By Roland Betancourt
The other day, I defined chromatomachy – from the Greek chromata (colors) and machia (battle) – as a battle of color on the proportions of the mythic Ancient Greek war of the giants, the gigantomachy, or the war of the Amazons, the Amazonomachy. Lady Gaga’s music video for “Applause” did not fail to manifest precisely this notion of a chromatomachy articulated specifically through the language of Greek myth. The video unfolds like a grotesque burlesque show at the bottom of a minimalist hellscape. The carnivalesque scene is replete with human-animal hybrids, dancers, our familiar Pierrot, a giant magician’s hat, and a colored-smoke emitting cauldron. While the video does not narratively stage a battle between color and black-and-white (as Gaga’s earlier statements might suggest), it certainly constructs a cyclical push-and-pull between the two – like the passing and return of seasons.
The video blatantly stages a modern day riff on the Disney classic Fantasia (1940), a fantasy of music, color, magic, and myth with a playful, at times absurd, humor. Gaga appears in a variety of guises that allude to mythic figures: for example, she emerges out of a giant hat like a magician’s rabbit, yet the figure she embodies is reminiscent more of a Satyr, with her disco-ball pants and perky fiber-optic tail, than a rabbit.
Her nude body covered in seashells similarly alludes to the figure of Venus, particularly as reimagined by Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus – a reading that Gaga affirmed when she shared the same image (below) with the hashtag #BotticelliBabe.
Likewise, Gaga’s appearance as a swan with a human head riffs on similar mythic hybrids, and particularly recalls the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan. We might even go further and compare this image with Jeff Koon’s own giant rendition of a swan in his massive balloon-animal series.
Gaga’s use of Disney imagery becomes particularly potent when we compare Ursula’s spell-casting over her cauldron during “Poor Unfortunate Souls” in the The Little Mermaid (also a tale of human-animal hybridity) with the shot of Gaga standing in a cauldron-like structure, two giant curled hands emerging from it.
The hands in Gaga’s video appear as a monochromatic, white sketch, and seem ready to grasp Gaga’s body – rather than applaud – right before a puff of colored smoke devours the scene from within the cauldron. Gaga’s seashell bikini makes her identification with Ariel all the more potent. Thus the figure of Ariel is constructed via the Botticelli allusion. In The Little Mermaid, Ursula stands at the center of the screen as she casts the spell over her cauldron instead of over Ariel. Nevertheless, these hands rising from the cauldron move forward toward Ariel as she sings, extracting her voice to secure it away in Ursula’s seashell necklace. Here, the image of Gaga-Ariel is likewise consumed within this underworld-like space.
But the image that brings many of these issues together is the scantly-clad, witch-like figure with flowing black hair, who carries a leg-shaped cornucopia towards the end of the video. Like a sort of Minoan Snake Goddess figurine, the figure advances through a gossamer tunnel of colored waters whose texture recalls the mystical diaphanous waves that crash upon the cliffs in one of Fantasia’s most iconic scenes – when Mickey Mouse, as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, charms the waters.
I am also inclined to see within this image a postulation of the Greek Goddess Demeter, the mother of Persephone who was taken by Hades into the Underworld. In Ancient Greek imagery, Demeter is often accompanied by a figure of Plutos (abundance or wealth) who carries a cornucopia to symbolize the overflowing harvest, and at times Demeter was presented carrying this herself. According to myth, Demeter strikes a bargain to allow Persephone to live on Mount Olympus during the spring and summer, and back in Hades in the fall and winter. As Goddess of the harvest, Demeter’s cyclical happiness and depression during the presences and absences of her daughter construct the flow of the seasons. Here we may read these seasonal changes as manifesting through the video’s colors.
The video plays fast and loose with a series of emblematic images, embodying an idea that Gaga described in a tweet: “iconography in motion, as magic.” Each image operates as a tableau vivant iterated through a cabaret-style, burlesque setting where a vulgar comedy riffs on a Disney-inspired hellscape. There is something deeply childish and immature about the video and its coherent awkwardness, like stepping into a vaudeville inspired magic show, or like a surreal iteration of Britney Spears’s video for “Circus” on the “Alejandro” set.
In essence, the “Applause” music video functions as the perfect pair with its lyric video, which manifests an analogous process of referential drag in terms of an actual drag show – the lyric video is in a sense a literal video. Even the structure of oblique signification that I witnessed in the filming of the lyric video finds its way into this music video. Take for instance the bird-caged Gaga with her Marilyn-like wig, which has been read derisively by some as a Madonna citation (as on the blog BoyCulture). Nevertheless, here we witness Gaga being read in the image of Madonna through the implicit Warhol-citation: the garish colored wig and lipstick that echoes the silkscreened images of Marilyn, which Madonna emulated for the cover of Celebration (2009).
Note in particular that Madonna’s cover not only drew inspiration from Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962), but also echoed David Bowie’s makeup for the “Life on Mars?” music video, which I have already discussed here. Hence, in this video, attempted readings of familiar citations ricochet upon endless targets, making much of its imagery only capable of being described with the suffix -like or -esque. From Disney’s Fantasia to Ancient Greek myths to Minoan Snake Goddesses to The Little Mermaid to Andy Warhol, the imagery and structure of the video is perpetually familiar, yet always eludes citation – indeed, it is entirely uncanny. In essence, it merely asks that you look at it and consider it formally. It forces one into a false sense of comfort or knowing.
Roland Betancourt is a doctoral candidate in the History of Art Department at Yale University writing a dissertation entitled, “The Proleptic Image: An Investigation of the Medium in Byzantium.” In April 2012, he co-chaired a major symposium at Yale entitled Byzantium/Modernism on the mutually generative collision of Byzantium and Modernism. In addition to various other projects, he is currently editing a special volume of the journal postmedieval entitled, “Imagined Encounters: Historiographies for a New World,” which asks scholars to suspend disbelief and create cross-temporal analyses using artworks and theories from different historical spaces.