Noisy Water Review

The New Faces of Feminism:
A Rhetorical Analysis of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” Video

Melisa Nelson, Ashley Gorter, Tiffany Peterson,
Casey Cassinelli, and Yuki Wang

Acknowledgements

Very special thanks to Nick Potter for his thoughtful insights into the video and the idea to use Foucault and the concept of the panopticon.

Abstract

This is an analysis of the Lady Gaga and Beyoncé video for the song “Telephone.” Included is a brief introduction; a history of the artists and the director, Jonas Åkerlund; the demographics and psycho-demographics of both Gaga and Beyoncé; descriptions of the theories used to analyze the video and the actual analyses. Theories used include standpoint theory and a Foucauldian analysis.

Keywords: Åkerlund, Beyoncé, Foucault, Lady Gaga, panopticon, Standpoint.

Introduction

On March 11th, 2010, through Vevo and the E! Network, Lady Gaga released the music video for her single “Telephone,” from her 2009 E.P. “The Fame Monster.” The video, shot in short film format, took over three days to film, more than a month and a half to edit and was directed by Jonas Åkerlund. Along with Gaga, the video and single features Columbia recording artist Beyoncé Knowles.

The video received a great amount of attention due to the publicity surrounding its release, as well as Lady GaGa and Beyoncé Knowles’ international star-power; breaking all of Vevo’s single day viewing records; generating close to 4 million Youtube views in 24 hours; and to date has been viewed on Gaga’s official Youtube channel over 126 million times. One noted aspect of “Telephone” was the amount of paid and unpaid product placements featured throughout the video. Brands ranging from Virgin Mobile to the dating site Plenty of Fish, as well as food brands like Miracle Whip and Wonder Bread were all represented in “Telephone” (Hampp, 2010). The importance of these placements is worthy of further inquiry and analysis; because of this, that research will not be included in this paper. The video’s imagery, themes, and strong use of symbolism have left it open to in-depth analysis using communication theories such as standpoint theory and Foucauldian analysis. This is what this paper attempts to do.

History

Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga, given name Stephani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, was born on March 28, 1986, in Yonkers, New York (Lady Gaga, 2011). As a young student, Lady Gaga attended the private Catholic school Covent of the Sacred Heart. Her father encouraged her to enroll in the Clive Davis program at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Lady Gaga was one of twenty students accepted at the young age of 17. She dropped out of college one year after enrolling to work full-time on her music career (Lady Gaga, 2011).

At the age of 20 she was hired by Interscope Records as a song writer. She wrote music for Britney Spears, New Kids on the Block, and The Pussycat Dolls. Within a year she wrote, directed, and headlined a burlesque show called “Lady Gaga and the Starlight Revue”. R&B artist Akon discovered her singing and dancing abilities while at her show and immediately signed her to his label under the Interscope umbrella. Throughout 2007 and 2008 she wrote and recorded her debut album, The Fame. Lady Gaga’s commercial breakthrough came with her hit single “Just Dance”. Following the success of “Just Dance” was a more popular dance hit, “Poker Face,” which topped charts around the world (Lady Gaga Biography, 2011).

Following her immediate success with The Fame, Gaga wrote and released an extended play album, The Fame Monster. The second album brought her more recognition with the hit singles “Bad Romance”, “Telephone”, and “Alejandro” all scoring in at the top of charts worldwide.

Beyoncé Knowles

Beyoncé Giselle Knowles was born on September 4, 1981, in Houston, Texas. At the age of nine, Beyoncé auditioned for, and was accepted to join the group, Girls Tyme, which performed at local venues. At this time her parent enrolled her into Parker Elementary School, a performing arts school that specializes in music and dance. A few years later, she changed schools, yet again, to attend Alief Elsik High School (articlesbase.com, 2009).

In the following years the group changed the name and the members of the group several times before agreeing upon Destiny’s Child—consisting of Knowles, Kelly Rowland, La Toya Luckett and La Tavia Roberson (Beyoncé Knowles Biography, 2011).

Destiny’s Child was signed to Columbia Records in 1997. The following year they recorded The Writing’s on the Wall which produced two hit singles, “Bills Bills Bills” and “Say My Name”. With these hit singles, Destiny’s Child brought home two Grammy awards in the year 2000 (Beyoncé Knowles Biography, 2011).

