Music Video: Phoning in my thoughts on Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone”

B driving Gaga toward another item on her rap sheet; image courtesy of focusonstyle.com

I guess I should care about Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s nine-minute music video for “Telephone.” Gaga created the concept with director Jonas Åkerlund. Gaga and B are lesbian partners on the run. But . . . ugh. Okay, I’ll briefly outline my thoughts.

1. Since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” many pop stars have attempted to make lengthy, elaborate, concept music videos work. I can do without all of them, including “Thriller.” Yes, it’s one of the most popular music videos of all time. But I think Jackson’s transformation and the dance routines could stand alone without the slasher movie date night plot, although it’s worth it for his intimation that he’s “not like other guys.”

2. The lesbian jailbird subplot seems subversive but it doesn’t play out that way to me. Most of the actresses are normatively feminine, which plays into the long-standing heterosexual male fandom of the women in prison film genre that the video is hailing. In addition, they’re ornamental, meant to bolster Gaga’s edgy pop star image. If you need any further evidence, witness the “butch” that makes out on (not with) Lady Gaga in the prison yard.
3. I love Gaga’s yellow dye job, which I first saw at the Grammys. As if her platinum blonde tresses and black eyebrows weren’t enough to reveal the hair color of conventional white femininity to be unnatural, she takes its fakeness to a more lurid extreme.
4. Also, Gaga’s telephone headdress is pretty sweet.
5. I think all the product placements speak for themselves.
6. Supposedly, Gaga and Beyoncé are in a romantic relationship here. And this is somewhat interesting in terms of Beyoncé’s career trajectory, as there was a rumor several years back that she was considering starring in a screen adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Sapphic Victorian romance Tipping the Velvet. But they don’t seem like a couple to me. There’s no shared intimacy, no easy rapport. In fact, apart from them joining hands at the end of the video in a clear homage to Thelma and Louise, they really don’t interact at all. Oh, except when Beyoncé feeds Gaga or chauffeurs her criminal girlfriend to their next crime seat. B may sit behind the wheel, but she’s driving Miss Gaga.
7. Also, Beyoncé looks like a real girl doll here. A real girl doll abiding by white people’s notions of what “good” hair looks like and what make-up palettes are flattering. She moves like a robot too. In fairness, both pop stars do, but I still think that B is following Gaga’s lead.
8. I’m not sure about what to do with Gaga and sandwich-making. Perhaps it’s getting at the grotesqueries of processed foods like Wonder Bread and condiments. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the soul-deadening routinization of feminized domestic labor, thus why she’s situated in what looks like a prison kitchen.
9. Thinking back on processed foods, note that Gaga and B’s mass murder takes place at a diner. For one, the diner is a site of fetishized Americana and thus a symbol they might be attempting to destroy (or at least reconfigure, as evidenced by Gaga’s stars and stripes hippie chick get-up). But also notice also that B is Gaga’s decoy and that B snares a black man with her feminine wiles. This man, like many other patrons of color, is killed because the perpetrators slipped poison in his food. Note the racial connotations of what was on his plate too: biscuits, gravy, grits. In other words, highly caloric Southern cooking that often gets associated with particular African American communities, perhaps of which Houstonians like Beyoncé might associate.

Apparently this saga will continue. Let’s hope Beyoncé makes Gaga her driver in the next installment.

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9 comments

  1. lp

    I like your points on the prison scenes and though there seemed to be a couple of nods (possibly unintentional?) to John Waters and maybe even the Pulp Fiction-esque diner scene, the general safe prettiness of B next to Gaga’s constance of loud piece after loud piece was disheartening. You are right on with the real doll thing too, but lately I think of Heidi whenever that reference comes up. You should write a piece on Heidi so I can cry myself to sleep reading about her seduction into such transformation. but anyway I thought similarly about the shoot-out/American flag uniform part, that they are becoming America to break it apart from the inside, though I don’t see how B’s really doing that with her career. she seems to mostly commercialize every aspect of what she does and gain success from the profits and exposure, so maybe her secondary role is appropriate and audiences trust Beyonce as a warm southern girl that made it big and will forgive her for her attempt at a lesbian character, whereas everyone is quick to criticize Gaga and have a say on what she does/wears/says/performs and she uses Beyonce mostly for her stabilized good woman image to balance and support her own radical expressions. uhhh i didn’t mean to write an essay what i’m really saying is u go girrrl

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  3. Jasmine

    Why is it that when Beyonce wears a wig, she looks like “a real girl doll abiding by white people’s notions of what ‘good’ hair is”, but when Gaga wears a wig, she’s deconstructing conventional white femininity?

