"[Gaga Stigmata has] very modern, edgy photography to free flowing, urban narratives without censure to analytical essays, et cetera—like Gaga, imagination without ... limits. And the beauty is that anyone can submit work to the site, so artists and writers from all over the [world] have joined this experiment." -The Declaration.org

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-Yale's The American Scholar

Monday, April 12, 2010

"Just Dance" and "Telephone" as Two Sides of the Same Coin

by David Hall

An obvious question to commence with is why specifically are these songs two sides of the same coin? Lady Gaga released Just Dance as a single in April 2008, both a Billboard Hot 100 Number 1 and UK Number 1 single, and reaching chart-topping positions internationally. Whilst Just Dance initially seemed a disposable single concerning a vacuous perspective of city center nightlife, Gaga quickly revealed herself as an accomplished performer and nuanced songwriter. Her achievements arguably culminated in February 2010’s Telephone – with its Thriller-esque promotional feature – performing similarly to Just Dance by peaking on the Billboard Hot 100 at Number 3 and again Number 1 on the UK singles chart. The common subject matter and to a certain extent the themes of the two songs are self-evident from their lyrics, and it is easy to tease out both similarities and oppositions in their ideologies.

Both feature narrators commentating on various occurrences during an evening in a club, relatable to anyone familiar with modern urban nightlife. In Just Dance, the narrator briefly worries that she is too intoxicated to function properly (“I’ve had a little bit too much”), before concluding the only sensible way forward is to forget such problems, become lost in the moment and "just dance." Telephone more complexly opens with what the listener is to imagine as a clipped telephone conversation between the narrator and her significant other. The narrator quickly grows tired of being hassled by her partner, however, and wishes to stop communicating, presenting various thinly-veiled excuses (“you’re breaking up,” “I cannot text you with a drink in my hand”) as reasons to cut short the exchange. In what seems to be an internal monologue, the narrator maligns the haranguing she has to endure from an item of technology, before wishing to disconnect from a cerebral existence to the purely visceral one presented in Just Dance, “Stop callin’, stop callin’, I don’t want to think anymore, I left my head and my heart on the dancefloor.”

Both songs are written in unusual keys for popular music; Just Dance is composed in the key of C# Minor, Telephone in F Minor. Just Dance is arguably the more upbeat from a purely theoretical point of view, with two minor chords in its main progression, despite having a more negative thematic outlook. C# Minor has fallen largely into disuse in the popular era, considered an ‘awkward’ guitar tuning which usually requires the use of a capo. Nonetheless it was regularly used in classical music, with some notable modern exceptions such as Shakira’s Whenever, Wherever, The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter and The Beatles classically-informed Lennon composition Because, itself inspired by Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. F Minor is relatively more widely used, indeed in some of the 20th Century’s most famous songs such as Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Green Onions by Booker T and the MG’s, but again is mostly a classical staple. F Minor’s use in balladic (Kelly Clarkson’s Because of You) or melancholy-sounding songs (2+2=5 by Radiohead, Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach) demonstrates C# minor’s comparably more upbeat cadence. As such, the songs as compositions both exhibit Gaga’s classical sensibilities with regard to songwriting.

Living Hedonistically or Rationally, Acquiescently or Rebelliously
With a background established, some broad observations may now be offered to begin an analysis of the two songs, in order to prompt thought and discourse. The first is that Just Dance is symptomatic of living vicariously, and Telephone of living calculatedly. Secondly, if Just Dance is to be viewed as a surrendering, then Telephone should be regarded as defiance. A discussion with which to support these inferences may now begin.

As previously stated, Just Dance deals with a surrendering and a vagueness, and is generally opposed to Telephone’s definite agenda. The song is made up of impressionistic glimpsed images which flash through the narrator’s mind. Perspective bounces from anxious glances around an alien environment – “All of the people start to rush” – to lucid and almost poetic observations ostensibly about social life, “Control your poison, babe/Roses have thorns, they say.”  The lyrics are representative of a mind under the influence of alcohol, mood and confidence often swinging in the space of a single line, “Keep it cool, what's the name of this club?/I can't remember, but it's alright” before surrendering to the song’s motif. Everything seems wrong, indistinguishably meshed and vaguely interspersed together; many themes connote inebriation, particularly the breakdown near the end, “Half psychotic, sick, hypnotic, got my blueprint it’s symphonic.” Telephone concerns itself with the specific; although the song comes to largely the same conclusion as Just Dance, it presents and addresses a particular and dissimilar problem. It linguistically and stylistically limits its scope, narrowing to a definiteness missing from Just Dance. If a clear example of this is needed, compare Beyoncé’s strident, punchy R&B middle eight with Colby O’ Donis’ ethereal and perhaps superfluous contribution to Just Dance. Both ‘guest sections’ act as totems to the songs as entities, Telephone unambiguous and clearly-defined, whilst Just Dance is informed by unreliable sensations. Telephone only deviates from its scheme once, in the ‘Grand Central Station’ reference, the effect of which is discussed later.

