Music video commentaries (3)

Here are some more music video commentaries from my class, focusing on Lady Gaga (treated rather sketchily, I’m afraid) and Lana Del Rey (about whom I think I did a somewhat better job).

Lady Gaga, Paparazzi (Jonas Åkerlund, 2009); Telephone (Jonas Åkerlund, 2010); Alejandro (Steven Klein, 2010); Born This Way (Nick Knight, 2011)

I find it hard to write about these videos, just because Lady Gaga is so familiar, and has been so frequently talked about already. Earlier in the semester we saw her new video Stupid Love (Daniel Askill, 2020), and for comparison we looked at her (now) classic Bad Romance (Francis Lawrence, 2009). The four videos listed here date from around the same time as Bad Romance; this period (2009-2011) is arguably Lady Gaga’s peak (though all her work is interesting). Paparazzi and its sequel Telephone are directed by the Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund, who has made many videos for many well-known artists, as well as concert documentaries and some low-budget action and crime thrillers. (I really like his 2002 movie Spun (a crime/comedy about meth addiction, starring Jason Schwartzman). With your Wayne State credentials, you can read an interview with Åkerlund, which has some interesting insights on his approach to directing music videos, here.

The directors of the other two videos are both primarily fashion photographers; it is not surprising that Lady Gaga, with her interest in high fashion, would recruit them to make videos. Steven Klein, in particular, has worked a lot with Madonna, who is clearly one of Lady Gaga’s biggest influences.

All four of these videos are wonderfully excessive: I mean this in terms of length, of ambition, and of their presentation of Gaga’s persona. They all showcase Lady Gaga in so extreme a way that their songs (taking up only half of the action time) almost seem incidental. It is almost as if Lady Gaga is trying to invent a whole new art form, neither music video nor movie but something in between.

Gaga’s costumes are outrageously over the top; she displays herself in ridiculous erotic tableaus; her attitudes are highly campy and yet ferocious. Paparazzi parodies the conventions of old Hollywood melodrama, with its luxurious mansion and its lurid scenario of Gaga’s boyfriend throwing her over the balcony, her return in wheelchair and crutches (which somehow only manages to make her overall look even more perverse), and her revenge by poisoning him. The sequel, Telephone, instead parodies low-budget exploitation films, with its women-in-prison scenario, Gaga’s sashying about as if she owned the place, the fake beaver shot (a scrambled flash of Gaga’s crotch), the crime spree with Beyoncé in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pussy Wagon” (from the Kill Bill movies), and — once again — the revenge poisoning of an unfaithful boyfried. (Beyoncé’s guest appearance in Gaga’s song and video coincides with Gaga’s appearance in Beyoncé’s Video Phone, which we watched earlier in the semester).

Alejandro takes the stylization even further. The video is filled with queer iconography, but it also has a quasi-military theme, with a lot of men in formation marching. It is definitely referencing Cabaret, the Broadway musical that Bob Fosse made into a film in 1972; but the black-and-white portions, and some of the costumes, also remind me of a less well-known film, Guy Maddin’s Archangel (1990), with its absurdist, hyper-melodramatic evocation of World War I (see this image, for instance). The machine guns coming out of Gaga’s breasts are memorable. We also have suggestions of s&m (as in the scenes where Gaga is humping a man chained to the bed) and — in a manner that recalls Madonna, but pushes things still further — Catholic blasphemy (the red nun’s outfit Gaga wears – not only is it pretty sexualized, but there is the scene where Gaga swallows a rosary, which was protested by some Catholic groups).

Born This Way presents us with a whole cosmic mythology as the carrier for Gaga’s pro-LGBTQ+ message. I won’t try to analyze the symbolism in this video, or its borrowings from surrealist art – there is a good rundown on all these matters here. But at the same time that it has a political message, the video also glorifies Lady Gaga herself, making her bigger than life. Arguably, the goal of most music videos is to give the artist iconic presence – Gaga can say that she has pushed this further than ever before.

