20 May 2010

I Don't Wanna Talk Anymore: An Analysis of Lady Gaga's "Telephone" Video

link to telephone video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQ95z6ywcBY

Lady Gaga has said that the Telephone video is about America. The Director of the video explained that the video is a continuation of the Paparazzi video. In the Paparazzi video Lady Gaga is thrown off her balcony by her boyfriend and is temporarily crippled. She is famous and even in her crippled state she clings to glamour and fame. At the end of the video, after she has recovered from her injury, she poisons her lover and is arrested for murder. The video ends with her mug shots. Interestingly, the lyrics of Paparazzi are the polar opposite of Telephone’s. We move from fervent adoration to cold apathy. “I’m your biggest fan I’ll follow you until you love me” to “Stop calling stop calling I don’t wanna talk anymore.” Together, the songs form a sort of Act One and Act Two of the popularized, modern day romance. It’s not about love or hate, but rather, a life-sucking worship of another person.

At the beginning of Telephone, Gaga is being brought into a women’s prison. Female inmates are behaving in an overtly sexual and violent manner.

While we are watching a sexy brunette stare at Gaga and lick the bars of her cell, we hear another woman say “You’re gonna swim outta here in your own blood bitch.”

Although this is a female prison and not a single male is allowed inside; the scene is a male fantasy through and through. All the women wear heavy makeup and glamorous outfits. It also represents expression. Although they are imprisoned, in a place of repression and powerlessness, they express their power through fashion, violence, and sexuality.

Gaga first makes eye contact with us while she is on the payphone, singing “I have got no service in the club you see.” In the place where she’s at, this place of lower nature and primal instincts, no one can reach her. Her annoyance at the communication attempts stem from a feeling of too-little-too-late. Her patience is gone, her mind is made up, and she’s not open to anyone’s input.

Next, we see her dancing in the aisle of the prison cells wearing only a bra, panties, fishnet hose, and healed ankle boots. Four women clad in the same uniform join her in her dance. Together they make controlled, angry movements toward us with such a stern directness it is the viewer that cowers. Although dressed provocatively, they’re dance closely resembles a march. It is very stiff, precise, and controlled; it brings to mind boot camp, military, armies, etc. She sings “Shoulda made some plans with me you knew that I was free. But now you won’t stop calling me I’m kinda busy.” No one cares until it’s too late. Staying with the militaristic theme, this could mean: the opportunity for diplomacy and peaceful resolutions are over. The signs were there but it’s too late now. The effects of self and passion are in full throttle and there’s no room for reason and virtue.

This scene is spliced with scenes of Gaga posing in a cell, naked except the crime scene tape wrapped around her body. Throughout the world, women’s bodies arouse strong opinions. No one is sure what to do with this issue of women’s bodies. Women are constantly walking the line between respectable and slutty and the qualifications for each are constantly changing. Is the female body a “crime” or is it a “scene”? We can’t decide. In this country, our values flail between fundamentalism and a strip club. A female body wrapped in crime scene tape also implies rape and sexual abuse. The police never wrap crime scene tape around a home in which a girl was sexually abused but in a way the girl herself may remain a crime scene forever; suffering the emotional residue of the crime and continuing to play the roll of a victim throughout her life.

Next, Beyonce bails Gaga out and the two women begin their journey to their crime scene. There’s a strange little scene where Gaga first gets into the truck and Beyonce feeds her a bite of the Honey Bun. This seemingly pointless scene made clear to me the reason for all the product placement in this video. At this point in the video we have already seen 6 product placements and the advertising is hardly over. After Beyonce feeds Gaga she gazes at Beyonce and says “Mm hmm Honey B.” It’s cute and stylistic and fits the southern feel they seem to be going for in this scene but I think the real reason for that is to drive home a major statement of the video. You are what you consume. Beyonce eats Honey Buns, hence she’s a Honey Bun…Honey B for short. Up to now Gaga has already been a Virgin with Virgin Mobile, she’s been all the glamour and envy or Chanel sunglasses, and as skinny as a Diet Coke. One of the prisoners was Beats headphones. The prison guard on Gaga’s exit from the prison was an HP computer and a dating website called Plenty Of Fish. This is a major trademark of American culture. Advertisers encourage us to consider not only the benefits of their products but also what they say about us and about our lifestyles.

They are completely unashamed of what they’re about to do and take Polaroids of themselves on their way. When Beyonce says “Trust is like a mirror, you can fix it if it’s broke” Gaga responds with, “But you can still see the crack in that mother fucker’s reflection.” This reminds us that Gaga just killed her own boyfriend and her own sense of revenge is the fuel behind the next killing. Since her boyfriend pushed her off her balcony and crippled her, we don’t doubt that her revenge was justified. And now, that killing seems to lend credence to the next.

