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Lady Gaga’s new single confronts sexual assault

Though she’s no stranger to addressing social issues in her music, Lady Gaga’s newest single stands out against the flamboyance and shock value of her top hits. “Til It Happens to You,” the title of the singer’s 28th single, was released with an accompanying music video Friday, Sept. 18, bringing public attention to a topic all too familiar to the artist.

Co-written by Gaga and Grammy Award-winning songwriter, Diane Warren, “Til It Happens To You” was composed specifically for the 2015 film, “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about the prevalence of rape and sexual assault on campuses across the United States. Academy Award-nominated director Kirby Dick wanted an artist with major influence in order to bring the importance of the documentary’s message to the public eye, and Gaga, a survivor of sexual assault herself, was eager to fill the role. An earlier version of the song was leaked in February after the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. However, it was decided in August that the full-quality track would be released as a public service announcement in order to raise awareness of the pervasive presence of rape culture at American universities.

The song features lyrics that inspire the listener to question the validity nonsurvivors’ empathy, though they are vague enough to be applicable to any circumstance of loss or hardship. In the chorus of the song, Gaga sings, “Til it happens to you, you don’t know how it feels … Til it happens to you, you won’t know, it won’t be real.” The somber nature of these words is a stark contrast to the traditionally upbeat and anthemic nature of her music, potentially signifying the hardships she has faced on her path toward female sexual empowerment.

Musically, the song’s style varies drastically from the majority of the pop star’s discography, though hardcore fans can draw connections to the intensity of her other pop-ballad, “Speechless,” off her album “The Fame Monster,” and to the raw emotion found in “Dope” of “ARTPOP.” The instrumentation of the song initially consists of a string section and piano before introducing percussive rock rhythms toward the song’s climax, signifying the feelings of both despair and rage that she respectively faced on her path to recovery.

Gaga’s raw, dark and raspy lower register dominate the song, which is characteristic of the songs concerning her emotional vulnerability. As the music takes on a rougher tone during the song’s bridge, there is an evident increase in Gaga’s overall emotional intensity as she shifts into her upper register, still maintaining her signature full-bodied voice, and states, “Til you’re standing in my shoes, I don’t want to hear a thing from you,” solidifying her view on the unsubstantiated empathy that accompanies American rape culture. Likewise, the increase in the strength of her voice at the song’s climax signifies her overcoming the psychological and emotional toll of being a survivor of rape.

The music video released along with the song opens, “The following contains graphic content that may be emotionally unsettling but reflects the reality of what is happening daily on college campuses,” and truly unsettling it is. Almost immediately, the video depicts the rape of four different college students, exploring themes of drug lacing and alcohol consumption as it relates to non-consensual intercourse. However, the most evocative scene involves the assault of a female-to-male transgender student within the confines of a male restroom. The variation of scenarios is primarily used to enforce the idea that sexual assault can happen to anyone, regardless of the victim’s habits or circumstances.

The video ends with a call to action, reiterating the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, and urging viewers to join the “It’s On Us” movement by taking the online pledge to end sexual assault. Reminiscent of Gaga’s charity involvement with the “Born This Way Foundation,” a portion of the song’s proceeds will be donated to organizations aimed at helping survivors of sexual assault.

Though lacking the intense enthusiasm that her “Little Monsters” just can’t get enough of, “Til It Happens to You” reminds listeners that Gaga’s musicianship is truly as multifaceted as her stage persona. After the song’s release, Gaga took to Twitter and wrote, “Dianne Warren and I made ‘Til It Happens to You’ for people all over the world who suffer from painful life experiences … We hope you feel our love and solidarity through the song, and perhaps find some peace in knowing that you are not alone,” showing an altruistic reason for the creation of music, an aspect almost obsolete in the highly competitive world of contemporary songwriting.

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