Hello hello baby: A communication-breakdown on “Telephone”

By | March 13, 2010

In the opening scenes of Lady Gaga’s latest video, for “Telephone” — which is as much a short film featuring the song as it is a song the video is meant to promote — we follow Gaga into a “Prison for Bitches”. As the story goes, Gaga is doing time for having murdered her boyfriend in a prior video for “Paparazzi”. She’s escorted down the cellblock by two heavily-muscled guards, who are themselves challenges to standard notions of femininity. She’s wearing sunglasses, which she removes in order to look directly and purposefully into the camera as it tracks backwards in front of the trio as they walk. Having paraded her past the other inmates, the guards shove Gaga forcibly into her cell, where they unzip and remove her dress and thrust her onto the narrow bed, where they leave her to struggle momentarily while they exit the cell, closing and locking it behind them.

Gaga, in response, jumps up and angrily grabs at the bars, climbing to hang from them with her head out of the frame and her legs spread, while the guards walk away saying to each other, “I told you she didn’t have a dick.” “Too bad.” This, of course, is an in-joke, a reference to the much-ballyhooed rumors that Lady Gaga is intersexed, rumors she often seems entirely too amused by to fully discredit. If Gaga had any real anxiety about her penis rumors, she’s had multiple opportunites to address them before now. Instead she seems to have chosen to both dismiss and fan the flames at the same time.

And so it comes to pass that in the first minute of this epic video, Gaga is literally shoving her blurred-out, fishnet-clad (and don’t think for a moment that’s not intentional) snatch in our faces, in what functions as a comment on our communal sense of entitlement to the most private aspects of the lives of those we elevate to the heights of fame. As a culture, we fancy that even the genitalia of our stars is our business, and we’re most interested in that (as in anything) when we think they’ve got something to hide. But the most sublime aspect of this presentation is the digital blurring. The image is a huge tease that ultimately tells us nothing. There could be a vag there, sure, or there could be the fabled “little bit of a penis”, or she could be smooth and slit-free as a Barbie doll. Gaga’s crotch shot says: is this what you want, a look around a woman’s body that is literally incarcerated, the freedom to explore her like she’s nothing more than a doll? Well, fuck you. Some information is still not public property. Some privates, it seems, are still private. Too bad.

Like most artists, Gaga is a product and a consumer of popular culture as much as she is a creator of it, but unlike most artists, she appears to be self-aware about that, and even employs it as part of her persona. Where other pop stars try for originality and fancy themselves unique and groundbreaking, Gaga goes for pastiche and presents herself as a fan of pop culture as much as she is herself a pop idol. This video is a buffet of product placement, a practice in which sponsors pay to have their products featured in media. Now, product placement is everywhere. It’s just that normally, it’s done in such a way as to be subtle, a nearly-invisible assault on the audience’s subconscious, so that we can have things sold to us with our defenses down, even while we think we’re being entertained. The placement in this video, on the other hand, is overt to the point of being borderline obscene, and from here it neatly ascends into the absurd. Whilst she is groping a fellow inmate in the exercise yard, we get prolonged looks at Gaga’s Virgin Mobile phone. Later, once Gaga’s been bailed out by Beyoncé, they share a Honey Bun, and Gaga takes Polaroids of Beyoncé driving and singing. These initial, blatant placements are startling and jarring, for sure, given that we’re unaccustomed to them being so over-the-top. But by the time we get to the cafe where Gaga is making poison sandwiches with Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip, we’re expected to be in on the joke. The brands become as preposterous as the rest of the video, the labels as ubiquitous as Lady Gaga’s pantless form. Simply put, it’s funny. The context of the placement — lesbian groping; a ride in the pussy wagon; poison sandwiches — is so outside the norm for typical commercial associations it’s practically making fun of the sponsors who financed this video. Wonder bread, y’all — is there anything more astutely, not to mention literally, white-bread America? Would Miracle Whip independently have chosen to associate its product with the poisoning deaths of a café full of customers? The video is having a self-conscious laugh at consumerism’s expense. We will sell anything, anywhere, to anyone. The context and association isn’t even of concern, anymore.

