‘Telephone’: When Lady Gaga Took Beyoncé Into the Deep End

Were the pop world — nay the world world — still spinning on its usual axis, Friday would have seen the release of Lady Gaga’s highly anticipated sixth album, “Chromatica.” Like many other musicians, she decided to push back her record because of the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike many other musicians, she has toggled between the roles of global pop star and world health advocate quite gracefully.

Just one day after unveiling the riotous cover art for “Chromatica” — a shocking pink cyberpunk-y image that answers the unprompted question “what if Grimes had directed ‘Blade Runner 2049’?” — Lady Gaga appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s home-recorded “Tonight Show” in a nude lip, turtle neck and blazer, and black-rimmed glasses to discuss her efforts raising $ 35 million for the World Health Organization. In a blink, she was far from the shallow.

But understated, business-casual Gaga was a role she was moving away from with the release of “Chromatica,” a record that — after the stripped-down solemnity of “Joanne” and a stint in awards-season finery promoting “A Star Is Born” — promised to return to the early dance-pop sound and its monstrous, Alexander McQueen-reverent silhouettes that originally made her a star. The world had other plans.

So, in its honor, let’s celebrate another over-the-top pop milestone that, back in mid-March, got lost in the darkness of a global crisis: the 10th anniversary of the nearly 10-minute neon-brite music video for Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone.”

Originally written by Lady Gaga and several collaborators for Britney Spears — a what-if demo of Spears singing the song later leaked — “Telephone” appeared on “The Fame Monster,” a more adventurous coda to Gaga’s debut album, “The Fame.” Though Spears was reportedly considered again as a potential guest star, the featured artist ended up being the woman Gaga joined on the 2007 track “Video Phone (Remix)”: Beyoncé.

Continuing the plotline of the “Paparazzi” video, which ended with Lady Gaga killing an abusive lover played by Alexander Skarksgard (seven years before “Big Little Lies”!), “Telephone” begins with the singer behind bars in a rather permissive women’s prison (three years before “Orange Is the New Black”!) Beyoncé bails her out, chides her for being a bad girl, and then together, for reasons never quite explained, they poison an entire diner full of people. There’s also egregious product placement (Wonder Bread, Beats by Dre), an interlude about making sandwiches, and an ending shot that conjures a millennial “Thelma & Louise.” It was, purposefully, a lot.

Post-“Single Ladies” but still years away from the avant-garde image reinvention that was her 2013 self-titled visual album, “Telephone” gave Beyoncé one of her earliest opportunities to get weird. Though it’s hard to imagine now, at the turn of the last decade, Beyoncé was still seen as a risk-averse, play-by-the-rules pop perfectionist. In “Telephone,” she fed Lady Gaga a honey bun, acted out a violent revenge fantasy, and even mouthed an expletive before covering her mouth with a wide-eyed, faux-contrite look at the camera.

The Cut’s recap of the video marveled that Bey “actually shows the angry, crazy side that we knew lurked beneath her too-perfect facade”; while Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield noted, “Beyoncé, the most egregiously non-crazy pop star of our time, gets to pretend she’s as nuts as Gaga for a few minutes.” Somewhere in the future, “Lemonade” beckoned.

“Telephone” is not Lady Gaga’s most iconic music video — that would be “Bad Romance” — but in retrospect it may be the one that best represented a turning point in the form. In a recent interview with Variety, the video’s director Jonas Akerlund recalled Gaga telling him she had become, “right on the edge of getting bored with making music videos.” MTV “didn’t like her,” she claimed, and was always censoring or editing her most ambitious ideas.

“Telephone” would not be for them, by design. “Gaga was, like, the first artist that came to me and said, ‘[Expletive] MTV, we can do this, we don’t need them,’” Akerlund said. “We can do this all online, on YouTube.’”

Released seven months before Kanye West’s similarly epic, MTV-agnostic short film for “Runaway,” “Telephone” was somewhere between an old-fashioned pop event and a digital-era phenomenon. It premiered, of all places, on a Friday night broadcast of “E! News” on March 12. But the internet was where most people saw it — a then-record-setting 15 million views in the first five days — and, just as importantly, where they dissected it.

In 2010, mainstream media was still attempting to make sense of and monetize the insurgent energy of the blogosphere and its voicy, offhandedly erudite pop cultural analysis. With its feminist-minded film references (“Kill Bill,” “Thelma & Louise”), queer imagery and seemingly Warholian-ironic product placement, “Telephone” proudly announced itself as a Rich Text.

Lengthy articles and blog posts analyzing the video proliferated: One ABC News article featured a doctoral student “decoding” the video’s ideas, at one point name-dropping Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish.” Gaga encouraged such readings: “What I really wanted to do with this video is take a decidedly pop song, which on the surface has quite a shallow meaning, and turn it into something deeper.”

Only a year later, she walked that bravado back. “There are so many [expletive] ideas in that video and all I see in that video is my brain throbbing with ideas and I wish I had edited myself a little bit more,” she told Time Out in May 2011, claiming she couldn’t even stomach watching the clip anymore.

In the rearview, though, her self-criticism seems unduly harsh. Perhaps the bloggers were a little overzealous in their scholarly shot-by-shot breakdowns, but taken on its gloriously shallow surface — smoldering cigarette sunglasses! Diet Coke curlers! an infomercial for poison! — “Telephone” remains one of the wildest and most watchable pop artifacts of its era, a defining moment in the music video’s migration from MTV to the unruly internet.

It’s certainly worth revisiting in the long lead-up to “Chromatica.” Sure it’s almost 10 minutes long — but I suspect you have the time.

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NYT > Arts > Music

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