Lady Gaga

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[Clickable Transcript]

Hello and welcome to Explained in English. My name is Kiah and today I’ll be explaining the song 911 by Lady Gaga with the help of a guest interpreter, Ariel Goodbody.

Kiah: Today's explanation is made for advanced English learners. If you're at an intermediate level, I recommend that you read along with the transcript. It's available for free along with the music for today's episode at explainedinenglish.com or there's also a direct link in this episode's description. I'm also very excited to have Ariel Goodbody here today. Hello, Ariel! How are you? Welcome to the show!

Ariel: I'm doing fantastic. Thank you. I'll just introduce myself. I'm Ariel Goodbody. I'm the creator of Easy Stories in English, a hopefully fun podcast for learning English through stories. Basically, I'm a writer and a language teacher and I thought, well, there must surely be a podcast for learning English through fiction and I found out that really wasn't. So, I just write short little stories at various levels to learn English with some vocabulary explanations and conversations and I'm really excited for this collaboration today.

Kiah: Me too! I'm so happy you're here. I can't tell you how many times I've used your podcast to help my students learn English with stories. I think that music and books are two of the hardest areas for language learners, and you really do a fantastic job making stories and literary English more accessible, easier for learners. So, definitely, all of you should check out Ariel's podcast called Easy Stories in English. But today, we are here to discuss 911 by Lady Gaga, Ariel, why did you choose this song? Can you tell me something that you like about it or why it's a special song for you?

Ariel: So, from a young age as a teenager, I've always really hated Lady Gaga.

Kiah: Really?

Ariel: I was one of those really annoying people who is like, “Oh I don't like Lady Gaga! I think she's really annoying. I don't like her music.” I refused to listen to her music. I don't know why but I just really didn't like Lady Gaga. I was a very contrarian teenager, I guess. I was, like -- contrarian meaning like I was always trying to go against the mainstream, the cool stuff. I like only listened to music in different languages and stuff, so I didn't like her and I didn't really think much about her music. But then when I got into university, I started, you know, maybe diversifying my tastes a bit, like listening to more diverse music, listening to different genres. I started listening to a lot of pop and I was like, okay yeah, I like her music but none of it, I guess, hugely spoke to me until, I think it was last year, she came up with the album Chromatica, which is her latest album. And I really, really enjoyed several songs from it and I think overall it's a really great album. Obviously it was slightly affected by coronavirus so she wasn't able to do all of the things she wanted, like all of the music videos that she wanted to create. But, she did create this really, really beautiful artistic piece for this song, 911, that I think adds a lot to the song and really made me appreciate the song on another level. So, that's why I decided to discuss it today.

Kiah: Is that the video that you're talking about the artistic piece or the album as a whole?

Ariel: Yeah, exactly. The music video. Yeah, yeah.

Kiah: For those of you who haven't seen, after the explanation you can check out this video. It's a really interesting way of showing some of the elements in the lyrics, but in a visual format. So, now I'm going to go ahead and explain the song and then I'll have Ariel back on for the interpretation.

Ariel: See you in a bit!

Kiah: See you soon, Ariel.

Lady Gaga is one of those rare pop artists that writes songs which are extremely catchy, that get stuck in your head, but if you stop and think about the lyrics, they're often much different than what you would expect. The theme is mental illness and it's a very personal song for her because she wrote it about herself, about her own experience. The song is called 911. In the United States, 911 is an emergency phone number. It's the number that you dial whenever you need urgent, immediate help. Dialing 911 could connect you with the police or a hospital or any other type of emergency service. However, in the lyrics, 911 represents medication or the pills that she takes in order to feel better, to medicate her condition. Let's talk about the lyrics. The first verse begins with the line:

[Verse 1]
Turnin’ up emotional faders
Anything that fades is less intense or less strong than it used to be. For example, the colors of your clothing might fade over time. They might become less and less vibrant, less and less bright. Sound can also fade, you might have very loud music and then it gets quieter and quieter and quieter and quieter. And that's fading; the sound is fading. Here we have emotional faders. So, it means that her emotions are becoming weaker and weaker because she's turning up emotional faders. It's a very interesting play on words to turn up something that will make your emotions fade. Usually we turn up the volume of audio, for instance, if we want it to be louder. But here or she's turning up her faders. Another way to say that is she's taking more medicine. So, the medicine is making her emotions a little bit weaker. In the song, many of these lines sound mechanical, almost like a robot, or a machine, and that's on purpose. It sounds like: [turning up emotional faders]. This mechanical, robotic voice is meant to show how she feels when she's on her medication. She feels a bit like a machine. Turning up emotional faders…

