As inspiration for a music video, you wouldn’t think much of the latest Lady Gaga single “Telephone”, a thumping Rodney Jerkins instant-club-hit with a feature spot by Beyonce (returning the favor after Gaga guested on a remix of Beyonce’s “Video Phone” for the reissue of I Am… Sasha Fierce). The song’s lyrics virtually write their own screenplay (girl wants to dance; boy keeps calling girl; girl takes no calls cuz she’ll be dancing), and in any other hands, would probably get a very literal music video treatment. But, as we’ve come to expect, Lady Gaga and director Jonas Akerlund (who directed her video for “Paparazzi” last summer) have come up with something altogether more menacing, and hilarious – a “lez-ploitation” sequel to “Paparazzi” which finds Beyonce bailing Lady Gaga out of jail, only for the two of them to hit the local diner, off all the patrons (including a Beyonce boyfriend played by Tyrese), and then do a big dance number for an audience of fresh corpses before riding off into the sunset.
The long-anticipated video – Gaga’s been tweeting about it for what seems like months now, and the song has already bulldozed its way up into the Top 3 of the Billboard Pop Chart – made a splashy premiere Thursday night on E! News, which also ran clips of an interview with Gaga (praising the E! network’s “courage” in running it in it’s glorious 9 minute entirety, and noting her and Beyonce’s shared love of women) who was almost certainly encouraging those (like me, admittedly) who would draw parallels between this particular spectacle and the ceremonious unveiling of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” more than 25 years ago (before Gaga was born).
Okay, so I’ll bite. There won’t be another “Thriller” moment. There can’t be. In 1983, the music video was still a fledgling form – videos were cheaply made, poorly shot, and disposable – and with one grand gesture, Michael Jackson had turned it into a legitimate art form. That kind of thing can’t happen now – the audience isn’t nearly innocent enough, which Jackson himself almost certainly had to have learned. He never stopped making epic music videos (ahem, “short films”), but none came close to garnering the notoriety of “Thriller”, even when the actual quality of the videos (I’m thinking “Smooth Criminal” here) rivaled it for pure watchability while ditching the embarrasing dialogue and bad acting.
But setting that singular moment aside, there are numerous parallels to be drawn between the videos for “Thriller” and “Telephone”. Not the least of which is that they are both genre flicks with big-name directors. Michael’s was a horror movie directed by John Landis of American Werewolf in London fame (and Twilight Zone infamy), while “Telephone” is a 70s-style exploitation flick with a decidedly meta twist and a pulpy lesbian plot line like a cross between Thelma & Louise and Natural Born Killers. Like Jackson, whose song “Thriller” was actually the seventh (and final) single to be released from the album of the same name (a year and a half after that album’s release), “Telephone” – Gaga’s sixth consecutive top 10 hit since late fall 2008 – comes at a moment when the artist risks shark-jumping by sheer pop-cultural ubiquity. Like Michael in 1984, Lady Gaga in 2010 needs no further exposure, and like Michael before her, she lunges for it, regardless, with a video that demands to be talked about.
Both videos culminate in a menacing/comical dance sequence involving dead people (Michael’s are an undead dance army while Gaga’s are a still-warm flock of face-stuffers), and like werewolf Michael, lusty murderess Gaga is portraying herself (along with her oh-so-game partner Beyonce) as a monster – as in The Fame Monster, now on sale at iTunes for $7.99! – with a knowing nod to all the metaphorical implications of such. If “Telephone” offers one major innovation, it’s a knack for wall-to-wall product placement that manages to be simultaneously witty and crass. Half the fun of the video is spotting the shill. Diet Coke cans for curlers? Miracle Whip as murder weapon? I didn’t even know that there was a real dating website called Plentyoffish.com. I just thought it was a really good joke. And just like Thriller when Michael confesses to actress Ola Ray that he’s “not like the other boys”, Telephone has at least one, great, defining, iconic, self-referential, media-tweaking one-liner. But I’ll leave it to the prison guard to deliver it: