun” may offer catharsis, and it may not.

But before my first interpretation of “Do What U Want,” I had never heard a song about surviving sexual assault which sounded quite like this one: upbeat, energetic. Horrifying, yes, but focusing on survival. A song that encouraged that survival, while still acknowledging what that survival could cost. It was a song that made me think.

It made me think, Maybe there is a place for this. Because even if it’s not for everyone, it might be helpful to someone, somewhere. Maybe to a survivor who wants to hear her own experiences echoed in a way that does not make it easy for the listener to engage in a voyeuristic, vicarious wallowing in someone else’s trauma. And yes, there’s certainly something voyeuristic about lyrics like the ones above, but it’s hard to wallow in a song with such an emphatic dance beat.

Not that I would expect such a reaction to be typical. But the song appeared, to me, to be engaging with a difficult topic in an unusual way. It made me think. It might make other people think. It might generate useful conversation.

It might help someone. Maybe only one person, but still.

And there was nothing else out there like it.

So, after my second time hearing this song, I looked it up. I found this in the song’s Wikipedia page:

Lyrically, the song is straightforward and finds Gaga telling off her detractors with the sentiment that her thoughts, dreams, and feelings are her own, no matter what one does with or says about her body.

Which had very little to do with my reading of the song as an assault-survival anthem, to say the least.

So I looked up the song’s lyrics.

This is the first verse:

I feel good, I walk alone
But then I trip over myself and I fall
I, I stand up, and then I’m okay
But then you print some shit
That makes me wanna scream

A few lines later, this happens:

Write what you want
Say what you want ’bout me
If you’re wondering
Know that I’m not sorry

So, yeah. It looked like this was a song about Lady Gaga “telling off her detractors,” after all. A song that sounded like it was exploring sexual assault, trauma and survival apparently boiled down to “haters gonna hate.”

And maybe it’s my fault, for “hearing” the song in the wrong order–for understanding the chorus before I understood the verses. But a song’s chorus is easy to memorize for a reason: It gets repeated a lot. I cannot be the first person to “read” this song in this order.

And while a song about surviving sexual assault is interesting, and controversial, and both potentially triggering and potentially useful, depending on the listener, a song which uses surviving sexual assault as a metaphor for bearing up under criticism is still potentially triggering, and is actually kind of, well, disgusting.

Because it makes sense to bring up the subject of sexual assault when your intent is to discuss sexual assault. However, if your intention is to discuss something other than sexual assault, then bringing up the subject becomes considerably less necessary.

A metaphor suggests a kind of equivalence. And while slander, and even negative press, may qualify as a certain type of violation (and while some of the criticisms which Gaga has come up against do evince a horrifying lack of respect on the part of critics for her body, her art and her self), it is not “equivalent” to sexual assault. And yes, I realize that metaphors only resonate when they compare things that are not the same–but calling the “moon” a “ghostly galleon” doesn’t really introduce the same kind of ethical problem.

And I haven’t even touched on the tasteful image which accompanies this single, which evokes sexual assault or the presence of R. Kelly as a featured artist on this single, which evokes sexual assault.

The song I thought I heard was different, and troubling. But it offered something no other song I know of offered. It had a reason to exist.

This song? Well.

Just to be clear: This isn’t a cry for censorship. I am not saying that this song, as it stands, shouldn’t exist. People should be able to say what they want to say, and that’s all well and good. What I am saying is that I think this song has less reason to exist than that other song–the one that I thought I heard. The one that doesn’t exist.

When “Do what U Want” came out, Lady Gaga had already released a “haters gonna hate” song: “Applause,” the lead single from ARTPOP. “Do What U Want” is also from this album.

“Applause” does not, as far as I can tell, use any sexual assault metaphors to make its point.

Related Reading (Other Takes)
Liz A’s “Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want” as a survivor anthem” over at Medium

Tyler Coates’s Is the Christina Aguilera Version of “Do What U Want” Lady Gaga’s Attempt to Distance Herself From R. Kelly? over at Flavorwire.

Eddie McCaffray’s So What Do We Want to Do With Your Body? over at Gaga Stigmata