Thinking about the “Telephone” video

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.

What’s going on in Milwaukee’s Third Ward?

This New York Times article on Milwaukee’s own Skylight Opera Theater hits close to home–I have really fond memories of the place between my friends’ performances and of course, the famous Wauwatosa East High School French field trip to see the opera adaptation of The Little Prince.

I’m clearly out of the loop on this–had it happened 3-4 years ago I would have been far more qualified to comment–but the turmoil throws several truths about the Milwaukee arts scene, and arts administration in general, into sharp relief:

  • Milwaukee takes its traditions seriously.  I’m not saying it’s hidebound, but it doesn’t take kindly to drastic rupture, especially rupture for which it doesn’t see a practical reason.
  • Milwaukee is nice. It doesn’t look like Dillner acted much differently than CEO types generally do in budget crunches–that is to say, fairly ruthlessly.  This kind of behavior doesn’t fly in the Milwaukee scene.
  • Performers matter. It’s impractical at best, heartless at worst to ignore the needs and wishes of performers.  Administrators are too often focused on the bottom line–that is, audiences, and more specifically large donors.  While finances need to be a priority for many arts nonprofits, if the performers aren’t flourishing, then the raison d’être of the whole enterprise is called into question.
  • Paying one’s dues is important. If performers don’t respect conductors, directors, et al.–or even lead performers–the situation cannot possibly end well.  (Case in point: the Philadelphia Orchestra debacle under Undercofler/Eschenbach.)  Many of the Skylight performers’ criticisms of Dillner, and their preference for Theisen, fall under this category: they believed that Dillner was simply not qualified for the job, and that Theisen had a much better grasp of both the Skylight’s unique narrative and of the demands of performance on that level more generally.
  • Milwaukee is America’s biggest small town. One of Milwaukee’s best, and worst, characteristics is that nearly everyone who comes, stays, and due to our vaunted friendliness (or nosiness, if you prefer), people generally know a lot about what’s going on in their social networks.  (And these networks are large and dense: for example, when I moved over a thousand miles away to attend college, my dad had been on his high school cross country team with the high school track coach of the guy who lived down the hall from me.  And he had heard this through the sports grapevine before even talking to my hallmate.)  Dillner has really torpedoed the goodwill of the Milwaukee artistic community and the devoted audiences thereof with these actions.  The Skylight will take a long, long while to recover from this.
  • Performers generally don’t take crap. You have to be pretty tough and independent-minded to be a successful theatrical performer.  It’s no wonder the Skylight crew didn’t roll over and take it when they were unhappy about the proposed changes.

On another note: does anyone know what’s up with Strini’s departure from the Journal Sentinel?

Rufus Wainwright’s “Prima Donna”

I haven’t heard it (yet), so I won’t write a review of the music itself, though I’ve liked Rufus Wainwright’s work in the past.  I find it almost more intriguing that the composer and his partner Jorn Weisbrodt showed up as the great Italian operatic composers Verdi and Puccini, especially on the heels of the decently well-publicized tiff with the Met over the language of the libretto.

The costumes were likely a joke on the part of Wainwright and Weisbrodt, but at the same time it’s almost a self-conscious attempt to play into that high-Romantic cult-of-genius notion–the same notion that has repeatedly been invoked about contemporary singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Lauryn Hill (yes, I know she does hip hop, but her vibe is similar if that makes sense) and any number of indie darlings.  People like Wainwright himself in his earlier incarnation as a man with a lovely voice, a piano and a talent for crafting smart, emotional pop.

So the concept has come full-circle.  The choice of costume is–paradoxically–refreshingly genuine; I feel like I’ve read countless interviews with people in the romantic-genius mold who don’t cop to their status in the public imagination, who say that they’re just channeling inspiration from somewhere else (romance/G-d/nature and so forth), or just saying what’s in their hearts, just telling their story, etc.  You know the drill.  Wainwright, whether inadvertently or consciously (I would put 5 bucks on the latter, he’s very smart about his image) is quite meticulously evoking this cultural trope and in so doing, admitting that the notion of “genius” is just as much about the audience’s projections and expectations as the performer’s talent.

Which is a nice way to insulate oneself from the fairly harsh criticism that has since come out; someone who’s just garden-variety talented and screws up the first time may not get another commission, while a “genius” may miss occasionally, but will certainly produce something sublime eventually.  Even Verdi wasn’t always at the top of his game.

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