"[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

"Since March 2010, [Gaga Stigmata] has churned out the most intense ongoing critical conversation on [Lady Gaga]."
-Yale's The American Scholar

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Gaga in Oz: Hearing The Woman Behind the Camera in Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi"

By Ayah Rifai [i]

Whenever I watch a Lady Gaga music video, I cannot help but recall Richard Wagner. But what could a twenty-first-century shock-and-awe pop icon possibly have in common with a nineteenth-century German operatic composer? I believe that what distinguishes Lady Gaga (née Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) from all other artists on the pop music scene today are her aspirations for a modern day Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork, a term that Wagner coined to describe a work in which drama, music, poetry, and material art would be synthesized and united to create a new and complete art form. In a 2008 interview with DJ Ron Slomowicz from The New York Times Company, Gaga describes how she conceives her artwork as a “whole package”:

I don’t write records and then decide what the video will look like. I instantaneously write things at the same time so it’s a complete vision, the song, and the visual, the way that I would perform it on the stage. It’s something that all comes to me at once. So when I say I make the music for the dress, the dress is a bit of a metaphor for “I make the music for everything,” for the entire performance vision.  (Slomowicz 2008) 

As a brazenly outspoken woman with outrageous costumes and gender-bending performances, Gaga has recently become the subject of much scholarly attention – and rightfully so. Her songs, such as “Telephone,” “Bad Romance,” and “Alejandro,” have been eagerly analyzed under the umbrellas of cultural studies, film studies, and queer studies, to name a few. Indeed, numerous writers have discussed to a fascinating and highly-illuminating degree the imprint her spectacles and persona are leaving on our zeitgeist. Yet, writers’ critical reflections seem to venture only into half of Gaga’s artistic vision or “package,” leaving out what I consider to be the root of what that she does: the music.

In this essay, I seek to bridge the lacuna by shedding some light on the oft-neglected musical aspects of her “total artwork.” My analysis will consider various dimensions of “Paparazzi,” a 2009 hit from the 2008 album The Fame, which is usually relegated to the periphery of writers’ critical lenses when compared to Gaga’s more recent songs. Applying Michel Foucault’s theories of surveillance and power, I will demonstrate how “Paparazzi” contributes to Gaga’s strategy of legitimizing her fame before it has actually occurred. In the second half of my essay, I will examine how Gaga projects her feelings about the problematic yet symbiotic relationship that celebrities maintain with the unrelenting paparazzi through the video’s music and visuals, and how this ties in with her ultimate mission to garner fame.

The (Balcony) Fall from Grace       
Before delving into the music, it behooves us to recount the video of “Paparazzi” in order to contextualize the musical analysis. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund, the full-length version of the video is an approximately eight-minute mini-movie starring Gaga the celebrity and her boyfriend, played by the Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård. The scene opens in Gaga’s seaside mansion with someone playing melodic fragments and minor chords on a piano.[ii] This detail lends the scenic atmosphere a sense of intimacy, as the piano often recalls bourgeois homes. But within seconds, the viewer discerns that this feeling of comfort and privacy is to be shattered. As Gaga and her boyfriend move to the balcony while kissing and embracing, a stealthy photographer begins taking pictures of the couple. In the background, the piano chords become louder, more unstable, and more tumultuous, reflecting Gaga’s unease and foreshadowing her impending downfall. When Gaga realizes that her boyfriend has set her up to the tabloids, she struggles to escape his embrace only to be thrown over the balcony, falling in slow motion.[iii]

Gaga is next shown lying on the pavement in a pool of her own heavily stylized blood, with the paparazzi swarming around her. The image of our poor starlet’s accident is carefully arranged and aestheticized – an artistic detail that will shape how we view all subsequent female victims in the video. As the paparazzi, exclaiming “Beautiful! Beautiful!,” shamelessly snap pictures of her seemingly lifeless body tabloid headlines flash on the screen that read, “Lady Gaga Hits Rock Bottom,” and “Lady No More Gaga.” Their actions in this segment reveal the paparazzi’s eagerness to photograph tragedy – where a star’s death represents the ultimate shot – while their words reflect the media’s general tendency to abandon a star when she no longer conforms to society’s standards of able-bodied beauty.

The following scene reveals a disabled Gaga getting out of a limousine with the aid of her hired help. Gaga dances in a wheelchair and then on crutches with her troupe of butlers and maids, while donning a metallic garment and helmet that vividly recall the cyborg-like outfit seen in George Michael’s 1992 “Too Funky” music video.

Gaga in “Paparazzi,” dancing on crutches in a cyborg-like outfit.

A runway model’s outfit in George Michael’s “Too Funky” music video, indubitably the source of inspiration for Gaga’s costume.

This video features Michael videotaping models as they strut down a runway to the beat of his tune by the same name. As we will see, “Too Funky” offers more than a mere visual quotation for Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” for it reveals the ways in which an ostensibly behind-the-scenes George Michael is really in control of the women’s images, mediating them to us, the viewers.  Gaga’s dance is at once graceful and awkward, with her abrupt, robotic moves, lending her an inhuman aura. Here, Gaga shows that her relationship with haute couture runs deep, even to the extent that the implements designed to aid her disfigured body are high fashion.

As various scenes in the mansion flash before us, we see dead models in full makeup lying on the ground, including a maid who bleeds gold, another who has hanged herself, and yet another woman in the garden with her body eerily contorted and wrapped in plastic.

