The first thing I noticed about Lady Gaga's new music video is that she's smiling. Not tortured, not pouting, not baring her teeth in romantic agony, but smiling... while she dances, while she sings, while she plays the mime, the jerky puppet-zombie, and the insane person in a huge hat. Even when she's not smiling, you can spot a twinge of amusement playing around her lips as she romps across the giant set.
Compared to past Gaga videos, where she spends most of her time writhing and grimacing, this experience looks like it was genuinely fun. Maybe she's finally found herself, maybe she's just really into her hand bra, but Mother Monster is having a good time.
Unlike earlier tour de forces like "Telephone," Gaga's not exactly a sex kitten in this video. There are a few glossy lips and some lacy underwear, but on occasion, she looks downright unattractive — not artfully "unattractive", but messy and smeary. Wild face-paint is nothing new for Gaga, but her makeup is usually sexualized: Bloodied, pouting lips, maneater eyeliner, and so on. In "Applause," she peacocks as a greasy Master of Ceremonies (bad eyebrows, cravat, and all):
...a nearly bare-faced nun/rehearsing actor:
...and an androgynously contoured bird:
Even when she's wearing girlier makeup, there's something very handmade about the looks — if you pause the video, you can really can see the texture of the paint, the smear of fingerprints, the knotty hair of an obsessive girl, and the shine of a dancer who's sweating hard.
Other than her Venus de Milo bikini and her hand bra, Gaga's costumes obscure, rather than reveal, her body. Appropriate, since Gaga is finally singing about something other than sex. This is one of her most straightforwardly joyful songs, and it's refreshing in its narcissistic demands: "I live for the applause/...live for the way that you cheer and scream for me."
The world she inhabits in "Applause" is different from her former worlds, the ones that were highly stylized and dependent on narrative (see the destructive bath house of "Bad Romance" or the sultry all-female prison in "Telephone"). This world is the real one, or at least Gaga's version of it: It's a giant stage, and the lyrics are an open letter from Gaga to her fans.
Her image is no longer filtered through a fantasy lover's eyes, like it was in so many of her other songs ("Poker Face," "LoveGame," "Paparazzi," "Alejandro," "Judas," "You & I"... need I go on?). Now that the cruel lover is out of the way, Gaga can finally enjoy herself. Even when she's barely wearing any clothes, the experience of the video is refreshingly liberated from sexuality, allowing us and Gaga to focus on what she's been trying to do all along: create some sort of freaky, cobbled-together, 21st-century art.