"[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, August 21, 2013

Dance, Dance, Dance, With My Hands, Hands, Hands: Gaga-Pierrot, Repetition, and the Total Artwork in “Applause”

By Ayah Rifai

Mother Monster is miffed. Following a succession of tweets calling for an end to fan wars, excessive gossip, and blogger criticisms after leaks of her new single, “Applause,” surfaced on the Internet, Gaga implores us to change our ways and enter into a post-critical age of pop music so that artists may do what they’re best at: entertaining us.

In my previous contribution to Gaga Stigmata, I argue that what distinguishes Gaga from other pop artists in the music scene today is her contemporary realization of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total artwork” that synthesizes music, drama, poetry, the material arts, choreography, and technology into a unified project. Now that the era of ARTPOP is upon us, Gaga does not disappoint: she remains true to her aesthetic with the release of “Applause.”
As Roland Betancourt was the first to point out, Gaga’s prelude to the forthcoming experience of ARTPOP, her fourth album, begins with her embodiment of the stock character Pierrot on the “Applause” album cover through her powder-white face, clown-like makeup (colorful and deliberately messy), black skullcap, and flowing white cloth in the background (harkening back to the loose, white clothing that Pierrot typically wore).

The trope of Pierrot originated in sixteenth-century Italy with the Commedia dell’Arte, a traveling troupe that performed various theatrical genres in which music was a standard feature. Pierrot the pantomime emerged as one of the most prominent standard characters. As Pierrot’s persona developed into that of the sad, isolated, wandering clown (one performer in the collective known as les saltimbanques), he gained popularity over the centuries and directly inspired numerous works of art, literature, music, photography, and film (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierrot#Visual_arts for an impressive list, or this site for brief examples of Pierrot through the arts).

Since Gaga aspires to bring pop music into the arena of high art – after all, her motto since the onset of her career has been, “Pop music will never be low brow” – it is therefore apt that she chose to incarnate Pierrot, a street performer who essentially infiltrated the fine arts. Furthermore, Betancourt aptly links Gaga’s adoption of Pierrot to her Manifesto of Little Monsters that appeared in an interlude video during her Monster Ball Tour, in which she describes herself as, “something of a devoted jester” for her “kings” and “queens” (i.e., her fan base).

Gaga is not one to half-ass anything she does, and so she infuses artistic media with her very existence, making her persona and her music one – a circumstance that is part and parcel of her aesthetic. With this in mind, I begin by demonstrating that even though “Applause” may sound like an upbeat dance song at first blush, details in the music hint that the single is not necessarily a happy-go-lucky song. DJ White Shadow, who co-wrote and co-produced “Applause,” even stated in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine that the song might have more serious overtones: “I don’t know, man! … You tap your feet to a ballad. I might tap my feet to ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn.’”

In considering the “whole package,” it is best to examine the cover image as a point of departure, since that is our first exposure to “Applause.” Gaga’s facial language does not exude confidence here. Rather, her mouth is vulnerably half-opened and oddly contorted, and her eyes convey discomfort or estrangement as she stares off into the distance. In fact, Gaga mentioned to the media that she was nearly in tears during the photo shoot that produced the cover image. Even the makeup, deliberately smeared downward around the eyes, is applied to suggest that Gaga-Pierrot may have been crying. We have seen this physical and emotional investment in Gaga’s previous transformations: bodily modification via prosthetics in her “Born This Way” video and thereafter, as well as the rise of alter egos Yüyi the Mermaid and, more prominently, Jo Calderone, who were both featured in her “Yoü and I” video.

