“When I look back on my life, it’s not that I don’t want to see things exactly as they happened, it’s just that I prefer to remember them in an artistic way. And truthfully the lie of it all is much more honest, because I invented it.” – Lady Gaga
When Lady Gaga first tweeted about her forthcoming video for “Marry The Night” – a song she identifies as both her favorite on Born This Way and significant in that it depicts the moment she decided to make her passion for music her lifelong partner – she referred to it as the beginning of a story she has never told us. And when, over a week ago, she released the first minute and 48 seconds of the The Prelude Pathétique, she revealed the prelude to the yet-untold Prelude.
The effect of releasing the video in layers – first as a tweet unmasking it as an untold story and then as the pre-Prelude itself – is that Gaga leaves us questioning her work in a way we haven’t done up to this point in her oeuvre. The questions we find ourselves asking now, as we await the release of the full video, and why these questions are significant, will be discussed in more detail later in this piece. Thus far, The Prelude Pathétique presents a story that questions what is real and what isn’t – and how we, not only as consumers of Gaga’s art but also as people writing our own stories, perceive the difference between reality and fantasy (if we can, indeed, perceive such a difference at all).
This inquiry is of utmost importance to Gaga and her project. By this point, she has repeatedly underscored her hybrid existence as “halfway between” these two worlds, an existence that was initally declared when she re-created herself as a half-woman, half-motorcycle on the album cover for Born This Way. The album title itself embodies this reality/fantasy dualism that is reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez’s categorical assertion that “human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves” (Love in the Time of Cholera). In the pre-Prelude, this idea of autonomous, creative re-birth reaches a zenith during the first frames, in which Gaga tells us how she creates her lie and why, as the lie is happening before our eyes.
The Prelude Pathétique opens with a shot of Gaga lying on a gurney, her hair dark and cut short, her face pallid and lifeless. The appearance of the brown hair immediately suggests that we are watching a scene from Gaga’s pre-fame past, when she was still Stefani Germanotta. We hear Gaga’s voice booming over the ghastly images, in a recording that sounds like it may have been done on her BlackBerry or laptop computer: it’s gritty, unedited, and eerily familiar, as if she were sitting next to us, watching the video and describing its contents as the reel turns (one can hear the film reel spinning in the background throughout the video). The effect is unsettling in a number of ways that highlight the omnipresent duality of reality and fantasy, truth and falsehood; Gaga has broken the fourth wall by describing her process of creating her music video. (“Those nurses? They’re wearing next season Calvin Klein. And so am I.”) We know we are watching a music video that is supposed to reveal a yet-untold story, a secret – and yet Gaga admits she has created the story of her untold story before the untold story has even been revealed. It’s not unlike sitting in a theater and watching a play based on a true story, and while the play is happening on the stage, the director’s voice booms out over the loudspeakers to share with the audience creative choices such as, “The lead actor stands here with his feet apart to embody that he feels solid and grounded. His female opposite stands far away and facing the other direction to illustrate her fear and shame.” Of course, Gaga means to unsettle us; right from the beginning, she wants us to ask, “What’s going on here?” Because, ultimately, that’s the question she is always asking herself: what’s real, and what’s fantasy?
Immediately, we understand Stefani is in an infirmary of some kind. And Gaga’s voiceover tells us the reason: “Clinical psychology tells us arguably that trauma is the ultimate killer; memories are not recycled like atoms and particles in quantum physics. They can be lost forever.” The word “trauma” is illuminating but also vague, suggesting that Stefani has been hurt in some way but keeping indeterminate the nature of this injury. More is illuminated with the line, “The truth is, back at the clinic, they only wore those funny hats to keep the blood out of their hair.” We know then that the nurses are dealing with physical injuries that may at times include blood. It’s also the first time Gaga chooses to use “truth” language, aside from her stated belief at the beginning of the film that her lie is more honest than the truth because she “invented” it. This is the moment we learn that this video is a depiction of events that “truly” happened; to do this, it paradoxically departs in some ways from how the events really unfolded. And of course, because Gaga’s self-confessed purpose is often interchanging the truth with the lie, it is tempting here to say that it’s still not really clear, even considering her linguistic choices, what “truly” happened and what is a fiction. However, I would argue that because of the peeling away of the video’s layers (which began when she announced that she was telling us an untold story), and because of her choice to break the fourth wall and thereby distinguish between what we see unfolding in the video and what she describes as the process of her creating it, we are indeed dealing with events that, at the very least, Gaga perceives as having really occurred. It is her own choice to distinguish between the untold story and her creative retelling of it that supports this position.
This is, perhaps, the only time in the course of Gaga’s project that she has openly confessed to creation as a mode of expressing a secret – meaning, before seeing the work, we know it is the telling of an “untold story.” One might argue that this is always true of Gaga’s work, and even of art in general – that art inherently depicts a story that has yet to be told. And this may be true, but it is not so common that the artist preemptively admits such a circumstance. And in Gaga’s case, she has never set up the release of a music video by saying, essentially, “I have a secret to tell, and this is it.”
The fact that she released the first part of the Prelude independent of and before the rest is also significant. The effect is that we wonder what happened to Stefani in the past that Gaga has not yet been open about but is still obviously wrestling with (“It’s sort of like my past is an unfinished painting, and as the artist of that painting, I must fill in all the ugly holes and make it beautiful again”). As such, our state of mind as an audience is completely altered – we find ourselves asking questions that we have perhaps never asked before: What has Gaga not told us about her past? How will this information shed a new light on all her prior work? It’s the very idea of her confessing to having a secret, and now wanting to reveal that secret, that intrigues us.
The image of Gaga/Stefani knocked out and being rolled around a hospital with overtones of trauma just increases this state of wanting; the idea that Stefani, (though very open about her history with drugs, alcohol and the underground party scene of NYC), experienced some sort of serious but secret trauma pre-Gaga is intriguing because it has the potential to cast a new light on her entire project. This is especially true if – as the end of the introduction suggests – this trauma was somehow self-inflicted: “That girl on the left, she ordered gummy bears and a knife a couple hours ago. They only gave her the gummy bears. I’d wish they’d only given me the gummy bears.”
This last sentence is crucial not only for its content but because of its future perfect tense – I would wish they had only given me the gummy bears. It clearly distinguishes the Gaga speaking as an omniscient third person narrator, describing not only what is happening, but also what will happen. She knows the future we’re about to watch – because she lived it in the past. This is confirmed by a recent tweet about the video: “It is so true to my life it terrifies me.” She suggests not only that she ordered a knife, but that she indeed got it, which in turn suggests some sort of self-injury. This tense change also re-inforces the argument that what we are about to see in the video is a depiction of something Gaga considers to have really happened.
Many questions remain as we move from the Prelude’s introduction to the Prelude itself. Will Gaga continue to narrate her own story as she tells a visually amplified version of it? Will the trauma revealed therein cast an entirely new light on her work? Will it re-define her artistic concept of “truth”? Most importantly: will it signal a general transition from the world of “fantasy” to the world of “reality” in her project? Or perhaps the opposite – will it be the final piece of Stefani’s puzzle, which Gaga needs to share with us to completely reject the reality she seems to so loathe?
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