Gaga and Beyoncé leave millions hanging on the
Lady Gaga’s video for Telephone looks likely to become the most-watched music video of all time. In the five days since its release there have been around 18 million viewings of the nine-and-half minute short, as Gaga continues on her inexorable move from pop singer to pop culture icon. With Telephone she obviously felt the momentum was there to unleash a Thriller on the world – an era-defining audiovisual moment.
The video is like an entry-level MTV class in semiotics. “What I really wanted to do with this video is take a decidedly pop song, which on the surface has a quite shallow meaning, and turn it into something deeper,” says Gaga. A tall order when the lyrics to the chorus go: “Eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh . . . Stop telephonin’ me! Eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh . . . I’m busy! Eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh . . . Stop telephonin’ me! Eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh . . . ”
Gaga and video director Jonas Akerlund (who has also worked with Madonna – a woman who probably is sticking daggers into a Gaga voodoo doll even as we speak) have ransacked pop culture’s wardrobe to contrive a “hyperkinetic joyride” that enthusiastically borrows from Quentin Tarantino, Thelma and Louise, John Waters, Oz (one of the best TV programmes ever), the photography of David LaChapelle, and the very best in soft porn girl-on-girl scriptwriting.
The video opens with an in-joke. There has long been a groundless internet rumour that Gaga is a hermaphrodite. Telephone begins in a prison where Gaga is being thrown naked into a cell. “I told you she didn’t have a dick,” one of the guards says. Gaga then proceeds to the exercise yard where the first thing she does is get it on with another female inmate. And the camera does linger here. Then Beyoncé calls her up and she goes into a choreographed dance number with her fellow inmates.
After being bailed out by Beyoncé, the pair go to a diner and kill everyone, then drive off into the sunset. The words “To Be Continued” flash portentously up.
Perhaps of more interest than the rather derivative and clichéridden video is the amount of, and nature of the, comment being provoked by the work. Gaga actually refers people to a minidoctoral thesis written by a student, Meghan Vicks, on her blog (onlywordstoplaywith.blog spot.com/2010/03/referentialmania-lady-gagas-telephone.html).
Vicks attempts to “decode” the “many visual metaphors” contained in the video. Amid the breathless references to Michel Foucault, we get plenty about how the prison scenes are a “metaphor for imprisoned identity”. She teases out a lot of interesting points, particularly about how the female equivalent of the “bromance” is portrayed in the video. Elsewhere in commentland, the Telephone video is deconstructed with reference to Judith Butler’s The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imagination essay.
So, is Gaga just shaking her moneymaker to titillate the “Male Gaze”, or has she “succeeded in breaking the artificial barriers and boundaries that still imprison women in the realm of popular music”?
In response to the accusations of “lezz-ploitation”, her academic fanbase reach for the big guns: Gaga is “queering the narrative on her own terms”, “The Telephone video is dramatically reversing the Male Gaze”, “Gaga transgresses gender norms” and (deep breath) “she is breaking the heteronormativity mandate of our culture”.
However you feel about the Gaga video, the most remarkable aspect here is that a promotional tool for pop music can cause such a heated debate. Who would have thought that a glossy all-singing/ all-dancing video could get people reaching for phrases such as “the heteronormativity mandate of our culture”. The latter phrase reminds us of what Philip Larkin once said of the Bible: “It’s beautiful, but it’s bollocks”.
Lady Gaga – still tweaking the nipples of popular culture.
Lady Gaga and Beyoncé: Thelma and Louise for a new age