Pop superstar Lady Gaga is back with new music in a big way. Rather than emerging from an egg, inventing flying contraptions or employing any of the other iconic attention-seeking stunts she’s pulled in her seven-year career, Gaga is going in a completely different direction.
Her new song “Til It Happens to You,” which was released Friday, serves as a public service announcement for college campus rape, a distressing problem that this nation faces but rarely talks about. It was co-written by American songwriter Diane Warren and accompanies The Hunting Ground, a critically-acclaimed documentary about college campus rape that first premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The Hunting Ground will be screened at Boston University on Tuesday, Sept. 29 at 7 p.m.
Gaga simultaneously released the song’s powerful music video, which was directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who is best known for her infamous film Twilight. The video’s representations of assault are graphic but “reflect the reality of what is happening daily on college campuses.” Four college students of different races and gender identities are sexually assaulted in the video, which then shows the different effects of the assaults. The events take place in typical college settings. The video is unsettling but ends in a ray of light and support.
While the video is shocking, its message about sexual assault at college is an important one. “One in five women will be sexually assaulted this year unless something changes,” the video states at the end, linking viewers to the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE).
Unless more attention is focused on college sexual assault, and its survivors, nothing will change. All too often, victims are ignored by college administrators. The attachment of six-time Grammy Award-winner Lady Gaga adds a lot more publicity than the film could have achieved on its own. In the media, celebrity endorsements mean everything. And Gaga was more than happy to attach her name to this project to help others “feel [her] love & solidarity . . . [and] perhaps find some peace in knowing [you are] not alone.”
Gaga herself has personal reasons to bring more attention to sexual assault against women. A year ago in an interview with Howard Stern, the singer revealed she was sexually assaulted by a music producer when she was 19. She wrote the song “Swine” from 2013’s ARTPOP to cope with the intense feelings she still had about the event over half a decade later. In June, Gaga partnered with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to push for legislation to fight college campus sexual assault. Perhaps with her outspokenness about this insidious problem, Gaga can help to bring about some change.
The first new Gaga music in almost two years, though, is of course its own big event. And it’s a major left turn for the star. Although she’s best known for her glittering dance-pop hits such as “Poker Face,” Gaga has quite a knack for writing tortured pop songs infused with ’80s stadium rock, which is once again displayed in the production and lyricism of “Til It Happens to You.”
Gone are the thundering synths of previous hits like “Bad Romance” and “Applause.” Instead, “Til It Happens to You” is a somber ballad, with soaring orchestral strings, that follows in the footsteps of “Speechless” and “Dope,” two of the pop star’s greatest piano ballads.
The song speaks out against people who judge the actions and coping mechanisms of survivors. “Till it happens to you / you don’t know how it feels” she wails with her powerhouse pipes. All too often, victims of sexual assault are blamed for the assault instead of supported.
While created in the context of sexual assault, Gaga intentionally wrote the lyrics to apply to victims of any kind. Gaga’s writing is best when she goes deep and personal, and “Til It Happens to You” is no exception. It also gives her the chance to show off the best voice in contemporary pop music.
Gaga has a lot of projects lined up. She’s starring in the fifth season of American Horror Story while writing and producing her fifth studio album, which is set to be released in the spring of 2016. But perhaps her most socially important work is the public service campaign she’s doing with The Hunting Ground and “Til It Happens to You.” While Gaga’s been one of the faces of the LGBT rights movement in the past, this searing personal move to raise awareness about college campus rape takes her commitment to using her fame to help others to a whole new level. And it might just win her an Academy Award for Best Original Song along the way.
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of “Til It Happens to You” benefits organizations supporting sexual assault survivors.