Keep repeating self-hating phrases
Or, as you'll hear it in the song, [keep repeating self-hating phrases]. This means that she has negative thoughts in her mind, there are a lot of sentences or phrases that she keeps saying over and over to herself. She keeps repeating them. She calls these thoughts self-hating phrases. An example, of a self-hating phrase might be, “I'm stupid” or “I'm very ugly” or “I can't do anything right.” These are all self-hating phrases. The verse continues:

I have heard enough of these voices
She's tired of these phrases in her mind. She says that she's heard enough of them. That means, she doesn't want to hear them anymore. She's sick of them. She's tired of them. No more please! But, she says:

It's almost like I have no choice
This means that she feels trapped in this situation. Very stuck in her mind and because of that she says, it's almost like I have no choice. She feels mostly powerless. The next line says:

This is biological stasis
Biological stasis would mean that your life isn't changing much, it really reinforces the previous line about having no choice. Her body or her biological nature is in stasis. It's not changing, not moving, not evolving in any fast way. In fact, something that's in stasis has slowed down so much that it appears to not be moving or changing at all. So, it's very interesting that in the next line, she says:

My mood’s shifting to manic places
Your mood is how you feel. It's connected to your emotions. For example, you can be in a happy mood or you can be in a sad mood. And so, this seems the exact opposite of biological stasis. Now she says, her mood is shifting; it’s changing; going in the direction of mania. If you're feeling manic than you're having high energy and your mood is elevated, it's more intense than usual. There's a type of depression called manic depression which is more commonly known as bipolar disorder. And if you are manic depressive, then you have large shifts in mood -- your mood swings. You sometimes feel very emotionally low and other times you feel very elevated, very high. The next part of this verse says:

Wish I’d laughed and kept the good friendships
She's expressing a wish, a deep desire or want. This means that she hasn't been a very good friend or at least that her condition, her illness, has kept her from keeping her friendships. So, she's expressing regret. She says, I wish I had kept my friends but I didn't. She also wishes that she laughed. *Ha ha ha* She'd like to be happier, her mood and her situation seems so serious. She wants to laugh about it. She wants to treat it more lightly, but that didn't happen either. The verse finishes with the line:

Watch life, here I go again
So, she's watching her life. She's observing it. She's witnessing it as it happens. And she says, “here I go again” That means she's going to do something very familiar, that she's done many times before. Now we get into the pre-chorus, which is perhaps the catchiest part of the song, it begins:

I can't see my cry
Can't see me cry, ever again

Crying. You might cry when you feel sad or when you feel happy or when you feel overwhelmed. But she says, I can't see me cry. This could mean a couple things, it could mean that she doesn't want to see herself cry that she's tired of crying and feeling this situation so intensely. Another option is that the medication, the pills that she's taking, are numbing her. They're making it so she can't feel and therefore if you can't feel, you won't cry. So, she says I can't see me or see myself cry ever again. She ends this pre-chorus by saying: can't see me cry…

I can't see me cry
Can't see me cry, this is the end

If something has ended then it's finished. There's no more. So, it stops here. This is the end. Going straight into the chorus now, we hear:

My biggest enemy is me
Pop a 911

Remember, I told you that 911 is representative of emergencies and particularly in this song of medication and pills. So, she's gonna pop a 911. That means take a pill, take this medicine. So popping pills or popping a 911 here is just slang for swallowing the pill. And she repeats over and over again: my biggest enemy is me. Your enemy is the opposite of your friend. It's the person who goes against you, who doesn't have your interest or your well-being in mind and she says, her biggest enemy, her greatest enemy is herself, she says it's me, probably referring to her mind and her thoughts -- they always seem to be going against her, they’re so negative. So, she sees herself as the problem. She sees herself as her own worst enemy. My biggest enemy is me…

My biggest enemy is me
Ever since day one
Pop a 911 then pop another one

The phrase “ever since” talks about the beginning of something, the origin. Ever since day one means from the very first day or from the beginning. And she deals with this problem by popping pills. So, she says: pop a 911, pop another one. Going now into verse two, we start with the line:

[Verse 2]
Keep my dolls inside diamond boxes
The word doll usually refers to a toy for little kids, often a miniature or small model of an animal or a person, but she's not talking about cute little children's toys here. Instead, dolls is another reference to her pills. It comes from an American book and a movie that came out in the 1960s called The Valley of the Dolls. And one of the main themes of this work was addiction and taking pills. Lady Gaga uses that reference in this song saying I keep my dolls inside diamond boxes. We don't know exactly what the diamond box is, but definitely it's a container, the place where she keeps or stores her pills. And it could be a box shaped like a diamond or who knows, Lady Gaga's very rich, maybe she actually has diamonds on that box. Less literally, she treats her pills as if they were precious things, like a diamond. Keep my dolls inside diamond boxes…

