Find Your Jesus, Find Your Kubrick: Lady Gaga as Auteur

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For a while, Lady Gaga was one of the most fascinating music stars that had come in a while, primarily because of her unapologetic bombast. Too often, though, she may have been written off as “weird”, from her odd fashion decisions, her performance art appearances on TV, and, of course, her music videos. Gaga, née Stefani Germanotta, through her strange videos presents a vision, often of powerful women and the subversion of fame, through each of her music videos. Sometimes straddling the line between film and music video, Lady Gaga, though not always the director of these videos, is always the auteur behind them.

Lady Gaga’s early music videos are nothing if not promotional material, with “LoveGame” and “Poker Face” being, for the most part, entirely generic within the context of her career. It was not perhaps until she employed the use of music video director Jonas Åkerlund that her auteuristic vision became more visible and more tangible. Much of why Lady Gaga is fascinating is because she exists as a paradox: a manufactured character that refutes and argues against the idea of that very idea (similar, though not the same, in nature to Lana Del Ray). Her first album’s title could be considered either prescient or maybe self-aware or maybe egotistical, but The Fame nonetheless seemed to debut as a self-reflexive examination of the nature of fame in “pop society”. Such knowing self-awareness, winking construction, and post-modern application in pop art is fodder for writers and academics.

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She gears into these ideas clearly and bitingly in “Paparazzi”, directed by Åkerlund. It would mark the first entry of an as yet unfinished trilogy of videos (followed by “Telephone”). Unlike “Poker Face” and “LoveGame”, “Paparazzi” is more directly a satire, and a pastiche at that one. Oscillating between film noir and soapy melodrama (with the titles lurid, emulating a modern version of classic typeface), Lady Gaga is seen on a bed with the handsome, pre—True Blood Alexander Skarsgård in a lavish mansion. Her face is on money, she’s splashed across the headlines. She epitomizes fame. And it all goes downhill when she is caught by paparazzi.

Throwing in a Vertigo reference for good measure, Lady Gaga’s video follows a long line of music videos which are more like films with music than they are straight music vids. But unlike something like Michael Jackson’s videography, Lady Gaga’s videos are rich and ostentatious, screaming that she is an artist. With the self-examination of fame on board (she “hits rock bottom”), she makes these disturbing connections between fame and death, as if the two are intrinsically linked. Immaculate looking models are found dead around the grounds, sometimes with obviously artificial blood (like gold nail polish) dripping from their mouth. Anyone will do anything to be famous, including her.

It’s a strange mediation for someone to make on their first album, but that this seems calculate in a way is precisely the point. “Paparazzi” ends up becoming Lady Gaga’s riff on Chicago in a way: betrayed by her boyfriend, she uses murder as a way to become a star. Sporting a blonde bob, she’s like a more sinister Roxie Hart. At the VMAs in 2009, she hanged herself from a chandelier, again, a strange move that feels premature yet nonetheless fascinating.

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While “Paparazzi” is perhaps a more straightforward presentation of a story, Lady Gaga works best in abstraction (as many music video artists seem to), but her brand of abstraction ties very much into her performance art. Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) took the helm for “Bad Romance”, off of Gaga’s EP The Fame Monster (written while on tour for The Fame and much more darkly examines previous themes), but its dystopic treatment of femininity and feminism in general seems to more obviously come from Gaga’s brain than from his. Set in a Russian bathhouse, Gaga is sold as a prostitute to a mobster with a Hannibal Lecter-esque chin guard.

What’s striking in the video is that Gaga’s brand of feminism seems to be more visibly on display. With imagery of crowns (black and white) juxtaposed against a vulnerable and naked, sweet looking innocent being forced into prostitution, the clear idea is that Gaga’s latter character is determined to reclaim her power through her sexuality. Constantly, the image of Lady Gaga either entirely exposed or in clothing that uses her sexuality and gender as an advantage, or clothing/accessories that could be used in defense are show on screen. From Alexander McQueen’s scaled gold outfit with the 12 inch heels to the flame  producing bra, the evolution, it seems, is that femininity can be used as a weapon against the people who take advantage of it. (One of the most striking shots in the video is its very beginning shot: pulling up to Lady Gaga wearing razor glasses and her posse, one is reminded of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.)

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Åkerlund and Gaga teamed up once again for the follow-up to “Paparazzi”, “Telephone”. And like the previous video, “Telephone” is more overtly cinematic, again knowingly self-aware playing with various ideas and techniques in film. Specifically, Gaga is lumped into a women in prison film (mixed with some noir later). “Telephone” is an inherently dumb song about Gaga being bothered by people calling her, but she transforms something stupid into something superb.