Between touring and recording with Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé began her acting career. She appeared in MTV’s 2001 musical production Carmen. Following Carmen, Beyoncé played the character Foxxy Cleopatra in Austin Powers in Goldmember. In 2003 she played a more substantial role in The Fighting Temptations. Although she was busy acting, she released her debut solo recording, Dangerously in Love, in 2003, which went on to sell close to three million copies in the United States in its first six months (Beyoncé Knowles Biography, 2011).

Jonas Åkerlund

Jonas Åkerlund was born on November 16, 1966 in Bromma, Sweden (Jonas Åkerlund , 2004-2011). At the age of nineteen he joined the Swedish army and served in the First Cavalry regiment in Stockholm. Straight out of the Army, Åkerlund joined the Swedish metal band called Bathory as the drummer. Bathory is known as the pioneers of black metal and Viking metal.

Bathory gained attention in the early 1980’s with their satanic lyrics, inhuman vocal style, and lo-fi production. Åkerlund left the band to explore film in the 1980’s and Bathory came to an official end in 2004 after the death of Thomas Forsberg (Encyclopaedia Metallum, 2011).

Åkerlund started film editing and directing music videos in the mid-1980’s and he became famous for his work with Madonna on “Ray of Light”, “American Life” and the documentary I’m Going to Tell You a Secret. He earned the reputation of being highly controversial with his “Smack My Bitch Up” video for the Prodigy when it was banned from MTV (Jonas Åkerlund, 2006).

From the mid 1980’s through today he has directed over four hundred and fifty music videos and commercials as well as high-profile campaigns for Adidas, Puma and Virgin. After his short films “The Hidden” (2000) and “Try” (1997) became hits, Åkerlund started shifted his career into movies. Åkerlund’s popular film list includes I’m Going to Tell You a Secret (2005) and Spun (2002) (Jonas Åkerlund , 2006).

Collaboration

Stephani Germanotta (Gaga) and Rodney “DarkChild” Jerkins originally wrote “Telephone” for Britney Spears. The song was originally titled “Underground” and changed to “Telephone” when they registered it with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and found that another registered song had the “Underground” name (Lady Gaga, 2011).

Fashion

Various designers and design houses are featured throughout “Telephone,” with Gaga’s personal creative team Haus of Gaga responsible for many of the clothes the stars wore in the video. Other designers and fashion houses used were Chanel, Thierry Mugler, Viktor & Rolf, Search and Destroy, and Jean Charles de Caslbanc (Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone” Style, 2010).

Demographics and Psycho-demographics

According to the website Marketingcharts.com, Lady Gaga’s demographics are not what some might think they are. Her audience is almost evenly split between the sexes at 52% female and 48% male. The average audience that buys Gaga’s albums and concert tickets is mainly between the ages of 25-54, with the slight majority coming in at 35-44. According to research compiled by the site, 8 out of every 10 Gaga listener has some college education (Lady Gaga Provokes Mixed Brand Reaction, 2011).

Gaga has gained a reputation for her outrageous outfits, quotes, and antics.

In an essay entitled “Is Lady Gaga a Feminist Icon?” (Cochrane, 2010), the author explains that Gaga is explicitly against portraying herself as a “typical” sex symbol. As Gaga said in an interview with Elle magazine:

But you know, I can be whoever the fuck I want to be…the last thing a young woman needs is another picture of a sexy pop star writhing in the sand, covered in grease, touching herself. (Lady Gaga, 2010)

Yet, as Cochrane explained later in her essay, Gaga has done just that. Describing the scene in the video where Beyonce and Gaga are dancing in a diner full of just-poisoned customers, she states, ”In her Telephone…she danced in stilettos and a stars and stripes bikini, aping sexploitation films such as Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! ” Even as Cochrane complains of this imagery, she continues on to imply that because Gaga’s often drag queen-style costumes point out the absurdity of traditional femininity, that Gaga is indeed a feminist.

Beyoncé, on the other hand, is much harder to find information on. On a Yahoo!Canada Answers webpage, the average target age was thought to be women from 18-24 and men of all ages. Beyoncé herself has tried to broaden her fan base and has publicly embraced feminism, as in this quote from an interview with The Daily UK,

“I think I am a feminist in a way. It’s not something I consciously decided I was going to be (Gordon, 2010). Along with her stated connection to feminists worldwide, Beyoncé has also spoken out about her LGBT fans. In her first interview in five years with the gay press, as stated by the wording under the headline of the article, Beyoncé told an interviewer for Pride Source magazine that, “I’ve always had a connection. Most of my audience is actually women and my gay fans, and I’ve seen a lot of the younger boys kind of grow up to my music.” (Azzopardi, 2011)

Beyoncé is an admired artist that reaches out to a large demographic. Lady Gaga is an artist that also appeals to a wide audience, while simultaneously turning others off. The collaboration of Gaga and Beyoncé may have garnered them both new fans.

