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Mar. 12 2010 - 3:18 am | 10,878 views | 2 recommendations | 15 comments

Decoding the New Lady Gaga Video

Screen shot 2010-03-11 at 9.27.55 PM

Last night, in a rollout that rivaled anything done in the heyday of MTV, Lady Gaga premiered “Telephone”, the most hotly anticipated music video since, well, the last Lady Gaga music video. A nearly ten-minute long mini-epic directed by Jonas Åkerlund and featuring Beyoncé and cameos by Tyrese Gibson and glam rock outfit Semi Precious Weapons, “Telephone” is nothing short of a masterpiece, but what the heck does it all mean?

The cigarette sunglasses? The honey? A website called ‘Plenty of Fish’? And just exactly how is it a post-post-modern love letter to Southern California? All your questions answered. Let’s make a sandwich!

If you haven’t seen the video yet, watch it here:

Let’s begin with the basics, shall we? “Telephone” is a continuation of the first Åkerlund-directed Gaga video, “Paparazzi“. In that video, Gaga is a celebrity goddess whose cad of a boyfriend (played by True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård) throws her off the edge of her palatial mansion, causing her not only to become paralyzed, but also (and more importantly), to be written off by the tabloid press.

After dancing her way through visual references of everything from Minnie Mouse, the queen bitch from Alien to Maria, the mechanical goddess from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Gaga manages to poison her boyfriend, win back the love of the press and is proclaimed innocent.

Keeping up? “Telephone” continues the tale: Gaga’s continued on her crime spree, but this time has managed to find herself in the pen, and in true Gaga fashion, she’s soon the hottest Betty on the block.

That is, until Beyoncé bails her out and they go off to a desert diner in Quentin Tarantino’s Pussywagon (one of the delights of the video is the implication that Beyoncé dusted Tarantino offscreen) where they murder the patrons of a roadside diner with that most feminine of weapons, poison.

Beyoncé screen shot of “Telephone”, which world premieres exclusively on E! News at 11:30pm EST on March 11

Beyoncé gets Gaga'd

The voluminous visual puns and references are enough to keep a Tisch Cinema Studies major busy for months. The video would be great fun even if it were just a frappé of Russ Myers, David LaChapelle, Caged Heat and lesbian pulp novels, but lucky for us, it’s a lot more.

Taken together, “Paparazzi” and “Telephone” are a paean not to celebrity and fame of the general variety, but rather that very specific genus of it found only in Southern California.

From the opening shot of “Telephone”, we’re thrown right into the heart of industrial doomland Los Angeles:

The L.A. River, the smog, the overcrowded prisons.

It’s the yang to the ying of “Paparazzi’s” manicured Malibu mansion. And doesn’t Gaga’s arrival in the “prison for bitches” bring back memories of Paris Hilton’s brief incarceration? Åkerlund and Gaga are offering up a pointed commentary on how even L.A.’s grit is buffed to a glossy sheen.

And then, there’s some hot lesbian dance numbers.

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture at LACMA by Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne, the principal architect at Morphosis, a California firm responsible for the CalTrans building and most recently, the Cooper Union Building in New York. Like Frank Gehry before him, he says much of his work is informed by living in L.A.

He relayed a story about his first meeting with a judge in Oregon, whose courthouse he had been commissioned to design and whose approval he had to get.

So, he went up to the judge in Oregon and pulled out two pictures. The first was, he told us, what he thought was the judge’s typical frame of reference and ideal of value would be. It was a photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger in full Governator drag: suit, tie and smile.

The second photo, Mayne told the judge, represented his own values and outlook. The photo he pulled out was of a transgendered muscle woman, wearing a construction hat and daisy dukes– basically, the kind of person who’d feel right at home in Gaga’s “prison for bitches.”


Gaga: An All American-Girl

Both Gaga and Mayne get Los Angeles and Southern California on a fundamental level. Rather than try to resolve the disparate, complex and conflicting forces in modern society, why not highlight them? Celebrate them?

It’s a viewpoint unique to Los Angeles, a city that’s maddeningly dysfunctional to outsiders, but from the inside is nothing short of a kaleidoscopic fever dream of possibility.

