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The Video That Saved Pop Music: An In-Depth Socio-Feminist-Postmodern-LGBT-Awesomeness Look at 'Telephone' by Lady Gaga

The Video That Saved Pop Music: An In-Depth Socio-Feminist-Postmodern-LGBT-Awesomeness Look at 'Telephone' by Lady Gaga

There is so much going on in this video, I don’t even know where to begin. But in the spirit of Gaga and her ultra-surreal-erotic-pop-art-jump-cutting-costume-lesbolicious style, and the fact that I was an English major once upon a time, I’m going to provide a recap of “Telephone” while also deconstructing it thematically and you guys can do with it what you will. Among the tidbits on tap are product placement, exploitation flicks, lesbian porn, pop culture and prison butches.

When I first heard Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” on KISS FM, I didn’t even know it was her song; it seemed too pop-y and irreverent, the likes of which we haven’t heard since “Just Dance,” and I expected her newer singles to have more lyrical depth reminiscent of “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance.” So I dismissed the song as fun but not super-interesting, and went on my merry way.

And then the video dropped.

My first reaction was “zomg LESBIANS” and my second reaction was “how on earth are they gonna play this on MTV??”

Anyway.  There is so much going on in this video, I don’t even know where to begin. But in the spirit of Gaga and her ultra-surreal-erotic-pop-art-jump-cutting-costume-lesbolicious style, and the fact that I was an English major once upon a time, I’m going to provide a recap of “Telephone” while also deconstructing it thematically and you guys can do with it what you will. Read on, brave souls.

1. Entrapment/Brainwashing/Criminality

The video opens in a prison, but it’s not your average maximum security joint. This one’s a prison for bitches, y’all.  And judging by the level of security and wiring in the place, bitches that have been “Very, very bad” (to quote Miss Beyonce who appears shortly). Oh and did I mention that this prison appears to be chock full of lesbians?

As Gaga is led through the cell block -- she’s in jail for murdering her asshole boyfriend in case you never saw the video for “Paparazzi” -- we get a glimpse of the femmes:

Someone should tell the lady on the right that those bars probs aren’t very sanitary, but hey it’s a girl licking something so whatever.

The butcher

Yowza. Escape from here does not look like a safe option.

Really, though?  I can hardly lift 10 lb weights.

Next we get a glimpse of Gaga’s “hoo-ha” (those were Carson Daly’s words transcribed from an actual interview, not kidding).

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2.  Gender-as-Performance/What makes a “lesbian”/Sexuality vs. Anatomy

It’s blurred, but notsomuch that we can’t tell what is clearly absent, i.e. a penis. And in case you still aren’t convinced, the voices in the background say “I told you she didn’t have a dick” and the other one goes “Too bad!” Hopefully now people will stop calling her a hermaphrodite already -- jeez.

Another thing: the prison immediately establishes a theme of entrapment. In an interview with Carson Daly on LA’s 97.1 AMP radio, Gaga remarked that the video’s concept revolves around a critical look at the inundation of media in our modern lives and the sort of brainwashing the mass marketing of everything from tampons to pop artists to fast food creates when it tells us what to think. This makes me want to ask you girls some study questions:

Is Lady Gaga trapped in a prison of what pop music is expected to be?  Is that why she is so determined to escape? Is her “punishment” for being an independent woman -- represented in the extreme by killing her sadistic boyfriend -- a metaphor for being stuck behind the bars of what the record labels demand of their cookie-cutter pop artists? But wait a second, there are hot lesbians in prison. Is being sent to a jail full of sexy women a reward for ditching some man she didn’t really want? Where is the intersection of queerness, prison culture and femininity? Is homosexuality a behavior, an all-encompassing identity, or a complicated blend of both? So many layers here, like peel-and-eat lingerie (did I just say that?)

I mean, shit, guys…compare this to Taylor Swift, a.k.a. the most annoyingly saccharine pop (oops, sorry, I mean country) singer to hit America since Miley Cyrus (who I think is actually a robot created by Pixar/Disney -- think about it). Also, did anyone else notice that Taylor Swift likes to mention t-shirts a lot in her songs? Who the hell cares about t-shirts? I am so thrilled that you write your own lyrics, Taylor, but let’s step it up a little. And on top of that she uses t-shirts as an example of a girl being “edgy,” ‘cause you know, thirteen-year-old girls of America, if you wear t-shirts instead of short skirts you are sooo much cooler than the other straight girls. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga wears phone hairdos and police tape and leopard leotards and fake blood and bubbles and shackles and cigarette sunglasses!

