It’s true. Like: do you remember when Michael Jackson died, and folks were lamenting the death of “monoculture?” They thought there would never again be the experience of knowing that everyone you met had seen the same music video that you had. This same thing happened when John Updike died, as I recall — like, it was thought that never again would there be a writer that everyone recognized as important, except for Phillip Roth, who is very old. The Internet was blamed a lot, in these discussions: it fragments our national discourse, it allows everyone to attend to their own little interests instead of allowing us all to have one big compulsory interest, it dissolves the human community and creates “communities” instead, etc. People talk about the Internet the same way they talk about the “divisiveness” of left-wing politics, sometimes, have you noticed that? Often on the very Internet itself, they do this! But also, these people seem to know very little about the Internet, or how the culture is going, because all Lady Gaga needs to do is show you her vagina in a YouTube video and the whole world stops to talk about it. It doesn’t even matter if they like Lady Gaga! Or if they listen to Lady Gaga! Some people will just post to be like, “so I don’t want everybody to keep talking about Lady Gaga!” BUT THEN THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT HER. That, my friends, is how the Internet creates “monoculture.” I have dropped a little science for you, this evening, it would appear.
So, the “Telephone” video! Have you perhaps… READ ABOUT IT ON THE INTERNET SOMEWHERE???? Or… SEEN IT ON THE INTERNET??????? Perhaps you have…. COMMENTED ABOUT IT ON THE INTERNET, ON THE POST IMMEDIATELY PRECEDING THIS ONE, PERHAPS?????????????? Well, too bad. This is YOUR Arts Section, Internet, and this week The Arts are pretty much the “Telephone” video. Let’s go, scene by scene, through The Most Important Film of the Year or Perhaps of All Time (Until Next Week Starts, Which Is Tomorrow).
The – N! S! F! W! – video is below the cut. Watch with caution.
1) Lady Gaga is being escorted to the “Prison for Bitches.” Man, I bet the lunch time cafeteria conversations at that prison are REALLY SUPER UNPLEASANT! At the Prison for Bitches, the Prison Guards for Bitches strip Lady Gaga down to, like, fishnets, and also heels, which outfit would seem a little too Agent Provocateur for a day at Bitch Prison, but whatever.
2) Hey, there’s Lady Gaga’s vagina. There is also a joke (“I told you she didn’t have a dick,” in a very deep voice which I suppose we are meant to hear as belonging to a trans lady) which strikes me as transphobic (I’m not liking how aggressively, I guess, “masculine” the trans ladies’ voices are presented as being — of course trans ladies all have different voices because HEY STEREOTYPES SUCK AT PREDICTING THINGS DON’T THEY, but one thing I will tell you is that I, a cis lady, have a deeper voice than like 4/5ths of the trans ladies I’ve ever hung out with, just as I have a deeper voice than most of my lady friends period, because I smoke and I drink bourbon basically; look, this is a long story, this thing where I explain my troubled reaction to Lady Gaga’s vagina reveal, but the point is that this stereotype is particularly offensive and unrealistic) and also part of Gaga’s ongoing project to own the transphobic shit said about her, and to reiterate it, in the form of defiant jokes. I mean, I like that project! But if she were just posing with enormous strap-ons and flashing her Good Stuff all over the place as if to say, “screw it, if you were ever wanting to see my Good Stuff for shitty transphobic and sexist reasons, I am now going to ensure that you see NOTHING BUT MY OWN PERSONAL GOOD STUFF ALL THE TIME UNTIL YOU ARE FRANKLY SICK OF IT,” I would be a lot more sympathetic. This is where you cross the line from talking about your own oppression to being unnecessarily invasive and clueless re: the oppression of others, Gaga. Just a warning.
3) Anyway, Lady Gaga’s vagina. There it is. Also of note is the fact that Gaga considerately put tape over her nipples, because I guess she knew they were going to strip her at Bitch Prison, but she FORGOT TO BRING UNDERWEAR??? Lady Gaga, you are not the world’s best at planning these things!
4) And now Lady Gaga is in the exercise yard. Also in the exercise yard: A really smoking-hot butch lady. The smoking-hot lady, or SHL as I guess we will be calling her, is also apparently very friendly. VFSHL introduces herself to Gaga by making out with her, and they have a little third-base over-the-pants action happening, and by this point another lady is being friendly to Gaga too. I thought this was a prison for bitches!
5) But also: I don’t want to be a straightsplainer here, but the fact is that special makeout times Between the Ladies almost always happen, in pop culture, between two very femme-looking individuals. So, like, how great is it that Gaga is putting the butch/femme dynamic out there, and saying that THIS is sexy ALSO? It gets a lot less performing-for-the-straight-male-gaze, a lot less “oh, honey, those are my special men’s magazines, for men’s interests, such as perhaps golfing,” and a lot more “hey, actual queer experiences exist and are hot for actual queer people,” at that point.
