Lady Gaga: With the 'Telephone' video, she stars in her own mini-movie, and it's a natural born thriller

lady-gaga-beyonce-telephoneLady Gaga declares, and revels in, the power of her superstardom in every frame of the astonishing, long-form video for “Telephone.” Back in the Stone-Age-of-pop days when MTV actually stood for “music television,” an epic-length video was one of the ultimate signatures of a pop star’s prestige. Michael Jackson, of course, patented the form with “Thriller” and “Bad;” by doubling the length of a standard video, and by recruiting red-hot filmmakers (John Landis, Martin Scorsese) to put their stamp on his work, he was melding the aesthetic/promotional promise of music videos with the myth-making propensities of movies. He was placing himself on a pedestal of icons that, implicitly, reached back to those of Hollywood. But if Jackson’s long-form videos were, in every sense, miniature movies, they were not, at least to my eyes, his greatest videos. Irresistible as it may have been, the night-of-the-living-chorus-line dancing in “Thriller” took a step back from the magic of “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” — to me, it had a slightly dated Broadway stodginess — and the “Bad” video was delirious but also a bit cheesy in its update of West Side Story delinquency.

Lady Gaga, in “Telephone,” proves a far shrewder and more daring manipulator of music-video-as-movie imagery. She uses our collective cinematic memory not just to brand herself with the past but to assert herself into the future — to extend her image as a rock-star freak, a bad romantic man-eater, and a natural born feminine killer. I can’t add a lot to Tanner Stransky’s celebration of the video’s kitschy-camp delights (those cigarette glasses! those Diet-Coke-can hair curlers!), but what possesses me about “Telephone” is the way that Gaga, working with the Swedish director Jonas Akerlund, fuses kitsch and danger, exhibitionism and movies to create a sense of the uncanny. The video doesn’t feel long, like an overly extended production number. It’s intense and organic and perpetually surprising (no matter how many times you’ve seen it), a dream that keeps erupting.

Lady Gaga, in the last year, has singlehandedly revived the excitement of music videos, and now she revives the true, enticing promise of a long-form video event: the revelation of exposure. We want to see a side of the star that we haven’t been shown before, and sure enough, Lady Gaga, in “Telephone,” gives us a teasing new chapter in her pop-surreal, wigs-and-sunglasses version of the Dance of the Seven Veils. Her standard thing, of course, is to be shrouded, as she is in the video’s bitch-or-be-bitched early prison scenes. But then, when she picks up that prison phone and starts to sing, staring into the camera, with purple lipstick and Amy Winehouse mascara, she brandishes, right in our faces, what she’s always hiding — the harsh ethnic beauty of her features. Then comes the transformation: On the line “Sorry, I cannot hear you,/I’m kinda busy…” she bares her teeth, and it’s more than a stance. It’s a new kind of rock & roll rage — the Madonna of the ’80s reconfigured as a homicidal punk tigress. She doesn’t even want to talk to a man — she’s too busy!

This is the way that pop, at it best, works: Lady Gaga takes a simple lyric about a girl who’s having too good a time dancing to answer the phone and elevates it into a brushoff that’s much bigger than the literal storyline — a triumphant assertion of feminine dominance. The insinuating dance-walk that follows, with Gaga, in short blonde hair, sauntering down a cell block in nothing but a bra and panties (talk about exposed!), is her single most Madonna-esque moment to date. It’s intensely evocative of the “Express Yourself” video, but Madonna, even at her most feminist-demanding, and even when she toyed with sadomasochistic imagery, was always saying this: If you want me, you have to reveal who you are! Show me your kinks! Justify my love! In Madonna’s music, forbidden sexuality was the ultimate assertion, and expression, of romance.