The music of “Applause” opens with a simple two-line counterpoint that indicates the song is in the key of G minor.[1] There is a hackneyed stereotype in tonal music that associates the major mode with happiness, whereas the minor mode implies sadness or gravity.[2] Gaga generally employs the minor mode in order to convey a sad or somber mood (e.g., “Papparazi,” “Dance in the Dark,” “Alejandro”). This counterpoint becomes the basis for the ostinato, the bass motive that repeats throughout the song’s verses, as well as the model for the repeating bass line of the chorus. The harmony is thus derived from the ostinato bass, yielding a simple three-chord progression of i-VII-VI for the two verses, which, according to the rules and conventions of Western tonal music, not only contains altered tones, but is actually an incomplete progression.[3] This progression is expanded to i-VII-VI-iv-VII-i during the second half of the chorus (“Give me that thing that I love /… make ‘em touch”), but still does not provide an authentic harmonic resolution.

Example 1: Opening counterpoint, from which accompaniment lines of the chorus section are derived.

The music therefore lacks a sense of strong direction or resolution due to the absence of solid, conventional cadences (musical points of arrival), and thus produces the cyclic effect of “looping.” The minimalist harmonic style and progression, the steady rhythmic pulse, and the repetition – which were, in fact, championed by the Minimalist movement in music during the 1960s and 1970s – are not unusual characteristics of dance/techno tunes. Perhaps this minimalist style is a nod to a new aesthetic that Gaga has been practicing as a result of her studies with Marina Abramović? Her time with the performance artist at the Marina Abramović Institute included meditations, nude walks in the woods, and lengthy drone-like vocal exercises. More importantly, though, this lack of teleology,[4] a harmonic “wandering” of sorts, underscores the plight of Pierrot, who is doomed to wander from place to place alone.

The melodies of the verses and chorus, including the style in which they are sung, also play a part in undermining the otherwise upbeat nature of “Applause.” Upon first listening to the song, I was taken aback by how the key of G minor sits in Gaga’s tessitura, for the timbre of her voice in that low register (she sings a low G3 and even a low F3 during the chorus) lends the song a dark and menacing quality. This dark mood also manifests itself in the black backdrop that pervades the music video.

Moreover, Gaga does not sing the verses in a declamatory style; rather, the first verse in particular is intoned in a dejected manner. Even the slight vibrato that I detect at the end of some words (e.g. “gong” and “wrong”) sounds deliberately weak and shaky. The vocal style here seems appropriate, though, as the opening lyrics indicate that Gaga is on the defense: “I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong / To crash the critic saying, ‘is it right or is it wrong?’” We can thus view her vocal style as either an expression of her agitation, or the sonic equivalent of Pierrot’s pantomiming, which must be exaggerated for the sake of his audience. Indeed, the latter idea is supported by the overall disjunct melodic contour of the verses – characterized by leaps, as opposed to smooth, stepwise motion – much like a pantomime’s angular gestures might be. The video seems to suggest a little of both while the first verse unfolds, as Gaga dances around awkwardly in a large cage (symbolizing her tongue-in-cheek metaphorical entrapment by the hateful media), like a guinea pig running on a forever-turning wheel.

It should also be noted that the melodies in “Applause” center on the third degree of the scale, which is B-flat in the key of G minor.[5] Gaga also features the interval of a minor third (G to B-flat) prominently in this song. In keeping with the stereotype of the minor mode conveying a serious mood, the flatted third of the scale and the interval of a minor third (G to B-flat) are both traditionally supposed to impart a doleful effect upon the listener.

Example 2: Beginning of the chorus, with harmonic analysis.

B-flats and G to B-flat intervals are marked to highlight repetition: vertical arrows point to B-flats, and curved arrows indicate the G to B-flat intervals.

This detail lends the chorus a contradictory undertone as the lyrics suggest excitement and confidence:

I live for the applause, applause, applause
I live for the applause-plause, live for the applause-plause
Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me
The applause, applause, applause

Give me that thing that I love
(Turn the lights on)
Put your hands up, make ‘em touch
(Make it real loud)
Give me that thing that I love
(Turn the lights on)
Put your hands up, make ‘em touch
(Make it real loud)

Make it real loud
Put your hands up, make ‘em touch, touch
Make it real loud
Put your hands up, make ‘em touch, touch

In sum, the tonality, melodic contour, and intervals highlighted throughout the song give the impression that there is more to “Applause” than its cheerful, upbeat tempo. As a result, the music keeps in line with the sentiments and character of Gaga-Pierrot.

