My all-time favorite music video is the 2009 maximalist masterpiece known as Lady Gaga’s “Telephone”, ft. Beyoncé.
It’s 9 minutes and 30 seconds long, and features a Sexy Lady Prison, a disturbingly crisp soundscape, a long-forgotten Virgin mobile phone, a pair of smoking lit-cigarette sunglasses, a brawl, diet coke cans for curlers, a queer makeout, and a pair of Gaga’s then-signature headphones.
And that’s before the music even starts.
Later on, Gaga and Bey will murder Tyrese.
Devouring a Maxed-Out Masterpiece for the First Time
Anyway: Gaga is bailed out of prison by Beyoncé, who’s driving the Pussy Wagon from the Kill Bill franchise.
We discover Bey has been cheated on, presumably by Tyrese, so they poison him and an entire diner in a scene that’s styled as part video game, part animé. G wears several rotary phones, B’s in yellow latex.
Then, they dance around the bodies in American flag bikinis before driving off into the sunset, as perhaps the biggest lie in pop history sprawls across the screen: “To be continued…”
The video storyline was not, unfortunately, continued.
But I never forgot watching it for the first time.
It was ambitious, utterly unserious, bewildering, beautiful to look at, dramatic, completely overwrought, and to my mind was (and still is) absolutely perfect.
I still watch it a few times a year, just for fun.
And Then Lady Gaga Hurt My Feelings
So you can imagine the agony that pierced my soul when, years later, I discovered Gaga herself does not share my sentiments. At all.
“I can’t even watch the ‘Telephone’ video, I hate it so much. Beyoncé and I are great together.” she revealed in an interview.
“There are so many ideas in that video and all I see in that video is my brain throbbing with ideas and I wish I had edited myself a little bit more.“
After spending a few moments clutching my chest dramatically, I spent months turning her words over in my mind.
Why did it bother me so much? It was her work, and she’s entitled to however she feels.
It’s also natural for the maturation of a creative skill to include a preference for precision, as we hone our ability to edit our ideas down to only what’s most potent.
It’s natural for a creative to hate some of their older work. God knows I did.
Can a Swing and a Miss Still Be a Home Run?
It didn’t click for me until a few years later.
On a call, someone referenced an old, incredibly overwrought course of mine (a course I’d tried to include EVERYTHING in, that had been a giant swing to create, and is still one of my most embarrassing crawl-in-a-hole failures) as…their favorite thing I’d ever done.
I immediately tried to correct that notion, rattling off what hadn’t worked. And I watched a bit of the light sputter in their eyes.
“Oh. THAT’S how I felt about Telephone,” I realized — but what else is a creative to do when a huge swing just… didn’t work?
Demonstrating our “We overdid it! We get it now!” discernment by dismissing the whole thing feels like protection from the judgement of our audience and peers.
But this completely excludes what can ALSO be true: that someone, somewhere, loved it even so.
Permission Granted — You Can Be Both Artist and Editor
To someone, those big swings we’ve taught ourselves we should hate look like joy. Like color. Like art. Like something new.
I’ve written at length about the tedium of the minimalist, the beige, and the pared-down-to-the-bones to signal some superior knowledge, taste level, or discipline.
But I’m not above it, either. I feel my best work happens when my ideas are the easiest to grasp, which creates a constant tug of war between my opulent internal artist and whip-cracking internal editor.
And yet? One cannot exist without the other.
The artist pushes the envelope, the editor learns from the mistakes for next time.
And so what if, instead of trying to “correct” others’ fondness for our failed big swings, we relearned to appreciate them?
What if our embarrassment stopped inspiring that crawl-in-a-hole feeling, and softened into the joyful realization that our huge, messy swings were at least useful and somewhat seen the way we intended?
It’s worth a shot, I’d say.
And Gaga, wherever you are, hear my cry:
Pls, pls, pls give us Telephone Pt 2.