VideoGaGa: “Just Dance ft. Colby O’Donis”

"Just Dance," and hence Lady GaGa, was a hit in Australia long before GaGa began her long domination of her home country. [1] It’s for that reason that, apart from knowing that she didn’t wear pants a lot of the time, my primary exposure to GaGa for a very long portion of her career was through her music rather than through her cross-platform, multi-media brand construction. 

And even though I’ve caught up some in the interim, my perception of GaGa has been skewed by taking such a music-focused approach to a pop singer intent on making the accompanying images and ideas she produces so important to understanding her songs. And I am not one to decide that ignorance makes my position more pure, as if, in focusing on the music, my view were more uncluttered and authoritative.  No, the extraneous bullshit has a whole lot to do with the GaGa phenomenon, so I’ve decided to roll up my sleeves and get dirty. By which I mean I’m going to be examining her videos in chronological order, culminating in “Telephone,” which I am still yet to see. [3]

My first impression of “Just Dance” was that it must have been a new Rihanna single. This was around the time “Disturbia” was making the rounds, and GaGa owes a lot to Rihanna’s efforts to re-orient the US charts from R&B to gleaming electro. It’s indicative of what a shift GaGa was in pop music that I had such difficulty locating her in a proper cultural context; when I found out she was not Rihanna, I assumed she was part of an Akon invasion of Europe, an act deployed for an international market that was never expected to be successful in her home country, like the Scissor Sisters or Blondie. [4]

But I could live with that. “Just Dance” is fascinating because it is a club song focused so minutely on what it is like to be in a club, and particularly, what it is like to be completely fucked up in a club. Most club songs, particularly in rap/R&B, tend to speak about the club as an Eden of wine, women, and the sexual encounters such a combination will inevitably produce. I’ve never been in a club that produces anything close to a utopia from those elements.

"Just Dance" approximates the experience better: there are strangers everywhere, the music is loud, you’ve had way too much to drink, and the only way to really get through the experience is to just dance; surrender yourself to the music and the darkness and save sense for the daylight hours.

GaGa is actually having a pretty awful night; she can’t find her keys or her phone, she can’t see straight, somehow she’s turned her shirt inside out, and she’s forgotten which club she’s even in. “Just Dance” is a bit like the Streets’ “Blinded by the Lights,” except you can actually dance to it. “Blinded by the Lights” worked because it was a song that was made not to be played in clubs, but to capture what it was like to be in a club. “Just Dance” goes one better by also being a song that can be played in a club. 

The video, as GaGa videos go, is pretty tame. Apart from the scenes of her riding/grinding an inflatable killer whale in a kiddie pool, GaGa doesn’t do much more than pose in a disco-ball bra and show off her Aladdin Sane make up. For some reason the setting is a house party, not a club, as the lyrics propose, but this works too; the costumes are a little outlandish, but for the most part the house party here looks like an actual house party, more realistic than most parties portrayed in movies are. The lighting is bad, there’s a lot of empty space and the people dancing around can’t really fill the room with anything but exuberance. (Movies tend to try to make house parties look like clubs.) The focus of the video, like the song, is in describing an experience as it is, not as it is culturally assumed to be.

The thing about the song and the video “Just Dance,” I guess, is that it is GaGa in utero. As a pop star and an idea, she is not yet fully formed, though there are hints. She tells us that she wants to be seen as a contemporary female Bowie, even though she hasn’t really decided how she’ll do that. She has ideas about where her music is going (more on this later), but for the moment, she’s only created a curiously self-reflexive dance tune. “What’s going on on the floor? I love this record, baby…”

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[1] Some guy on the Internet says the song made Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play listing during the northern summer of ‘08, but you basically only need to be played in a couple of L.A. bars a handful of times to make the top of that chart.

[2] But nor is my perspective incorrect either. 

[3] I thought “Telephone” was a fine track on the mostly excellent Fame Monster, though not as bracingly inventive as “Bad Romance,” “Monster,” or “So Happy I Could Die.”

[4] I also thought she wouldn’t last long for that reason; Akon, who with the now-forgotten Colby O’Donis guests on “Just Dance,” and he has a near non-existent track record of playing mentor. Fortunately, mentor was a role he did not play here.