In terms of the music itself, I am not a fan of “Applause” and am quite disappointed with it. I think it ties with “LoveGame” as Gaga’s worst single to date. And yet “Applause” has been stuck in my head every day for over a week now – how could this be? The answer surely lies in the song’s repetitive qualities. In my attempt to rationalize my dislike for the song with its failure to dislodge itself from my brain, I could not help but recall the work of an unlikely German philosopher of a different era, whose theory about repetition in music can be applied to 21st-century pop music listening practices.

*            *             *

“The world consists of repetition. Repetition is actuality and the earnestness of existence.”
                                                                                    Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition

Theodore Adorno, a member of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, was also a composer and musicologist who wrote extensively on the nexus between music, society, modernity, technology, mass culture, and more, between the years of 1929 and 1969.[6] In his 1941 essay, “On Popular Music,” Adorno writes that one requirement that popular music must meet in order to be considered “popular” is that it should contain stimuli in order to provoke the listener’s attention (Adorno 444). In addition, Adorno stresses that pop culture’s listening habits are rooted in recognition: one need only repeat something until it is recognized in order to make it accepted (452). In other words, if a = repetition, b = recognition, and c = acceptance, then repetition = acceptance by the transitive property of equality. When Gaga repeatedly declares that she lives for our applause, and instructs us to put our hands up and make them touch, the message rouses the listener’s attention because an imperative directed at us, her listeners, is being hammered again and again into the foreground of our sonic space. In fact, the word “applause” is heard (either sung or spelled out) an astounding 42 times in approximately three and a half minutes.

Gaga also relies on other musical elements in order to sustain our attention and coax us into applauding for her. Since there exists a desire to tangibly synchronize our bodies with music in our compulsion to tap/snap to the beat of any song, the repetitive backbeat produced by the synthesizer encourages us to do so, but our compulsion to “feel the music” is instead channeled into clapping because of the lyrics. The desire to make us applaud is even embedded in the eighth-note repetition of the word in the chorus, in which “applause-plause” takes on an onomatopoeic function as the rhythm mimics the sound of hands clapping. There is also the hand clapping sound simulated by the synthesizer whenever the chorus occurs, beginning at 1:08. These details all serve to provoke our attention.

In addition to utilizing sound effects to encourage us to clap, Gaga also inserts a vocal layer that unfolds simultaneously with the chorus section, “Make it real loud / Put your hands up, make ‘em touch, touch”; this second layer spells out the word “applause,” and subliminally encourages us to applaud her – just in case we haven’t gotten the message yet. In fact, Gaga employs a subtler technique from the start of the song to subconsciously assert her need for our applause. As a friend of mine with discerning ears pointed out, the sound that immediately echoes Gaga as she sings the first verse (beginning at 0:14) sounds like Gaga’s voice saying “applause”; however, it is truncated to just an audible initial sound (“aw”), with the high and extremely low frequencies filtered out and the frequencies that correspond to the bass line amplified. This truncation creates tension, as the brain seeks out the familiar (i.e., the complete word) only to hear a snippet of it as an eerie timbre, thereby encouraging us to listen further in anticipation of the full word.

Finally, at 2:44, Gaga’s insistence on applause, combined with the underlying dance rhythm, reaches a climax as she sings, “Now, now, now,” and the synthesized clapping crescendos to become flesh as a recording of audience members clapping and screaming takes over our sonic space. This type of manipulative “hyping” is what I consider to be a 21st-century example of “glamouring,” a term that Adorno used to describe a song’s “now we present” attitude in order to capture the listener’s attention (448).[7] Glamouring is part of the process of “plugging” that helps make a song successful, and helps create a memorable hook.[8] In fact, Adorno’s take on glamouring seems to align with Gaga’s aesthetic strikingly well: “All glamour is bound up in trickery. Listeners are nowhere more tricked in popular music than in its glamourous passages” (449). Gaga’s glamouring occurs not at the beginning of her song, as one would expect, but rather at the end so that she may secure our applause through the song’s final moments.

