Lady 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.
Beyoncé 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?