It’s unclear whether or not the Lady Gaga’s music video for “Telephone” is a feminist triumph, but one thing is for sure: feminists are watching it — and talking about it — a lot.
The video pushes visual and political boundaries. It’s filled with evocative images — Wonder Woman costumes, flat, white abs, mayonnaise and other sandwich-making materials, a headpiece made from telephones, and the main event: Lady Gaga’s vulva.
The video creates a whole new genre of music video — a ten-minute long visual landscape packed with images of sexuality and consumer culture, based only loosely on the content of the song.
Feminist critics (and supporters) are blogging about the video’s treatment of race (Why does Beyoncé act as a sidekick, not the main event? And why does the Asian woman in the video “think” in Japanese?) and representations of gender and sexualities (What is the gender identity of the person Gaga makes out with in the prison yard? And what is Lady Gaga trying to accomplish by flashing her vulva?) not to mention the video’s depiction of prison (Um, doesn’t it sort of glorify sexual aggression in prisons, and why aren’t any of the prisoners who are people of color allowed to dance with Gaga?). Such discussions (and other commentaries that deconstruct symbols in the video) are far more fruitful and interesting than the video itself. Why?
Because this is a pop video. And with pop videos, visuality comes first. For Gaga, the newly-throned goddess of the pop world, the visual attraction of an image comes before the meaning of the image, as she told Ryan Seacrest in a recent radio interview about the video:
“I also really believe in the power of visuals. And sometimes I just kind of see things, and visions come to me, and I just know I have to do them. It kind of doesn’t really matter what it is if it makes sense or if it doesn’t make sense…”
And the video kind of doesn’t make sense. Gaga gets bailed out of jail by Beyoncé, then the pair (accidentally?) poison a diner full of people in an attempt to kill off Beyoncé’s sucky boyfriend (Tyrese Gibson). They make a Thelma and Louise-esque getaway in a Pussy Wagon borrowed from Quentin Tarantino and somewhere in there Lady Gaga makes a sandwich and gets naked. The visual experience is incredible. But what does it mean? Lady Gaga, apparently, didn’t figure that out until she was halfway through making it. Here’s what she told Ryan Seacrest about the “Let’s Make a Sandwich” interlude:
“It kind of comes in out of nowhere, but now that I watch it, in retrospect, the way that it works into the video, and the commentary on kind of being over-fed communication and advertisements and food in this country. I think it all kind of really makes sense by the end.”
The political commentary comes after the visual image is conceived:
“It became about transsexual women at the beginning of the video, it became about making fun of American hallmarks with soda cans and cigarettes and mayonnaise and bread.”
With any kind of art, images can precede or create meaning. The politics behind any painting or novel have as much to do with the viewer as they do with the product itself; images are politically salient only because of the discussions and actions they inspire. Both the artist’s motives and the audience’s opinions matter when the political impact of a piece of art is weighed.
So let’s turn to the feminist audience. Feminist bloggers and critics have picked apart the gender, race and economic politics, as this epic post on Feministe shows. Salient political critiques have been made by people primarily concerned with the politics — people caught up in the movement for racial, sexual and economic rights.
And that makes the critics different from Gaga herself. While the pop goddess has come out in support of gay and queer rights and has (apparently) called herself a feminist, she believes primarily in the cause of pop itself:
“I have a vow to myself to kind of desperately serve show business until I die, because I believe in it so much. I’ll have to think of even more exciting ways to do it the next time around.”
Gaga’s business is to create outrageous images — to push boundaries, to serve pop — and that is what she has done. With “Telephone,” she has given us a saturated visual landscape upon which to hash out our own thoughts about gender and race. She’s also given misogynist audiences an eyeful of skinny white women dancing in g-strings. It’s a generous helping of images. But it’s up to us to decide what they will mean.
Amy Littlefield is the Music Editor at Gender Across Borders.