    • Alyx Vesey

      Fair point. I didn’t mention that Gaga was wearing a wig. Assuredly she is, so you’re right to bring up that both women are wearing fake hair, as fakeness is very much a theme of this clip and of the calculation that goes into star cultivation. But I’d argue that there are very different racial politics at work with their hair.

      In my original comment, I was referring to Gaga’s hair color — specifically the neon yellow tips, which draw attention to her “hair” clearly being dyed. Thus her blonde hair is conspicuously fake and unnatural. As blonde is an idealized hair color in beauty culture, yet a color many women don’t come by naturally (as we know, there are a long line of unnatural blonde starlets and bombshells in Hollywood, from Marilyn Monroe on). Gaga not only reveals blonde’s fakeness, but I’d argue also makes blonde seem grotesque instead of pretty.

      On the other hand, I’d argue that Beyoncé is abiding by conventional beauty standards with her “hair” in this music. Of course, I’m not suggesting that wearing her hair “natural” wouldn’t present its own problems (essentialization, tokenism, the mere use of the word “natural”). And I’m not suggesting that there’s a right or wrong way for black women to wear their hair. But her light brown hair is styled and straightened into a Betty Page cut. Combined with her red lips, robotic movements, and what I’d argue to be a subordinate role in her relationship with Gaga, it feels very much like Beyoncé is abiding by white people’s notion of good hair and good behavior.

      And while others may argue that it “makes sense” that Beyoncé have a subordinate role in a music video for a Lady Gaga song, I’d counter that it might be more progressive of Gaga to give up some of her privilege so Beyoncé can have space to develop a more nuanced, less dependent character. Of course, this argument risks white maternalism, but I think it’s a helluva lot better than having Beyoncé feed Lady Gaga and help her kill a diner full of people of color.

      Which brings us back to Gaga’s supposed deconstruction of conventional white femininity, which we shouldn’t view as inherently progressive. White privilege allows Gaga room to buck these conventions. It also allows her hair, though unnatural, to read as her own, whereas Beyoncé’s is more conspicuously a wig.

      Thanks for asking. This is a really tricky text and one I think needs considerable unpacking. If you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts, I’d welcome your interpretation.

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  6. taintedjezebel

    I really like your critique, I found it thoughtful and intriguing. Though I have a couple of points to add.

    Firstly regarding the interaction between Beyonce and Gaga in the car. While I appreciate your view that B feeding Gaga appears to be a subservient act, I feel it could also be viewed in the opposite way. The way that B berates Gaga calling her a ‘very bad girl’ reminds me of a submissive/dominant sexual partnership, in which case the feeding aspect could be read as a sign of control; where Gaga is only eating as allowed by B. Indeed at this point B appears to be the more aggressive one, Gaga is in fact positioned lower in her chair looking up at B who is sitting straight up.

    As to your further racial analysis, though I know that the fact of B’s colour cannot be ignored and would immediately add meaning to any reading, I can’t help but wonder if you would come to the same conclusions if Gaga had chosen Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears to take on the role? After all, someone has to be in the drivers seat (interesting in itself as linguistically that phrase implies control though I appreciate, not in the ‘driving miss…’ sense).

    Lastly, and the only part of your analysis I would actually really contend, you say that “This man, like many other patrons of color, is killed because the perpetrators slipped poison in his food.” – Yes many other patrons of colour are killed, but so are white patrons…and a dog! I don’t think it’s correct to pick out that situation as being particularly colour dependent, as men and women of a range of ethnicities seem to be represented.

    As I say, I enjoyed your analysis and would be interested to hear your thoughts on my counter arguments?

    Cally

    • Alyx Vesey

      First off, Cally, thanks for replying to the post. More importantly, thank you for providing your own smart commentary.

      1. I see what you’re getting at with your reading of B and Gaga’s submissive/dominant relationship, and I might be unfairly condescending toward B’s role on the basis of race. However, I wonder how the structure might be subverted if we brought power bottoms (i.e., subservient partners — usually gay men, though not exclusively — who derive pleasure in controlling the action from below) into discussion.

      2. Good point about Christina or Britney. I thought about this too. What if someone even older was in the drivers’ seat, like Madonna, buddy Cyndi Lauper, or Janet Jackson?

      3. It’s true that there are white patrons and a dog as well. Admittedly, this does trouble my read. I may have overread caloric foods as well, although I think there is clearly a link between soul food and “American” cuisine, which seems to pilfer quite a bit from soul food (I haven’t read any historical texts on the subject, though would welcome suggestions).

      Those are some off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts. If you have any other comments here or elsewhere, I’d love to read them.

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