The nine-minute video is fairly dense, and you can read a more thorough examination of it here. That post goes into detail about how Lady Gaga’s feminism is represented in the video and it is dad on, and perhaps one of the biggest things supporting the idea of her auteuristic nature. Though feminism in and of itself would hardly justify one being an auteur, Lady Gaga’s specific idea and manifestation of feminism and how it presents itself through her work, however, does. Female sexuality here is not something for men to gaze at and actually seems fairly foreign compared to most mainstream depictions of lesbianism. She’s powerful, from the spiked outfits she wears to the murder she commits. Though, unlike “Bad Romance” it isn’t necessarily her femininity she’s using to advantage. Nor is it any kind of outwardly masculine idea of power either. Instead, Gaga plays power slightly androgynously, ironic considering Gaga’s ability to oscillate between masculinity and femininity so easily, amping up her gender performance any which way she chooses.

Riding in Tarantino’s Pussy Wagon with Beyoncé like Thelma and Louise, she ironically tackles the ridiculously sexist joke of “making a sandwich”, and though femininity in and of itself isn’t the weapon, it’s the perceived gender role that is. And, like Tarantino, she’s able to aestheticize death, tie it into Americana, and call it a day.

It’s disappointing that Åkerlund and Gaga have yet to finish the trilogy, as her ability to examine fame and feminism is incomparable.

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Nonetheless, Gaga has continued making interesting videos, including “Born This Way” (think Metropolis by way of Gaga) and “Alejandro”. The former is crazy, but without much focus, but the latter is a strange, morbid masterpiece. In an homage to Bob Fosse’s critically acclaimed musical from 1972 Cabaret, Lady Gaga’s is featured in the music video with a bowl cut, reminiscent of both Sally Bowles and, even more tellingly, of Lulu from G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box. Although both of these characters were sexually promiscuous, it is not without note that both of these characters were powerful, exerting their power through their sexuality.

Lady Gaga, donned in a strange bionic, almost cyber punkish head device, sits upon a throne and watches a half-naked men dance in a circle. They, too, have bowl cuts or bobs like the aforementioned characters. The beginning of the video features Lady Gaga leading them in a march, and the connotation seems to be one of a militaristic, cold, solemn environment. Thus, it is interesting that the men should dress in almost nothing, wear hair dos that are more feminine than they are masculine, and yet retain the dark militaristic strength of a storm trooper.

These men are also featured in a scene where Lady Gaga even more overtly recalls Sally Bowles’ costume from Cabaret. There’s a convergence of the masculine stereotype and the feminine, or homosexual, stereotype, as the soldiers walk forward as if they are on a runway. There’s an interesting juxtaposition here, with the masculinity of a soldier outfit, meant to symbolize power and unfailing strength, and the distinctive walk of a runway model, which is often cited as being powerful, but feminine and “weaker” than other gaits.

Lady Gaga dresses as a nun and drops Rosary beads down her throat, swallowing religion, a callback, undoubtedly, to the many religious groups that have criticized her work. In this scene, and in the scenes where she is dressed not unlike Joan of Arc, Lady Gaga seems self-aware. The video, as well as most of her “filmography” have a self-reflexive nature that acknowledges what it is doing and how it is doing it, again the mark of Lady Gaga’s brilliance.

The opening tracking shot, which is interrupted by the words Gaga and Klein (the latter denoting the name of the music video’s director, fashion photographer Steven Klein), features a bar with men in fishnet stockings slumped over in chairs. Other sequences in the video contain men tied by a string to their weapons.

What does all this elliptical and enigmatic imagery mean? It seems to point in the direction of the lack of reconciliation between gay men being in the military and the public’s comfort with this idea. There’s constant juxtaposition between masculine elements and feminine elements, and the cold, snowy palette points to the bleak nature of the subject matter. But what is interesting about the video is that it spends time sexualizing its actors and dancers and its performer, but in an atypical way. Lady Gaga, the show woman that she is, does appear in the video wearing very little, and men do have control over her. Conversely, though, she has control over them, as evidence in a sequence where she tries to tie up her male lovers in a bed. In these parts, she is the one who has power, not only by the way she handles the rope, but also by the sexual positioning. She is seen as the penetrator in these scenes as often as the men are, at odds with the popular image of sexuality. Again, gender plays a part in this sequence where both Lady Gaga and her male lovers are wearing high heeled shoes.

In another sequence, Lady Gaga wears a brassiere with the barrel of an AR-15 rifle attached to the cups. Although usually a punch line in bad comedies, this presents the idea of death and life coming together like one, as breasts are where nourishment is found and guns are responsible for the destruction of life. While dancing with these soldiers, she is the only one who is dressed and lit in an extremely pale way, allowing her to stand out from the crowd.

