Answering the Feminist Call: Lady Gaga's 'Telephone' as Pop Art

Curator's Note

After being bailed out from prison by Beyonce ‘bad girl’ Lady Gaga returns the favour, lending a hand in the plot to kill an abusive boyfriend. From their respective positions of the serving kitchen and the breakfast table, both women poison the offender incidentally killing all the diners. The pair (backed up by the kitchen staff) erupt into a choreographic spectacle complete with costume changes recalling, among other things, comic book superheroes. What, if anything, can be gleaned from the heavy layering of pop cultural references in this video? 

Some interpret Gaga’s videos as just another cheap sell of sexuality, while others view them as viable assertions of women’s empowerment. Is the violence and excess in Telephone a symptom, sickness, or cure for what ails feminism today? To avoid confining it to limiting comparisons with other female pop stars, I propose its curation within a wider cultural context. That Lady Gaga is part of current feminist discourse is a given, however, her enactment of gender through excess, irony, and sexuality also redefines the boundaries of pop music. These themes present to varying degrees in all her videos comprise a defining feature of her work.

In Telephone the performative aspects of gender can be read differently for their intersections with pop art.  The lines between person, art, and commodity become blurred when they are embodied by Gaga in this clip. Consider the use of product placements: diet coke cans in her hair, a Virgin Mobile phone, and lit cigarette sunglasses. These items are not employed in a directly promotional way; they figure as odd extensions of Gaga’s body drawing connections to her status as a fetishistic object of consumption. Yet Gaga embraces consumerism much in the same way Andy Warhol did when he used coke bottles, soup cans, and celebrity images in his silkscreen paintings, albeit to a markedly different effect. Gaga's body, however complicit in conflating gender with processes of self-objectification, also repackages pop cultural references as products for pop music.


Thanks for a really great post to conclude the week's discussions Dom and for bringing so many of the themes--pop, art, objects, Warhol, empowerment, production, consumption--that have preoccupied us (as I had already anticipated in my last comment: together.


I agree with Michael.  A good post to summarize many of the points we have discussed throughout the week. Aside from previous comments you and others have made, do you think that there is an explicit relationship between Gaga and her objects--in the sense that they might exist or extend beyond /her/ body as object of consumption?  Or, in other words, when you say "Gaga embraces consumerism much in the same way Andy Warhol did," what are the different a/effects that she constructs and how are they different?

On a completely tangential note: might some of us think about the ways that Gaga could be compared to Mapplethorpe?  Is there something that she does with the sexed/gendered body that he was doing with skin?  Is her body fusing his images of paired bodies into one body that is splitting outside of itself?  Would a comparison with him (or other artists) offer us additional leverage to consider the artistry/popular forms she constructs in a way that need not turn to Warhol alone?

Thanks, all. I really enjoy the contrast of MOR and Karin's closer reading of the Object with my more broad provocations on the role of objects in the Telephone video.

Kris- Absolutely! I'm well pleased you picked up that I was trying to articulate Gaga's explicit relationship with the objects and consumption. I'm simultaneously suprised and pleased about the absence of (while also in anticipation of) Gaga's image infiltrating homes and bodies of her fans through objects ala the marketing machine behind Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus. I will be among the first to buy Lady G cigarettes that oh I don't know, emit sound of the future and smell like lightning, even though I don't smoke.

Yet, unlike HM, Gaga's statements to her fans echo more of "I'm like you" than a "be like me" mentality, and this might be where I depart from the legions of writers that have already made the Warhol/Gaga comparison.  This undoubtedly illicts various kinds of affective response in her audiences whereas Warhol epitomized a cold disconnection as a producer to his objects. Gaga becoming a pop art object through her performances and embodiments reconfigures subjectivity in a way that Warhols work did not. I think MOR and Karin's comments on Kirsty's post posed one way of articulating that. Also this is because Warhol's homosexuality in the 1960s proved much more troublesome to notions of the virile hypermasculine America avant-garde artist, than of Gaga in 2010 queering of the female pop musician (thank you Judith Butler, Madonna, MJ, etc).

The differing effects I would argue stem from Gaga's position as an artistic producer and woman (noting the ways she explodes the boundaries of both categories). Working within the parameters of cultural traditions in which women function as signs baring signification, but are only able to gain recognition as artists through certain channels (vis a vis the double standards highlighted in Jessalyn's clip), Gaga's various gender (dis)plays and her use of objects challenge, and move beyond a) the persistence of those double standards and b) empty out the author-function in ways Foucault never fantasized.

The problem remaining is that Gaga can't be read outside of her position in mainstream pop music entirely. To gain currency within this realm as a woman still means to some extent conforming to prevalent heterosexual conventions, which ironically are used to dismiss or devalue her work.

And yet... your tangent hints at something useful to consider alongside these limitations. There is an affinity with Mapplethorpe, as I've noted from the reactions of some of my discussants to the idea that Gaga employs Warholian production techniques. In part I chose Warhol because of his recognition as a major pop artist but also because of the collaborative aspects of his practice (the factory, found photographs and images, etc).The discomfort that Mapplethorpe's sexual images cause to some, also surfaces in the comparison of desexualized male masters to hyper sexual female pop stars. 

Limitless "Gaga" demands to be considered within multiple contexts in any given reading to work against a containment within the gendered discourse of pop music. In recalling my post to Jessalyn asking "who is feminism for?", this is an example of what I was hoping to evoke with my title, "answering the feminist call". I think there is much to be gained from making these connections with other, especially art practices (as Madison and MOR pointed out in previous postings).

Kris, I think I've taken several tangents from your questions while expanding on my curatorial note in light of this week's dialogues!

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