In 2010, were Lady Gaga and Beyonce the two biggest acts in the world? Lady Gaga started that year with “Bad Romance” and Knowles was still riding high on I Am…Sasha Fierce. And at that moment, they choose to form this megaduo for one song, and the two have made a powerful enough impression on the business that I wouldn’t even say this incredible moment in time is in the top 5 of their individual musical accomplishments.
This one starts so quietly, with just Gaga singing to slight accompaniment, that you might think you’re about to hear something acoustic, the sort of throwaway addition to an album meant to show off the artist’s range, but then suddenly the techno takes over, dominating this song, and it never lets go. It’s thumping, it’s loud, it tears into your eardrum and stays there resolutely. But isn’t mindless club-fodder, there’s plenty of thought to this: I love, for the titular portion of the lyrics, how they use old phone dial tones as part of the electronica orchestra. And that chorus: if you’ll forgive the use of a little well-earned profanity, that chorus fucking rocks.
On the surface it seems like a straightforward rejection of obsessive male attention – and you do get the feeling it is very specifically directed at the male gaze – with Gaga taking on the role of a woman who just wants to be left alone to enjoy a night out. But the reality is deeper really: “Telephone” turns out more as a rejection of the media/celebrity complex, with people like the two singers liable to feel suffocated by the amount of unwanted attention foisted on them by various forms of technologies: websites, cameras and even a telephone that is blowing up. “Telephone” is a cry for help – “And I am sick and tired Of my phone ringin’, Sometimes I feel like I live in Grand Central Station” – as much as an ode to the idea of escaping from stress through music and dancing – “I don’t wanna talk anymore, I left my head and my heart on the dance floor.” And it’s pretty damn good.
In truth Beyonce’s involvement here is more minimal than you might expect, she acts more like Gaga’s back-up save one half-verse in the second half. I think the entirety of this song suits Gaga more, but Beyonce makes up for it with her part in the music video. Three times the length of the song, it’s a Tarantino-esque affair featuring the best dressed womens prison ever, sunglasses made out of cigarettes, some Virgin product placement, Beyonce driving a “Pussy Wagon”, poisoned coffee, dance choreography set to sandwich-making and concludes with some mass murder in a diner. Like Maroon 5’s “Payphone”, it’s probably trying too hard to stand-out, and doesn’t really suit the song.