Just Dance
begins with an invocation of the producer’s name RedOne – often misheard, perhaps appropriately given the song’s context, as ‘red wine’ – followed by Gaga’s own. In between these namechecking introductions, O’Donis’ voice briefly enters, pronouncing “Konvict”, the name of the record label he is affiliated with. RedOne occupies the same function here as the record label; he is faceless, an extremely effecting yet invisible presence, and crucially a male one. Even if the producer were female, it is an overbearing, patriarchal and definitively masculine role which is occupied. This seems a fairly phallocentric statement at the outset of the song, the male voice sublimating the female voice by adopting and using it to his own end. Just Dance is apparently a collaboration, yet not only does RedOne’s name comes before Gaga’s, but Gaga herself is made to establish this hierarchy. There is a similar occurrence at the outset of Telephone’s video, albeit with somewhat more parity attached to it; the legend “Starring Lady Gaga & Beyoncé” is displayed first, before writer/director Jonas Åkerlund’s name appears alongside Gaga’s. This is despite the performers still being presented within a record company construct similar to the ‘Konvict’ emblem in Just Dance:

Telephone appears as the infinitely more feminist song; Beyoncé is the track’s main collaborator, and is a powerful female influence reinforcing the track's feminist (possibly even anti-male) sentiments. She is the Nietzsche-inspired Überwoman in many ways, embodying a fierce, almost aggressive femininity. In sound, ethic, and appearance, Beyoncé is a personality, image, and artistic influence to match Gaga’s. As if to cement this image further, Beyoncé’s costume near the Telephone video’s climax as she and Gaga dance amongst their victim’s corpses is strongly reminiscent of Wonder Woman, a literal Überwoman embodying all of the strongest character suits of the female gender.

In this respect, she equally recalls the Maschinenmensch, the female agent-provocateur robot of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, who embodies not only the strongest suits of the female gender but also the most evil. Beyoncé consciously adopted the pronounced feminine form of the Maschinenmensch for her Sweet Dreams video, at times augmenting her onstage attire with hip padding and even wearing a replica of the Maschinenmensch costume for her performance at the 2008 BET Hip Hop Awards. Gaga’s autonomous, emotionless appearance towards the end of the kitchen dance sequence and as she serves poisoned food in the diner scene also recalls the Maschinenmensch’s blank visage of “calm madness.”

Above photos - Top to bottom, compare: Gaga; Metropolis actress Brigette Helm; and Beyoncé as the Maschinenmensch.

Telephone is a kicking back and a reclaiming of ground from masculine influence, seen both in the video (the prison and diner scene) and heard in the song (the untouchable, unreachable woman). The woman is no longer vulnerable in Telephone, and has unplugged herself from the Matrix. Both songs treat certain similar occurrences with differing attitudes. The narrator losing her phone in Just Dance is presented as a problem to be overcome, as is losing her keys; amnesia is necessary in order to maintain the song's sentiments, but broadly it’s negative to be incommunicado. And yet the narrator of Telephone has embraced, even become addicted to, this freedom. In this respect, the prison in the Telephone video can be viewed in many ways as a maintaining and not usurping of liberty, permitting the narrator her ability to stay ‘out of the loop.’ The inmates are allowed to retain their identities and individuality through their clothing and relationships, and authority figures granting contact with the outside world is presented as a form of oppression.

Telephone’s Deviating Rhyme Structure
Telephone seems the archetypal Monster song in a way similar to that in which Just Dance is the archetypal The Fame song. Despite the video’s garish color palettes and exploitation cinema artwork digressing from the largely gothically-tinged Monster side, Telephone deconstructs the sentiments of The Fame, seeming unconcerned with materialism and subtly twisting convention and reality. Whereas Just Dance can be taken all-too seriously, Telephone’s awkward and clashing rhymes and half-rhymes render it impossible to take at face value; its sentiments cannot be interpreted in the black-and-white meaning of the lyrics, more in the gaps where the structure breaks down, intoning double meaning. The intentionally poor rhymes in Telephone make the song seem tongue-in-cheek, following Gaga’s style of undermining her serious facade with playful alterations of both her music and image.