6) Also smoking: the lit cigarettes Gaga has just gone ahead and taped to her sunglasses. That is how you can tell these two ladies are so friendly: they are just grabbing Gaga’s junk and sticking their faces within kissing range of her face that has like 1.5 packs of lit cigarettes on it, despite the fact that they could probably receive serious burns from doing so, and also I bet her hair smells like ASS.
7) There is some wrestling, but by this point Beyonce has called Lady Gaga like 50 TIMES, and she STILL has not answered. Jesus! Pick up your damn phone! It’s not like you have a good reason to ignore all your friends’ calls and IMs and e-mails make them mad at you. It’s not like, for example, you are writing a BLOG POST ABOUT A LADY GAGA VIDEO for Feministe.
8) And now, Lady Gaga FINALLY opens her mouth to sing, and what she sings? Is the most ridiculous opening line for a song of all time. Of all time! It is this: “Hello hello baby you called? I can’t hear a thing. I have got no service in the club you see see!” I have got no service in the club? This is what we’re singing about now? How your phone service plan could be improved by switching to Verizon? Step outside the damn club, Lady Gaga! Go talk on the sidewalk! Did they not stamp your hand so you could get back in? I am just so infuriated by Lady Gaga’s bad phone manners at this point.
9) It goes on like this! Like the most tedious phone conversation ever, basically. But with Lady Gaga singing her end of it. “What what what did you say are you breaking up on me? Sorry I can’t hear you…” OH MY GOD JUST SWITCH TO GCHAT.
10) And now it’s just an underpants dance party with a bunch of girls. So: Here’s where we talk about, I guess, Queering the Text, or Queer Texts, in the example of the “Telephone” video. We have some time: these ladies will be dancing for a while, is my understanding. A lot of what is going on in this video, which some might perceive as “offensive” or “exploitative,” seems to me like a series of gestures about reclaiming. Lady Gaga gets to do the “Prison for Bitches” thing because she’s a girl; she owns that. Lady Gaga also identifies as queer, located in the B section of LGBTQI, and she has made a very girls-who-kiss-girls-centric video here. (It’s kind of the flip side of “Bad Romance,” which would seem to be her official girls-who-kiss-boys video. There’s a deep pessimism and fear regarding inequalities of power, in that video, and there is a presentation of her body as essentially monstrous, which: what girl does not get that metaphor, really? But then there is also a celebration of her body, and its power, and it gets violent but I guess if there is a War Between the Sexes, (a) they started it and (b) someone’s got to lose. I’m a pacifist, when it comes to that war, personally, but that’s not to say I didn’t find the “Bad Romance” video thrilling. A friend was talking to me, and she was like, “I can’t figure out why that video makes me so happy.” And I was like, “because it sets you up to see Gaga’s sexuality as a way that she can be oppressed or hurt, and then it tells you to see her sexuality as a way for her to be powerful and victorious, and the transition from one way of seeing to the other is really great.” And she was like “yes, probably, but also I think I like the outfits and dancing!” And that is why people make fun of me when I talk about Lady Gaga. But, let’s be honest: We can poke fun at Gaga, and her self-seriousness, and we can disagree with her feminist statements or her statements about sexuality, or say that they don’t quite work — I think the “Telephone” video does not quite work, personally — but we can’t say she’s not making statements. She is. And they tend to be, as statements by pop stars go, more interesting and smart and provocative than those of her peers.) So anyway, we could regard “Telephone” as the logical next step from the “Bad Romance” video, I suppose: there’s a mean boy, and a girl getting her revenge on him, and also some really ridonkulous revenge dancing, but this time, instead of one girl getting revenge all by herself, there are just so many women interacting with each other in so many ways — fighting, yes, and hurting each other, but also kissing and talking and making friends and touching each others’ crotches in a helpful manner and providing support. This video presents community between women as this very powerful, dangerous, thrilling space. And sex is included in that, as one of the ways women connect with each other; the connection is invariably eroticized, pretty strongly. Female space is also presented as something you can escape into and find strength from, specifically strength to resist dudes who treat you crapfully, and that strength to resist dudes (who you might also have sex with, it is implied) is tied to the eroticization of women, throughout. It’s all a little like that Adrienne Rich essay, which I do have some small problems with on the levels of essentialism and reliance on some not-so-great sources, but which is nevertheless really good. My point is, when was the last time you thought to describe a pop star’s music video with, “this reminds me of that Adrienne Rich essay?” Yeah. Stop trying to deny Gaga. Even when her videos are not that good — this one, for example, is not! — you cannot simply scoot her out of the discussion.
11) They’re still having the Underpants Dance Party! UNDERPANTS DANCE PARTY WOOOO.
12) Okay, so Gaga has served her prison sentence (“LADY GAGA, I SENTENCE YOU TO FIVE MINUTES OF HARD DANCING”) and she’s leaving, and Beyonce picks her up. Did you ever see Obsessed? I totally did. I saw Obsessed. In the theater! One of the things I learned from Obsessed was that Beyonce is seriously just not an actress. That is on display here also, as she informs Lady Gaga that she has been a “very bad girl.” Then Lady Gaga leans over and seductively eats Beyonce’s sandwich, in the manner of someone administering Oral Attentions to An Erect Member. I’m totally going to try that one on my next date. Just lean over and chomp into his food. (“And then he just stood up and LEFT! And his BLT wasn’t even that good EITHER. The lettuce was soggy.”) Then they drive away in a Tarantino reference, and that scene’s over.