But I digress.  I’m going to stop ragging on Taylor because deconstructing “Telephone” is so much better than that!

Well, now that we’ve established that Gaga has a vagina, let’s head out to the jail yard and see what all the lesbians think of her.

Lady Gaga’s all “Hayyyy bitches, I’m here” and this one uber-tough chick who is awesomely gender-queer/hot dyke decides to put the moves on her without even a second glance. Who needs game when you’re GAGA?

My jaw hit the effing FLOOR when this happened.

But really though, there are so many fantastic things going on here besides the obvious fact that there are two women legitimately making out in a music video that has already been viewed on YouTube by 20 million people. Remember when I wrote that piece on lesbian porn? THIS is what I meant when I said that lesbo-erotica needs to be more real.  And, y’know, I bet even if she had chosen an ultra-femme woman for the makeout scene, she still would’ve managed to steer very clear of the delicate, lame, boring “lesbian porn” that proliferates online. And instead of lame straight guys in the back cheering them on, it’s a bunch of other lesbians who are clearly bitter at all the attention Gaga’s getting.

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Another interesting thing here is the scopophilia (i.e. “pleasure in looking”) that abounds in the video. While lesbians everywhere are drooling in shock over what appears to be a mirror of themselves and their girlfriends that just materialized on their TV screens it is safe to say that Lady Gaga cannot see through that screen of smoldering Camels.  Does this matter? Check out this paradox: Gaga is subjected to a visual objectification/voyeuristic gaze by the jail yard butch woman, the other women in the yard, the camera, and the audience, all without being able to see anything herself. Not to mention there are high-angle shots from black and white security cameras. What the hell does this mean? Blindness = lack of control which is terrifying/sexy. Is that what the pop labels are afraid of? That if their candy-coated performers lose the tinted glasses that they might actually start seeing and thinking for themselves? Also, this is borderline S&M in my opinion…shackles/blindfold…? Is there something to be said for closing one’s eyes once in awhile and submitting to feeling?

Just when we are prepared for this to turn into a full-blown girl-on-girl sex scene, Gaga gets paged over the loudspeaker and has to go back inside to take a call.  This is the first indication that the video has something to do with telephones.  But first this happens:

1) Lady Gaga’s hair is in rollers, I mean Diet Coke cans, 2) that brunette over there looks strangely familiar.

At first I thought they superimposed Lady Gaga in two different wigs/outfits to show the doppelganger of her former self, aka Stefani Germanotta, but it was just brought to my attention that some sources claim that is her little sister.  Rad.

3.  Sexploitation/Sadomasochism/Genre-and-gender bending

It wouldn’t be a lesbian prison scene without a crazy smackdown bitch fight now would it:

Clearly the woman who just elbowed that poor girl IN THE FACE is pissed because someone looked at her girlfriend the wrong way. This is PRISON, ladies! Not for the faint of heart!

Then they go down and keep kicking the shit out of each other:

If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was the lesbian porn. Also, are they wearing the same shoes, just in different colors? I think yes.

All the other women, including Gaga, are strangely unfazed by this extremely scary/erotic fistfight, and she goes over to answer the phone, which is when she finally starts singing.

She does, however, mention that she’s “kinda busy,” maybe she wants to watch the girls who are currently wrestling on the floor behind her? I would.

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Speaking of hot women, hollerrr:

Dance Sequence #1: Hot Almost-Naked Women

Keeping in check with the rest of the video, it’s safe to assume that at least some of these backup dancers are supposed to be lesbians, which just makes this already smokin’ dance break even hotter. Also, Gaga is actually a really good dancer. Can this bitch do everything? Seriously!

Then all of sudden Lady Gaga is wearing an outfit made entirely of caution tape.

It’s a good thing she has that buff prison girlfriend, ‘cause I bet those scary guards could break Lady Gaga in half. She is tiny! Eat a burger, Stefani!

