Lady Gaga has an ambivalent relationship with celebrity.
Her first album was called The Fame. And fame was something she deliberately cultivated early on via her Warholian homages to jarring imagery and outlandish outfits—such as a dress made of meat, for instance. Having established herself as a bona fide stylistic provocateur, Gaga then veered from the bizarre into the noir with a decidedly darker effort, The Fame Monster. As that EP's title implies, the eight-song collection hinted that perhaps celebrity wasn't all it's cracked up to be after all.
Gaga continues those conflicted contradictions on "Applause," her first single from her third full-length studio album, ARTPOP, and her first new music since 2011's Born This Way. When she tells us, repeatedly, "I live for applause, applause," it's not completely clear whether she's bragging about it, making a confession or deconstructing her own—and other celebrities'—addiction to it.
In typical Gaga fashion, I'd suggest she's probably doing all three at the same time.
At the very least, she's couching her hunger for acclaim in addictive terms, hinting at both its danger and its tantalizing promise. "I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong," the song begins (perhaps a reference to the '70s and '80s variety series The Gong Show, in which participants were vetoed by celebrities wielding performance-ending gongs), "To crash the critic, saying, 'Is it right or is it wrong?'" She then tells us she wishes she could experience the highs of fame without that risk of rejection: "If only fame had an IV, baby, could I bear/Being away from you, I found the vein, put it in here."
In other words, she's enthralled by the rush of fame but horrified by the all-too-real possibility of soul-crushing criticism. Given that conundrum, she confesses that she'll still do anything to keep receiving the applause she's become dependent upon: "I live for the applause, applause/ … Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me/The applause, applause, applause/ … Put your hands up, make 'em touch, touch (make it real loud)/Give me that thing that I love (I'll turn the lights out)."
After a while, she admits, an artist seeking constant approval from fans begins to lose her identity in the pursuit of that affirmation: "Pop culture was in art, now art's in pop culture in me."
"Applause," then, offers a nuanced and multilayered assessment (for a pop song, certainly) of humans' ever-escalating need for attention. And the accompanying video explores this conflicted theme in some eyebrow-arching ways. Gaga performs in a variety of costumes, some of them barely there—such as one with (only) strategically placed seashells and another in which cloth "hands" grab her breasts, her groin and her throat. She writhes sensually and suggestively in lingerie on a mattress and on the floor.
She also performs in a covering, black, hooded leotard as if to provocatively defy the description of sexy. She also alternates wearing elaborate makeup with moments in which it appears she's wearing none, allowing her own shockingly normal-looking face to be revealed. And for a few very strange seconds her head sprouts from the long neck of a black swan. (Andy Warhol, meet Darren Aronofsky.)
As these contrasting images flash back and forth, I don't think it's a huge stretch to suggest that she's trying to make a statement about what's necessary to keep that titular applause coming. Namely, taking your clothes off as well as using makeup to transform you into whoever (whatever) your audience wants you to be—never mind if it's not really you.
Then again, Lady Gaga's identity has been almost infinitely malleable from the very beginning of her career. And if it takes taking your clothes off to court and sustain that much-needed applause, it's a trade-off Lady Gaga seems to have no problem making.