The story here is almost an afterthought, window-dressing for the bland consumerism, and “Telephone” itself is the afterthought to the afterthought, like a song that comes on in the car when you’re driving to the grocery store and, for three and a half minutes at least, you can pretend you’re tearing up an imaginary dance floor. The song is just the sugary frosting on a difficult cake; it’s designed to be instantly liked by as many people as possible, a task which itself requires talent. After all, it’s pop music. The challenge comes later, in the surroundings Gaga creates for her music.

After Beyoncé bails Gaga out of jail, the two take off to meet Beyoncé’s asshole boyfriend (played by Tyrese Gibson) so Beyoncé can poison him in the same way Gaga dispatched her own lover in “Paparazzi”. Gaga also proceeds to kill everyone in the diner, which is followed by an Americana-clad dance number amongst the corpses. Finally our duo takes off into the sunset, pursued by the police, with a promise of “To be continued…” The references to other films and bits of pop culture are plentiful and probably not-always-intentional. Beyoncé turns in a bit of acting so perfectly stilted and affected that I expect John Waters is attempting to reach her agent to give her a movie role even as we speak. The pair takes their road trip in the Pussy Wagon from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (in a cameo suggested to Gaga by Tarantino himself while they were having lunch together). Were you expecting Citizen Kane? You’re in the wrong theater. This video plays out more like a reboot of Thelma & Louise, with a script (typical awkward pauses and strange profanity-laden bits of Life Wisdom included) by Tarantino, as directed by the late Russ Meyer (or, possibly, Ed Wood with a massive budget). This video is a pop culture love letter, a fever dream of satire, pastiche, and homage, and one that underscores the aggressively self-determining approach to fame that is the hallmark of Lady Gaga’s success, and Beyoncé’s as well.

Gaga’s relationship with feminism is uneasy and uncertain, not unlike my own, and even as she has more recently copped to being “a little bit of a feminist” after a long period of rejecting the term, her work seems more inclined toward interrogating and challenging culture, sexism, and exploitation without necessarily overtly condemning it. This video is no exception, dabbling as it does in lesbian undertones combined with a monstrous revenge fantasy and mass murder literally draped in American flags, and concluding with the infamous Thelma & Louise hand-clasp which serves as a forceful barring-of-the-door against the meddling of trifiling men who’d seek to break our terrifying yet compelling heroines apart. The visuals are riddled with sex from beginning to end, but it’s complicated sex, a queer romp dressed up in straight drag. The lingering shot on Beyoncé’s cleavage is so unabashed as to be uncomfortable, which is insane considering the amount of women’s cleavage media serves up on a daily basis, but like the product placement, we are accustomed to it being more subtle. The overtness here renders our standard voyeurism into something downright embarrassing. The prison-yard makeout-sequence is likewise skewed and queerified, as it shows a lesbian hookup that would be of great appeal to straight men if only it involved two women with larger breasts and more traditionally-feminine presentations; instead we see Gaga paired with a decidedly butch partner, whilst surrounded by fellow inmates representing a diversity of genders, shapes, sizes, and ethnicities.

This is a video about lots of things, and clearly, different people are going to parse it in different ways. Some folk will take it utterly seriously, and these people are probably doomed to hate it. Some folk will find it a terrifically fun bit of camp hilarity. As the conventional wisdom goes, a work can only successfully achieve camp status if it’s not trying to do so; camp requires an absolute sincerity and belief in the result. And Gaga sincerely believes in what she’s doing, even as she frightens or alienates or enrages or disappoints or impresses. You don’t have to like it, of course. But it’s hard to argue that Gaga doesn’t have something to say beyond the standard trope of “Buy my records and give me money.” Fact is, without the videos and the interviews and the crazy ensembles, Gaga would be a bog-standard pop star, unremarkable and forgettable — it’s her personality and her out-there-ness that distinguishes her, and that draws loyalty from her fans, many of whom likewise consider themselves outsiders. Gaga is balancing on a wire, connecting with the marginalized with a wink and nod, while still being musically-accessible enough to infiltrate the brains of even those most opposed to deep thinking about culture and what it means to belong. Whatever your opinion of her aesthetic or her music, Lady Gaga is a rare individual in popular culture: a woman who controls her own representation, says what she pleases, and manages to be successful in spite of it. For that alone, I’d admire her — digging what she does with this power is just a bonus.

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