By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 1, 2010; A01
The distant war in Afghanistan has felt a whole lot closer since seven American soldiers in the 82nd Airborne shucked off desert fatigues for tattoo-baring costumes made from caution tape and cardboard, in a viral remake of Lady Gaga's "Telephone" music video.
Whipping their hips and punching the air with water bottles, the soldiers spin off-duty boredom into cathartic release with a funny, sexy and even bittersweet version of the hit. The all-male cast filmed it in a garage at the forward operating base in Farah province and uploaded it to YouTube a week ago. As of late Friday, "Telephone: The Afghanistan Re-make" had more than 500,000 views.
The video is a party -- and it's also raw poetry. It's the poetry that gets us: The dusty boots. The sweat stains. The plywood walls in the background, and the dart board hanging forlornly on one of them. (Is that all they have for fun? No wonder they dance!) The choreography steals a bit -- and vastly improves upon -- the video that features Lady Gaga and Beyoncé conspiring in a luridly sex-crazed prison.
But despite the distance, despite the exoticism, there's a powerful poignancy to this music video from a war zone, featuring young soldiers who could die tomorrow, who are, perhaps, funneling months -- years? -- of restlessness, loneliness and pent-up self-expression into a flamboyant 3 1/2 -minute escape.
"Prepare yourself for a fantastical journey," boasted Aaron Melcher on YouTube. Melcher, the beefy redheaded star of the production, added that more cuts and edits were planned, "however with guys always on mission it is harder to film than you think."
Yet Melcher shouldn't change a thing. The rawness is what makes this video work. It opens with the 24-year-old Melcher and fellow soldier Justin Baker, 20, both in dune-colored T-shirts and baggy fatigues, in a brief duet to a lyrical harp riff: They sweep their arms overhead in a balletic port de bras, and Baker gives Melcher the kind of affectionate tap on the nose you'd give a sweetheart. Melcher slowwwly draws a finger down Baker's chest, then abruptly turns away. Baker tries to pull him back with a beseeching full-body wiggle that ends with an angry snap, but Melcher isn't having any.
"Sorry, I cannot hear you/I'm kinda busy/I'm kinda bu-sy . . . "
The beat picks up and hammers along on one of popdom's catchiest hooks (the song has hovered high on the charts for some 22 weeks) and the dancing gets more physical, with the two soldiers bouncing and high-stepping in unison. It all blows open when Melcher deploys his hips like a pair of gyrating grenades, threatening to bust his seams as his backside rockets in all directions.
"I left my head and my heart on the dance floor . . . " wails Gaga, and Melcher pumps his hands just above his heart, sending exaggerated beats across the miles, air-CPR that makes your own heart catch.
All these men have for props are plastic water and Gatorade bottles, which they brandish in their fists. That is, until the video cuts to a floor show, where several soldiers are shirtless and in hot pants but festooned with Gaga-style embellishments made from plastic tape and boxes. Baker wears a pink sash bearing the words "Drama Queen." Like the others, he is all seriousness. Phone-shaped cutouts adorn the back wall.
The song is hardly deep; it's a party girl's effort to shake off a persistent caller. But in the context of an isolated military base in Afghanistan, where the soldiers don't have that problem, this lament feels ironic, even wistful. What some of the guys wouldn't give to be juggling drinks and fending off eager callers! Some of the lines take on a darker tone -- "I shoulda left my phone at home/cuz this is a disastah . . . " Could very well be.
These men are stuck with one another, making light of the heaviness with a catchy tune and a dress-up spree, child's play that spells a brief escape. The frisson of homoeroticism does Gaga and Beyoncé a step better, because there's a tenderness to it. It's not just there for the shock value.
The video is a picture of longing, and although the soldiers' dancing is heavy, muscular and uncomplicated, the experience is nuanced -- it takes us into the solace of their brotherhood, expressed in humor and dance.
Thursday, noting the public's raging interest, Melcher posted on his Facebook page: "Ok everybody . . . this can be labeled INSANE now . . . " Efforts to reach Melcher on Friday were unsuccessful. But he told the Smoking Gun Web site that the video was intended for "a couple of our friends and family and you can see that it has blown up way more than that."
"Telephone" peaked at No. 3 on the charts but recently dropped to No. 10. The soldiers' remake ought to pop it back up.
Sounds like Lady Gaga owes the boys a care package.