When they come to the diner, Beyonce meets up with her boyfriend while Gaga works with the kitchen crew. The preparation of the poisoned food is somewhere between a game show, a cooking show, and an advertisement. We see text pop up on the screen in pleasant and eye-catching ways. We hear pleasant sounding bells and a crowd clapping and cheering. It’s presented to us like the media that accompanies a war effort. The media presents the war action in a way that is palatable. Using words like Shock and Awe to sell us on the idea of our nation’s aggression. Similarly, the product placement in this scene consists of Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip. These words “wonder” and “miracle” remind me of the terms “Shock and Awe” used to describe the first military strike in Baghdad in 2003. It’s also reminiscent of the grand and noble titles the U.S. government gives to war efforts, i.e. Operation Enduring Freedom.

Gaga delivers the food and the poisoning of the target is a success. The boyfriend’s dead, and we viewers are fine with this since we’ve seen that he was clearly an asshole. However, the military metaphor endures when it immediately becomes obvious that the poison has spread and every patron in the restaurant has become an innocent victim. Gaga covers her mouth as if to say “Whoops.” But after all, war is messy.

Next Gaga and Beyonce, along with the entire staff of the restaurant, are dancing in Patriotic/American flag inspired outfits. The restaurant is now divided into two distinct types of people: the ones who supported the poisoning and the ones who are dead from the poisoning. This makes me think of the years following the 9/11 attack when the term “Un-American” came into existence. There was an attitude of “you’re either with us (supporting the war) or you’re against us (a terrorist). Like this attitude, the Telephone video shows a world of extremes. Throughout the video there are no “people,” only stock characters and stereotypes.

The next bizarre scene shows Gaga dressed in a skin-tight leopard skin costume wearing a general’s hat and dancing aggressively in front of a large pick up truck (the quintessential American vehicle). The animal print compliments her recent animalistic killing. The way in which she is dancing is itself ravenous and unapologetic. The general’s hat she wears is an appropriate accessory as she was the leader of a group who orchestrated an attack. Also, notice that Beyonce wears a stylized colonel’s jacket when she is dancing in the bedroom.

The last scene is strongly reminiscent of the final scene of the movie Thelma and Louise in which the two women commit suicide by driving their car off a cliff. This video uses popular film references in clever ways. This reference implies that Gaga and Beyonce represent a force that will ultimately end in it’s own destruction.

Since the release of the Telephone video, Gaga has garnered a great deal of criticism. Some people have said the video is sexually exploitive, that it’s glorifying murder, and that it’s random, bizarre, and meaningless. Such criticism reflects a clash between “high-brow art” and “low-brow art,” fine art and pop art. As a society, we typically expect music videos (especially pop music videos) to be straight-forward, entertaining, and generally frivolous. If the video was not presented as a music video to accompany a pop song and was instead presented as an art film, it would have been received quite differently.

Gaga has brought about this kind of confusion in many ways. She has stated that it is her intention to be both a commercial pop artist as well as a serious fine artist. Her public appearances are often performance art. Performance Art is a form of Fine Art that most people are either unfamiliar with or have a vague opinion of it. She continuously breaks thru the fog of banality and creates art where people aren’t used to seeing it.

Fans of fine art often view pop music as unintelligent and unsophisticated, while fans of pop music often view fine art as confusing, cold and inaccessible. Gaga has done her part to eat away at this false dichotomy. The clouds of confusion still hover in the air, but in the end both worlds will be better.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Juliet,

    I think your analysis is really insightfull. While I still can't say that I like the video, I understand a lot better what it is trying to do. You talk about how Lady Gaga breaks down the pop art/fine art dichotomy and directly challenges American notions of materialism, sexuality, and patriotism by exhibiting them at their logical extreme. A part of me thinks that this is a counterproductive exercise, that most people most effected by these images (ie teenagers) won't understand the irony and will become even more decensitized to these images. Indeed, I have made this argument with you in the past. On the other hand, by ensconsing herself in the heart of pop culture, she is given the power to expose and deconstruct the decadent and oppressive themes that have attracted and entrapped people in the first place. I don't think most people will realize that this is what she is doing, but subconsiously, they will be effected anyway. I know helps evoke my gag reflex when I see anything now in pop culture which sexualizes and objectifies women, more so than in the past.

  3. I love how when I first saw this video I thought it was the worst thing ever, and you show the artistic significance in the detail. My favorite movie is Fight Club, and I've ran into a lot of people who look at it as trashy violence, but it's still my favorite movie and I could write an article about the social criticism the movie presents.

  4. This is the case of product placement prostitution.