Theories

Foucauldian Analysis

Focault (1926-1984) was a twentieth century philosopher that was often compared to Frederick Nietzche. The transformation of madness into mental illness, the organization of knowledge systems, the attributes of sexuality, and the development of contemporary forms of punishment are some of the subjects that Foucault examined (World of Criminal Justice, 2002).

Born in Poitiers, France, Foucault studied under Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser at the Normale Superieure in Paris, which is interesting to note as Foucault maintained a disdain for Marxist ideals for much of his career. He began teaching in 1960 and published his first major work, Madness and Civilization (1961), shortly thereafter. Subsequent volumes such as The Order of Things (1966), Discipline and Punish (1975), and History of Sexuality (1976) followed. Foucault was heavily involved in politics and campaigning for such issues as prison reform and gay rights. He died on June 25, 1984, in Paris.

Bentham’s (1748-1832) concept for a prison built in the round, with a guard station in the middle, known as a panopticon (from the Greek words optikon, “of sight”, and pan, “universal or total”) (Panopticon, 2011), is the basis of Foucault’s architectural model of disciplinary power (Foucault, 1975; History of the Prison, 2011).

A panopticon would be set up so that the prisoners would always be under the impression that their activities could be viewed at any time yet they would not know if they were under direct observation at any given moment. This feeling of the “all-seeing eye” would then cause the prisoner to self-regulate their behavior. Foucault believed that control over people could be had by merely observing them. This type of surveillance can be seen in the structural composition of places such as stadiums, casinos (with their numerous cameras, or “eyes in the sky”), and some modern penitentiaries.

Standpoint Theory

Griffin (2006) describes standpoint as a place from which to observe the world around us. Whatever our viewpoint, the location lends us to focus our attention on some features of the social landscape while neglecting others. The study of standpoint theory first arose when German philosopher Georg Hegel studied the relationship of what people know about their peers, society, themselves and others. He first researched the master-slave relationship in 1807. His conclusion was that masters are established and respected in society; therefore, they have the power to shape the world and be heard. The slaves, on the other hand, are silenced and are subjected to the lifestyle that the masters make available (Griffin, 2009).

Hegel’s findings were later studied by Sandra Harding and Julia Wood who developed standpoint theory. Harding is a philosopher of science who studies women studies, education, and philosophy at the University of California. She teamed up with Wood, a University of North Carolina communication professor. The two claim that the best way to discover how the world operates is from the standpoint of women and groups such as the impoverished and racial minority (Griffin, 2006).

The standpoint theory goes beyond the typical analysis and description of the roles played by women and seeks a deeper understanding of the oppressor and the oppressed and how they interact with each other within a social class structure. Baldwin, Perry, and Moffit describe standpoint theory as, “…women and men’s experiences in life are influenced by their position in the class structure (with men having more economic power and privilege in that structure)” (2004). They propose the predominant anatomy of standpoint theory includes: “(a) the standpoint of the more powerful typically structures the way both groups live; (b) the standpoint of the more powerful group is harmful for the weaker group; and (c) the less powerful group usually has a better understanding of the more powerful group than the latter has of the former” (2004). Standpoint theory entails that people are situated in social standpoints within a social hierarchy. Those that are oppressed have a deeper understanding of the oppressor because they have to understand the oppressor who dictates how their life is to be played out. On the contrary, the dominant group has very little understanding of the oppressed.

Application of Theories

Foucauldian Analysis

In the Lady Gaga video for “Telephone” we see the modern vision of the panopticon. The beginning scenes, many of them shot to resemble security camera views of the prison’s common areas, are shown with a black and white color scheme that brings to mind a dull and oppressed reality. The outfits of Gaga, the inmates, and the surroundings are all black, white, and shades of gray. The chains worn by Gaga in the exercise yard are indicative that she is chained down by society and society’s rules. The surveillance video-like shots are to indicate that someone is always watching, whether that someone is a prison guard, the government, or an average citizen. This is enhanced by the beginning montage of razor-wire fences, closed in spaces, and the helicopter “keeping watch” over the prison. This is in direct relation to the fact that we have become a voyeuristic culture where amateur video of police brutality, celebrity mishaps, and political peccadilloes make it onto the nightly news and the internet. According to the entry on Foucault in Great Thinkers A-Z (2004):

For Foucault, the panopticon brings together power, knowledge, the control of the body and the control of space into an integrated disciplinary technology. The parallels with wider society are clear. Society exerts its greatest power to the extent that it produces individual human subjects who police themselves in terms of the discourses and practices of sexual, moral, physical and psychological normality.