It is impossible to dismiss Telephone’s vocal tics and undulations as accidental or the product of poor songwriting, debasement of conventional construction being entirely within its remit, and so part of a broader comment on meaning. At the end of the first verse (“Sorry I cannot hear you, I’m kinda busy”), the phrase “K-kinda busy” is intentionally repeated; “I’m kinda busy” could just as easily have been repeated, but instead the word (which of course isn’t strictly a real word) is usurped and broken up. The effect of this is that the listener is warned that all may not be as it seems within the context of Telephone. However this isn’t even the first instance in the track of such an occurrence, as the distorting elongation of the word ‘what’ in the third line already points to a corruption of form and meaning in Telephone. On the face of it, the effect is of a phone line breaking up; a deeper reading suggests a sliding of meaning in the song. Rhyme patterns shift tectonically throughout Telephone, tying themselves up in complexities; words which could be mistaken for rhymes in fact are not:

A    Hello, hello, baby/you called, I can't hear a thing
B    I have got no service/in the club, you see, see
B    Wha-Wha-What did you say/oh, you're breaking up on me
B    Sorry I cannot hear you/I'm kinda busy
[A simplified rhyme scheme, as separating all lines would result in a confusing ABCDBDED structure]

‘Thing’ and ‘see’ are meant as rhymes in the opening AB couplet, and yet when written down they clearly fail to rhyme at all. Therefore, the resulting ABBB rhyme structure changes in the second verse to:

A    Just a second/it's my favourite song they're gonna play
A    And I cannot text you with/a drink in my hand, eh
B    You shoulda made some plans with me/you knew that I was free
B    And now you won't stop calling me/I'm kinda busy

This progression features internal rhymes (‘me/free’ and ‘me’ rhyming with the masculine syllable connected with the on-beat in ‘busy’) and a fracturing of meter, with the third line in this verse featuring fourteen syllables as opposed to the thirteen in all other lines. This breaks from the regular thirteen-followed-by-twelve beat lines in the opening verse. The effect is heightened by the ‘breaking up’ of the words; without repetition of ‘hello’ and ‘see,’ and the stuttering of ‘what’ the meter would be fractured entirely. Iambic rhythm in lines such as these is displaced completely, for example the third line of the first verse essentially begins with three consecutive stressed syllables, “Wha-wha-what”. This is opposed to the regular, almost metronomic meter used in the chorus – and particularly in the skipping post-chorus – and throughout Just Dance.

‘Grand Central Station’: An Anomalous Image
Following on from this, the word “Sometimes” in Beyoncé’s Grand Central Station line is masked as a feminine-beginning word, when the more natural pronunciation forces a masculine – stressed ‘sometimes rather than unstressed ‘sometimes’ – beginning to the word. As previously mentioned, the Grand Central Station reference (a line sung by Beyoncé) is Telephone’s only deviation from what is a fairly narrow range of semantic fields, particularly when compared to Just Dance. Throughout most of the song, the themes used can be broadly categorized into technology (for instance, “I have got no service”), social life (“Out in the club and I’m sippin’ that bub’”) and relationships (“Boy, the way you blowin' up my phone won't make me leave no faster”). But the line in the final verse “Sometimes I feel like I live in Grand Central Station” fits into none of these categories, and remains ambiguous in the context of Telephone. Indeed, it’s probably Telephone’s most obliquely interesting line, one that from a purely connotative point of view Just Dance cannot match.