(Zoom in: That tattoo on her arm is actually a quote from her favorite writer, German philosopher Rainer Maria Rilke and it reads, "Confess to yourself in the deepest hour of the night whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. Dig deep into your heart, where the answer spreads its roots in your being, and ask yourself solemnly, Must I write?")

4.  Allusions/Andy Warhol/Pop Art/Shout-outs/Product Placement

Next Lady Gaga has been bailed out of jail, by none other than the sexy Miss Foxy Cleopatra/Sasha Fierce/Honey B herself! 

Um, and Beyonce is driving the Pussy Wagonfrom Kill Bill. That alone is enough to make this video awesome. 

Beyonce: “You’ve been a bad girl. A very, very bad girl, Gaga.

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Then Beyonce gives Gaga a bite of a churro (the symbolism here is beyond me…maybe something to do with fast food/sugar obsession) and they exchange what could only be called “gay eye contact,” c’mon you ladies know what I’m talking about.

The dialogue that follows has all the trappings of a bizarre seventies woman’s prison sexploitation film, oh, hang on, that is what Gaga said she was going for:

GAGA

Once you kill a cow,

you gotta make a burger.

BEYONCE

Trust is like a mirror,

you can fix it if it’s broke.

GAGA

But you can still see the crack in that motherfucker’s reflection.

So we’ve got sexploitation films (which, when set in women’s prisons usually had sadism, lesbianism, humiliation, erotica, seduction, violence, etc.), two women driving Quentin Tarantino’s Pussy Wagon(another homage to exploitation films, particularly rape/revenge/violence subgenres) AND now this verbal exchange. Shit just keeps getting crazier!

Cut to: Beyonce’s solo. She sings and looks hot while Gaga snaps candid Polaroids of her (one of many overt examples of product placement throughout the video, more on that in a minute).

And then they get to an old-school diner in the middle of nowhere. Tyrese, in arguably one of his douchier roles is waiting for Beyonce there and they address each other in silent pink subtitles:

Well, that wasn’t very nice, clearly he deserves to die. So Beyonce pours some poison in his drink. But Tyrese is a strapping man and apparently this does not do the trick, it only makes him choke a little. 

Also, Hi Beyonce’s cleavage:

Meanwhile back in the kitchen, Lady Gaga launches into another dance break, this time surrounded by mayonnaise, Wonderbread, baguettes, gay boys, and other foodstuffs.

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Dance Sequence #2: The Gay Boys are Back

It’s kind of like a fifties – meets – Martha Stewart – meets Adam Lambert – meets Iron Chef – meets rat poison mash-up, which is just perfect if you ask me. 

Intermixed with the dance sequence is Lady Gaga and Beyonce on the phone, singing the back-and-forth dialogue to each other. Beyonce is in some sort of sterile hotel room and Gaga’s still in the kitchen. I think this is a flashback invading the present, and that is the room from where Beyonce called Gaga while she was still in jail. Hey, Beyonce’s trapped in a hotel room while Gaga is imprisoned. The confinement of female sexuality is busting through the seams of this video at every turn. Either way, I love Beyonce’s outfit. Kind of stripper meets George Washington? 

Lady Gaga, i.e. the seasoned boyfriend-poisoner, has had about enough at this point and decides to take matters into her own hands and poisons a pot of honey which ends up killing everyone in the diner. As Gaga herself told Carson Daly in an interview, “My goodness I’ve killed every boyfriend I’ve had in the past three videos. Thematically, I got bored waiting for [Beyonce’s] boyfriend to die so I killed everyone else.” Ok. Well, there ya go.

5.  Media/Advertising/Technology/Internet/Communication/Ignorance/Consumer Overkill

Let’s play a game…what does Gaga’s hair remind you of? Excellent.

So now everyone in the diner is dead. But is this really just an example of boredom gone awry? Gaga has more to say on the matter. She explains to Carson that one of the biggest themes in “Telephone” is the overabundance of media, advertising, and other instant communication technology in America. The media/Big Brother/film studios/record labels/ad firms have inundated our daily lives to the point that they literally shove their marketing schemes down the American peoples collective throat. As she says, “It’s the sentiment of me making a sandwich and everyone in the diner vomiting up their food, it’s supposed to be a joke of how we feel, between the Internet, movies, ads, the telephone, cell phone, media, it’s like sometimes we just need to purge ourselves of all those things…the American flag dance with Beyonce is sort of our ultimate [example] of that.” 