Lady Gaga takes Madonna’s sexualized version of the feminine mystique and spins it into a new hyper dimension. In the gorgeous grandeur of “Bad Romance,” she celebrated the lurid enticements of an affair so removed from the heart that, as she said, “I don’t wanna be friends,” and now, in the “Telephone” video, the possibility of bad romance isn’t even in the cards. As she teams up with Beyoncé, the video becomes a projection of the stylish glories of eroticized girl power, which are shown to be not just intoxicating but toxic.

lady-gaga-beyonceBeyoncé picks her up outside the prison. Are they lovers? Or just sisters in spirit? In this video-shorthand context, it makes almost no difference. The two are like Thelma and Louise transplanted to a Quentin Tarantino theme park. Everyone has noted that the big yellow flame-decaled P—y Wagon comes right out of Kill Bill, Vol. 1, but Akerlund presents this whole part of the video as a compressed, super-sly QT mash-up. The dialogue is pure Grindhouse (Beyoncé: “You know, Gaga, trust is like a mirror. You can fix it if it’s broke…” Gaga: “But you can still see the crack in that motherf—er’s reflection!”), and as the two women cruise through the rear-projection desert, landing at a diner where they end up poisoning…everybody, the video turns into Natural Born Killers as if Tarantino had directed his own script for it. This could be the first video that serves up mass murder with a wink, but the result is exhilarating rather than offensive, because Gaga and Akerlund instinctively frame it in pop-fantasy terms. It’s the star’s sardonically entrancing, demented-chorus-line version of a feminine force so potent that it obliterates everything around it. The video’s staticky, back-and-forth “shudder” cuts are ominously cool — it’s as if that force were threatening to break down the film itself.

I don’t want to make the “Telephone” video sound heavier than it is. It’s a kind of jokey dance-floor comic strip — and yet, like many of the greatest videos, it uses kitsch to channel an awesome groove. When Gaga dances in front of the P—y Wagon in her skin-tight leopard-skin suit, it’s funny, it’s crazy, it’s hypnotic and demonic, it’s a natural born thriller. Unlike Thelma and Louise, these two ladies don’t drive off a cliff. They’ve got way too many places to go.

So what’s your opinion of the “Telephone” video? And how does it stack up in the Gaga videography?


Comments (160 total) Add your comment
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  • austinrob

    This article would have been much better without the MJ slams. The Telephone video is very very good! But man Thriller paved the way…i don’t see how you don’t see that. You’re entitled to your opinion (as am I).

    • Q

      I also don’t see the issue with MJ’s video epics being somehow lesser than just his straight videos – at least, not any more than I see that complaint with the Telephone video. It’s a form of musical theater – it’s always going to be a little stagey, a little camp, and perhaps “cheesy.”
      However, I agree that Gaga takes the edge that Madonna used to coyly push and just leaps right over it. To me it demonstrates that Madonna has mostly been about pushing people’s buttons and creating controversy, while Gaga has legit artistic and creative vision.

      Oh and this video is just plain awesome.

      • RyRyNYC

        Why would you slam Madonna? – I find it ridiculously hilarious that most GaGa fans have this complex where they need to assert GaGa is better than Madonna. Which is ridiculous…. Madonna begat GaGa. Face it… The fact that people are comparing Madonna 27 years after her big splash into pop culture to a 23 year old hot commodity is proof Madonna is a true artist. Sorry but homegirl-GaGa has only released one album and one EP… lets wait for her second and third albums before we proclaim her great. And this video is not as good as Bad Romance…

      • paige

        Madonna didnt “coyly” push anything during her Erotica phase… she ran headfirst with guns blazing. and then she got maaaajor $**t for it. i dont see Gaga pushing anything except her knack of ripping off people in the name of “originality”

      • bittergaymark

        Yeah, Madonna was WAYYYYY edgier and ballsy than this in her Justify My Love video which was made, um, TWENTY years ago…

      • Q

        What was the POINT of Justify My Love? Where is the artistry in the Erotica book? This is exactly my point – Madonna was edgy and ballsy but for no reason other than to be edgy and ballsy. I am an enormous Madonna fan and have been since her first single. It isn’t a complex that I have to compare the two, it is a comparison both artists have in fact invited. Having viewed all of Madonna’s edge-pushing, which for the record started far earlier than 1990 (Like a Prayer, anyone? Like a Virgin?) both at the time and in retrospect, what I see from her work is controversy and social commentary, not art.

      • Mark

        Art, is subjective, Q. Just because you don’t find Madonna’s work, which granted, is social commentary, “art” doesn’t mean it isn’t so. In fact, if pay attention to Lady Gaga’s videos, they actually comment on American’s obsession with sex, violence and consumerism. Just because her videos boldly underline those topics, it doesn’t mean that they are less artistic.. just as Madonna’s videos provide social commentary, it does not mean that they are less artistic.

      • Mark

        my punctuation skills suck! LOL — seriously, I was typing too fast but I hope you get the jest of what I am trying to say, Q.

