This Sunday, Maya Arulpragasam is going to the Super Bowl, which is like Harold Bloom going to Disney World. It’s hard to imagine M.I.A. having much fun at America’s premiere chauvinist orgy of consumption, and her recent interview with BBC’s Radio 1 suggests she was still trying to psych herself up for the event. “If you’re gonna go the Super Bowl,” she told Zane Lowe, “you might as well go with America’s biggest female icons.” And indeed, it’s somewhat gratifying to think of M.I.A., Nicki Minaj, and Madonna unleashing the hot pink stinker that is “Give Me All Your Lovin’” on the most hallowed ground of American masculinity, during a halftime show typically dedicated to the geezer-rock pantheon. Ultimately, though, not even M.I.A. can make playing the Super Bowl sound badass or defiant. Walking into the epicenter of the American media to sing and dance between millions-per-minute car commercials with two thoroughly mainstreamed pop stars can mean only one thing, and that’s that you yourself must also be a pop star.
Video Review (#1–10 of 7)
I’ve argued in the past that Lady Gaga has been the driving visual force behind her videos, regardless of who sits in the director’s chair, but “Marry the Night” marks the first time she’s officially claimed full credit. Fittingly, she contemplates the role of the director as one of her major themes here; the video is one of her biggest epics not merely by length (a weighty 14 minutes), but by the breadth of its modes of expression. Despite its exploding cars and frenetic choreography, the video is an utterly personal one, moving beyond a visual explication of the track toward a poetic memoir.
Consider the opening monologue, as Gaga is being wheeled into the main hall of an asylum. Here she’s self-conscious about the role of her artistic intervention, ascribing the same qualities to direction—shaping and controlling the visual world and the depiction of events—as to the distortions of selective memory. She guides our gaze with a long tracking shot down a winding corridor while also guiding us verbally, telling us to check out the “great ass” on one of the nurses; when the nurse bends over to open a door, Gaga says “bam” with the pleasure of a director watching an actor hit her mark perfectly.
There wasn’t a whole lot of buzz preceding the premiere of Lady Gaga’s new video, “The Edge of Glory.” And following the overwrought and shoddily edited “Judas,” I expected it to be the first Gaga video since “Bad Romance” not to receive its very own write-up here on The House. Even after the first viewing of “The Edge of Glory,” there didn’t seem like much to write about. The video is unexpectedly simple, surprisingly low-concept. Gaga looks good and it’s shot beautifully, but what else was there to say?
But then I watched it again. And again. In fact, I found myself coming back to it again and again last night, its references—or maybe just my projections, but no matter—slowly starting to reveal themselves. The intentionally barren, old-Hollywood backlot sets recall Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” and Janet’s “When I Think of You.” There are even shades of Singin’ in the Rain. The bombastic “Edge of Glory” may have begged for an equally grandiose visual treatment, but the pretense on display here perfectly complements the track’s garishly ’80s sonic milieu.
After the epic creation myth of Mother Monster in “Born This Way,” the video for Lady Gaga’s “Judas” feels modest by comparison; here she’s merely co-opting the foundational story of the entire Christian faith. Gaga presents the video as “a motorcycle Fellini movie,” and in a sense, that’s precisely what we get. She’s invoked the Italian auteur in the past, notably with the gigantic fish set piece of her Monster Ball Tour, and Fellini’s influence is apparent here in the pushing of Catholic iconography to lurid excess. But there’s also the hand of another Italian Catholic in the mix: Like Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ, “Judas” centers the Passion narrative on the titular betrayer (played by Norman Reedus) and shifts the focus of the story away from violent spectacle toward sublimated sexual urgency.
The third in a trifecta of videos from pop music’s current ruling harem involving some juxtaposition of sci-fi action and mythological creatures (the others being Kesha’s superior “Blow” and Lady Gaga’s superior-er “Born This Way”), Katy Perry’s “E.T.” finds the singer taking on the role of an extra-terrestrial goddess who changes outfits more often than Cher during her Vegas stage show.
A Lady Gaga video serves as far more than a simple visual interpretation of a song. Coming from a musician who fully inhabits her artistic persona on a daily basis, Gaga’s videos are thematic shots across the bow layered with imagery that signals her latest obsessions. Because of her protean, ever-changing sensibilities, “reinvention” barely has any meaning for her. In a body of work defined by constant change, a transition or break can be difficult to see. To clearly mark it would require a video that induces a grandiose shock, a sensory electroconvulsion—and that’s what “Born This Way” provides.
Gaga’s debut, The Fame, and all the visual media that accompanied it were fixated on notions of the spectator: the relationship between artist and audience, of watching and being watched. The Fame Monster and its videos expanded and subverted those concepts, but as the title indicates, the thematic focus remained in familiar space. “Born This Way”—also the title of Gaga’s forthcoming album—marks a shift away from the spectator toward the investigation of identity. It’s not about being seen, but about being.
As the new video for Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” begins, you might doubt for a moment that you’re watching a Hype Williams clip: A young child wanders down snowy streets, lensed in vérité black and white while somber piano and strings play. Then the strobe effects kick in, the seizure-inducing titles start to flash, and West starts dancing in front of a blank backdrop and we’re back on well-trodden ground.
West and Williams take their cues from Gaspar Noé’s nihilist afterlife fantasy Enter the Void—not just in its epileptic titles and colorful strobing, but in its snippets of traumatic first-person memory. The song, an allegory about fame, failure, and a quest for redemption, is paired with a stream of frenetic, psychedelic imagery. When the video is actively mimicking the French filmmaker, things work: The song’s lyrics and titles pop off the screen, and the bombardment of fonts, colors, and lights all dance on the boundaries of flicker fusion.