These scenes are sinister, yet aesthetically pleasing and surreal, for the women’s images are captured in a way that beautifies their deaths and makes them disturbingly delightful sights to behold, thereby elevating their deaths to the status of high fashion or art. Gaga is perhaps critiquing the glorification of female deaths in pop culture and the violence perpetrated against women in general, whose depictions have become increasingly fashionable in the media. The erotic portrayal of these murdered women brings to mind, for example, an ad that I stumbled across several years ago for the video game Hitman: Blood Money. The ad depicts a lingerie-clad, presumably dead woman who has been shot in the head and placed amid crimson, fluid-like silk. This commercial resonates with the visuals employed in “Paparazzi,” where post-mortem females are made to look visually appealing.

An advertisement for the video game Hitman: Blood Money.
Note the ad’s caption: “Beautifully Executed.”

The climax of this mini-movie occurs in the scene where Gaga and her boyfriend are sitting in a tea room. The Swede accessorizes his ensemble with an eye patch, which brings to mind the ancient Hammurabian law of “an eye for an eye,” as Gaga plans on punishing him for the nearly homicidal act he committed against her. Gaga, meanwhile, is dressed in a yellow, Minnie Mouse-like unitard with circular glasses. A close-up of this outfit reveals that the pattern is comprised of repeated pictures of Gaga wearing a World War II helmet with mouse ears appended to the top. This image, with its repetitive pattern, recalls the Holocaust survivors of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus suggesting that Gaga is, by analogy, a survivor of larger scale female victimization.

This detail recasts the light in which we might interpret the deceased women as victims of a larger female genocide, in turn rendering Gaga’s murder of her Swede a sort of revenge for the many women who have been wronged. This interpretation also establishes a thematic connection with the “Telephone” murders in Gaga’s subsequent video. In any case, the surface image of innocence and twee that Gaga’s Mini Mouse costume evokes contrasts dramatically with a more detailed examination of that outfit.

Gaga discretely slips poison into her boyfriend’s drink. Two seconds later, he collapses dead on the sofa, and Gaga has thus been avenged. She calls 9-1-1 and says, “I just killed my boyfriend” with an anime-like smirk on her face. Then the plot comes full circle: as the authorities snap away at Gaga’s deceased boyfriend, she makes her way to a car and gazes lovingly at the paparazzi surrounding her. The images of the previous female victims – beautifully captured in all of their aesthetic gore in the daylight – now juxtaposed with that of the unglamorous and un-gory death of the boyfriend during the night lend the video quite a haunting sensationalism.[iv] Next, images of newspapers flash by reading the following headlines: “She’s Back!!!,” “She’s Innocent,” and “We Love Her Again,” this time highlighting the fickleness and strange devotion (and bad journalism, since she clearly confessed to the crime) of the paparazzi. The final scene shows Gaga posing raunchily for mug shots in jail in another cyborg-inspired outfit, thus concluding where the video for “Telephone” begins.

Through the Looking Glass – But Whose?
What intrigues me about “Paparazzi” the song is how Gaga the star and the vocal persona she portrays are two separate characters. Upon closer examination of the lyrics, the listener discerns that Gaga is not singing from her point of view, but rather from the perspective of a paparazza.  What is particularly striking about the perspective from which Gaga sings in “Paparazzi” is that it seems polarized with her artistic persona presented in the video, yielding a paradoxically empathetic portrayal of paparazzi at first blush. Here, Gaga vividly places herself in the shoes of an ostensibly real person, albeit a person with no individual identity because this nameless paparazza is generally bunched together with a group of many other paparazzi. In other words, Gaga claims to be speaking from an “emic” (insider, paparazzi) standpoint rather than from the more predictable “etic” (outsider, star) perspective, which brings me to my next query: What could possibly compel Gaga to write a song that seemingly empathizes with the very people who presumably torture and stalk her 24-7, waiting for the chance to slander her or to get that lucrative picture?

Michel Foucault might help us clarify why Gaga would devote a song to the merciless paparazzi. Foucault theorizes that the exercise of disciplinary power relies on a mechanism of coercion by means of observation, where those in power are the observers and those upon whom power is exercised are the observed. This form of disciplinary power works to create a knowable people, making them the object of surveillance and control. As such, he posits that oppression depends on supervision (here, oppression might be the surveillance enacted by paparazzi), where increased visibility leads to more control of the person under observation. Furthermore, he argues that through this system of coerced observation, the observed begin to view themselves paranoiacally through their observers’ eyes.  According to Foucault, this mechanism of coercion also contributes to the creation of  “docile bodies”:

What was then being formed was a policy of coercions that acted upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behavior. The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it. A “political anatomy,” which was also a “mechanics of power,” was also being born; it defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies […]Thus discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, “docile” bodies.

Applying these insights to “Paparazzi,” then, Gaga would have us believe that the reason she is able to present such an empathetic song about the paparazzi from an “emic” perspective is because she has been watched and hounded by them so closely and persistently since her rise to fame that she has begun to see herself through their eyes. In this interpretation, the paparazzi unwittingly function as disciplinarians who cleverly keep stars in line – and perhaps even transform them into seemingly “docile bodies” – because they document them from the moment they step outdoors to the moment they return home. The structures of power and domination certainly include A-listers and high-profile celebrities, and those who follow stars around qualify as one of society’s many disciplinarians in the twenty-first century version of Foucault’s concept of “disciplinary punishment.” To be sure, paparazzi often possess the power to elevate or ruin a star’s career.