      • Erik

        It appears that many of us will be debating Madonna vs. GaGa for many years to come. And there is much to compare and contrast. However, this case is already closed. Whether we call it art or just pushing people’s buttons (likely a mix of both) for 28 years now, there can be no GaGa without Madonna. And considering their friendship and Madonna’s guidance which GaGa has touched upon, I am certain that both women honor the importance of the Queen while relishing in the excitement of the Princess.

      • MK

        I find it interesting that you’re downplaying or dismissing some of Madonna’s for being social commentary and claiming that this video is of superior artistic value. I’m of the firm belief that truly important art should contain some social or political commentary, or should be personal; none of which this video is. It’s an incredibly stylish (like most of what LG does) patchwork of references to other works, but it’s also a convoluted mess. She set out to make an epic mini-movie, and in that respect it’s lacking- the plot is kinda nonsensical and the dialogue (and performances) are ridiculous. It’s a given for me that any epic mini-movie type video is going to be at least somewhat self-indulgent- Michael Jackson’s, Guns N Roses, and now this woman. I’ve read some blurbs from her trying to explain her point for some aspects of the video, mostly regarding the ridiculously blatant product placement, and like most of her explanations, she throws a lot of ideas and concepts out there that don’t come together; there’s no actual statement being made, no linear, comprehensible message. At least in the best of Madonna’s works you can at least understand what point she’s making if there is one. Not to say she doesn’t have her share of purely stylish videos. But this is purely style, and not much else. I’d hardly call that artistically superior.

      • paige

        yea this video wasnt artistic at all… what was ANYONE thinking???

      • bittergaymark

        The “point” of JUSTIFY MY LOVE was to expose the masses to areas of human sexuality that had NEVER BEFORE been not only embraced but embodied by one of the most famous people in the world. Who else had the balls to portray images that up until then were incredibly taboo. There was simply nothing in the Gaga video that Madonna hasn’t already done much better. I like Gaga, but this is definitely one of her weakest videos. It’s disjointed, which would be fine if it was so desperately trying to have a plot and failing miserably. Bad Romance, has no plot, and it doesn’t need one as it works on so many other levels.

    • The Obvious

      “Slams?” Sheesh, get over yourself.

      • Bryan

        Exactly! It’s just an opinion. Not a slam.

      • z

        Slam is incredibly overused- anything from a slightly negative opinion to a vicious personal attack is described this way, when it really should only be applied to the latter.

    • Moe

      BRAVO Owen. Everything you’ve said is 100% true.

    • Sarah D

      They were slams. WTF is wrong with a little broadway staging? It’s clean and gets your point across.

    • PiratesDaughter

      Totally agree with you AustinRob. They were so entirely unnecessary to the article. A mention yes, A slam? No. Wow Owen Gleiiberman. Get a clue guy.

  • Brandon

    Oh man. SO disagree. I really just thought it was indulgent, sloppy, and kind of dumb. I agree, I would LOVE to see a return to long-form music videos, but not like this. I didn’t find it to be a respectful homage to various films; I found it to be derivative of them, as if they had no original ideas. When it’s all over, you just say “What the hell was that about?” It has no semblance of a point at all, except to draw our attention to how supposedly “bad-ass” this character is. Oh, and that she doesn’t have a penis after all.

    This video is lame.

    • Drew

      Yes! If she wanted to make a 10 minute long video that was relevant to the SONG than okay, but this video has nothing to do with the song at all! The song is about not wanting someone to call u while you’re out with your friends. Its not about jail and killing people. She could have found a way to make an equally interesting video, and sticking with what the songs about.

      • Andrea D

        Agree 1000x with you!

      • ger

        I don’t want literalism.

      • nate

        THANK YOU

      • Deb

        Drew, after reading your comment I bet you’re one of those people who hated the “Every Breath You Take” video because it wasn’t a mini- Harlequin Romance…….you probably didn’t realize it was NOT a love song!!!!!
        People who insist videos be a frame-by-frame enactment of every line of a song really need to stop watching videos and go read some Dick and Jane books. That sounds more your speed.