Save 'em 'til I know I'm gon' drop this
We've got some nice truncated forms here or shortened words. She says, save ‘em. “Save ‘em” means save them. Save them ‘til. Save them until. Save ‘em ‘til I know I’m gon’ drop this is short for gonna drop this. Which, in itself, is short for going to drop this. What's it mean? It means that she's keeping her pills, she's saving them until she needs them. In the line she says she's saving them until she knows she's gonna drop this. If you drop something, you let it go. Literally, you let it fall to the floor, but in slang, it means that you're leaving something behind. When she takes her pills, she'll leave behind this manic-depressive state. She will also leave behind or drop this front that she's created. This line connects to the next one. It says: I'm gonna drop this…

Front I've built around my oasis
A front is slang English. It's the image that you want other people to see of you. That's your front. It's not the real you, it's not the deep and genuine you, it's what you want everyone else to see. That's a front. So, she's going to save her pills until she knows she can drop this front. This front is her public image and that's the image that she's built around her oasis. Her oasis is her heaven. It's the mindset that she has when she's feeling good, when she's not in these manic-depressive states. When I think of the word oasis, I picture a desert oasis, which is a refuge or a peaceful place that's full of life but surrounded by death, by barren, dry land. And the way that she gets to her oasis is through her pills. So, that's what the next line says. It says:

Paradise is in my hands
Meaning that her salvation, her relief, is in the pill and that pill is in her hands. It's the one thing she feels like she can control. In the next lines she says:

Holdin’ on so tight to this status
Once again, I feel that this is a reference to her situation as a pop star, as a celebrity. Her status -- she's holding on to it, she doesn't want to let it go. Another way to say this is that she's scared to lose it, so she's holding so tightly and she's not letting it flow -- she's not letting it go. Holding on so tight to this status…

It's not real but I'll try to grab it
Here we see that she knows it's fake. She knows that it's going to change, but she says, “Eh, I'll try to grab it -- I'll try to hold on to this status as long as I can.” In the final line of this verse, she says:

Keep myself in beautiful places
Paradise is in my hands

So, the only way that she can stay here is with her pills, because without them she couldn't keep up the front -- she couldn't keep up this image that she's created of herself in the public's eye. In the final lines of this song, you hear her sing:

Please patch the line (x2)
Need a 911
Can you patch the line?

Patch the line is a reference to the old telephone networks. Back before cellular or mobile phones, if you wanted to call someone you needed to connect with a real wire. Oftentimes an operator would connect you and they would patch the line or establish a connection between two phones. When you called 911 in the past, you might want them to connect you to the police or to an ambulance. So, please patch the line, need a 911 is basically her way of saying that she's in crisis, in a state of distress, and she's asking for help.

Kiah: Alright, so there's a lot to discuss here. Lots of ideas to consider. Ariel, what do you think about these lyrics?

Ariel: So, I have an interesting thing where I'm quite bad at hearing lyrics in songs. So, usually when I first listen to a song, I mishear a lot of the lyrics, like I hear the words as different words and then I interpret the song one way, and then I read the actual lyrics and I have to reinterpret it according to the actual words. So, I have a mixture of fake interpretation and actual interpretation. But the first line I really like, “turning up emotional faders” because when I first heard it, I heard it as “phasers” and that made me think of the weapon from Star Trek where they have phasers that they can like shoot people with to stun them or kill them. And it kind of adds into the whole like robotic imagery. And I feel like, maybe it's supposed to sound similar to that, at least to me it makes me think of phasers. And, you know, a lot of language, like biological stasis, the robotic voice, it kind of adds this cyborg feeling to the track, I guess like a half human, half robot. And I think that fits into the album very interestingly because the album is called Chromatica, and it's kind of about this magical world that you can escape to called Chromatica. But what's unclear to me is if Chromatica is like this paradise, where you're safe, if you're like different or if it's somewhere that we run away to, but actually it's not a helping us, right? Like, when Alice goes to Wonderland, she eventually has to return. The first song of the album is called Alice, and it says, “My name isn’t Alice, but I'm still looking for Wonderland.” So, I think this song maybe represents the “dark side” of when we escape to fantasies to protect ourselves, but ultimately it brings us to a crash, right? Like it brings us to a 911, where we’re forced into like a really painful situation, and even though it might seem easier to pop the pill and kind of numb ourselves, to lose our feelings, to go into stasis, ultimately we have to work through these really painful things.

Kiah: It's very interesting. One of the things that struck me the most about the song was that although she's talking about a kind of psychosis or almost uncontrollable mental illness. I think a lot of us can relate to being stuck in our own minds and maybe we're all a little bit psychotic just on varying levels. Some of us just have it in a very controllable, minor way, whereas for others, it's more extreme, more intense versions.

