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Lady Gaga, telephone songs and female vocal empowerment

'... the telephone is such an obvious vehicle of communication and it represents the relationships we have with one another ...'

University of Huddersfield


IMAGE: Dr. Lisa Colton's research paper called 'Who's calling? Telephone songs, female vocal empowerment and signification' looks at the provocative pop and outrageous style statements of Lady Gaga plus the surprisingly... view more

Credit: University of Huddersfield

UNIVERSITY of Huddersfield lecturer Dr Lisa Colton has explored the heavenly music of medieval mystics and delved deep into ancient archives. But her research also strikes a highly contemporary note, including the provocative pop and outrageous style statements of Lady Gaga plus the surprisingly prominent part played by the telephone in huge numbers of chart hits over many decades.

Dr Colton - who is Subject Leader for Music at the University - will soon publish her new book, Angel Voices: Medieval English Music in History. But her latest publication, out now, is a contribution to a volume titled Lady Gaga and Popular Music - Performing Gender, Fashion and Culture.

In it, Dr Colton examines the Lady Gaga song Telephone. It charted around the world in 2009 and was accompanied by an ambitious promotional video - virtually a mini-movie - that features an appearance by another female pop icon, Beyoncé.

"I was approached by the editors of the book because they knew I was interested in pop music as it relates to issues of gender, identity and sexuality," said Dr Colton. "There are lots of things I would have been happy to write about Lady Gaga, such as her attitudes towards disability, empowerment or queer theory. But I thought that her song Telephone would be a good opportunity to explore technology as well - that is, the technology that makes the song work, such as microphones and sampling, and the telephone itself."

On the phone

When she began her research, Dr Colton decided to establish how many popular songs were themed around the telephone.

"It turned out that there were well over a hundred songs where the telephone figures prominently. Sometimes they feature conversations that are clearly on the phone and sometimes the telephone is really important in the drama of the song."

Dr Colton restricted her research to the latter half of the twentieth century, up to the release of Lady Gaga's Telephone in 2009. The earliest song in her survey was the Glenn Miller Orchestra's 1940 swing hit Pennsylvania 6-5000, which incorporates an actual phone number in its title.

As she listened to scores of telephone-themed pop songs, Dr Colton realised that they were almost a genre in themselves.

"There are songs that make references to telephone numbers, and songs that revolve around the use of telephones in romantic relationships. And they often feature sample sounds of telephones to support the music.

"The telephone is such an obvious vehicle of communication and it represents the relationships we have with one another," said Dr Colton. "Telephone songs focus our attention on the relationship between two people and we are drawn into a private world as well, because phone conversations are assumed to be between two individuals communicating, often dealing with their own, intimate thoughts about their relationship."


As for Lady Gaga, Dr Colton is confident that the American star - notable for her visual creativity as well as her music - is worthy of academic study.

"She is a classically-trained musician who knows pop music history as well as broader musical history, and she very consciously engages with all sorts of different media and imagery," said Dr Colton, who will present her findings on Lady Gaga at a session of the University of Huddersfield's Popular Music Studies Research Group. The subject also feeds into an undergraduate module that she teaches, entitled Music, Gender and Identity.

Much of Dr Colton's research and writing deals with the medieval period, but she finds points of contact between ancient and modern.

"There are points in history where there is a relationship between what's happening musically and what is happening in terms of musical culture and social culture. In the case of Lady Gaga, there is a relationship between a really interesting musician and how she puts everything together in relation to technology."


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