I liked “Radio Gaga,” the bombastic Queen single from the Eighties that provided Stefani Germanotta with a name to match the pop-star image she concocted; it was a fun tune. I liked “Lady Marmalade,” the Labelle funk hit; it was sexy and fun, too. I like marmalade itself; it’s a fun food. And I like Lady Gaga; she’s delicious and nothing but fun, if not my idea of sexy. (Her jokey ridiculousness is fine to watch, but not inviting to me.) To fail to get some pleasure from Lady Gaga songs is to fail to appreciate American pop. Much the same, to mistake what she does for radical innovation is to misunderstand its purpose. Her work exists not to transform the cultural landscape but to mine it for buried junk. She deals almost exclusively with old ideas, musical and otherwise, reprocessed for the YouTube era. She is essentially a traditionalist and, in some ways, conservative, as she proves with “Telephone,” the ostensibly scandalous video she made with Beyonce.
It’s fun, of course, but, at its heart, not really as transgressive as it might seem at first glance. The Lady and her collaborator on the video, director and co-writer Jonas Akerlund, dig out and dress up some old tropes of fetishism—women behind bars, skin and manacles, play-violent sex—in a cartoon-porn pastiche of hoary straight male fantasies. Lady Gaga’s hyper-theatrical exploitation of outlaw clichés has all the veracity of Johnny Cash’s imitation of a badass ex-con at his celebrated concerts at Folsom Prison and San Quentin.
Cash, who had been arrested once for picking flowers on private property and once for carrying too many prescription pills, spent the night in a county jail on misdemeanor charges but had never lived the convict life he captured in songs such as “Folsom Prison Blues.” Not that a singer needs to have personally had the same experiences as a song’s character to sing with persuasive empathy. Watching videos of prison songs for this piece, I found myself unexpectedly touched by a home-made recording by an anonymous man doing Joan Baez’s “Prison Trilogy”—on the ukelele—in his bedroom. Then again ... maybe that guy was a con. Like quite a few others making music videos at home with monitor cams, this fellow seems to have absorbed the treachery of solitary confinement.