As anyone with an internet connection probably knows, Lady Gaga (or perhaps more accurately, the Haus of Gaga?) dropped the video for “Telephone,” featuring Beyoncé, last week.
First, take ten minutes of your time to watch it, if you haven’t already:
The narrative of “Telephone,” of course, picks up where “Paparazzi” left off:
First, I’m really intrigued by the prevalence of female musicians who have been victimized by men in a real or imagined way (Rihanna by Chris Brown, Gaga in these videos) turning the tables in a very violent and stylized way in subsequent music videos. I don’t know that revenge is the best way to solve such issues, but it is nice in a way to see women taking control of the narrative of abuse.
Second, this is the first time I’ve seen such a mainstream music video that includes lesbian desire as such a prominent part of the storyline, especially when it’s clearly not intended for male excitement. There’s an interesting interview in Out with Heather Cassils, the woman who played Gaga’s girlfriend in the prison yard scene, about queer representation in mainstream media and lots of other stuff. Along those lines, I was also pleasantly surprised by the range of types of female bodies among the prisoners and guards; that’s also not something you see much of in mainstream media of any type. (Of course, the real breakthrough will come when body diversity isn’t just to reiterate the dirt and grittiness of a group of people we’re supposed to consider problematic–I look forward to the day when Gaga’s backup dancers and the like represent some kind of diversity…)
Third, the layered references to Kill Bill (pretty overt) and Thelma and Louise (vaguely less overt) both reinforce the woman-scorned-taking-violent-revenge theme. They also reinforce “Telephone” and “Paparazzi”‘s claim to be something more than a music video: a narrative in their own right with a preordained soundtrack as opposed to just something to look at while the music runs.
That’s what I am most interested in here: the growing independence of the music video. The videos for both “Paparazzi” and “Telephone” are a far cry from simply being dramatizations of the song lyrics or a dance routine or something gimmicky (hey, OKGo!)–which even the best recent music videos, like Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” can be.
Instead, the visual and aural narratives intertwine in confusing or novel ways–for example, when Lady Gaga’s prison phone call is a lover annoying her while she’s in the club, does that mean we’re supposed to equate prison with a club? the club with a prison? are they at all related anyway? is she just lying about where she is? Any of these narratives, and more, might be plausible, and the banal and conventional lyrics of the song are suddenly much richer for their interplay with the images.
I wonder if a case can be made for viewing complex narrative music videos like “Paparazzi”/”Telephone” as the new form that functions like 18th- and early-19th-century opera: high/low mass art that plays on the themes of the day and spotlights the performer, accessible on multiple levels and a way of displaying technical virtuosity (here, in fashion and video editing) for the delight of the audience. Pretty exciting that this kind of art now premieres on a web site accessible around the world for only the cost of digital infrastructure (admittedly a barrier to many, but better than buying opera tickets…) and endlessly repeatable.
My thoughts here are admittedly disjointed and fragmentary–just a few initial reactions that bear more dedicated thinking.