Do You Like Pop Absurdity? Lady Gaga, Beyonce and The "Telephone" Video
Lady Gaga is an artist of the pop absurd. In other words, she works with and creates absurdity designed to be consumed by a mass audience. Unlike the works of a more avant-garde artist of the absurd, her work does not demand a new way of understanding, but rather may be interpreted by the tools the audience already possesses. One of the blatant absurdities of the video "Telephone" is that, as Dodai at Jezebel complains:
The video doesn't go with the song. The song is about being getting phone calls when you're out clubbing and not wanting to have a conversation on the dance floor. Where does a high-fashion women's prison come in?
To me, the absurdity of that mismatch is part of the point: incredible frivolity combined with serious issues. People go to clubs and complain about reception while prisoners cannot get a proper phone connection and are strip-searched for no other reason than the guards' prurient interests all the time. Outside of a Lady Gaga video, however, it usually isn't the same people who have a dance party and are abused in prison (at least not simultaneously), nor do the dance parties (which occur at the same time as mass murder) usually happen at the crime scene.
By collapsing the distance between these events, "Telephone" points to the absurdity of a world in which people dance even though they are aware that other people are suffering, an awareness intensified by the very medium for which "Telephone" was created. Sady at Feministe has pointed out that the video has to have been developed with Internet distribution in mind:
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.
So "Telephone" points to the absurdities of postmodern life, but does it cross into social commentary? Because of the limits of the pop absurd, the answer to this question depends on the audience: what awareness they bring of certain issues to the video to begin with and how they feel about Lady Gaga (and possibly pop music in general). At the diner, when Gaga and crew started dancing around in American flag apparel, I couldn't help but think of the "collateral damage" of the War on Terror. Gaga and Beyoncé poison a whole diner full of people (and a dog, which as Harq at Only Words to Play With points out, has the potential to be particularly shocking) in order to kill Beyoncé's asshole boyfriend. But you're not going to get that connection unless you were already horrified by the term "collateral damage," and the deaths are so aestheticized and the poison presented in such an ironic product-placement style, that it is hard to be upset by the killings (which is why the video gets away with showing the dead dog).
Going back to the prison, one could interpret the stripping of Lady Gaga by the prison guards as emblematic of how invasive cissexism can be. Her clothes are torn off, apparently in order to check her parts, since one of the guards comments, "I told you she didn't have a dick." But once again, unless you are already aware of the issue, nothing demands that you read the scene as social commentary. For the mass audience, it comes across as nothing more than Lady Gaga's way of finally putting to rest rumors about her being intersex (and thus upholds the commonly held and offensive belief that intersex is something bad to be, because why would she need to do a full reveal to prove otherwise unless it were?).
In both cases, the need to keep absurdity "pop" means that the scenes must be kept palatable. Violence must be presented in a way that the audience knows how to consume, a way that doesn't get stuck in the throat; the references to Tarantino, particularly the Pussy Wagon, are there to help you along in case you forget how. The prisoners are presented in a pornified way because audiences know how to consume those images -— as something enjoyable or as something ironic and problematic (depending on your stance and awareness).
Making the absurd palatable to a broad audience means straddling the line between commentary and frivolity. A similar duality can be found in the use of product placement. To quote Only Words to Play With:
The video is peppered with both real (e.g. Miracle Whip, Wonder Bread, Polaroid, Chanel, Diet Coke, Virgin, Plenty of Fish) and fake products (e.g. Poison TV, Double-Breasted Drive-Thru, CookNKill Recipes). This combination of real and fake allows the video to both enjoy the benefits of product placement and parody the enterprise in the same swoop. Once again, we're dealing, I think, with a carnivalesque aesthetic, or a type of conceptualist art that parodies by displaying too loudly or too blatantly that which is being mocked. The comfortably familiar form is being used to market poison, and at the same time, its used to promote Polaroid. Gaga's having her cake and eating it too.
The practice of advertising by mocking advertising techniques is, however, well-established. Moreover, Gaga keeps the fake and real products clearly separate: The mass audience has the competence to read "poison" as something which is not being seriously advertised, since one cannot advocate murder. The Diet Coke cans in Gaga's hair, on the other hand, represent an odd use of the product but in no way tell viewers not to consider the endorsement valid. Now, if those cans had been used to make a murder weapon, that would have crossed the line where Gaga lives.
Pop absurdity by definition dwells on that edge, creating the excitement of transgression without actually challenging the beliefs of any but the most conservative members of the mass audience.
Elizabeth Kate Switaj
More Like This
Most Popular on BlogHer
Most Popular on Entertainment
Recent Comments on Entertainment
By Deb Rox
By Deb Rox