The video was released in late 2010, several months before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the United States policy on gays serving in the military, was put to an end. The militaristic nature of its imagery, though, is unmistakable. However, while there is very little connection between the video and the song’s lyrics (save for seemingly coincidental image/lyric complements), Gaga and director Klein made differing statements about what the music video was about. Lady Gaga said it was about the “love [she has] for [her] gay friends”[1] and Klein states that it was about “The pain of living without your true love”[2]. She presents a unique sadomasochistic theatricality to the video.

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Described as “a motorcycle Fellini movie where the apostles are revolutionaries in modern-day Jerusalem”, Gaga’s “Judas” video (off of Born This Way) is perhaps just that. Ostentatious, decadent, carnivalesque, spiritual, and, of course, feminist driven. Lady Gaga’s postmodernism in this video is, perhaps, more traditional in comparison to her previous work. Its appropriation of a Biblical tale to a biker setting is almost tame, nearly predictable for her.

Yet once again blurring the lines between femininity and masculinity, there’s a colorful and exciting dimension to the video. It’s rowdy and exciting in a cinematic manner, a quality her previous videos lacked. While emotionally and spiritually rich, there’s an energy to the video, perhaps between Gaga identifies with her character, Mary Magdalene, so closely.

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“Marry the Night” is probably Gaga’s magnum opus. Reliving, or rewriting, her past in the most self-reflexive manner (unreliable narration!) possible, “Marry the Night” is autobiographical and fueled by melodrama. At over thirteen minutes, it’s kind of a mess, rather self-indulgent, but beneath the ridiculousness, there’s an odd honesty to it. Out of the hospital, we see Gaga try to rebuild herself as she goes insane in her apartment. There’s a trapped artist inside her, she needs to let it out, or something. (Think  Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, but not very good.)

Although “Marry the Night” is big on scale, it’s also big on ego, and while various directors have certainly explored their own lives through fiction (Fellini, Woody Allen, etc.) the connective tissue for her thematic ideas starts to wear thin when her ideas begin to go unmediated. Prior to “Marry the Night”, her videos had all been directed by someone else, which seemed to temper and hammer out unclear ideas and give them a certain focus and impact. There was clarity when Laurienne Gibson directed the bizarre Frankenstein-esque “Yoü and I” video, and Åkerlund has been one of Gaga’s most successful collaborators. Yet when she’s on her own, all that crazy becomes overwhelming. By all means, her previous videos are completely loaded with ideas, but they’re discernible in an interesting way.

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This idea is absolutely clear when one compares the two videos released for her ArtPop album: “Applause” and “G.U.Y.” In the former video, she plays the self-reflexive game again, but the primary conceit is that Lady Gaga’s transformations, versatility, range, and ideas, her identity itself is a magic trick. It’s literal, but with the aide of photographers Inez and Vinoodh, the directness is refreshing. Arguably, if Born This Way was Lady Gaga as self-serious artist, ArtPop was supposed to the mark the return of fun, interesting, slightly more casual, nevertheless fascinating Lady Gaga. In that manner, “Applause” succeeds at this. It’s clever and even silly.

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But “G.U.Y.”, or technically G.U.Y. – An ARTPOP Film, is a return to uncontrolled mess. Technically three music videos in one, it’s pumped with ideas about capitalism, feminism, patriarchy, art, love, sex, money, desire, myth and legend, vulnerability. But so packed it is that very few of the ideas actually translate well. There is some stunning imagery, certainly, particularly of Gaga as a fallen angel, but there’s an almost regressive aspect to the video in terms of how it’s shot.

Lady Gaga has always straddled the line between cinematic form and typical music video form, for necessary reasons. It’s why she allows the thematic aspects of her work to do the heavy lifting and retain that film like power. But G.U.Y. feels as if she’s abandoned trying to balance those ideas and concepts. And while, on some level, the short film could be considered high camp, there’s still a sense of ego and self-indulgence about it. (She filmed at the iconic Hearst Castle, so…)

One wonders what Gaga will do next, though. What’s outstanding about her as an artist is that she’s able to put her mark on everything she does. She has specific ideas and ideologies that permeate her work, and when mediated through another director, her work becomes masterful. She’s iconic, and when one is shown one of her videos, anyone can come to the conclusion that it’s Gaga.


[1] Montgomery, James. “Lady Gaga’s ‘Alejandro’ Director Explains Video’s Painful Meaning.” – Music, Celebrity, Artist News. MTV, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2013.

[2] Montgomery, James. “Lady Gaga’s ‘Alejandro’ Director Explains Video’s Painful Meaning.” – Music, Celebrity, Artist News. MTV, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2013.

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