In the lyrics to “Paparazzi,” Gaga gives the impression that she has begun to identify closely with her so-called torturers, as if she understands what it is like to be one of them. Gaga appears to be trapped in a metaphorical prison whose captors are her admiring observers, recalling Foucault’s Panopticon, a prison wherein a single guard with a privileged central perspective is able to view all prisoners, but each prisoner is only able to view the central guard. What could be a closer contemporary version of this Panopticon than the paparazzi, who document every moment of a star’s life but are themselves largely invisible, not subject to the same probing observation? In short, the paparazzi enact Foucault’s “disciplinary gaze”: the stealthy surveillance (Foucault’s “eyes that must see without being seen”), the creation and preservation of a visible and knowable people, and even the photographer, our modern day Panopticon guard.


Yet something is amiss here, as Gaga’s perspective of an “authentic” paparazza remains unconvincing – Gaga is hardly a “docile body” without agency, nor is she as victimized as she makes herself out to be. Her portrayal of the paparazza character is not that empathetic. Although the persona Gaga lyrically develops may seem realistic in some respects, she is also a fairly empty character devoid of individuality and agency. In fact, Gaga’s is a rather unfortunate depiction of a woman standing on the outside, longingly looking in on a celebrity’s extravagant life. Furthermore, the lyrical perspective is undermined by the video’s lack of any singular or memorable depictions of a paparazzo or paparazza. Indeed, in the video, Gaga performs her traditional role of the glamorous celebrity and not the paparazza, from whose perspective she sings.

Gaga has provided some food for thought with regards to the ways we might interpret  “Paparazzi.” In one interview, she asserts that the song’s video “explores ideas about the sort of hyperbolic situations that people will go to in order to be famous. Most specifically, pornography and murder” (Lamb 2009). Ironically enough, one could apply this idea to Gaga as well, since she projects herself into this hyperbolic and surreal world in the video specifically so that she can acquire further fame. In another interview, Gaga describes the meaning behind “Paparazzi” as follows:

[It] is about a few different things – it’s about my struggles, do I want fame or do I want love? It’s also about wooing the paparazzi to fall in love with me. It’s about the media whoring, if you will, watching ersatzes make fools of themselves to their station. It’s a love song for the cameras, but it’s also a love song about fame or love – can you have both, or can you only have one? (Slomowicz)

Gaga’s use of “love” in this quotation works on two levels. In the first sentence, she counterbalances fame and love, where love might mean the possibility of a private romantic relationship unmediated and untarnished by the paparazzi, and fame would presumably preclude such a relationship. In the second sentence, however, she describes the love and adoration of the paparazzi, who help perpetuate and maintain her fame. This double definition of love underscores the dramatic tension in “Paparazzi”: What kind of love does Gaga want, fame (and paparazzi/fan love) or romantic love?

This quote also gives us something from which to work with regard to the music. If we focus strictly on the ideas presented to us at the surface level of the song and video, then Gaga’s message is thus twofold. On the one hand, she is acknowledging the symbiotic relationship that exists between stars and their devoted paparazzi: while the paparazzi hound a star and possess the ability to bring her down with one incriminating picture, they are also responsible for elevating that celebrity’s star status. This symbiosis is evidenced in the way Gaga initially reacts to the paparazzi at the onset of her video versus the manner in which she embraces them towards the end. It is also overtly reflected in the tabloids’ opposing headlines of Gaga at the beginning and at the end of the video.

On the other hand, Gaga relays a separate story about having to choose between fame and love. Whereas this emotional tug-of-war is enacted in the video through Gaga’s own actions – having to choose between a relationship (love) and her career (fame) – the music portrays these vacillating sentiments from the perspective of the vocal persona, a paparazza. A closer look at the music will illuminate how Gaga reflects her problematic relationship with the paparazzi, as well as how she sonically negotiates her indecisiveness.

Snap, Snap to That Shit on the Radio
One subtle way in which Gaga reflects both the relationship between celebrities and their paparazzi, and the artifice involved in fame, is through her choice of timbres that characterize the music. At the start of the video, as Gaga is shown plummeting from the balcony to the ground in slow motion, a synthesizer sonority enters emulating Gaga’s heartbeat; moments later, the listener is inundated with the sound of paparazzi anxiously snapping away at their cameras. The snaps and clicks combined with the pulsating heartbeat create their own distinct rhythmic pattern, and persist until they meld seamlessly into the song’s ostinato bass line – a slightly simpler version of the initial rhythm. Thus, we can say that the beat propelling the entire song grew out of both Gaga's heartbeat and the snapping and clicking of the paparazzi, a resonance that is at once organic and fabricated – an important dichotomy in this video.

Example 1: Introductory pattern becoming the song’s ostinato rhythm

After Gaga steps out of her limousine, another timbre is introduced to the musical texture upon Gaga’s utterance of “We are the crowd. We’re c-comin’ out…” – that of a synthesized robotic- metallic sound that brings to mind the noise of machinery. This metallic timbre is visually enforced by Gaga’s cyborg-like costume.

