Answering Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” Call

After months of being exposed to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” (a song that contains what I consider the single most annoying hook of 2009) via its endless plays on the top 40 radio station every store I enter seems to be piping in, I was reasonably certain I had no pressing desire to further explore the work of pop music’s current It Girl. Ah, but nothing demands attention like a zeitgeist-capturing hit, the sort everyone around you seems to have already heard dozens of times. Given the massive attention afforded to Gaga’s latest single “Telephone” — a duet with new millennial R&B diva Beyoncé Knowles — I took that as a sign that I should probably see what the fuss was about. So I caved and watched the video for the song on YouTube (which, it must be said at every opportunity, is so much more a fitting vehicle for the music video medium than any cable network currently is).

And, well… the song didn’t impress me. A rather routine modern dance-pop tune that demands attention based more on its volume than due either to its hooks or its groove. Not bad, but not outstanding either, and also not as effective as Gaga’s previous singles. But to be fair, it isn’t necessarily the song I’ve been hearing everyone yabber about. It’s the epic nine-and-a-half-minute video directed by Jonas Akerlund that’s really demanding the public’s attention.

And boy, does it. From the outset, the “Telephone” promo presents itself as a plus-size music video spectacle in the vein of past medium landmarks like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, from its movie-like opening and closing credits, to its excessive runtime and an appearance by actor Tyrese Gibson. Akerlund crafts a ’70s grindhouse-inspired prison narrative with Gaga and Knowles as sisters-in-crime, loaded to the gills with garish graphics and heavy with the girl-on-girl fetish imagery. In an effort to give viewers their metaphorical money’s worth, “Telephone” gives them three different choreographed group dance scenes, countless unnecessary and occasionally nonsensical wardrobe changes (one notable example being Gaga’s shades made out of smoldering cigarettes), and a rather, um, explicit refutation of those persistent internet rumors about Gaga’s authenticity as a female.

From a dance routine based around making sandwiches to Gaga and Knowles driving around in a luridly yellow pick-up truck emblazoned with the words “Pussy Wagon”, there is certainly enough visual fodder to get people talking for days about the clip. But is there any artistic purpose to the video beyond reveling in the eccentric imagery that Gaga has made her trademark? Not really, and if you are watching the video to dissect the semiotics of it, you’re missing the point. Like the 1970s trash cinema it draws inspiration from, “Telephone” loves to play with bizarre iconography simply due to its aesthetic appeal. Which is pretty much Gaga’s modus operandi, something she has proven herself quite adept at. Regardless of your thoughts on her musical merits, there’s no denying that Gaga has a great eye for visual style.

That’s not to say there isn’t some grand design behind the “Telephone” video. There clearly is, and that is to buttress the burgeoning myth of Lady Gaga, pop star. Last year was very good to the singer, so “Telephone”—released in late 2009 as part of the Fame Monster EP that followed up her blockbuster debut album The Fame (2008)—acts as Gaga’s pop cultural victory parade, giving viewers everything they expect from the artist, maxed out to ludicrous proportions. It’s great if you’re a Gaga fan, but if you have not already been entranced by Gaga’s celebrity myth, the way “Telephone” draws attention to and lingers on its own ridiculous nature as if it’s worth contemplating simply because it’s Gaga-related becomes tedious. Watching Gaga and Knowles trade bites off a bear claw was chuckle-worthy upon my initial viewing. The second time around and beyond, I wanted the video to hurry the hell up to the next scene.

Beyond the visual shock tactics and aesthetic fetishization, what I find most striking is how marginalized the song is in the promo. It’s not until three minutes in we begin to hear the single play. Throughout, Akerlund seems eager to cut away from the track as quickly as possible to shift focus back to his razor-thin narrative for long stretches. Furthermore, there’s a constant tonal disconnect between Akerlund’s pretensions and the song lyrics—which are no more complex than Gaga chiding people for calling her while she’s dancing—whenever the two are presented in conjunction. There is one moment where the song complements the video quite effectively, when the music surges during the clip’s multi-homicide climax. Aside from that, the song is relegated to being a mere afterthought in deference to the video’s image-building objectives. It’s one thing if I as a cultural critic don’t think “Telephone” is a great song. It’s quite another if as a viewer it feels like the song exists merely to warrant the existence of the video.

If anything, “Telephone” reminds me of why I’m not a fan of Madonna, a pop icon whose methodical, coldly clinical approach to cultivating and maintaining her image is transparent in everything she does, not the least in her videos. I hear comparisons between Gaga and Madge pop up frequently, but I’d be disappointed if the former continues to draw inspiration from the self-mythologizing tendencies of the latter. I’m all for visual flair and image crafting in videos, but making a nearly ten-minute-long promo so laboriously devoted to those purposes is awfully self-involved. With “Telephone”, Gaga assumes everyone is already besotted with her. As such, in the video she never bothers to tackle the issue of why anyone not already smitten by her should care how she presents herself in the first place.