Lana Del Rey, Video Games (Lana Del Rey, 2011); Born to Die (Yoanne Lemoine, 2011); National Anthem (Anthony Mandler, 2012; Summertime Sadness ((Kyne Newman & Spencer Susser, 2012); Shades of Cool (Jake Nava, 2014); High By the Beach (Jake Nava, 2015); Doin’ Time (Rich Lee, 2019)

Lana Del Rey has been exploring a consistent aesthetic for over a decade; and once again, we have an artist whose videos contribute as much to her expression as does the music in itself. Del Rey’s songs tend to be downbeat and melancholy, filled with feelings of loss and nostalgia, and idealized images of lost glamour. This can be quite complicated, for what does it mean to be nostalgic for a time that you never experienced in the first place? Del Rey, who was born in 1985, often fills her songs and videos with references to the 1950s, and to the old Hollywood that collapsed after that decade. She seems to be obsessed with images of femininity from the 1950s, which is to say from before the second wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s. It is a mythical 1950s: not the same as what anybody who was alive at that time ever actually lived through, but an era as it presented itself in movies and rock music. This mythical 1950s was a time when women were placed on a pedestal but had very little real power, and were pretty much expected to be passive, to have no career ambitions, to be objectified as sex objects. It is unclear how to interpret this; it is somehow wrong either to say that it is “sincere” or to say that it is “ironic.” Del Rey seems to be valuing a status of unfulfilled desire; she wants to be glamorous and beautiful, and she wants to be loved by the sort of male icon (bad boys on motorcycles in 1950s movies) who are desirable precisely because they are unattainable, seemingly so self-contained that they never manifest vulnerability or need.

Lana Del Rey’s earlier videos were self-directed, and self-posted on YouTube before she had a record contract. Video Games was the first one to get widespread notice. It combines shots of Del Rey singing the song with lots of old footage (or footage which is made grainy to appear old – for instance, there is lots of skateboarding footage, but skateboarding didn’t really become popular until the 1970s; of course, video games themselves didn’t exist in the 1950s). We see movie stars, Los Angeles streets, stars on the Hollywood Boulevard pavement, the Hollywood sign itself, and so on. The song expresses romantic longing, while the video feels like a collage of broken-down fragments. Del Rey seems to be yearning for a past that never actually existed, but that is a construction of popular culture.

Born to Die is much higher-budget, and was the first video Del Rey made with record company support and a professional director. We see shots of Del Rey and her bare-chested, heavily tattooed boyfriend (played by the model Bradley Soileau) – another image of male strength and inaccessibility. We see them cuddling in front of an enormous American flag at the start and end of the video. In between, we see them making out in a car, lying on a bed, and finally with a dead and bloodied Del Rey being held in the boyfriend’s arms, at night, while fires rage in the background. No particular time is suggested, but the vintage automobile suggests (once again) the 1950s. These scenes are intercut with shots of Del Rey lip syncing as she sits on a throne, in a white gown, with a crown-like headdress, in an ornate, old European chapel, with tigers to either side of her. Romantic longing is linked to stasis and death.

National Anthem is eight minutes long, so (like some of the Lady Gaga videos we discussed before), it goes beyond being just the presentation of a single song, but is considerably more ambitious). Del Rey had the original concept for the video, and wrote the treatment. The final video is directed by Anthony Mandler, who has also directed videos for Rihanna and other major stars. Everything in the video is keyed to the Presidency of John F Kennedy (elected 1960, assassinated 1963). Del Rey first appears as the actress and sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, re-enacting a famous performance from 1962, in which Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to JFK (Monroe and Kennedy were rumored to have had an affair). This sequence is shot in black and white, reminiscent of TV footage from the time. The rest of the video is shot in color, but with a graininess, simulated scratches, and aspect ratio that are all reminiscent of old low-quality, 8mm film. Here Del Rey appears in the role of JFK’s wife Jacqueline Kennedy (later Onassis). She was famous for bringing glamour to the White House. We see her in various domestic and official sequences; the end of the video mimics the famous Zapruder film (the only existing photographic record of JKF’s actual assassination – we see Kennedy’s head explode from the bullet, and Jackie both reaching to cradle his head and then climbing in panic over the back of the car). So in this respect, through her identification with both Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, the video is another one of Del Rey’s evocations of lost, tragic glamour. Whatever the truth behind the Kennedy assassination, the event quickly became mythologized as the moment that the United States lost its innocence, or the facade of normalcy that dominated the 1950s, and descended into chaos and violence. What complicates all this, of course, is that the role of the smooth, sexy, charming, and charismatic JFK is played by the rapper ASAP Rocky. The video dates from the Obama administration, but it imagines a Black Presidency fifty years before. The myth of the JFK administration as a happier time is pushed even further with the counterfactual dream that racism was already overcome in that period (in fact, Kennedy’s presidency coincided with the struggles of the early Civil Rights movement; the Civil Rights Act, banning racial segregation, was not passed until after his death in 1964, and the Supreme Court did not rule against anti-miscegenation laws until 1967). All this suggests that the magical past Del Rey yearns for in the song not only is long gone, but didn’t really exist in the first place. While the lyrics of the song bitterly tell us that “money is the anthem of success” and in fact rules everything, the video turns to national mythology in its effort to imagine a better time, while also acknowledging that this better time has never really existed.

