March 16, 2010 -- Lady Gaga's highly anticipated music video "Telephone" has helped cement her place in pop history -- having been viewed online a record 15 million times in less than five days.
The video marks the second collaboration between Gaga and Beyonce -- they previously worked on the video for Beyonce's song "Videophone." It is also the second time Gaga has worked with director Jonas Akerlund, who previously did Gaga's video "Paparazzi."
The nine-minute "Telephone" opens at a prison, where Gaga is brought and thrown in a cell. She does not sing until three minutes into the video when she is paged to answer a phone call.
"Hello, hello, baby; you called/ I can't hear a thing/ I have got no service in the club you say, say...." she sings.
"Just a second; it's my favorite song they're gonna play and I cannot text you with a drink in my hand, eh?/ You shoulda made some plans with me; you knew that I was free/ And now you won't stop calling me/ I'm kinda busy."
The video has caused a flood of online speculation on the Internet as to what exactly all the fast-moving, seemingly disconnected images really mean. What does the prison imagery have to do with some of the lyrics? Why does Gaga poison the food at a diner while she sings?
"What I really wanted to do with this video is take a decidedly pop song, which on the surface has a quite shallow meaning, and turn it into something deeper," Gaga told E! News. "The idea that America is full of young people that are inundated with information and technology and turn it into something that was more of a commentary on the kind of country that we are."
Whether or not the video achieves Gaga's goals, we asked "Telephone" director Jonas Akerlund and Gaga blogger and doctoral student Meghan Vicks -- whose blog about "Telephone" was tweeted by Lady Gaga herself -- to decode the singer-songwriter's many visual metaphors.
Vicks said the prison scenes were a metaphor for imprisoned identity.
"It seems like Gaga herself is also entrapped as well as being in prison," Vicks said. "She is draped in chains and her cigarette sunglasses bar her vision. I see the metaphor in the eyes of [French philosopher Michel] Foucault's [book] 'Discipline and Punish,' in which he uses prison as a metaphor for how we as society produce identities.
"To him, the prison represents all the social factors that dictate who we are. Gaga is playing with that idea and turning it on its head by trying to create her own identity rather than let any other factors dictate what her identity will be."
The most telling scene in the prison, Vicks said, is the one in which Gaga is standing next to a figure who looks a lot like a younger Gaga. the figure is actually Gaga's younger sister, Natali Germanotta, who is also an Amy Fisher look-a-like.
"The earlier Gaga [Natali] figure doesn't seem very upset by the prison," Vicks said, "And Gaga has to abandon that figure to break out."
Akerlund said that the music video begins in prison because the story is a continuation of the "Paparazzi" video. The last shot of the paparazzi video is the Gaga character going to prison.
"Then we added a lot of prison cliches," Akerlund said. "Like the guards being rude and the girls having a lot of attitude. For us, it was more about drawing a picture and creating a world than having a deeper meaning."
The lesbian kiss that happens in the jail exercise yard was something that Akerlund said wasn't planned.
"It wasn't in our treatment," Akerlund said, "It was something we came up with while we were shooting. We believe it is something that is happening in both men's and women's jails and it is part of the picture in our made-up prison world. It was sexy and fun to play with."
The Crime Scene Tape
In one of the scenes in Gaga's prison cell she appears wearing only yellow 'Crime Scene: Do Not Cross' police tape.
Vicks believes the crime scene tape is a very literal representation of how the greater culture is scared of the criminal female.
"A criminal female is any female that doesn't follow the rules, that doesn't fit the model as a good girl," Vicks said. "By wearing the crime scene tape she is making a statement about how our culture views the criminal female as frightening and more abnormal than a criminal male. Our culture thinks that there is something scarier about that sort of monster than a male monster."
The crime scene tape scene was another image that was improvised, Akerlund said.
"The crime scene tape was one of the images that we had in mind," Akerlund said. "We improvised it and it ended up becoming one of her outfits and it looked really cool. It was supposed to be about being claustrophobic in her cell. She was supposed to be frustrated and it was just one of those claustrophobic moments in her jail cell."
During the course of the video, Gaga wears a telephone as a hat, then a hairpiece. She also mimes holding a phone, and Beyonce dances with one as a prop. "Telephone" is not only the name of the song, it is also present throughout the video.
Just as the telephone is also physically everywhere in our personal lives, Vicks said.
Vicks says the telephone has become an extension of ourselves and our bodies, and in the Gaga video that idea works in two ways.
"The telephone is a complicated tool," Vicks said. "Just like the prison, it can entrap us by dictating who we speak with, but it is also the tool that gets Lady Gaga out of prison. She gets a phone call from Beyonce."
"It was the title of the track," Akerlund said, "So including as many as we could felt like a natural part of the story. The costume and hair people went crazy and got very stylized and I thought that was the fun part of it."
A soundtrack of slurping and chewing leads to one of coughing as a diner of hungry patrons goes down at the hands of murderous duo, Lady Gaga and Beyonce.
Vicks said that the poisoning of the food was a way of turning something that normally provides life into something deadly.
"The fact that the food is made poisonous," Vicks said, "And the sounds of eating are made disgusting, its overall motive is to turn what is valued as feminine on its head. It is to turn frightening something that we take as so safe and nurturing."
As for the heightened eating sounds and the closeup shots, Akerlund said he didn't really have a reference and it was something that came from his own ideas mixed with Gaga's vision.
"We wanted to symbolize that the poison she puts in [Tyrese's] food gets spread all around the restaurant," Akerlund said. "The death scene becomes like a turning point in the video. It was the bold climax before the big dance sequence kicks in."
The 'Americana' Dance Sequence
After killing the diner's hungry customers, Gaga and Beyonce dress in American-themed apparel and dance with a gaggle of equally patriotic background dancers.
Vicks saw the murder as a metaphor for the many different ways in which people rebel against the darlings and the great symbols of American culture.
"Because at a certain point those darlings and those symbols become trapped by society's view of them," Vicks said. "They are marked as American, but all the victims in the diner, which the camera doesn't let us forget, are also marked as American."
"Everyone stops bothering them so they can dance," Vicks continued, "They have been left alone so they can clear a space in the diner to dance. So if you celebrate their dance, which does draw viewers in, you have to celebrate what they did to be able to dance."
The "Americana" dance number was the last of the three big dance numbers that Lady Gaga and the dancers from her tour had rehearsed and prepared for the video.
"Originally, I had filmed inserts of American flags, but then we got inspired to do the Americana outfits," Akerlund said.
When asked if the dance had a deeper alternative meaning, Akerlund said that was over-analyzing.
"For us it was a little action movie with a made-up, crazy story," Akerlund said. "You don't have to be so deep about things. For me music videos are about entertaining and bringing out the music and the artist. The form itself allows you to be creatively free. I am a little weird and a little untraditional in how and why I tell stories in music videos. But I enjoy the fact that people go deep and see things in my work because it means the music got out there and got some attention."