Which is what these videos are all about, no matter how highbrow an explanation as that may seem for a video which features synchronized sandwich-making. Gaga’s popularity and ubiquity are not so much about the pop beats (which, even the most ardent fans will admit, are nothing groundbreaking), but in seismically colliding notions of gender, sexuality, politics, pop and high and low culture.

Even Gaga herself hinted as much, telling E! News the video is about “the idea that America is full of young people that are inundated with information and technology and turn it into something that was more of a commentary on the kind of country that we are.”

It’s the New American Dream. New York offered up a melting pot, but this century is going to look a lot more like a Los Angeles collage, hopefully one with lots of hot lesbian dance numbers.

Of course, that’s just one theory. I’d love to hear any others you might have in the comments.


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  1. collapse expand

    Wow, Japhy – excellent decoding. It gives me flashbacks of Thriller, but with a pulp bent and obviously much more complexity. I thought I detected a couple of Michael Jackson dance moves in the vid: one when Gaga is being released, and then in the big diner dance number. Am I imagining that?

    The precision and focus of this mini-movie (it’s more than a music video) shows there’s depth to the Gaga gimmick. If people weren’t paying attention to Lady Gaga before, they will now.

  2. collapse expand

    Anybody who tries to read any artistic merit in to anything done by Lady Gaga has to be suffering from the worst forms of full-blown Down’s Syndrome.

    Lady Gaga is a used up, weathered, slutty piece of trash. *Any* thing she does or makes or produces or sings or eats for breakfast only goes to highlight her harlotry.

    It’s bad enough that people listen to/watch this garbage. It’s a little worse that there are those who look for artistic merit in it. What’s worse is that people let their children listen to and watch this shit, and that there are pre-pubescent kids running around idolizing this skank, lip-syncing her songs, and emulating her behavior.

    You make me sick.

  3. collapse expand

    I understand musicians write a lot of music based on personal experiences, making the lyrics more tangible and richer. But I always find it funny when popular artists like to use their songs and music videos to talk back to the press. Those problems aren’t exactly ones that most people can relate to.

    But as far as the video goes, it was creative for sure, and will probably rack up some noms at the VMAs, but I don’t like how a pretty good song was chopped up over 10 minutes.

  4. collapse expand

    There’s no question that she’s a brilliant visionary on par with Warhol and Oscar Wilde.
    Her performance was outstanding on Boiling Point:
    All hail the deep gimmick garbage queen ga-ga!
    I guess being able to sing or dance is beside the point.
    p.s. If that’s the inmate population in the LA County Jails, I’m knocking off a liquor store and calling it in myself.
    Good day.

  5. collapse expand

    Random static pop images! I’ve found a new purpose! But what are the TOPPINGS?

  6. collapse expand

    After you kill a cow, you have to make a burger, but wouldn’t you rather have steak?

  7. collapse expand

    I thought it was an ad for Miracle Whip.

  8. collapse expand

    Hey Japhy! Interesting comments. I must confess, however, that besides for the first-flush glee of seeing SoCal put into perspective, think there’s a lot more darker, even esoteric, images here. Gaga’s a New Yorker at heart, while I think Beyoncé epitomes more of the LA scene. And, having lived in LA for nearly four years, I think there are serious dysfunctions on a cultural level that disallow it the dynamism and focus an urban culture and social megalith like New York has. So, kudos to your smart location of and appraisal of SoCal culture in the video, but let’s no over-hallow a very problematic culture, one that Gaga herself would be they first to comment on.

  9. collapse expand

    One criticism…. “plenty of fish” was actually product placement for a real dating web site. It does still maybe kinda work in the narrative? but… it’s not from gaga’s brain. There’s a lot goin’ on here that’s purely about marketing and brands partnering with gaga’s image.

  10. collapse expand

    entertaining video and catchy song, but colin is right, product placement is everywhere. Although I can’t fault her really, if she can bilk money out of corporations, more power to her.

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    About Me

    I'm a web TV producer and journalist living in Los Angeles. I've written for Salon, Out, The New York Observer, The Advocate and have directed music videos for bands like Grizzly Bear, as well as creating ads for BCBG/ Max Azria.

    I have a website at www.japhygrant.com because that seemed easier to remember than www.thatguywhoifollowonfacebookbutihavenoideawhyidothat.com

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    Contributor Since: January 2010
    Location:Los Angeles, CA

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