On a literal level, the image can be linked to Gaga’s hometown and Beyoncé’s adopted city. But in a more figurative sense, the use of the word ‘telephone’ in itself is interesting and only begins to make sense when considered alongside this reference. Telephone is quickly becoming an obsolete term, being replaced with its shortened version of ‘phone’. Indeed it takes Beyoncé to finally use the abridged title (“the way you blowin’ up my phone”, “I shoulda left my phone at home”) for the first time in the song, from which Gaga quickly follows suit, “I am sick and tired of my phone ringing.” But Grand Central Station is an image bound up in the mythology of telephones more than most places, due to the sheer number of public payphones within the building. It could be argued that until recently, this is one of the last places where it was possible to see telephones en mass, which find visual representation in the payphone Gaga uses in the Telephone video’s prison scene as the track itself begins. Similarly, a public transport hub such as this is imaginably a place embodying our increasingly wireless culture in the west, with almost every person possessing a mobile telephone, many of them in operation, ringing, dialing and texting. More abstractly, it could also be viewed as an image linked to the transitory nature of modern life. Grand Central Terminal is a building intended for traveling through and passing by, nearly every person inside is an interloper, barely stopping inbetween stages of a longer journey. A parallel can then be made to both Beyoncé’s public profile and the increasing hysteria – bordering on ‘Gagamania’ – that was beginning to surround Gaga at the time of The Fame Monster’s issue. Grand Central Station characterized as above seems from the outside in to fit the life, relationships and industry that surrounds these two performers. Lady Gaga until recently was probably viewed as a figure of equal transience, making disposable popular music and liable to disappear at any moment. It is only with the release of The Fame Monster that she has become a truly influential force in 21st Century pop. 

The narrator of Telephone also treats her relationships as equally provisional, namechecking “baby”, “boy” and the slightly less frigid “my girls,” but uses no actual monikers. Grand Central Station is the only proper noun present in the track, whereas the outset of Just Dance is comparatively clogged with names; Just Dance also seems concerned with the concept of identity (“what’s the name of this club?” the narrator twice asks) whereas Telephone shares no such curiosity. Grand Central Station also seems to symbolize the notion of Derridian Différance in the context of Telephone and the concept of the telephone, although this probably warrants a separate, more expansive, debate. Grand Central Station – possibly the use of this term as opposed to the correct title Grand Central Terminal is as significant as the use of telephone and not phone – itself connotes many figures already discussed, such as transience, travel, communication and so on. Similarly, ‘telephone’ is entangled with many tropes itself; technology, modernity, again communication and so on. But the concept of the telephone cannot be realized without a dialogue, another person on another telephone with whom to speak. And yet the narrator of Telephone seems unconcerned about the conceptual opposition they are part of and to a certain extent causing in not granting the other telephone user a voice. Assuming the other user is male (which seems a reasonable inference given the use of the word “boy”), this is a further example of Telephone’s female voice successfully sublimating the male, in contradiction to Just Dance.

The Coin Lands: Heads Telephone, Tails Just Dance
The title of this article posits that Just Dance and Telephone are two sides of the same coin, and in conclusion it is worth restating the reasons for this. As previously discussed, both songs address the same subject matter from a similar perspective, though they differ thematically, both reach analogous conclusions. Just Dance arrives at a solution to all problems in its title, whilst Telephone’s payoff is exemplified in the line “Tonight I'm not takin' no calls, 'cause I'll be dancing.” In terms of thematic analysis, the two songs adopt differing attitudes towards hedonism, technology and crucially to gender dynamics. Although aspects of Just Dance appear manipulated by the male gaze, Telephone redresses the balance with a defiantly and definitively feminist stance. The female sex is much more powerful – physically, intellectually and ideologically – in Telephone’s world than in Just Dance’s, but it has also learned that there are consequences to knowledge, and that Just Dance’s naive egoism is false, or at best only workable in exceptional circumstances. Despite the benefit of such hindsight, Just Dance appears more optimistic, both from the perspective of music theory and with regard to its outlook. The sentiments of Telephone come at a high intellectual price, with its narrator unable to ‘live in the moment’ in the same manner as Just Dance’s. Interruptions to the narrator’s favorite song in Telephone for example play on their mind in a way that fails to occur to the narrator of Just Dance. Broadly, Telephone is the much more evolved composition, and close linguistic analysis reveals a tight controlling of meaning, whereas Just Dance’s unravels like the intoxicated mind. Finally, it speaks volumes about each track simply that ‘just dance’ is a blank statement, whilst ‘telephone’ is a much more ambiguous term bound up in Différance. Concluding the metaphor, Telephone occupies the ‘heads’ side of a coin; this is due to its considered, empirical perspective and awareness of its own sociological and philosophical implications. Just Dance represents ‘tails’ as it operates on a purely intuitive level, appealing to the expressive body rather than an ineffective and inebriated mind.

Author Bio:

David Hall graduated from the University of Central Lancashire with a First Class Honours Degree in English Literature and Philosophy in 2009. Specialising in contemporary literature, he completed his dissertation ‘The Philosophy of the Post Apocalypse Novel’, analysing the philosophical inclinations of works including Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. He contributes music reviews and features to various online publications and runs a music blog No School Like Old School. A determinist with a penchant for postmodernist and deconstructionist thought, David reads, writes and plays guitar in his spare time.

