Friday, March 12, 2010


The new Lady Gaga video, "Telephone," appeared today. As with her last four clips, it's an elaborate spectacle framing a song that's decent at best. I like Gaga's videos and many of her costumes, and her live performances - the bloody MTV Awards one in particular - are excellent. But her music continues to be utterly dependent on the visuals. It's a total package of which the purely sonic component is still the weakest part. "Bad Romance," "Paparazzi" and "Love Game" are good songs; "Poker Face" is half a good song (the imitation-Peaches portions sink the rest); I can't remember what "Just Dance" sounded like and don't feel like looking it up on YouTube to remind myself. And right now, less than a half hour after watching the "Telephone" video for the first and so far only time, I can't remember the song. This is partly because unlike any previous Gaga video, the song is not allowed to play from beginning to end; it's chopped up and bracketed by several dialogue and action sequences, some of which (the women's-prison segments) work very well, some of which (everything with Beyoncé) don't work very well at all.

Honestly, Beyoncé's presence is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for me. I don't like her music at all - her ballads are histrionic and bland, and her attempts to be uptempo and "hard"/"street" are unconvincing, when they're not just plain boneheaded ("Diva") - and her visual style is nowhere near as interesting as Gaga's. And perhaps most importantly of all, she's not weird or shocking, ever, which makes me wonder why she's in this video/on this song. What she does and what Gaga does are almost totally opposed. And crucially, Gaga looks like the future, while Beyoncé looks like the past. Which makes me wonder if the idea of the collaboration was Gaga's...

Oh, well; at least Beyoncé isn't just doing her usual thing here. Instead, she's dressed/made up like a RealDoll and singing/reciting dialogue in a hyper-stylized voice...basically, playing Nicki Minaj. Who has in turn been playing Lil' Kim (specifically, the Lil' Kim of the "How Many Licks" video) for a couple of years now. So she's found a new, twice-removed way to be uninteresting. An achievement of some small sort, I guess.

As far as Gaga's part of this production, it's a step down from "Bad Romance" and "Paparazzi" despite being a dramatically higher-budget operation - and yeah, you can see it all on the screen. Director Jonas Åkerlund has abandoned the labored grittiness of his videos for The Prodigy and Metallica and gone full LaChappelle here - I'm surprised the thing wasn't shot in Technicolor. The first third or so, which takes place in a high-glam women's prison and features a hermaphrodite joke in its opening minute that actually made me laugh out loud, is the best part of the whole near-ten-minute thing. The costumes are great, mixing the aesthetics of porn, gang culture, and Broadway in a way that really works. Gaga's thinner than she's been in previous clips, and she's wearing even less clothing, at one point dancing in a studded bra and thong with her hair half-bleached and curled with Diet Coke cans (the most subtle product placement in a film bursting with it) and looking like a demonic Amy Winehouse.

When she leaves prison and hooks up with Beyoncé, driving away in Uma Thurman's "Pussy Wagon" from the Kill Bill movies, my heart sank a little.

Previously, Gaga's stolen everything that caught her eye - costumes from old Samantha Fox videos and The Night Porter, imagery and a general vibe from Matthew Barney, Alien and The Warriors, Japanese kegadol (girls in bandages) fetishism...not to mention all the occult symbolism...but she's always made it her own. Gaga-world has always been its own thing until now, with references to Earth that were recognizable, but not blatant and pandering. The presence of the "Pussy Wagon" is clumsy, lowering the whole video to the level of rappers reciting dialogue from Scarface.

The video pretty much goes off a cliff from there - Beyoncé goes to a diner, poisons Tyrese (things perk up again when Gaga is seen in the kitchen, poisoning everyone's food as a recipe appears onscreen), and then the two women dance and sing in a diner full of corpses before driving off in the "Pussy Wagon." The End.

The mini-movie-ness of "Telephone" (which, lyrically, has nothing to do with any of this, though both Gaga and Beyoncé are seen using telephones at several points during the clip) points out what's been becoming more and more obvious with each succeeding Gaga clip - she's not writing songs, she's writing musical numbers. Without the visuals, they're no more interesting than it would be to listen to a Busby Berkeley number on TV in another room. I may well watch this video another time or two, though I doubt it - it's just not as good as her last two or three have been. But would I listen to the song by itself? Absolutely not. As I said above, even right now I can't remember what it sounded like. That seems like bad news for her label, which almost certainly had to lay out some money for a production this elaborate, no matter how many product placements they shoehorned in.

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