In the prison scenes of the video, Gaga’s behavior is constrained by the guards, the chain accessory she is wearing, surveillance cameras, and the walls and fences of the prison. Her aggravation at the phone ringing, and therefore at the person on the other line, begins to show itself when she answers the pay phone. This is in direct relation to her aggravation at society’s rules and “chains” constricting her freedom. As the black and white-based scenes progress, Gaga shows more and more aggression in her movements, her lip-syncing, and less restraint. Gaga’s assertion of her desires and the shrugging off of the “shackles of society” exhibit themselves fully when the story line changes to the “outside” world as Beyoncé picks Gaga up after bailing her out. The storyline inside the truck is an important transitional moment in the evolution of the story. Gaga is asking Beyoncé if she is sure she wants to throw away societies rules of discipline and behavior. The flip side to this analysis is that through the use of these images of perceived and actual behavioral control, Gaga is showing us that she is the one that is in control of what we see of her, and therefore controls our impressions of her persona and what she stands for. As Rifai states in her essay “Gaga in Oz”:

As Gaga unabashedly demonstrates, she is like the prison guard, watching us watching her. Fame is the alpha and the omega for her, and when we fail to give her our attention, her persona will cease to exist. Therein lies the key to the meta-pop star Lady Gaga, whose Foucauldian reflexivity is part and parcel of her “whole package. (Rifai, 2010)

Gaga shocks and surprises her audience to keep us interested. When we stop paying attention, Gaga will be irrelevant, and therefore have no reason to exist. In order to keep her fame, Gaga must play her role as far as it will take her.

Once Beyoncé retrieves Gaga from the prison, the remaining portions of the video are in vivid color. This color palette helps to emphasize how they have thrown off the constraints of society, a dull and boring downtrodden life with no possibility of parole (creative freedom), and give in to their baser desires, such as the destruction of “white bread” America and those that subscribe to modern methods of behavioral control. This is emphasized when Gaga and Beyoncé are dancing in the middle of a diner filled with poisoned and lifeless average citizens. The American flag motif of their costumes portray the idea that Americans have been poisoned and become lifeless, even down to our dogs, by the control exerted over us by our government. This control has been perpetuated by surveillance cameras, 24-hour sensationalist news stories, even our telephones. We have become prisoners of our own behavior and can only break free by murdering our pre-conceived notions of what is right and what is wrong.

Standpoint Theory

Throughout Lady Gaga’s interviews she makes consistent statements about being a strong woman, focusing on her career and being in control. In a 2009 interview with Barbara Walters, Gaga said, “I want to free [my fans] of their fears and make them feel they can create their own place in the world” (abcnews.com, 2009). Although she claims that she wants to empower women, the video “Telephone” portrays a completely different story—one that shows she is suppressed by law enforcement, prison guards, police officers and constant surveillance. Beyoncé’s role in the video displays her as a woman who is suppressed by her boyfriend’s verbal abuse and chauvinistic behaviors.

The music video starts out with Gaga being incarcerated for the murder of her boyfriend that took place in the prequel, “Paparazzi”. The opening scene is Gaga walking through the prison halls with two seemingly hyper-masculine female prison guards. The first principle of standpoint theory is, “the standpoint of the more powerful typically structures the way both groups live” (Baldwin, Perry, Moffitt, 2004). The first example that the “more powerful” is structuring the way that Gaga lives is in the opening scene where she is incarcerated, deposited in her cell, and stripped of her dress revealing skimpy underwear and pasties. In the following scene, Gaga is chaperoned to the courtyard wearing heavy, restraining chains. After a brief girl-on-girl kiss, the camera quickly switches focus to the helicopters and surveillance cameras watching her, reminding the audience that they are observing her every move. These scenes display the slave-master qualities that Hegel first studied in 1807. They also depict clear evidence that Gaga is the less powerful person and the prison guards, government, police officers and laws are the more powerful groups that structure the way she will live.