I enjoy philosophising about the everyday, and not in a ‘there is no spoon’ manner. Analysing books, film and music may seem to layer them with unwarranted meaning, making them appear even more impenetrable. But I believe this not be the case. Philosophising about creative products of our culture both enlightens us and demystifies them. It proves that that very little is completely hollow and devoid of import; there is meaning all around us.

On the specific subject of Lady Gaga, whatever one’s musical opinion of her, she is obviously an aesthetically and conceptually fascinating figure. The overwhelming majority of her ‘Little Monsters’ are no doubt attracted by her addictive and shrewdly commercial brand of dance-pop. Yet she operates on a level of symbolism all-too-rarely seen in the modern mainstream, a realm that having artistically matured unerringly quickly, she now comfortably occupies. Ever since The Beatles, pop music has been subject to a postmodern free interpretation of meaning. The mere fact that what at first seem shallow pop songs can be analysed as such should be reassuring; the sheer proliferation of critical interpretations – particularly presented by Telephone – suggests that intelligent pop music is still flourishing, if only we scratch the slick production veneer.


  1. Has anybody noticed the fact that her fingers are painted in the video Telephone? In the prison, her fingers are black, in the diner they are red.

  2. This is an interesting article, but you should reconsider your commentary on musical keys.

    Musical key area is largely irrelevant in the minds of the listener, and likely not a significant choice on the part of the composer/songwriter. Songwriters often write in C, G, D, A, E and other "White" keys because they are easy to play on the guitar in first position.

    The appearance of C# minor as the tonic key isn't THAT interesting -- it means one of two things:

    - Gaga is an accomplished piano player and can play in any key she wants (see YouTube for proof) meaning the vocal line just sat well in that particular key

    - She wrote the song on the guitar, and used a Capo on fret 4, which means the song sounds in C#m but she is writing it in Am "in her head".

    In any case, it's probably not important, because musical keys in equal temperament are all identical -- there is nothing unique about them except their fundamentals. Contrary to popular belief, keys do not have characteristics or identifiable auditory marks beyond the baroque era. Every listener would have to have perfect pitch to make choice of key important.

  3. hi matt, thanks for reading and for your comment.

    as a typical guitarist (ie, no 'musician'), i have a workable but by no means expert knowledge of music theory, and don't pretend to. but you hit on my basic point yourself, most pop songs are written in first position major keys, and the fact that these two aren't points to gaga's accomplishment as a piano player and songwriter. i felt this was a something of a general point to make on its own, so provided some background in order to contextualise my thoughts.

    and i agree, to most people choice of key is unimportant. but it's also far from irrelevant, and so i believed a short paragraph on the subject was sufficient amongst a wider criticism of the songs' effects.

  4. I would argue that these 2 songs ARE indeed flip sides, but deal much more with relationships that you give credit for. In Just Dance, she's cast adrift, can't find her keys, drink, or man, lost her phone. It sounds like her man cut out on her, (possibly taking her keys and phone to punish her?? open for interpretation...) Did she say something he didn't like? "wish I could shut my playboy mouth"? She is vulnerable, and left alone, might as well "just dance".

    Whereas in Telephone, she clearly has a possessive boyfriend who keeps checking up on her, won't leave her alone, and she's finally getting fed up, and starting to draw the line. It seems clear, because one asks why she just doesn't turn her phone off, but the answer to that is that this is her relationship, so she's "obligated" to respond, so she has to invent excuses why she can't talk. The other discussions here talk about how technology is freeing yet binding, but I think in her songs, it's about how it's used. For young women, technology is frequently binding BECAUSE it allows men to "keep tabs" at all time, hence the prison. But you also need your phone to protect you in an emergency (spring you from prison), which is why it's disturbing in Just Dance that she's on her own and drunk, but can't rescue herself. I didn't read the comments of the dissection of the video, but in the analysis this wasn't addressed, nor was it here. So just thought I'd mention! great site, love it.

  5. and if you accept my reading, then it is also interesting that both songs use dancing the same way: as a catharsis, or a way of working through bad feelings about an abusive relationship. "it'll be ok, if she just dances" and in Telephone she wants to "not think anymore" and leave her heart and soul on the dance floor. The dance floor is where she can be herself, to be in the moment. Be free, even if it's only fleeting.

  6. excellent information, the theme of the dance is always one of my favorites, so cute thanks for sharing information


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