The music video for "Applause" was directed by fashion photography duo Inez and Vinoodh, who had previously collaborated with Lady Gaga on a series of fashion films in 2011 and a photoshoot for V magazine. The video was filmed at Paramount Pictures studio in Hollywood, California on two different sets over three days. Gaga was inspired by silent film and early horror films and explained that the concept behind the video is that of her passion for shape-shifting and transforming. She described it as "Iconography in motion, as magic." Gaga and her team decided to use several different looks for the video, with each being representative of different facets of her as a performer. Attires worn in the video included designs by Gareth Pugh, vintage John Galliano, as well as outfits crafted by the Haus of Gaga.
Inez and Vinoodh explained that the video symbolizes "this idea that she goes through this struggle to go back onstage, which is in that pink laser tower. And she's sort of dragging that leg as a trophy and making it back on stage as a fully-realized, complete new person". Jo Ratcliffe, a London-based illustrator known for her hand-drawn graphic design, was hired to provide animation effects for the video. She described Lady Gaga as "really tough" during filming and added that she had "never seen anyone push themselves so hard." Gaga spoke of this intensity during an interview with the radio station Z100 New York, explaining that it was difficult for her to quickly mould herself into the different personalities portrayed in the video.
Prior to the release of the music video, Lady Gaga debuted a lyric video for the song. The lyrics were displayed over footage shot by Gaga at the drag nightclub Micky's in Los Angeles, California. Drag queens Raven, Detox Icunt, Courtney Act, Morgan McMichaels, Shangela, and Shannel all performed in the video. On August 19, 2013, Gaga announced that she would be debuting the music video for "Applause" and filming a live interview on ABC's morning television show Good Morning America later that day. The singer arrived at the Times Square Studios in New York City, where the show is filmed, wearing a dress made entirely out of paper. The video premiered on the show after Gaga's live interview and was broadcast on jumbotrons across Times Square in Midtown Manhattan simultaneously.
The video received generally positive reviews. Glenn Gamboa of Newsday described it as a barrage of artistic images that continued the song's theme of combining art with pop culture. Erin Coulehan of Rolling Stone magazine noted that the video was in "typical Gaga fashion", further calling it a spectacle of flashing lights, vivid colors and intricate choreography. Kyle Anderson of Entertainment Weekly also echoed Coulehan's statements about the video being in Gaga fashion, adding that it "makes the song sound infinitely better... It doesn't quite hit the high notes of 'Paparazzi' or 'Bad Romance', but it's definitely a step up from the middling clips from the Born This Way era." A writer of Billboard described the video as "a collection of arty postures and scenarios" and compared the black-glove bra look to Janet Jackson's 1993 Rolling Stone magazine cover. Randall Roberts of Los Angeles Times saw the video as "basically like 20 different Vogue shoots documented and spliced. There is no plot other than the basic lyrical premise, 'I need you to pay more attention to me,' given heft by a syllabically rocky first-person observation about pop culture, fame and art that Andy Warhol noted 50 years ago." Chiderah Monde of New York Daily News described the video as "a straight-forward profile of the artist herself."
A writer of Rolling Stone compared the black-and-white look of the video with Madonna's "Vogue", 1920s German Expressionist cinema and Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. He further noted influences from Liza Minnelli, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Don't Come Around Here No More", and Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. A writer of The Independent wrote, "Showing Gaga in a number of guises (as a Beatnik performance artist, her face smeared with clown make-up, sporting David Bowie-esque androgyny while wearing a bra made of black, leather gloves and as various winged creatures), the high energy accompaniment to her new track is a hotch-potch of imagery that seems to highlight the pop princess' ever changing appearance." Chris Rovzar of Vanity Fair described the video as a moving photo shoot for Interview magazine "except with more sanity". Rovzar concluded that it also featured "the standard Gaga nonsense" and praised Gaga's smile during several scenes of the video as a highlight. James Montgomery of MTV News saw the video as Gaga "pulling the curtain back on her creative process, showing the viewer how she's willing to do anything to please the public." Melinda Newman of Hitfix felt Gaga "continues her one-woman performance art with the very theatrical video" and interpreted it as showing that "there is nothing Lady Gaga won’t do to get your attention".
Conversely, Spin's Marc Hogan wrote, "'Some of us just like to read', she sings, and hey, that includes us. But it's easier to clap for something that moves or touches you, rather than serves as an advertisement for Gaga as incomprehensible high-end brand." Consequence of Sound wrote in their review, "Gaga's head appears on a black swan and she boogies down in a clam bikini. If this doesn't bump up her sales, I no longer believe in art." Hilary Hughes of Esquire said that the video "hits all the marks of Gaga-esque eccentricity: glitter, boob grabs, weird animals, space, severed limbs, devotional imagery, nudity, neon, etc. It just doesn't redefine those marks, as previous music videos of Gaga's — namely Bad Romance, Paparazzi and Judas — have". Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic believed that Lady Gaga was parodying herself with the video and suggested that her aim was "to make a video both celebrating and poking fun at her career thus far." However, he considered it forgettable when compared to Gaga's previous efforts.
The video itself includes shots taken in both color and black-and-white. It drew heavy inspiration from the arts and featured references to Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus and Andy Warhol's Marilyn Diptych. The video included artistic and complex scenes such as Lady Gaga's head on a swan, a scene in a bird cage, and the singer seated in a large top hat, as well as more simplistic scenes including Gaga walking in a black outfit wearing a headscarf, and the singer dancing with a white cloth in bright make-up, in a scene similar to the cover art of the single. Throughout the video bursts of color are shown theatrically. As Gaga sings the line "One second I'm a Koons then suddenly the Koons is me", she is transformed into a black swan/human hybrid. Gaga also wears hand-shaped lingerie and a seashell bra with matching shell decoration. Near the climax, the singer features in a violet, crystal-like scene, holding a silver, leg-shaped bouquet of colorful flowers. The final chorus concludes in flashing images from various scenes of the video. And at the end, Artpop is spelled using hand gestures.