'Applause': Is Lady Gaga Parodying Weird Al Parodying Lady Gaga?
Mother Monster subverts her image in nearly the same way Yankovic did two years ago.
Lady Gaga's video for her new single, "Applause," you may be shocked to learn, features the singer wearing a bunch of strange outfits. Unlike many of her past clips, though, this one clocks in at a tidy 3:34, doesn't really feature a "storyline," and, well, is kind of forgettable.
It's not that the individual images aren't arresting; one get-up in particular, a bikini made of what looks like grabbing hands, is indisputably awesome. But it's the kind of thing we've seen before from Gaga, and some of these shots—especially the campily animated ones of her head on a swan's body—read as self parody.
Which is probably the point: to make a video both celebrating and poking fun at her career thus far. But it's tough to be impressed when this self-styled cutting-edge artist is recycling a joke from the great deflator of self-styled cutting-edge artists—Weird Al Yankovic.
Gaga's returning from some time away after promoting Born This Way, her 2011 album of disputed commercial and artistic success (on one hand, it sold more than a million copies in its first week and was, according to me, really great; on the other, those sales were in large part because of a pricing gimmick and few of the album's singles performed particularly well). It appears that in that time, the "haters" have gotten under her skin: "Applause" calls out critics in its lyrics, a promo video she puts out proclaims in its title "Lady Gaga is over," and now she's in a highly personal and highly public showdown with Perez Hilton.
The "Applause" video seems to come out of this self-consciousness kick. Some of the outfits in it look like knock-offs of things that Gaga's worn in the past; for details check out Kate Ward's side-by-side comparison with the "Born This Way" video. It's unlikely Lady Gaga repeated herself by accident. I think MTV's James Montgomery got it right when he wrote that the clip is "showing the viewer how she's willing to do anything to please the public ... even if that means shapeshifting into a swan."
The unsettling thing, though, is that Weird Al beat her to this punch line. Back in 2011, his clip for the send-up "Perform This Way," featured Al-as-Gaga in a parade of insane, low-couture costumes—more Halloween outlet store than Alexander McQueen. The message was that, yes, she's willing to do anything to please the public ... even if it means shapeshifting into a Na'vi from Avatar or covering herself in bees.
Gaga's new video also reminds me of "Perform This Way" in the way it's staged against a black background, and in some of the outfit choices. The lyrics echo as well—dismissing critics in the first verse, glorifying Gaga's hunger for fame. But there's a crucial different. "Perform" presented Gaga's desperation for attention as a crass money-making ploy: "My little monsters pay lots 'cuz I perform this way." "Applause" is about desperation for attention being a kind of bodily/chemical/spiritual dependence: "If only fame had an IV, baby." Weird Al was making fun of Gaga; Gaga is explaining Gaga.
So is Gaga's purposefully mimicking Weird Al's mimicking of her? Probably not—her work has long addressed the nature of celebrity, and the "Applause" video references tons of other cultural touchstones. But it's possible the parody influenced her. Gaga's aware of "Perform This Way": After her management initially denied Yankovic rights to her song, she praised his rendition. "I actually really appreciate the philosophy behind the song," she told Rolling Stone's Brian Hiatt. "It's actually very empowering, I think." At the time, it sounded like publicity-speak, but watching "Applause," that quote suddenly seems a lot more believable.
Whether or not the white-and-nerdy vibes are intentional or not, though, they might be a byproduct of the awkward place Gaga's career is at right now. For however much she gets accused of ripping off Madonna or Bruce Springsteen or whoever, she's long been a legitimate pop change agent: making European dance beats ubiquitous on the American charts with her debut, The Fame; amping up the drama, theatricality, and lyrical content with The Fame Monster; bringing in rock bombast and a gutsy medley of influences with Born This Way. But "Applause," catchy as it is, offers nothing new. Let's hope this video is just her looking backwards one more time and cracking a joke—before she dives ahead to somewhere weirder than Weird Al ever imagined.