Summertime Sadness is another downbeat, melancholy song. We see shots of Del Rey and another woman (played by Jamie King, whose husband Kyle Newman co-directed the video) who seem to be a couple. There are repeated quick shots of both of them smiling at times, together and apart; but they both look sad for most of the video. The time sequence of the video is entirely non-linear, but at different points both women seem to commit suicide, throwing themselves, separately, into the abyss. There is one shot of a Jesus-crucifixion statue, and afterwards we see Del Rey jumping with her arms outstretched in the same pose. We also see repeated shots of Del Rey floating downwards in slow motion after jumping, but we do not see any bodies hitting the ground -instead, some sort of manufactured object falls and shatters on the floor at about 3:48. The video goes even further than Del Rey’s earlier ones in making the image unclear: it is often blurry, softly focused or out of focus, discolored, disrupted by lens flare, scratched as if age-damaged, and so on. We also see repeated images of clouds and fog. Most videos seem to unfold in a heightened present moment – even if the song invokes memories, and the visuals involve flashbacks, the present-time intensity of what whe hear and see makes us feel like the song/video is NOW. But Summertime Sadness — quite unusually — really feels like it is happening in the past tense: the visual blur and instability, the nonlinear timeline, and the depressive, minor-key feel of the song, all come together to create this impression.

In Shades of Cool, Del Rey’s desire is focused upon an unattainable male figure. She loves him for his “cool”, but this attitude is what makes him emotionally unavailable. In the song’s lyrics, Del Rey both boasts that “when he calls, he calls for me and not for you,” and confesses that “I can’t break through your world,” can’t finally reach him. In the video, this male object of desire (played by Mark Mahoney, a famed tattoo artist) is much older than Del Rey, and seems to look past her with his blank stare, even when they are together. Where he stands out clearly for most of the video, Del Rey is usually shot in superimposition with other images, often dark and blurry ones. There are also the swimming pool scenes: here we see Del Rey’s image clearly, but he doesn’t seem even to see her when she swims past behind the glass; he is encased in a blue glow — and there are some shots with him in front of the glass window showing an underwater part of the swimming pool, but she doesn’t appear at all. (There is an alternate “director’s cut” of the video in which Del Rey drowns at the bottom of the swimming pool, but it has been suppressed – there’s an article about it here, but the link to the video itself no longer works. As with so many of Del Rey’s songs and videos, Shades of Cool seems to depict a desire that is incapable of being satisfied. I wrote about this video at greater length in my book.

High By the Beach stands out for its unexpected juxtapositions. The lyrics dramatize a kiss-off to an ex: she’s tired of his demands and his bullshit, and “all I wanna do is get high by the beach.” But the video turns the song into Del Rey’s equivalent of Lady Gaga’s complaint about intrusive paparazzi. Del Rey wanders idly through a modernist vacation house below a freeway and right by the water; but her dreamy solitude is disrupted by a hovering helicoptor, with a photographer within. She runs — followed by a handheld camera — along a passageway, down the stairs, and out to the rocks by the water, from where she retrieves a guitar case; she runs back upstairs, opens up the case, retrieves a large anti-aircraft gun (??? I know nothing about firearms, but people have told me that this is an entirely fictional weapon, rather than an identifiable model) and shoots the helicopter, which bursts into flames. This is a fantasy wish fulfillment, in contrast to the unachievable desires of so many of the other songs and videos. At 4:30, close to the end of the video, after all the debris from the helicopter have scattered, we see a piece of paper on the rocks which contains, handwritten, the final lines of the song (which Del Rey raps rather than sings, almost indiscernibly because her voice is drowned by the instrumentation): “Anyone can start again/ Not through love, but through revenge/ Through the fire, we’re born again/ Peace by vengeance, brings the end.” But the waves come in, and when they retreat again, the paper has been washed away.

Doin’ Time is Lana Del Rey’s cover of a 1996 song by the band Sublime. This song itself incorporates the melody and lyrics of George Gershwin’s old standard Summertime (1934). The video portrays Del Rey as a gigantic woman, walking across Los Angeles to the beach (presumably referencing the 1958 low-budget science fiction film Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman). But this itself turns out to be a movie playing at a drive-in in the 1950s. Del Rey appears here too; when her boyfriend starts making out with another girl, the gigantic Del Rey steps out of the movie frame and into the drive-in to wreak revenge. The playful self-referentiality of this video allows Del Rey to embody a more upbeat song, while still registering her most common themes (1950s stylings, jealousy and unfulfillment, etc.).