Deconstructing Lady Gaga's "Telephone" Video

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Lady Gaga's latest music video, "Telephone," premiered last week, and the 9 ½ minute spectacle was nothing short of what you'd expect from the Gagaloo. Teaming up with "Paparazzi" director Jonas Akerlund, "Telephone" picks up where his previous video left off—with Gaga heading to the slammer after killing off a lover who did her wrong. Saying she is "always trying to convolute the idea of what a pop music video should be," Gaga told E! that she wanted to take "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."

While many on the interwebs are raving about Gaga's latest, others wonder where the substance is. It's easy to say you want to take something with "quite shallow meaning, and turn it into something deeper," but just because your video has a "Tarantino-inspired quality" doesn't make it profound. However, Gaga's talents aren't without merit. She's a great singer, captivating performer, pushes the boundary of style—she's basically a walking performance art piece.

We shouldn't just assume that a woman who cares so much about aesthetic and artistic value would just spew out a string of seemingly random images and product placements. To give Gaga a fair and fighting chance, we've deconstructed her pièce de résistance—and were rather surprised with what we came up with:



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Here we have Gaga entering the "Prison for Bitches," accompanied by two butch-looking ladies, ready to serve her time for the crimes she committed in "Paparazzi."










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Stripping Gaga of her clothes, they also strip her of her persona, leaving her exposed and vulnerable—naked. Her sexuality is on full display, but she's helpless behind bars—a statement about the trappings of fame (a theme continued from "Paparazzi") and society's entitlement to comment so freely about the sexual identity of its celebrities. As the guards are leaving, we hear one address the rumors of her gender, saying "I told you she didn't have a dick."



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Our heroine is then led into the prison yard of lesbians, covered in chains and glasses made of smoking cigarettes—imagery alert! We also get an image of Gaga's HeartBeats headphones, from Beats by Dre (the first of many product placements), while someone is busting her song "Paper Gangsta" on the radio. The song choice is, of course, deliberate; it's a song about girl power ("A superwoman chick you know that I am/Some shit don't fly by me in a man"), and a tirade against flaky men: "Don't want no paper gangsta/Won't sign away my life to someone/Who's got the flavor but don't have no follow through."



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In the end, men are all talk and Gaga is ready for a change—which later prompts her decision to hop on the "Pussy Wagon" (Tarantino himself suggested she use the iconic truck from Kill Bill). Her smoking glasses are a cloudy veil that obstructs her view of reality, allowing her to base her feelings on senses alone, blurring the genders of the women around her.





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Once chained down by her sexuality as defined by society, we see Gaga shed them and come out in the next scene in full badass-bitch garb. She stands side-by-side with her true self (Stefani Germanotta, played here by twin-like 17 year-old sister Natali), who eyes the Chanel-donning artist, in all her Diet-Coke-for-hair-rollers-glory. (Coke! How Andy Warhol! And apparently also a nod to her mother's beauty techniques.) A chick-fight ensues as Gaga looks on; she lives in a world where men make women end up in correctional facilities, where they end up turning on each other instead of joining together and embracing girl power. She's disgusted.



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The first dance sequence is all about...honestly, it's about how skinny Lady Gaga has become. While she was certainly slim at the start of her Gaga career, her weight was still in the realm of normal, and it was refreshing to see someone in the industry flaunting healthy-looking thighs with such reckless abandon. That girl has been replaced with the Incredible Shrinking Woman, adhering to cookie-cutter expectations of what pop stars should look like. How's that for being a groundbreaking artist? Perhaps we needn't look much further to explain the strange accent she's adopted and her ridiculously slow response time in interviews—this girl is HUNGRY. It's also a nod to David LaChapelle, who famously shot her for Rolling Stone and the special limited-edition copies of The Fame Monster.)



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Time for more product placements as we get a shot of a Virgin Mobile phone and PlentyOfFish, a dating site whose appearance seems out of place and has everyone scratching their heads. While it has been revealed that the site has some sort of deal with Interscope Records, it's inclusion isn't purely product placement. Everything Gaga-related is art, after all. Yes, men may have screwed over our Lady G, but there are plenty of fish out in the sea...including a whole 'nother gender pool to consider.



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After a few Michael Jackson-inspired moves, Gaga enters the much-anticipated Pussy Wagon with Beyonce at the wheel. After scolding her for being a "very bad girl," B feeds Gaga an unidentified piece of food a Honey Bun (a Pulp Fiction reference, and fitting with B's "Honey B" nickname in the video).








