Decoding the New Lady Gaga Video
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.
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.”
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.