It feels like I’ve spent the better part of a year, in one way or another, defending Lady Gaga to my friends. It’s very easy to look at Gaga and see the superficial trappings – the seeming emphasis on material wealth, the crazy fashions, the dancepop – as “part of the problem” in the music industry. However, it seems obvious to me that, whether broken down into individual elements or taken as a whole, Lady Gaga is single-handedly saving the music industry. I don’t just mean financially – ie: she’s making the music industry a lot of money – but artistically, too. She’s showing us, reminding us, what’s possible with pop, and with every song and video she demonstrates the power of that. I plan to examine the Lady Gaga phenomenon in a 3-part series, the first part of which will look at her through the lens of her latest single, “Telephone.”
“Telephone”, featuring Beyonce, is the latest single off her second album, The Fame Monster. It came out at around the same time as her other duet with Beyonce, the Beyonce song, “Videophone.” Listening to the two side-by-side, and now being able to watch both videos (the video for “Telephone” premiered yesterday. “Videophone” has been out for a while), it’s clear that “Telephone” is the superior of the two:
1) Let’s start with the titles. Remember the Britney Spears gem, “E-Mail My Heart?” Yeah, I barely do either. It was never a single, but it was a track on her first album, …Baby, One More Time. When I first got that album, I thought the song was stupid then. Why? Songs that latch onto technology too quickly are dating themselves. Not only are they dating themselves, but technology isn’t terribly romantic or emotional in a song, even a “cheesy pop song.” “Videophone” suffers, in part, because its title tethers it to a specific place and time, and is only relevant to a specific type of person. However, everyone uses telephones, and has for quite some time. This song could be from the 80s, is current, and it has a long shelf-life.
2) Now, let’s talk musicianship. “Videophone” has a great dance beat. It also has a ridiculously long intro with nothing but a slow beat peppered with Beyonce moaning “Uh-uhhhhh….” for what feels like an eternity. By the time she gets to “Shorty, wha’cho name is?” and the beat kicks in, I’ve stopped caring. “Telephone” also starts off with a slower beat, but Gaga’s vocals are more immediate. She’s also done something really interesting. She, like Cher did with “Believe” in 1998, is using auto-tune in an artistic way, enhancing the song, which is what auto-tune is for, not making up for faulty vocals. In Cher’s case, she was dabbling in an electronic style that was new for her, and the use of auto-tune seemed to be emphasizing the fact that she was doing something different. It was a choice, not a default or a crutch. In “Telephone”, it’s clear that Gaga’s voice doesn’t need covering up, and the auto-tune kicks in exactly when it’s supposed to – when the phone call is breaking up. It’s a song that’s being listened to over the phone at a party, and auto-tune is used as an enhancement to the storytelling. T-Pain and Obama it is not. There’s also variation in “Telephone,” and the song goes from driving dance beat, to tinkling piano and melody and back. There’s a hook, there are verses, there’s a bridge…it’s a crafted song. “Videophone” doesn’t seem to know where it’s going, so it meanders, saying words over a monotonous beat and murmuring the word videophone as a makeshift chorus in the hopes that it will have turned out to be a song when it’s all over. The best part is the Lady Gaga part, which she wrote. “I’ll be your Jean, you’ll be my Brando” indeed. And can we talk about the fact that she’s referencing Marlon Brando to people possibly not old enough to know who Marlon Brando really is?
3) Now, let’s talk message. “Videophone” pretty much says, “You’re hot. I’m hot. And if you like what you see, record me on your videophone, and jerk off to me later.” Which is a very nice offer, I’m sure. And there’s no question that Beyonce is hot. But it’s hard to take that song seriously when comparing it to “Telephone.” That song’s message is, “I’m out with my friends having a good time. You had a chance to do something with me earlier, and didn’t take me up on it, so now I’ve moved on. I’m not your beck and call girl (to quote Pretty Woman) to hang out with at your whim. Stop calling me, get a life, and let me enjoy mine.” A much more powerful, and empowering message, don’t you agree? If I had a daughter, and I had these two songs to choose from, I’d much rather her take Gaga up on her message; that self-respect is more important than hanging out with or pleasing your boyfriend.
4) Lastly, lets talk videos. The video for “Videophone” is visually all over the place, and quite honestly feels as though, at least fashion-wise, Beyonce is trying to take a page from the Lady Gaga playbook with much less success. There’s an amazing chair dance portion in the middle (surprisingly, with Gaga at her most demure-looking), but other than that the video is just scenes of a costumed Beyonce lumped together. There’s no concept that goes further than “Glimpses Into a Peep Show On Crack.” Not so with the new video for “Telephone.” This video is a complete short film with an actual narrative, which is inspired by both Quentin Tarantino (complete with an appearance by the Pussy Wagon from Kill Bill) and the film Thelma & Louise. It’s brash, visually interesting, has a fun, compelling story, and uses Tyrese Gibson in the only way any film should. As a set-piece who doesn’t say words.
Check out the video for “Telephone” below. In Parts 2 and 3 of this series, I’ll be talking about why Gaga makes a great role model, and why she is important to pop music, and art in general.