Think back to a time when you were anxiously awaiting the release of a music video.
It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?
Like the novelty of seeing a film in its theatrical release, producing visually intriguing stories set to music has been worn so thin that music videos are on the verge of becoming obsolete — similar to vinyl records, cassette tapes and compact discs.
When MTV, once a pioneering outlet for musicians, was in its glory days in the 1980s, music videos made up the bulk of the cable network’s content. But the channel’s original intent of showcasing musical artists and their precisely edited visual counterparts has evolved throughout the years, and the allotted airtime for music videos has waned in order to fit in the appropriate amount of reality television.
Similarly, MTV’s Total Request Live has suffered from music video ADD since its inception in the late 1990s, airing a meager 30 seconds of each requested video and instead acting more as a vehicle for handsome V.J.s. And though YouTube has encouraged watching music videos in their entirety, the site’s effortless accessibility and lack of discretion has enabled low-budget imitations to infiltrate the site, to the point where searches for the original video are often futile.
Who else, then, could revive the art of the music video and make it relevant again but the Fame Monster herself — Lady Gaga.
Internet message boards were abuzz with misinformed releases and screenshot leaks the weeks leading up to March 11, the official premiere date of the video for “Telephone,” Gaga’s latest electro-pop single featuring Beyoncé. The video even had The Envelope, the Los Angeles Times’ entertainment blog, giddy, writing on the day of the scheduled release, “It’s like Christmas morning here.”
The hype of this newfound diva partnership sparked with the first play of Beyoncé’s “Videophone,” a hypnotizing, R&B-tinged track that includes Gaga on guest vocals. With Beyoncé at the helm, it’s only natural that the song’s video oozed with female sexuality. But with Gaga taking the reigns and no longer playing back-up dancer to the tantalizing yet less imaginative Beyoncé, pop music enthusiasts and pop culture junkies were burning with one question: What will Lady Gaga do?
More than a week after “Telephone” was unleashed on the Internet, they are still trying to figure out what hit them.
In “Telephone,” Gaga reunited with Jonas Akerlund, the Swedish-born filmmaker who first directed the pop musician last year in her racy “Paparazzi” video. Clocking in at a lengthy 9:23 and depicting a skewed, albeit colorful, reality where female prisoners wear Diet Coke cans as hair curlers and waitresses working at grease-stained diners feature glittery headpieces, “Telephone” is the epilogue to Dadaism.
It’s apparent from the video’s opening frames — various steely-hued wideshots of a dreary industrial landscape superimposed with orange and yellow bubble lettering — that this is not just any world, but the one according to Lady Gaga.
Whimsical, surreal and at times slightly disturbing, “Telephone” intercuts the standard dance montages with scripted speaking segments that form a disjointed story line grounded in themes of female empowerment, commercialism and celebrity voyeurism.
The video picks up where “Paparazzi” left off — with Gaga entering prison for the murder of her ex-lover. This continuation of a plot line from one independently made music video to another instantly makes Gaga an anomaly among her peers. It’s the references that follow, however, that make “Telephone” a phenomenon.
Once in prison — a place, in Gaga’s mind, ruled by punk-rock chicks decked out in studded leather jackets, bras and short shorts — Gaga is stripped naked save for her fishnet stockings, prompting one of the guards to say, “I told you she didn’t have a d-ck.” It’s a sneaky yet well-placed reference to those who blog about Gaga’s drag-queen tendencies, and from that point on “Telephone” plays as if it were interactive, each reference chipping away at the wall between Gaga and our computer screens.
Product placement exists in nearly every scene, from jump cuts to a Virgin Mobile cell phone, close ups on fast-food beverages, Polaroids and gas station honey buns, and Gaga cooking her poison beside loaves of Wonder Bread. As the attention to these products is much too precise to be accidental, it appears Gaga is commenting on the current state of the industry; as record sales have declined during the last decade, artists have turned to selling their tracks to companies, and it’s these advertisements that have been garnering the most revenue for musicians.
More abstractly, the scene in which Gaga and Beyoncé dance in the middle of the diner — clad in American flag-designed outfits and surrounded by the lifeless bodies of the patrons they just poisoned — can be read as a commentary on the current war.
But perhaps most intriguing is in a bout of irony, Gaga references, rehashes and remakes the filmmaker notorious for being the pastiche king, Quentin Tarantino. Not only does Gaga borrow the ostentatious Pussy Wagon, complete with its pink keychain from Kill Bill, but Beyoncé’s nickname “Honey B” is derived from Amanda Plummer’s diner-robbing “Honey Bunny” from Pulp Fiction. The use of grainy, cheaply produced television news reports and, most significantly, the outlawed lovers-on-the-run (Gaga and Beyoncé) also pays homage to the Tarantino-penned Natural Born Killers.
Of course, one could say that I’ve read a bit too much into the bizarre “Telephone,” but there lies the dilemma: Music videos are generally not meant for multiple viewings or in-depth close readings — or so we’ve been programmed to believe.
A one-time viewing of “Telephone” leads to confusion plot-wise (jail? diner? Tyrese Gibson?), and the bombardment of iconic logos initially overwhelms rather than comments. The preliminary critique of “Telephone” is that it comes off more like an extended Super Bowl commercial than a work of intersecting art.
It’s the same reaction, however, of a pair of eyes taking in Gaga at first glance: a shimmering hodgepodge of pop culture and glam rock history that went too far with its imitation.
It’s one thing to rehash the old, like Tarantino does so expertly in his films, but it’s another art form entirely to rehash the already rehashed — and to adopt it as your own mark. Although critics of Gaga contend she disguises substance with a whole lot of style, “Telephone,” as well as the woman behind it, prompts several viewings — and rightfully deserves them.
Lauren Barbato is a senior majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Sound Check,” runs Tuesdays.