It is also interesting to note that Gaga perpetuates the sound of cameras clicking through her deliberate and machine-like vocal iteration of “c-comin’ out” (much like the calculated repetition of “Wha-wha-what did you say” and “T-t-t-telephone” in her next song “Telephone”), where she could have easily substituted “we’re c-comin’ out” with “and we’re comin’ out” and still have preserved the verse’s meter. Seconds later, a final timbre is introduced to the multi-layer electronic texture beginning with the words, “It so magical. We’d be so fantastico.” This final timbre vividly recalls the eerie, ethereal sound of a theremin – an electronic instrument used in many old science fiction movies to signify the bizarre and alien. The resulting overall electronic texture engulfs the listener’s sonic space so fully that it practically eclipses the chords underlying the music.[v]

Furthermore, with Gaga’s mechanical, abrupt, and contortionistic movements, the choreography in this segment reinforces the artificial soundscape. Her use of overpowering machine-like/robotic timbres highlights the unnaturalness and plasticity of stars’ relationships with the tabloids, as well as the often-spurious nature of fame. Had she opted for an acoustic accompaniment in the song (e.g., a piano and a drum kit), the resulting timbres and overall texture would have significantly undermined the nexus between the music and the lyrics’ message.

We can thus thematically link Gaga’s evocations of non-humanity (e.g. the cyborg, the robot, the artificial) to her overarching agenda. In order to attain ultimate fame, Gaga must eschew her privacy, humanity, and realness as Stefani. This sacrifice is vividly realized in both the visuals and the music, as Gaga is transformed into a robot-like being in the video with the rhythmic pulsing of the camera shutter opening and closing, metaphorically becoming her life’s blood, propelling the music forward from beginning to end.

Gaga also capitalizes on the form of the music to project her vocal persona’s vacillating sentiments. “Paparazzi” follows the standard form of a pop song:

(Brief introduction)
Verse 1
Verse 2
Chorus (repeated twice)
Codetta/fade out

As it turns out, Gaga sings Verses 1 and 2 from the viewpoint of “fame,” as interpreted by her paparazza, and the chorus from the perspective of “love,” the paparazza’s meditation on her adoration for Gaga. As a paparazza, she is focused and ready to do her job in Verse 1: “Got my flash on it’s true. Need that picture of you.” She follows the rich and famous and perhaps aspires to emulate them: “Leather and jeans, garage glamorous / Not sure what it means, / but this photo of us, it don’t have a price. / Ready for those flashin’ lights.” The melody in both verses, however, is characterized by leaps of open fifths, which evoke, at least in my mind, the familiar sound that many cameras make as they are turned on – an interesting sonic detail.[vi] And the perfect fifth intervals are heard each time above octave leaps in both the metallic timbre and the unrelenting ostinato bass without substantial harmonic support, lending the music a static and almost lifeless quality, much like a machine’s.

When the chorus arrives, the sentiment shifts to one of adoration, devotion, and firm insistence: “I’m your biggest fan. I’ll follow you until you love me /…Baby, there’s no other superstar. You know that I’ll be your papa-paparazzi.” The repetitious iteration of the same pitches in the chorus melody and the more lyrical, step-wise motion (as opposed to the verse music, which features more leaps), underscore the paparazza’s insistence. The rhythm of the melody, meanwhile, is mostly characterized by repetitive eighth notes except for the highly syncopated rhythmic motif on the phrase “papa-paparazzi.”

This pattern is also cleverly physicalized during Gaga’s dance segment in Baroque navy blue and white costumes (approximately 4:41 in the video) with her syncopated arm gestures and thrashes.

In tandem with the nearly twofold iteration of the word “paparazzi,” this abrupt rhythmic pattern draws the listener’s ear to the song’s namesake while simultaneously evoking the repetitive shouts of paparazzi when they vie for stars’ attention.[vii] Lastly, the combination of unrelenting eighth notes and the mostly monotone harmonization beneath the melody evokes robotic speech, further underscoring Gaga’s inhumanity.

Example 2: The rhythmic motif of “papa-paparazzi”

In the second half of the chorus, where the melodic zenith occurs, our paparazza’s voice becomes more urgent while she begins to plead to her celebrity: “Promise I’ll be kind, but I won’t stop until that boy is mine /…chase you down until you love me.” The sense of loving urgency is intensified by the occurrence of the highest note in the song, an Eflat5, on “promise,” and then by the octave leap down to the eighth note iterations of Eflat4 immediately afterward on the phrase “but I won’t stop.” The narrator’s insistence is perhaps mirrored most strongly in my favorite moment of the song, the unsuspecting harmony that occurs below the melodic line of “Baby, you’ll be famous, chase you down until you love me.” The harmony sits on a mostly monotone Eflat4, but then it ascends by step until it brushes up against the melody’s G and Aflat on “’til you,” thus creating a brief, yet delicious moment of back-to-back dissonance. This fleeting moment of dissonance ever so subtly and poignantly drives the paparazza’s emotional message home through its harmonic tension.

Example 3: Harmonization of part of the chorus

Our paparazza’s feelings swing back once again to support fame and success in Verse 2, whose words begin to border on a stalker mentality: “I’ll be your girl, backstage at your show. Velvet ropes and guitar, yeah, cause you’re my rock star. / In between the sets, eyeliner and cigarettes.” And when the narrator sings, “My lashes are dry, purple teardrops I cry. / It don’t have a price,” Gaga is encouraging us to imagine a stalker paparazza who hangs creepily on to every moment of Gaga’s life. In so doing, Gaga paints the picture of an emotionally-unstable paparazza who is not particularly flattering. 