      • Deb

        Okay, I was too hard on you, Drew. I just came across THIS steaming pile of conspiracy theory BS, and it’s really sad that some poor virgin is sitting in his mom’s basement thinking up this kind of mumbo jumbo shiate:

        http://vigilantcitizen.com/?p=3423

      • duffy

        deb do you realize how stupid and simple the lyrics are to this song? i like the song its fun to dance to but its crazy to try and pretend that this pretentious video fits the song AT ALL. in fact, dick and jane books prolley have more thought out dialogue then the telephone lyrics.

      • Deb

        duffy, my point is that a video shouldn’t necessarily have to dramatize the lyrics at ALL, especially if it’s “get off my phone, I’m busy dancing”. She took a “nothing” song and expanded the concept. “Busy” avoiding prison fights, busy plotting revenge, busy exacting that revenge, busy dancing over their dead bodies, busy raking in the cash and being the name on everyone’s lips as they debate the meaning of a video that she probably had a blast making and cares less what anyone thinks of it, anyway!
        “Prolley” ……..

      • Mark

        Deb FTW!

      • Nick T

        I was totally reading this article that Gaga tweeted and it basically says the telephone represents technology (which is like an extension of the body at one point) and whenever it rings, the characters are moved to violence, etc. I guess it could be a little pretentious, but it makes total sense. Anyway, here’s the link:

        http://onlywordstoplaywith.blogspot.com/2010/03/lady-gagas-telephone-observations-and.html

      • maralmj

        I totally agree, at least Michael Jackson or Madonna have never made a stupid video which doesn’t even go with the lyrics

  • Kyle

    I think EW already had a post about the Telephone video and one was enough.
    Sorry, yes i think Lady GaGa is making great music videos, and i think her songs are good. But the constant praise she’s getting – like this article – gets irritating. She’s becoming overexposed. And truthfully, if Britney Spears or say Ashlee Simpson (i’m just giving pop star examples – dont get bitchy about my choices) did this EXACT SAME video people would not be praising it this way. And thats the truth.

    • RyRyNYC

      Agree whole heartedly… And I’m a huge GaGa fan. But as a true fan I know when she does something great (Bad Romance) and something just ok…

    • DKNK

      True. However, she actually has talent, when all is said and done. She mixes it up in a way that hasn’t been done before. She writes all her own music, picks out her own crazy outfits, and (gasp!) plays an instrument. Truth is, girl’s found a formula for catching people’s attention while proving she’s the real talent deal. That’s the difference between her and other pop stars I’ve seen (and can’t stand BTW).

      • Ed

        I’m curious as to which pop star(s) you mean, DKNK.

        maybe Britney, although she plays piano but doesn’t write her own songs

        Pink plays piano as well, but she writes her own songs so maybe not her

        Madonna started out as a drummer, then guitarrist though she took interest in expanding her guitar skills until a few years ago, still.. she has musical background and knowledge

        Beyonce, not sure if she plays any instrument but she does write her own songs and besides, she’s not really pop.. she’s rnb so can’t be her

        There’s Kylie.. but she’s not that big in the US so that’s kind of moot

        Maybe Janet, I don’t think she plays an instrument although she does write her songs..

        so, who did you mean? Who is gaga different from?

  • Renaton

    Yeah, I have no problem with all the Gaga love. But it’s ridculous to say Gaga has perfected Jackson’s formula.
    Gaga can make cheesy, fun, extremely well made videos, but she still didn’t make one that sorta goes beyond that.

    I explain: Gaga made a video fueled with Tarantino refences, but it still doesn’t feel like a Tarantino film or does it reaches that level of quality of what’s refering to.

    However, I do believe Jackson made a great horror short film that just so happened to also be a music video. It’s my favorite werewolf film next to “An American Werewolf in London”. It stands on it’s own when compared to a lot of films. Gaga’s videos still haven’t reached that level. Not saying she can’t, just that it hasn’t happened.

    • mscisluv

      And the biggest difference between Michael Jackson’s use of the long-form music video and Lady Gaga’s, is that Jackson’s videos expressed the lyrics of his songs, while this video had nothing to do with “Telephone”.

      • Mike

        well, she does have a telephone stuck on her head with the cord wrapped around her neck.. so it’s referenced there. Oh, and she begins singing into a public phone in jail. does that count?

  • bittergaymark

    I like Gaga, I really do. But this video left me cold. It was all style and no substance. Fun costumes! But, yeah, it was incoherent in plot and needed more focus. And what was the message of the video? The mass murder at the end was just shock for the sake of shock. Madonna’s videos always had a point they were making… Also, the music seems totally thrown in and has nothing to do with the images. The song is thrown in as an after thought.

