I love the colors—and intense color saturation—in Lady Gaga's video for "Telephone," which hit the Internet late last night. The big splashes of '80s brights in everything from Gaga's hair and telephone hat, to Beyonce's jacket, phone, green bedroom chair and dress are refreshing in much the same way the palette for Rihanna's "Rude Boy" video was. But I don't love much else about it.
Now, this may be a little literal of me, but to start out with, women's prison isn't cute, and it's not a device to be cheerfully re-appropriated. I'd be willing to listen to an argument that it's a clever riff on lesbian exploitation movies from the '70s or something. But for someone who's spent a long time and a lot of energy cultivating a gay fan base, it seems a little odd to use stereotypically butch female prison guards and situational lesbianism as a framing device.
It's the same kind of conceptual laziness that made the video for "LoveGame" mediocre. People wandering around the New York City subway and getting out of trouble by steaming up some windows with the arresting officer isn't a new idea, even if you throw in glittery body paint for variation.
But that's not even the real problem with the "Telephone" video. First, the clip is much more strictly literal in stretches than any video Gaga's made since "Just Dance," but it doesn't have a coherent emotional narrative of the kind that works so well in the videos for "Poker Face" and "Bad Romance," and even "Paparazzi." She and Beyonce set out to murder a dinerful of folks for no explicable reason. Maybe they're lovers, but the stilted dialogue and even more stilted delivery don't really hint at any coherent connection.
I certainly believe that grotesquerie can be effective. After her lover tries to kill her by throwing her off a balcony in "Paparrazi," there's something satisfying about seeing a damaged-high glam Lady Gaga storm back into his house, re-establish herself, and cheerfully kill him both in an act of revenge, and as a way to kickstart her career. The charred skeleton next to Lady Gaga and her postcoital cigarette in "Bad Romance" is shocking not in so much that she's committed murder, but that we share her emotional satisfaction and release in that murder.
The dancing's also not very strong. I don't think Gaga is a very sophisticated dancer, and her choreographers seem to recognize that, at least for videos. But she's been more effective than this. The fists she and her dancers bang on the floor in the leadup to the last dance sequence in "Bad Romance" along with the wailed line "I don't want to be friends" make for very effective, if not especially subtle, punctuation.
But really, I think one of the reasons the video doesn't work as well as some of her previous efforts lies in an internal contradiction in her image. Both "Telephone" and the video for "Paparazzi" were directed by Jonas Åkerlund, who seems unusually invested in flattening her expressions into a mask (and depicting her as a poisoner). But in her other videos, whether playing peek-a-boo in "Poker Face," flirting and fooling around in "Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)" or nakedly grieving in "Bad Romance," there are moments when the mask seems utterly gone. In the contexts she sets up, that genuineness seems like a shocking act. So much of Lady Gaga's act is based on artifice, but sincerity might actually be one of her strongest assets.