After the chorus is repeated, we arrive at the bridge with its strange lyrics. In the corresponding film segment, Gaga is dancing in a costume made mostly out of roles of brown camera film, emphasizing the idea that Gaga the star is an image made by photographs and film.

Indeed, Gaga seems to penetrate the vocal persona for a brief instant when she sings, “Snap, snap to that shit on the radio,” followed by the imperative “Don’t stop for anyone.” It is as if she is coaxing her fellow paparazzi to be unrelenting with their duties, for Gaga unambiguously craves and courts this attention in real life. The melody is also characterized by the familiar leaps of fifths that defined the two verses, inviting us back into the world of stardom again. She concludes the bridge with the phrase, “We're plastic but we’ll still have fun.” The words send a poignant message, for Gaga is acknowledging the cyborg-like qualities of synthetic stardom counterposed against the lived reality of an individual who covets fame. In addition, the seemingly happy-go-lucky shouts on “still have fun” sound fake and mechanical, and Gaga’s overall nonchalant demeanor and choppy hand gestures in this segment mirror her detached tone of voice in the bridge.

The final way in which Gaga projects her ambiguous feelings is through the underlying harmonic structure of the music. More specifically, her irresolution is realized through the oscillation between the tonic key and its super-mediant key. The tonality of the song remains unclear in the video until Gaga steps out of her limousine, but at that moment, a C minor pedal chord is intoned on a synthesizer to establish the key of the song for the first time. Gaga draws on the stereotype that minor tonalities evoke sadness and major ones evoke joy in order to reflect her tumultuous thoughts. The entire first verse is grounded firmly in the C minor tonic key, with a brief occurrence of vi and iv. But when the chorus enters, we suddenly hear that we have arrived at the super-mediant key, Aflat Major, with no traditional preparation. Instead of giving us a conventional progression in the measures leading up to the chorus using III as an immediate secondary dominant chord (for example i, vi, iv, III [V/ vi], vi [the new key]), Gaga unexpectedly stops at the iv chord, F minor, and then travels directly from it to our new key in the chorus, Aflat major, via movement by thirds (coincidentally, a harmonic movement of which Wagner was fond). The key change even occurs in the middle of a sentence (“ ‘Cause you know that baby I...”), bisecting the contraction “I’m.” Alternatively, the iv chord in tonic would have worked beautifully as a pivot chord into the new key (i.e., using F minor, vi of Aflat Major), had it been followed by a few more chords and then a cadence to establish the new key, but that does not happen. Gaga thus undermines any feeling of a modulation by preceding the chorus only with a jazzy F minor11 chord. Without a secondary dominant or a proper modulating sequence, we expect to stay in C minor, so what we hear during the chorus suddenly comes as a surprise to our ears. It is as if Gaga is deliberately trying to confuse us.

Example 4: Harmonic structure from end of verse to beginning of chorus

While this turn to the super-mediant could be labeled as a passing tonicization, Aflat Major solidly grounds itself in our hearing because it is then followed by V, vi, and then iv in that key from “I’m your biggest fan” to “papa-paparazzi” before the cycle repeats again from “Baby, there’s no other” to “papa-paparazzi.” And during the second half of the chorus (“Promise I’ll be kind… papa-paparazzi”), the same chord progression recurs. When Verse 2 begins, we find ourselves abruptly brought back to C minor, again with no prior preparation (Dflat Major is the last chord intoned in the chorus), only to venture back in to Aflat Major when the bittersweet chorus occurs again. As for the bridge, it is firmly set in C minor, but only for a brief moment before the chorus is iterated twice. The song ends differently depending on the format in which it is experienced: whereas the version of the song recorded for the album ends with four measures of a C minor pedal chord accompanied by the percussive rhythmic motif, the video of “Paparazzi” ends with a fade out of the chorus (in Aflat Major) before Gaga is taken to jail. Perhaps this “alternate ending” provided by the video is Gaga’s way of saying that she can have it both ways, fame and love.

Table 1: Chart of form, tonality, and corresponding emotions in “Paparazzi”

Introduction & Verse I
Verse 2
Chorus (x2)
Video Codetta
Song Codetta

C minor
Aflat Major
C minor
Aflat Major
C minor
Aflat Major
Aflat Major

C minor

The key of each section corresponds to the two things weighing on the paparazza’s (and Gaga’s) mind in the narrative of each section: the concept of fame in the verses and the bridge (tonic C minor), and the thought of love in the choruses (Aflat Major). The oscillation between the two keys thus musically replicates the irresolution that Gaga’s persona describes. Furthermore, the choice to venture into the major mode – generally associated with hope and joy – is conveniently aligned with the paparazza’s proclamations of love and devotion, whereas the melancholic minor mode is chosen to underscore the problematic aspects of fame. Lingering on the super-mediant chord creates a great tension: both keys need each other to attain tonal closure. In an oddly similar way, celebrities and paparazzi also rely on each other to maintain their respective careers.

Gaga capitalizes on tonality’s tendencies and semiotic associations in order to sync our sonic experience of the music with her ambiguous feelings. The initial unexpected turn from C minor to Aflat Major without preparation or modulation, as well as the subsequent dizzying oscillations between the two keys that result from the song’s form, function to elicit specific responses from her listeners, enabling them to reproduce the relationship between Gaga and her ultimate fan, the devoted paparazza.