13) Oh, no it’s not. They’re still talking. “Once you kill a cow, you’ve got to make a burger.” YOU GUYS! The song is not called “Various Kinds of Sandwiches!” It is called “TELEPHONE.” Should you maybe have worked harder to incorporate references to… telephones, perhaps????
14) And was it really necessary to subtitle the Asian woman’s thoughts in a different language than everybody else’s? No. No, it was not! I am not so cool with the ways that this video deals with race, I think. I mean, Beyonce’s there, and presented as an equal and partner. Sure. But I am thinking like, this Asian girl and her special “hey, have you noticed this chick’s Asian? Just thought I’d point that one out to you” subtitle, or the way the women of color in the prison are filmed. It makes me uncomfortable in the nebulous, tricky-to-pin-down way that Quentin Tarantino movies do — and, considering that this entire video is basically meant to be a Tarantino movie, that was kind of unavoidable, I suppose. Like: Okay, great, your video has some people of color in it. At least it’s not like you are pretending that those people aren’t on the planet, which is a creepy thing that white people do sometimes with their movies. However, I keep getting the sense that we are heading toward some (oy) “postmodern” treatment of race here, where race is just a toy or a text or a trope like everything else, that you get to play around with from your own privileged position, including and incorporating the stereotypes as it suits you because your IRONIC DISTANCE is just that powerful. It’s probably meant to demonstrate how smart you are about race, but it comes across as exoticizing and fetishizing, and thereby falls into the same pit as most “postracial” discourse, where by pretending to be above or beyond racism you really just wind up playing into it. “Postracial” is the new “colorblind,” basically: Like, if we just don’t talk about it, if we just ignore it, then of course racism it will get better on its own! Not ignoring the existence of racism makes YOU the Real Racist! And what ongoing problem is not improved when people go around consciously giving themselves permission not to think about or deal with it??? Oh: Pretty much all of them. Pretty much all problems are not improved by that course of action. Right.
15) Okay. We had like five seconds of actual telephoning in the “Telephone” video, and now…
I’M TELLING YOU. THEY WILL NOT LET GO OF THE SANDWICH THEME. Was everybody on the set for this video just really hungry? Or what?
16) Beyonce’s asshole boyfriend did not order a sandwich. He ordered eggs. And now he is dead. This message has been brought to you by the Sandwich Council. Sandwiches: Eat them, because everything else is poison!
17) Another lesson we can gain from the “Telephone” video: Do not take food away from Beyonce. It has happened like several times in this video and on each occasion she unleashes TERRIBLE RAGE upon the culprit. You take Beyonce’s food — let ALONE her favorite variety of condiment — and she kills a diner full of people. That is just how it goes. Beyonce does not fuck around.
18) The thing is, we can talk about how trans stuff is handled in this video (badly), and how race stuff is handled in this video (also badly), and we can talk about how Lady Gaga’s ongoing project of unpacking female sexuality like it is a suitcase the size of a train station is handled in this video (occasionally well??) but one thing we HAVE to talk about is how VERY INTERNET this video happens to be. You seriously cannot show this video on television! It was not designed to be shown on television, ever! It is ten minutes long, and it has more dialogue than music, and it has the “fuck” word and naked breasts and vaginas and girl-on-girl action and basically everybody gets murdered. At no point did anyone making this video think, “I’m still pretty sure we could get this on television, though.” No. It was made to be on the Internet. And you can tell because this affects the form itself, like the actual decisions of how to shoot and edit the damn thing. You can tell this video was meant to be turned into nine million animated GIFs, for example, because there are several parts of it that are shot to look like animated GIFs: you know that thing where there’s like two seconds of movement that loops back around on itself in a weird, jerky, headache-inducing way? That’s what this video looks like, a lot of the time. Gaga has now apparently incorporated not just an analysis of gender and sexuality into her work, she has apparently decided to take on the issue of new media. If her next video is about string theory, at this point, you just should not be surprised.
19) And now Lady Gaga is just dancing around looking like Brett Michaels. Beyonce looks like Wonder Woman. That’s why she is Beyonce: you can put the stupidest shit on that woman’s body, and people are suddenly like, “my, that bustier made entirely of ham is STUNNING!” It doesn’t even matter that she’s a bad actress. You point that out to people and they’re like, “fuck good acting! I never realized how much I hated good acting until this moment! I want what Beyonce’s doing!” Kanye West is a victim of many things, but one of the chief things he is a victim of is just saying what everybody is always already thinking about Beyonce. He succumbed to her power! As we all have! We cannot blame Kanye, just as we cannot blame a moth who draws too close to the candle flame and is burnt. Nor can we blame the candle, for burning! PS the flame is Beyonce. THE FLAME IS BEYONCE! And with that, I leave you.