The second factor in the standpoint theory is: “the standpoint of the more powerful group is harmful to the weaker group” (Baldwin, Perry, Moffitt, 2004). This principle is consistent throughout the video. When Gaga is stripped and thrown into the prison cell she is not only harmed physically, but emotionally as well. Her dignity and independence is subjected to the control of the more powerful group. In a later scene, Beyoncé is emotionally harmed by her verbally abusive, chauvinistic boyfriend played by Tyrese Gibson. When Beyoncé greets Tyrese, the written narrative has Beyoncé saying, “HI HONEY”. Tyrese’s response is “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN, B$#$@?” Tyrese proceeds to start a fight with a fellow diner and hit another girl on her buttocks. The narrative between the two and Tyrese’s actions support that Beyoncé is the “weaker group” who is harmed by Tyrese, the “more powerful group”.

The third claim of the standpoint theory is “the less powerful group usually has a better understanding of the more powerful group than the latter has of the former” (Baldwin, Perry, Moffitt, 2004). From Gaga and Beyoncé’s standpoint (being the less powerful group) they have been subjected to physical and emotional harm and their lives are being structured by the more powerful group. Through the remaining scenes of the video, Gaga and Beyoncé use their knowledge of the powerful group to seek revenge. Beyoncé has observed Tyrese’s actions throughout their relationship. She understands him so well that she has Gaga poison the syrup because she knows he will steal it from her. The plan goes as predicted and leads to Tyrese’s death. Gaga and Beyoncé do not stop their revenge at this point, though. The women poison every person (and a dog) in the diner and celebrate their victory by dancing around the dead bodies. In the end they drive away from the diner and make a promise to never go back. Sirens and helicopters are in the background reminding the viewer that the more powerful group will inevitably remain in control.

Conclusion

There are many avenues of analysis that could be applied to the video for “Telephone.” In particular the theory of semiotics should be used to examine the many layers of signs and symbols present in the video. As there is such an abundance of important semiological texts to examine there was a consensus that a semiotic analysis, among other possible theoretical applications, deserved its own paper.

In analyzing this video through the lenses of standpoint theory and the Foucaldian theory of the panopticon, we have come to the determination that one of the main themes that Gaga and Beyoncé wish to highlight is of masculine power over (and control of) femininity. Both artists use the video to draw attention to the fact that as women they are constantly under the watchful eye and control of a dominant masculine figure and a patriarchal society, and this is reflected in several of the characters of the video. The hyper-masculine female guards in the prison, the sexually dominant hyper-masculine female inmate in the yard who kisses Gaga, Tyrese’s abusive and chauvinistic boyfriend character; all of these figures in some way degrade or belittle both women. All of these character examples in some way have power that has been given to them by society over the feminine protagonists and therefore keep a watchful, controlling eye on them at all times. In the end all of the masculine or domineering figures are punished by the forces of femininity, as portrayed by Gaga and Beyoncé. One example is of the hyper-masculine guard at the prison who is shown logging on as “Miss Officer” on the Plenty of Fish dating website. One possible stereotype about online dating is that the individual is deficient in some way. “Miss Officer” doesn’t meet the American cultural and societal norms of what is attractive and feminine and therefore feels compelled to hide behind a feminine-sounding moniker. In this way “Miss Officer” is policing herself in terms of what society would consider acceptable in terms of feminine standards of beauty. The androgynous inmate who sexually dominated Gaga is kept imprisoned, while the femininely dressed Gaga is set free.

Tyrese is the most direct example of the feminine punishing the masculine when he sips from his poisoned cup, paying the ultimate price for his mistreatment of the women around him. Despite the overt power that the masculine influences have they are ultimately defeated and destroyed from within by the feminine protagonists.

In creating a video using prison images and murder as revenge/breaking the shackles of oppression, Åkerlund, Gaga, and Beyoncé have tried to portray the world as they see it; a rigidly controlled and denigrating experience for females who are always under public scrutiny. The only way for these two women to extricate themselves from a world where everything is controlled by the “all-seeing eye” and where people and behaviors are viewed in a monotonous black and white spectrum is to perpetrate the most heinous crime towards humanity; the taking of lives. The one thing that the artists and director are forgetting is that they have voluntarily placed themselves in the camera’s viewfinder. They have allowed the chains of stardom to shackle them to the public’s rabid appetite for anything and everything that has to do with their lives. They chose to feed this appetite with their actions, statements, and professional accomplishments in their quest for fame and fortune.

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