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Dance Sequence # 3: Gaytriotism

After the Virgin phone and the dating website and the Polaroid, Coca-Cola, Wonderbread, etc. product placements up the wah-zoo, Gaga comes up with the ultimate example of product placement and systematic propaganda: The United States. 

As she stated in an interview with MTV, “By the end of the video, it became so much more as we explored each scene it became about transsexual women and it became about making fun of American hallmarks like soda cans and cigarettes and mayonnaise and bread."

She also has stated in many interviews that a major objective in making this video was to put homosexual themes in a mainstream format. This is awesome because the whole world watches Gaga videos, and if they can learn to digest the image of two lesbians hooking up and gay men dancing around with sandwich ingredients, and actually be OK with it, then that would be a huge step forward for all of us. The more visible we are, and the more people realize that gays and lesbians are just as much a fixture of society as any other minority group, the harder it will be for them to convince everyone that it’s cool to take away our rights. 

So back to the film, Gaga and Beyonce have successfully evaded the cops and are now on an open desert highway bound for anywhere.

6.  Feminism/Freedom/Homoeroticism/Fatality/Immortality

LOOK at the symbolism here. The most powerful image to me in this screenshot is the veiling of the two protagonists.  It represents society’s insistence to “cover up” women; both women in general and especially women who don’t fit the mold, such as lesbians and women of color. Our sexuality, our assertiveness, our unique and varied identities, are often thwarted by this invisible veil and it takes to very strong ladies to break that constrictive mold.

As Gaga says about Beyonce, “We're not competitive at all. We're so different, we respect each other so much and she's so kind and we really get along…She was so courageous in this video. She trusted me because she likes my work and she knew that I love her and it's a mutual respect. It ended up being a masterpiece because she was so courageous, but I'm sure you can imagine it's a bit daunting sometimes.” Asking Beyonce, queen of heterosexiness, to call Gaga a “very bad girl”? I’d imagine that could be a bit daunting for her.

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Does this music video remind anyone else of The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith? Here’s the plot: girl meets divorced woman, women fall in love, drive across the country pursued by private investigator sent by bitter husband. Like Thelma and Louise but with way more sex. Speaking of Thelma and Louise

This is the final image we get of the two women before they drive off into the sunset (fade in with a heart and fade out with a female symbol).  Beyonce makes Gaga promise that they’ll never have to go back there again and Gaga says, “I promise.”

For those of you unfamiliar with Thelma and Louise, this is the exactly what Susan Sarandon and Gina Davis do right before gunning it over the Grand Canyon, having been cornered by the police and Gina’s crazy husband. One of the most powerful and cathartic scenes in cinema, the finale of T&L shows us the depth of connection that can exist between two women; its transcendence and its permanence. You are left not knowing how to feel; on the one hand, these two women were literally forced to their death by the relentless and aggressive patriarchy, and yet, they seem to triumph over all their demons in this final act of defiance. And at least in Gaga’s version, we know that Gaga and Beyonce are not about to die…at least not yet. They are actually going to get away.

As Gaga explains with respect to Beyonce’s character:

{C}“She needs my help [murdering her boyfriend], and can’t do it alone. But the idea is that she didn’t want to do it alone, she needed my support because I had done it before; the sanctuary of the video is women who need each other. In pop music it is often so competitive, women aren’t nice to each other, and I wanted to create a video that shows an alliance between two women who are strong, and genuinely love each other.”

{C}

Whether or not the “love” that Gaga mentions between her and Beyonce’s character is a deep bond of friendship or something more is almost irrelevant at the end. The video isn’t just about lesbians and it isn’t just about strong females, and it isn’t just about revenge. At its core, “Telephone” is about freedom. The freedom to be yourself and to dress the way you want, to love whoever you want, and to make your mark on the world in whatever way that you can. And that is exactly what Gaga does with every new endeavor; she is constantly breaking the mold, constantly challenging people to open their minds and hearts, and constantly leaving us wanting more.

{C}

P.S. If you made it all the way to here, pat yourself on the back. Seriously. Thanks for reading!

-Katie

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