The Strange Case of ‘Telephone’

Sydney Urbanek
15 min readMar 11, 2020

A closer look at the Lady Gaga/Beyoncé video—its origin story, its influences, its themes, and its legacy—on its 10th birthday

“Once you kill a cow, you gotta make a burger”

“I hate ‘Telephone.’ Is that terrible to say? It’s the song I have the most difficult time listening to.”

“Because it was offered to Britney first?”

“Well that’s not exactly what happened, but I don’t want to delve into that. I could delve into it if you turn that off,” said Lady Gaga, motioning to journalist Peter Robinson’s audio recorder.

It was May of 2011, the same month that the then 25-year-old star released Born This Way, and Robinson had asked her what she thought her worst song was. There weren’t too many to chose from yet—she’d technically only put out one album, The Fame (2008), and its reissue, The Fame Monster (2009)—but her answer was still unexpected. “Telephone” had been a standout track from The Fame Monster. It was nominated for a Grammy; it featured Beyoncé, another massive star; its video garnered half a million views in its first 12 hours on YouTube. “When I say it’s my worst song it has nothing to do with the song,” Gaga clarified. “Just my emotional connection to it.”

But elsewhere in the same interview, she indicated that it wasn’t just the song she had mixed feelings about: “I can’t even watch the ‘Telephone’ video. I hate it so much. Beyoncé and I are great together. But there are so many fucking ideas in that video and […] I wish I had edited myself a little bit more.” As for Beyoncé, we know practically nothing about what she thinks of “Telephone,” aside from the fact that she felt “very, very honoured to be a part of it” while on set. It’s perhaps telling, however, that she’s only ever performed the song live twice—once during her 2011 Glastonbury set, and once just a few days before that same set.

Therein lies the weird contradiction at the heart of “Telephone,” whose video premiered 10 years ago today. For Gaga, it was a weak link in her early videography. (She much preferred her subsequent video, “Alejandro,” which didn’t do quite as well on the forums.) For Beyoncé, it may have been an honour to be a part of it, but she’s never suggested that it meant any more to her than that. “Telephone” was a collaboration between two artists—23 and 28, respectively—who’d only met relatively…

Sydney Urbanek

Writer on mostly pop music x moving images. Often at