As her next musical release was expected to return to her trademark electropop, Lady Gaga’s ‘Til It Happens To You’ has taken the media somewhat off guard. A far cry from the sexy, flamboyant performances of ‘ARTPOP’ and ‘Born This Way’, this modest ballad, with its black and white video, has a powerful message in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault everywhere.
Say what you like about her music, Lady Gaga knows how to use her celebrity status for social justice. This isn’t the first time Gaga has aligned herself with cause – as a fierce advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, she released three videos speaking out against the discriminatory Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy of the US Military. Her ‘Born This Way Foundation’ focuses on youth empowerment, anti-bullying and career development. This new song highlights another cause close to Gaga’s heart, as she spoke publicly in 2014 about being raped by a music producer when she was 19 year old.
The song itself, composed by Diane Warren, is the theme for The Hunting Ground – a documentary on college campus rape which was released in January. As a public service announcement piece, it’s been written as a catchy, accessible ballad with mass appeal, featuring instrumentation from electric guitars, piano and string ensemble. Where the song really stands out, however, is lyrically. Although, no doubt, they could easily be applied to any distressing or emotional situation, they feel particularly pertinent to the issue of sexual assault. “You say I’ll pull myself together, pull it together / ‘You’ll be fine’ / Tell me how the hell could you know?” Gaga sings, calling out some of the damaging, if well-meant, advice survivors often encounter when opening up to others. “Til it happens to you, you won’t know / It won’t be real”. For many, unfortunately, it takes the traumatic experience of a friend or family member for the importance of this issue to really come into focus. And by then, it’s too late for them.
Filmed in unflinching black and white, the video for ‘Til It Happens To You’ depicts the rape or sexual assault of four college students. Two students are targeted with date rape drugs at a party, waking up to find their underwear around their ankles. A trans man is attacked in a men’s changing room. A girl is assaulted by a classmate in her room as they work on a music assignment. As Warren puts it in an interview with the Huffington Post, she “didn’t want to sugarcoat it”. These are astonishingly commonplace occurrences and, while the video closes on the statistic that one in five college women in the States will be sexually assaulted this year, the situation in the UK is not much better. A survey by YouthSight this year reported that over a third of female students in Britain have experienced some form of sexual assault or abuse. Six in ten male survivors didn’t tell anyone what had happened to them.
For many, unfortunately, it takes the traumatic experience of a friend or family member for the importance of this issue to really come into focus
The video explores the aftermath of rape and sexual assault particularly well – something that is not always explored in full by mainstream media. The survivors experience crippling flashbacks, feelings of uncleanliness and depression – a handful of the symptoms of Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS). One of the students drops out of college altogether. Written on their bodies are their feelings of self-blame and low self esteem. Then, as we reach the bridge of the song, we receive the takeaway message – “Listen, you will hear me”. The survivors open up to friends and loved ones. They walk towards the camera hand in hand with their support networks, self worth reaffirmed.
Til It Happens To You, both as a song and a video, is extremely well executed and should provide some musical traction to the growing movement against sexual assault. The song is explicitly affiliated with the Center for American Progress’s #ItsOnUs campaign, joining the ranks of successful campaigns such as Project Unbreakable, Everyday Sexism, HeForShe and Exeter’s own #NeverOK. With increasing numbers of survivors speaking out against perpetrators with celebrity influence, it’s refreshing to find this performer speaking out on the right side of the news.
For information if you or someone close to you has experienced sexual assault, see the Rape Crisis England & Wales website here. For additional resources on how to best support someone recovering from sexual assault, you can find a list of downloads here.