Lady Gaga took time for heartfelt prayer before 'Till It Happens To You' Oscars performance
When Lady Gaga took to the Oscars stage to perform the Best Song-nominated ballad "Till It Happens To You," expectations for the star were huge, especially after an incredible performance last year and a critically-acclaimed, high-voltage tribute to David Bowie just a few weeks ago at the Grammys.
But no one, in the Dolby Theater or at home, could have possibly been prepared for the raw, powerful performance she delivered Sunday night. Hailed as "stellar," "heart-wrenching" and even "the most important performance of the night," the 29-year-old singer had herself, audience members and viewers in tears when she belted out the song she co-wrote with Diane Warren for "The Hunting Ground," as a group of 50 sexual assault survivors, dressed in plain clothes, emerged onto the stage in a silently profound demonstration.
Just before stepping into the spotlight, Lady Gaga gathered backstage with the group of survivors, many of whom were featured in the short-listed documentary, for a prayer.
"She just sort of said: 'To the creator -- whoever whatever created the universe -- thank you for bringing us here, for giving us this story to tell and this message to give.' And then after the prayer she said, 'Gonna go out there and sing the shit out of it!' " Andrew Brown, a survivor featured in the performance and in "The Hunting Ground," told AOL.
Every 107 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, according to RAINN, amounting to a staggering 293,000 victims each year -- and the diverse group on stage with Lady Gaga also represented the diversity of sexual assault. One out of six American women are victims of sexual assault, and 3 percent of men can say the same.
Cynicists be warned: Though high-profile, Lady Gaga's performance was not a work of attention-seeking fake-tivism or showboating. The three-minute, 20-second act of vulnerability was a culmination of three days of hands-on, emotionally gruelling work -- and yes, Lady Gaga, the six-time Grammy winner and one of the best-selling recording artists of all time, was present for all of it.
"She was there all of those days, and on Friday, the first day, it was completely surreal because she wasn't all built up with big personas and walls and crazy fashion and what she's known for -- and those personas are her -- but she was there, and she was just completely real and vulnerable with us," Brown said. "We talked about supporting her. I'm so grateful that she felt like she could have all of her walls down. I really can't say how much that meant."
Gaga, who recently opened up about her experience with sexual assault, also weighed in on the experience and the fear of recognizing she "belonged in that group" with a heartfelt Instagram Tuesday.
"I could barely get through the song, couldn't hit any of the high notes. Hair wet, sloppy tee shirt jeans uggs, tissues. They all hugged me and told me that it was okay because it was more real this way, that they understood that they were in pain too ... They accepted me for me, at my lowest and that was good enough for them, so somehow through the magic of their courage they made it good enough for me too," she wrote.
The success of the performance and its positive reception all boiled down to its sincerity and genuine passion. The singer's costume and wardrobe team helped each performer select a look that reflected their personal styles and identities, and the words written on each individual's forearm were also the result of a collaborative process.
"It started with two saying 'it happened to me' and 'survivor,' but then, after the first day, a lot of us decided we wanted it to be more diverse," Brown said. "I put 'we believe you' -- and a lot of us had 'we believe you' -- because we wanted the sayings to reflect a more active and supportive statement than a passive one ... We wanted to speak directly to [other survivors]."
All the tweaks and decisions paid off on the big night. After three days of emotional rehearsals to an empty audience with cardboard placeholders in each seat, Brown, Gaga and the others were poised for the real deal.
"By the time it got to the performance, it was completely different than when we had started in an empty room. When the stage opened up, and we started walking forward, the room spontaneously broke into applause. And what I saw out there was a group of people who felt really moved by this performance -- and to see people who are so incredibly well-known feel moved by that meant a lot to us, but also, more importantly, that the message could get out to hundreds of millions of people worldwide," Brown said of the experience.
In addition to "Room" star and Best Actress winner Brie Larson, who was recorded hugging each performer as they exited the stage "with no pretense whatsoever," Vice President Joe Biden, Jared Leto, Kate Winslet, Alicia Vikander and Jason Segel, all took a moment to congratulate the group on their compelling performance.
Despite the glitz and the glam of it all and rubbing elbows with Hollywood's most prominent A-listers, Brown made one thing clear: It's nothing to be "jealous" of.
"One or two people have told me like 'Oh my god, I'm so jealous' about this whole experience, and I don't know how to respond to that, because if I could choose between everything that happened to me, the assault, reporting to the school, the school's negligence ... All of that plus the attention that I've gotten with 'The Hunting Ground,' the Academy Awards ... I would give that all back," he said.
"It's hard for me to respond to someone who says they're 'jealous' about this experience because that kind of comes from this place and brings this idea of survivor privilege, this false understanding that people have an incentive to lie."
See photos from the performance:
Brown, who was assaulted on his sixth day of his freshman year at Brown University and graduated from the school last May, became an advocate for sexual assault awareness and action on campus -- and played a role in large-scale changes to the university's sexual assault policies, including significantly increasing the budget for sexual assault education and the creation of a separate Title IX office.
Reflecting on the lyrics of Lady Gaga's Oscar-nominated song, '"Till it happens to you, you don't know how it feels, how it feels," the 23-year-old D.C.-based professional singer said:
"We live in a society where people who come forward are not always believed. We live in a society where social repercussions, where mental and emotional repercussions, where the law, they may all basically be against you. If someone is willing open up to you, it's an incredible amount of trust and power that that person places in your relationship with them. We're all humans, and we've all been hurt in different ways. You may not know how someone is hurting necessarily, but that doesn't mean you can't support them and love them all the same."
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