Beyond a Total Artwork
So which does Gaga end up choosing: fame or love? The music concludes in the home key of C minor, which is associated with fame, and the video ends with the death of Gaga’s boyfriend and the media’s renewed obsession with her. As much as Gaga attempts to sell herself in “Paparazzi” as a victim who begins to identify with her torturers as a result of coerced observation, the fact of the matter is Gaga is in control. Like The Man Behind the Curtain in The Wizard of Oz, Gaga smartly crafts our responses to and interpretations of her as famous by controlling the images and sonic messages of her, all while singing from an “out-of-control,” crazed paparazza perspective. In so doing, Gaga feeds her fans lyrics of an alleged outsider’s adoration. Fame was and remains the constitutive feature of Gaga’s identity, and she unapologetically seeks it, courts it, and requires it in order to persist. As Ella Bedard, a recent contributor to Gaga Stigmata, aptly notes, Gaga “is only insofar as she exists before the eyes of the public: as much as her audience is captivated by her performance, she is not only captivated but produced as a result of the devotion and constant attention from her fans.” (Bedard 2010)

Indeed, Gaga (or perhaps Stefani) seems to have always viewed herself through others’ eyes, and has sought to be observed – for she sold herself as a celebrity before actually having attained success in the pop arena. Her debut album, The Fame, was released in August of 2008 when Gaga was still a no-name artist, yet her songs center on the theme of what it is like to be rich and famous (e.g., “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “The Fame,” “Money Honey,” and “Starstruck”). “Paparazzi” should therefore be viewed within this context, for Stefani, the woman behind the curtain, created Lady Gaga to be more glamorous than she could have reasonably been at the time in which this song was written. And, in playing the role of a super famous woman prior to becoming super famous, Gaga legitimized her fame before the fact. In light of this idea, it seems as though Gaga’s paparazza persona is merely a vehicle for her larger agenda: to construct Gaga as someone who is always already famous enough to be hounded by adoring paparazzi and devoted fans. Stefani’s famous alter ego, in many ways, has eclipsed the possibility of a more human identity; her art literally has become her life (ergo the choice of fame). In order to garner fame as Gaga, a larger-than-life fictitious persona, Stefani Germanotta sacrificed her realness and her humanity. In effect, she can have no private life, no love beyond the public’s probing eyes. As such, Gaga favors the love of the paparazzi, who help her attain fame, over the individual love interest, who would want to keep a relationship outside of the public’s eye. As Gaga herself said, “I put all my love into my music. It’s never going to wake up and tell me it doesn’t love me anymore. Truthfully, I’d rather sell records than have a boyfriend” (Hutchinson 2009).  Now that Gaga has a man in her life, though, it will be interesting to see if she maintains this mindset.

In “Paparazzi,” Gaga seems to question who maintains her image, but she is at the center of her own Panopticon. In true postmodern fashion, she reflexively imagines herself through the lenses of her adoring fans and preempts the fantastic images of herself that she would like them to reproduce, attempting to manipulate her “little monsters” into “docile bodies.” Through it all, she is in control at any given moment. 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.” In this respect, she has managed to surpass Wagner’s wildest aspirations for a viable Gesamtkunstwerk: an examination of “Paparazzi” reveals clever details in the melody, form, tonality, lyrics, narrative, and timbre that ultimately work together to unite the music, the message, and the visual dimensions of the video into one fascinating artwork. And yet, this product synthesizes not just her music and visuals, but Gaga’s very existence, ultimately blurring the line between consumer and producer, observer and observed, and art and life, paving the way for an altogether new level of total artwork.

Gaga photographing her photographers.
Gaga in an outfit featuring a camera perched over her right shoulder, and black visors that recall 1990s virtual reality goggles.

[i]           I would like to thank my good friend and fellow (ethno)musicologist Elizabeth de Martelly, who suggested this title to me, and whose insights and keen editorial skills played a significant role in shaping this essay.

[ii]           Incidentally, this “classical” opening is the first of Gaga’s four consecutive videos that feature an introductory melodic idea on a classical instrument. “Bad Romance” begins with a Baroque-like melody played on a synthesized harpsichord, “Telephone” opens with an F minor melody on the harp, and the music to “Alejandro” is prefaced by a plaintive B minor melody of Hungarian folk origin played on the violin, taken from the piece Csárdás for Violin and Piano by Italian composer Vittorio Monti. Why Gaga decided to open her songs in this classical manner--in the context of both her music and within the plot of each of the videos--is an intriguing detail worth further examination.

[iii]          I ascertain that her boyfriend was working with the tabloids because the first few shots of the couple are taken from an angle that is facing them (i.e., from within the mansion), leading the viewer to believe that the Swede may have let a photographer into the mansion previously (he even seems to make eye contact with the photographer at one point). Also notice beforehand how he strategically moves Gaga from the bed to the balcony and then promptly asks her if she trusts him, so as to not throw suspicion onto himself. Subsequent shots are taken from below the couple, just as Gaga is plummeting to the ground, therefore revealing that a swarm of paparazzi had already been stationed there in anticipation.
[iv]          This theme of unglamorous male deaths is perpetuated further in the sequel video “Telephone,” in which Beyoncé poisons her boyfriend’s food with the help of Gaga, the short-order cook, before poisoning the remainder of the diner’s customers.
[v]           From a phenomenological approach of perceiving “the sounds themselves,” my experience listening to the overall sonority produced by these timbres with headphones differs greatly from my experience of watching the video. With headphones on, I am bombarded by the multiplicity of electronic layers from different sonic spaces; this directional phenomenon is a consequence of the strategic distribution of various timbres to each side of the headphone in the recording process. The resulting experience evokes the sound of machinery even more vividly, while the uneven sonic distribution makes Gaga’s voice sound even less human to my ear, further heightening her message.