The music video supports Gaga’s need for our applause in the use of the hand as a focal point, the first and most obvious instance being Gaga’s hand clapping throughout the video. At 0:19, her left hand is positioned above her head as if to grasp our attention – a visual glamouring, perhaps?

At 1:23, she is poised between two large, sinister hands that recall Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” scene in The Little Mermaid. Moreover, the choreography features hand gestures (see the dance sequence from 1:49, and the use of jazz hands at 2:02), and during the dance she dons a bra and panties made to look like hands grabbing a body with an accompanying hand “choker necklace.”

Gaga also positions her hands over her face in various shots as she plays different characters, including the image below of Gaga-Pierrot.

Even in the video’s final shot, Gaga does not fully mouth the letters that spell ARTPOP; rather, she uses her hands to spell the letters out. In short, the hand becomes a symbol of approval, acceptance, and power.

*            *             *

“Only with your happiness comes mine.”
                                                – Stefani Angelina Joanne Germanotta

Gaga’s latest Gesamtkunstwerk began with our introduction to Gaga-Pierrot, followed by the song itself, which provides a soundscape of Pierrot – an indicator that the visuals and the music complement each other. The two components were supported by and fused with their tele-visual component a week later with the premiere of the music video. In recapitulation, it is therefore the ubiquitous element of repetition in the song – whether it is in the iteration of the word “applause” in the music itself through various techniques, or in the showcasing of hands in various forms/media in the video – that lends a psychological significance to “Applause.”

The question is: Why is Gaga so insistent upon our physical laudation? Why does she require our acceptance?

The choice to personify Pierrot reveals that Gaga sees much of herself in him: as a “devoted jester,” she entertains and pines for our affections. However, as the musicologist Susan Youens put it, “Pierrots were endemic everywhere in late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century Europe as an archetype of the self-dramatizing artist, who presents to the world a stylized mask both to symbolize and veil artistic ferment, to distinguish the creative artist from the human being” (Youens 96). At times, Gaga feels vulnerable, isolated, and brilliantly tormented because she will always be subject to the ridicule and criticism of her audience.

Indeed, one can search the Internet and find dozens of acerbic reviews of the music video, which premiered 48 hours ago (at the time I’m now writing). People are growing tired of Gaga and her antics; to some, she is already old hat. It should also be noted that the tabloids had a field day last fall when Gaga gained 25 pounds. There were hyperbolic claims that her career would be over soon, with one magazine using the sensationalist headline “Lady Gaga Hits Rock Bottom” – a headline that Gaga actually foreshadowed to the letter in her 2010 “Paparazzi” video. It seems as though Gaga, a “slave to our approval,” whose persona is produced as a result of fan devotion, needs her fan base to persist more than ever before. As Ella Bedard, another Gaga Stigmata contributor, once wrote: “She is only insofar as she exists in the public’s eyes.” A veritable Tinkerbell, Gaga will no longer exist if we stop clapping for her. Therein lies the reason for Gaga’s quest for approbation.

In effect, central to Gaga’s total artwork is the use of technology not just as a primary receptive mode for fans to consume her product, but also as a means of self-preservation. Gaga advertised extensively for the premiere of “Applause” in the weeks leading up to it with tweets, facebook updates, partnership with Vevo, and a culminating appearance on the ABC network show “Good Morning America” in NYC the morning of its premiere. With such extensive and preemptive plugging, “Applause” became a hit before the fact. When the video finally premiered, the world naturally devoured it.