  • baj24

    I’m not a fanboy of Lady GaGa by any stretch of the imagination, but this video is awesome. Beyonce and GaGa are great collaborators and although the video is an oddity, it’s a treat IMO. Go GaGa!!!

  • TR

    Man. REALLY? I just don’t get it. What is so interesting or unique about this video? If it had been made 10 years ago, yes, it would be mind-blowing and fashion forward and crazy dangerous. But now? In 2010? I’m sorry, Madonna’s Express Yourself video is more risque and dangerous!

    Lady Gaga is a lot of hype with not a lot of talent. She just happens to have a great big PR machine (and lots of sponsors) backing her up. In 5 years, we won’t even remember this video.

    • 123

      I agree, this video is nothing special.

  • A J

    Respect your opinion but comparing her videos and Mike Jack’s videos is comparing apples and oranges. Mike Jack took spectacle and dance in his videos to another level.

  • bittergaymark

    Madonna never needed the likes of Scorsese to make a great video. She was too busy given unknowns such as David Fincher a much needed break. PS — The Scorsese/Jackson video is perhaps the worst thing either of those two ever did.

    • K-N

      Madonna DID need studio engineers, tits and ass, and a whole lot of image manipulation to make great videos. The whole MJ VS. Madonna crap is ridiculous. Madonna’s videos generally suck & are completely tasteless. Madge didn’t even want to sing in front of MJ and bowed of collaborating because he rejected her “cross-dressing” concept. Madonna was all image and very little talent, much like Gaga

      • Ed

        That is your opinion, K-N.. you’re entitled to it but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are correct in you assessment of Madonna’s talent or lack thereof. While people like you, who downplay Madonna and her writing abilities (it takes more than just a pretty face and some tits and ass to have a massive catalog like hers after all), the rest of the free thinking world continue to admire and adulate Madonna for the phenom that she is. Amazing that 27 years after her burst onto the scene, we are still discussing her. While Michael became a joke and a parody of himself, Prince faded away into irrelevance and obscurity, Cindy Lauper’s career pretty much fizzled out, Whitney’s career took a nose dive, Janet releases a number of flop albums. Madonna continues to remain in people’s minds, sells out her tours to packed stadiums and arenas, is inducted into the hall of fame and is discussed and compared to a new artist. None of this is ever achieved without talent, regarldess of what you and I personally think of her.

      • dani

        lol madonna seems so desperate to remain relevant. i can’t believe some people put her on the same level as mj. mj can sing sorry.

    • jess

      The Bad video wasn’t that “bad”. Some of Madonna’s videos are horrid Secret, Lucky Star, Open Your Heart, La Isla Bonita, True Blue, need I go on? Michael didn’t “need” Scorcese either. Hollywood directors were honored to collaborate with him and seized just the suggestion of it and not only the opportunity. Madonna admitted that she felt like a farm girl in the presence of Prince & MJ. What does that say? All of that innovation & success and still she felt inadequate. Why? Because she visually sold her body and crudeness to sell her music.

      • Mark

        exactly, because SHE chose to use her body, femininity and sex to further her career and success. That’s what bothers most of her detractors, that she was/is in control the whole time. Another observation is that most of the vitriol against Madonna seems to come from women themselves. Translate that any way you wish.

  • Soldier

    Lady Gaga = Lady Gag Me!

    • Bob

      mmm! kinky! which do you prefer, soldier.. cuffs or rope? I have both :)

  • Keith

    I love the video and there is some good stuff here, Owen, but this is rather overbaked. Dial it back.

  • Renaton

    A video with an actual concept

    • LB

      love it.

  • Xty

    I dont get the video. I think its fun to watch but why couldn’t they have made it relevant? They are good but sometimes they BOTH get to be too much. Still I give it props!

  • ashley

    i completely agree…she’s taking the music video and reworking and reimagning it. I look forward to all of her videos…and she shot to the moon with this one. and, i agree, it doesn’t feel long at all! i’ve watched it about 10 times (no joke) and i never get bored. On the contrary, i keep seeing new and interesting things. Gaga forever!

  • KC

    I love the video but could’ve done without Beyonce.
    I dunno, I just find her severely overrated.

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