[vi]          I checked this detail just to be sure; a perfect fifth is, for the very least, the interval that my Canon Powershot™ A630 makes.
[vii]          It is interesting to note that Gaga uses the same rhythmic motif in the choruses of both “The Fame” and “Money Honey.” Perhaps it has become her “rich and famous” rhythmic pattern?


Bedard, Ella. “‘Can’t Read My Poker Face’: The Postmodern Aesthetic & Mimesis of Lady Gaga”. Gaga Stigmata. http://gagajournal.blogspot.com/2010/08/cant-read-my-poker-face-postmodern.html. August 17, 2010.

Bellmann, Jonathan. “Csárdás.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online,

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books: New York, 1977.

Hutchinson, Jane. “Radio GaGa.” The Daily Telegraph. http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/lifestyle/sunday-magazine/radio-gaga/story-e6frf039-1225737678506. June 21, 2009.

Lamb, Bill. “Lady GaGa – ‘Paparazzi.’” About.com. http://top40.about.com/od/singles/gr/ladygagapaparazzi.htm. July 6, 2009.

Slomowicz, Ron. “Lady Gaga Interview.” About.com. http://dancemusic.about.com/od/artistshomepages/a/LadyGagaInt_2.htm. June 10, 2008.

Author Bio:

Ayah Rifai is a clarinetist and musicologist who graduated from SUNY Stony Brook in 2009 with a Master's degree in Historical Musicology/ Music Theory. This is her first paper venture outside of the realm of Classical music, and writing about someone other than Brahms or Beethoven has been a refreshing and challenging experience for her. She is currently in her first year of music teaching at P.S. 264, The Bay Ridge Elementary School for the Arts, in Brooklyn, NY.


  1. This is pretty killer. One neat detail is that the snapping cameras of the paparazzi in the video have knife-stabbing sounds layered over them (source: http://bit.ly/aVY9ar )

    Your argument that the whole thing is sung from the perspective of a paparazzi in two different modes is the closest thing to a coherent argument about the poetic speaker I can think of having seen. I'm not sure I buy it entirely though.

    I also am surprised you didn't make use of the fact that the repetition of "paparazzi" highlights the "papa" part; this seems resonant with other songs ("But her boyfriend's like her dad / just like her dad" comes to mind) & also to expand on your argument, highlighting the confluence between the paparazzi and the original authority figure.

    And overall the argument seems to position Gaga as a sort of arch-cynic, which makes sense, but which I might want to argue against. You point out the 'facelessness' of the paparazza, his inability to be commensurated with a sort of liberal individualism, which is echoed in your conclusions about fame & Gaga's posthuman aesthetics. Why not frame the choice of fame over love, instead of as a cynicism, as a form of post-bourgeois solidarity? Because we are the crowd, you know, and we're coming out.

  2. Beautiful, insightful analysis which will make me listen to Paparazzi (my favourite song in the world) with even more enthuasiasm. Thank you! :o)

  3. I also think both "Paparazzi" and "Too Funky" also owe a slight debt to Maria, the robot of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis"


    Lang's influence in the "Alejandro" mini-movie suggests that this film, or perhaps its era, has a resonance with Gaga beyond a single video.

  4. Great article! Nice to see a bit of musicological work on Gaga (from a fellow Stony Brook alum, no less! I actually graduated with my Bachelor's in Music in 2009).

    Your musical analysis of the song, in general, is quite compelling, though I do differ with you a bit on the nature of the transitions, specifically in the "lack of preparation." For instance, I do see the G leading into the A-flat (last note of verse into chorus) as a sort of "prepared transition," although a deceptive one. What is more interesting to me, though, is how the c minor key is much more emphatically stated in the verse than A-flat Major is for the chorus. It's almost as if we're beaten over the head with c minor (as you bring up, it's re-emphasized bar after bar). A-flat Major as a tonal center for the chorus is, to me, not as strong a case (to my ears, it seems to battle a bit with f minor). This would, then, would actually make more compelling your conclusions that this constructed dichotomy between "fame" and "love" does not give both sides equal weight.

    All in all, I think your article has provided much insight into a little-discussed topic in musicology. It's given me much to think about (especially as I've begun my own research on Gaga). Thank you!

    Stephanie Gunst

  5. Thank you all for taking the time to read my article! And for those of you who made constructive comments, they are insightful, and I truly thank you. I will definitely be keeping them in mind as I revise the article for the Gaga Stigmata book!