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While it's commonplace for video vixens to be licking ice cream cones or eating food seductively, there is nothing attractive about this. Gaga and B are taking a common music video trope and flipping it upside the head; objectification=not sexy.








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They pull up to the diner where Tyrese is waiting for Lady B (sidebar: What happened to Tyrese?? Has it really been 12 years since "Sweet Lady"?).










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Alternating between Japanese and comic book-style subtitles, the video channels Gaga's beloved pop art pioneers Roy Lichenstein and Andy Warhol. Inspired by the Warhol's exploration of mass consumer culture and advertising through his Campbell's soup studies, Gaga and Akerlund challenge the gender stereotype of the "perfect housewife" portrayed heavily in 1950s pop culture, using Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip as their artistic devices. Bloggers and fans are crying product placement—which in the case of Miracle Whip, it partly is—but its inclusion is more likely an homage to her greatest idol, who himself was a living, breathing piece of art.

Herein lies the convenient Catch-22 Lady Gaga has created for herself. Much like Warhol, she has as much a part in feeding into pop consumer culture as she has in making a statement against it. Whatever product placement or triviality exists within her videos can be excused as art under the pretense of her participation in the pop art movement—whether "Gaga" as a product is really who she is or the product of a label is almost irrelevant when you consider that maybe she's the modern-day Marcel Duchamp or René Magritte. Now chew on that for a second...



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Lady Gaga pours poison into the honey she delivers to Tyrese, further driving home the point that she and Honey B aren't conforming to the syrupy-sweet behavior expected of them by society. Take THAT, misogynists!








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Tyrese flops over and dies after hogging the syrup, much to Honey B's delight (Imagery alert: overconsumption! Excess!), as do the rest of the patrons of the diner.










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Thus begins the epic dance break—celebrating a new America. An America that steers away from gender constructs. An America where you don't have to wear pants! Lady Gaga is the modern-day Wonder Woman—a DC Comics superheroine created in the early '40s and regarded as the model of the feminist movement. Created by Dr. William Marston, Wonder Woman is an Amazon princess sent to earth to assist America in the war effort. Called upon by the goddess Aphrodite, Wonder Woman was "created as a distinctly feminist role model whose mission was to bring the Amazon ideals of love, peace, and sexual equality to 'a world torn by the hatred of men.'"

However, Wonder Woman loses her powers if a man binds together her trademark bracelets, and she's commonly depicted as being chained by male villains and having to break free of their power and control. We see these details referenced through Gaga's chained-getup in the prison sequence, and in the Wonder Bread appearance.



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David LaChappelle meets Edward Hopper? We've already noted David LaChapelle as a noted influence in the video, whose saturated colors and bold aesthetic are echoed again here in Beyonce's getup.

But if you wanted to get all academic about it and probe even deeper, one could suggest traces of painter Edward Hopper's style influencing this particular image. The American realist painter was known for his commentary about modern American life, often interested in exploring the relationship between people and their environments. His paintings frequently depicted solitary figures, confined in urban spaces and surrounded by props of technology that were pervading American culture and contributing to the notion of societal imprisonment. One such prop was the telephone—in which communication is mediated through the object—highlighting the detachment of his subjects, who often appear half-dressed and as though they are objects on display. Here, Beyonce holds the telephone, a gateway to the outside world from which she is being held back from, while flaunting her stuff in a way that renders her more as a sculpture than a real live person.

Hopper's fascination with bright sunlight—signaling a revelation—is also seen here, as is his color aesthetic of cool greens and blues (Morning in a City, Morning Sun, Office at Night, to name a few). Telling off her controlling boyfriend, B poisons him and frees herself from her confined existence controlled by man, allowing her to escape with Gaga into the desert to revel in girl power...or hit the club, or whatever.



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Lady Gaga as a cheetah. Did we need to remind you that that's the Pussy Truck behind her? Just in case you haven't picked up on the point by now, it's a kitty's world and she's in the driver's seat—see her chauffeur's hat?








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In a 180 degree shift from their previous ensembles (or lack thereof), the superstars flaunt their cowboy-meets-burqa outfits. It marks a departure in their story; clasping hands à la Thelma and Louise, they drive off into the desert, leaving behind their hyper-sexualized personas...at least until the next video.

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Aylin Zafar is a freelance writer based in New York.

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