Ariel: Yeah, I've been thinking about this a lot recently because with one of my students, we've been discussing cognition, metacognition, and different ways of thinking. And there was something that kind of was a point of discussion a few years ago, when people were talking about inner monologues. So like, do you have a voice inside your head? Narrating, what's happening in your life. Like, “oh, I'm going to the fridge... I’m opening the fridge.” And I don't have an inner monologue. I really don't have a voice in my head. I can take my thoughts and I can turn them into words. I'm a writer, so it's kind of important. But generally, I don't think in language and this was a big discussion especially on Twitter where the people who have inner monologues were really surprised that some people didn't have inner monologues and vice versa. The people who didn't have inner monologues, like me, were really surprised that, “oh, you have, you actually have a voice inside your head? I thought that only happened on like cartoons!” And there was this big discussion about like, oh my God, we see the world in such different ways, how can it be? But what you realize is that, well, we all think in different ways, and that's okay. And actually, I think a lot of us, we want to think that we are really healthy and in control of our thoughts and that psychosis must be this really horrible, unbelievable thing, but I think we're not that far away from it because it's just a few things in your mind that have to change. We all have the power of imagination. We can all bring images into our minds and all that psychosis really is, is that power going a bit too far and losing the ability to distinguish between imagined imagery and real imagery.

Kiah: Yeah, and in the video of this song I think it certainly went too far. Let's talk about that for a moment. So, just a quick warning. If you haven't seen the music video yet and you don't want us to spoil it or tell you how it ends. Go ahead and pause this explanation and enjoy the video. Okay, Ariel, help me out here.

Ariel: Kiah doesn't quite understand the ending, so I have to explain it!

Kiah: I'll be honest, I didn't spend a whole lot of time piecing together the video, mostly just looking at the lyrics. What's your interpretation of that video?

Ariel: So, there's a lot of surreal imagery. She's in this kind of desert palace with all these people, and there is strange recurring images, right? Like there's this one guy who's banging his head against a pillow again and again -- there are people, you know, pushing jewelry into her. There's one scene where she's floating into the air and then someone is shining a mirror up at her and shining light in her face and then pulling her down on a rope. And then, at the end of the video, we see that it's flashed forward. So, we move forward into the current time and she's in an ambulance, and she's been in an accident and the actors who were playing the characters in the desert place are, you know, the paramedic, or the person who is injured in the accident -- and what you realize, or what I realized after I read the explanation, is that all the things that were happening were actual things happening in real life, right? So, the guy hitting his head on the pillow, was someone in the car that crashed getting hit with an airbag for example. And then when she's floating into the sky it's like she's maybe going to die and then the paramedics are pulling her back down. So, I think it's really powerful because at first, it's really beautiful but there's something a bit uncomfortable about the images and you can't really tell what's wrong, but there's something going on. And then when you realize, oh all of these beautiful things, and all of these colorful images were actually this really violent accident, it makes you really, like, reinterpret the whole thing.

Kiah: Certainly, and the way that she interprets herself in that situation. Her unconscious mind kind of taking all of this information and creating this fantastical, very visual scene. It's bizarre! And then and then she wakes up and snaps back into the -- the reality and it's terrifying. Actually, I think the ending is very scary.

Ariel: Yeah, it made me cry the first time I watched it, but I cry a lot so that's okay.

Kiah: Yeah, in that sense, it's a -- it's a little bit of an intense ending to the video. You mentioned earlier, in the introduction, that you also have a podcast and you told us a little bit about that because you're a writer, and you write stories to help people learn English. And you wrote a story, which is perfectly related to this song. Isn't that right?

Ariel: Yes! So, I wrote a story called “The Monsters Inside Us”, in which you, Kiah, guest starred and did some of the voices. So, that’s really exciting. So, you can go over to easystoriesinenglish.com/monsters to listen to that.

Kiah: I highly recommend it. It has some of the best voice acting you will ever hear. No, it was a lot of fun for me to work on that, and I'm very honored to be a part of one of your stories.

Ariel: You know, it was a pleasure and it's great to have some variety, and you know, if people like it we could always collaborate again in future.

Kiah: I think it would be great. I highly highly recommend that you all check out Ariel's podcast, Easy Stories in English, and that's at easystoriesinenglish.com. Alright, Ariel, thank you so much for being here on Explained in English and for helping me explain the song 911.

Ariel: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me and I'll see you in the next explanation!

Kiah: Stole my line! See you guys next time.

Ariel: Ciao for now!

Kiah: Bye bye.



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