But Gaga does not stop there. Pushing the boundaries of a Gesamtkunstwerk further, Gaga has announced that the release of the ARTPOP album in November will coincide with the release of a free ARTPOP app, an “interactive jewel case” as she describes it, in which fans will be able to communicate and socialize with other fans. ARTPOP will thus be a musical-artistic-technological experience that will link Gaga, her music, and her fans to everyone around the world in real time. By inserting her work into the primary digital cultural space that her fans occupy – a habitus, as Betancourt aptly describes it, characterized by mobile devices and their applications, tablets, and mobile media – Gaga is not only preserving her fandom, her success, and her existence, but also securing it for the future. As she reminds us in her manifesto, “We are nothing without our image. Without our projection. Without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be, or rather to become, in the future.”

In the end, Gaga/Gaga-Pierrot gets the last laugh at the critics and the haters, for she has yet again redefined the concept of a total artwork and executed it successfully by staying one step ahead of her consumers in their ever-changing, fast-paced world of electronic gadgets and digital media. In fact, Gaga gets the last round of applause: the sound of one hand clapping… the sound of her self-congratulatory pat on the back. Like her or hate her, and say what you will about her, folks, but there is no denying that she has done it again.

P.S. Lady Gaga, if you happen to be reading this: on behalf of all Gaga Stigmata writers, thank you for acknowledging music scholars!

[1] The song is technically in the Aeolian mode, since the key here is G natural minor, one of the three types of minor scales. I will refer to it simply as a minor scale for ease of readership, though.

[2] It must be noted that pitches and scales do not possess emotions. The concept that music has the potential to arouse an affect within the listener began with the ancient Greeks, but was promulgated from the 17th century onward, most notably with the Doctrine of Affections. This theory of musical aesthetics bestowed many tonal scales – as well as intervals within a scale, tempi, and other musical elements – with emotional states of being. The oversimplification and stereotyping of “major as happy” and “minor as sad” stems from this theory.

[3] The complete progression would be i-VII-VI-V-i, and contains the dominant chord, V, which is a necessary chord for the “proper” resolution of harmonic tension in tonal music. This descending minor tetrachord sequence, which can be traced back to the music of the ancient Greeks, has occasionally appeared in Western music throughout the centuries. It also gained popularity in several genres of music during the 1960s.

[4] The song isn’t entirely non-teleological; after all, the chorus melodies differ from the verse melody, and the chorus accompaniment lines develop out of the bass line of the first verse.

[5] In music theory, the flatted third degree (flatted because it is in the minor mode) is the distinguishing factor between a major sonority and a minor one, along with the sixth and seventh scale degrees.

[6] Adorno’s essays stand out for his unabashed exaltation of “serious” music (high art music, especially of German origin), and his scathing criticisms of pop music, or what he referred to as “vulgar” music. Adorno was writing about popular music of the 1920s and 1930s; therefore, his idea of pop music was the jazz-inspired dance music of that age. While his essays provide insight into the capitalist-driven nature of popular culture and music via Marxist ideology, his sweeping dismissal and stereotyping of jazz music is, in my opinion, erroneous.

[7] Adorno uses the background music that plays while the lion roars in an MGM studios production as a classic instance of glamouring.

[8] Plugging relies not just upon elements in the music, but also upon the artist and manager, advertising, media, technology, etc, in order to standardize a song and make it a hit.

Works Cited
Adorno, Theodore. “On Popular Music.” Essays On Popular Music. Ed. Richard Leppert.
Trans. Susan H. Gillespie. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2002.
437-469. Print.

Youens, Susan. “Excavating an Allegory: The Text of Pierrot Lunaire.” Journal of the Arnold
Schoenberg Institute 8 (1984): 94-115. Print.

Author Bio:
Ayah Rifai is a clarinetist, musicologist, and music educator. She holds a Master’s degree in Historical Musicology/Music Theory from Stony Brook University, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in music education at Boston University. She teaches hundreds of her own little monsters at P.S. 264, The Bay Ridge Elementary School for the Arts, in Brooklyn, New York.


  1. [3] - i-VII-VI-V is actually a phrigian tetrachord

  2. The singing style in the verses puts me in mind of Joan Crawford. And linking to that, Bette Davis and her garish makeup in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? She too was wearing the loose white Pierrot-like smock.


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