  6. Your understanding of Foucault is flawed: "Gaga appears to be trapped in a metaphorical prison whose captors are her admiring observers, recalling Foucault’s Panopticon, a prison wherein a single guard with a privileged central perspective is able to view all prisoners, but each prisoner is only able to view the central guard." But that's not what Foucault was arguing: Foucault's panopticism was based upon Bentham's original design, in which the central guard could (in theory) be watching any of the prison cells at any time, but Bentham's design ensured that the prisoners could never see the prison guard; thus prisoners never knew whether or not they were being watched, and so had to assume that they were. For Foucault, this provided a model of modern, late-capitalist societies, in which subjects/individuals discipline themselves. This misunderstanding of Foucault’s ideas unfortunately compromises the rest of your essay.
    Your characterization of Wagner's gesamtkunstwerk is also mistaken: can I respectfully suggest that you read Jonathan Crary’s ‘Suspensions of Perception’ for a proper critique of Wagner’s desire to produce a “collective experience of music drama performed and produced as a ritual communal event”. This is in fact the opposite of what Lady Gaga’s videos achieve, mediated as they are through the singular (and atomizing) vehicle of the TV/computer screen. Wagner’s attention to detail in terms of the architectural design of the Bayreuth theatre was a means of intensifying the “disruption of an intelligible relation of distance between viewer and illusory scene” – his concept of a ‘theatron’, or ‘place for seeing’. For the modern spectator the experience of seeing has instead become (generally) ‘flattened’ and homogenized through the standardizing effects of televisual technologies. Furthermore, the ‘Paparazzi’ video never really moves beyond fairly moribund pop video clichés - standard montage techniques that link discrete spaces semantically but not visually. In short, for the concept of gesamtkunstwerk to be feasibly translated into its ‘modern day’ equivalent it is not sufficient that the various elements be merely synthesized at the level of production: reception, as well as production, has to be ‘totalizable’.

  7. Dear Tom,

    Thank you for reminding me that I shouldn't assume average readers would be overly familiar with Foucault's Discipline and Punish--of course it was Jeremy Bentham's invention, but the Panopticon plays an important role in Foucault's book, and I was merely trying to facilitate the association for ease of readership. I will certainly clarify that in a footnote in my revised version. I still strongly believe, though, that the paparazzi operate in a similar--not in the same--manner; a celebrity doesn't usually know when he/she is being observed or when someone is on the prowl for that slandering picture. Furthermore, we can google images of Gaga, watch interviews of her online, and view her songs repeatedly on YouTube, without her having the slightest idea of who is specifically watching her (yes, it is not always live gazing per se, but it is nonetheless persistent gazing). The "prison" in the twenty-first century is, once again, simply metaphorical.

    Regarding my characterization of Wagner: the elements of architecture, set design, etc, all fall under the umbrella of "drama" in my introductory definition of the term. Also, I am well aware of the historic, socio-political, nationalistic, and religious reasons behind Wagner's aspirations for a Gesamtkunstwerk (which was obviously never realized, even with Parsifal). Yes, he wanted to create a ritual, communal event, a consecration (his Buhnenweifestspiel) that would result in a collective state of reception (Wagner never made clear, though, where the rituals lie: In watching? In the rituals on stage? Or perhaps in the act of the opera itself--did he want the opera to happen AT you and wash over you like a religious experience?).

    With all of that in mind, I believe that Gaga does in fact resemble Wagner in that she shapes and controls exactly what she wants us to see so that she may elicit a certain response from us, her receptors. And, just like Wagner, who despised distractions, every scene in her video focuses our attention and draws us in like a moth to a flame--indeed, I cannot think of a singular scene from a recent Gaga video that leaves room for distraction. Also, I would argue that it is specifically the homogenized viewing practices that result from televisual technologies that enable us all to watch in exactly the same manner without variation or distraction in the process itself (excepting commercials of course), which is something that Wagner never achieved with Bayreuthe. And instead of constantly changing/evolving the music like Wagner does cerebrally with his leitmotifs and character developments, Gaga goes the visual route (costumes, scenery, video plot, etc).

    Finally, as far as the collective experience is concerned, I think she achieves "totalizable reception" based on the evidence; namely, her success and her nearly cult following alone. Go to any of her concerts, and you will see what I mean. Her borderline religious fan base is so large, consistent, and homogenous the world over in their reception of her and adoration of her, that she has dubbed its constituents collectively as her "little monsters."

    Ultimately, one has to make decisions about how much information to include and how much to leave out, and it is increasingly difficult when the readership is so generic. This essay is simply a prolegomenon to thinking about--and receiving--Gaga's music in an intelligent, inquisitive, and active way, with a little nod to Foucault and Wagner just to get readers thinking and listening creatively. Had I written the essay for a sociology or a musicology class instead, the essay would have taken an altogether different course and would have ventured more in-depth with Wagner and/or Foucault.

    Thank you for suggesting Cray's book to me--it looks like a fascinating read! If you would like to discuss any more of this with me, please feel free to contact Meghan and she will send you my email address.


  8. Amazing article. The idea of 'Paparazzi' as a modern Gesamtkunstwerk is right on the money! What I find most amazing about 'Paparazzi' is the fact that it seems to transcend time. As you mentioned it was made before Gaga even became famous, and was inspired by all the famous icons Gaga grew up observing in the tabloids. At the same time, it predicts Gaga's famous future, (ironically the newspaper headline 'Gaga hits rock bottom' that appears at the beginning was used by a real magazine in an article about Gaga's weight gain recently!). Thus, it really is a timeless artwork about fame that can pretty much be applied, more or less, to any society at any time.

  9. Gaga reflects both the relationship between celebrities and their paparazzi,When it comes to music then different people have different interests. Some like to sing whereas some love to play the instruments. learn piano


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