When you think of the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, what is it that you remember? We know: it’s Kanye-gate.
In one of the most infamous award show moments of all time, Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for best female video, saying that Beyoncé deserved the award Swift was holding. The world was stunned, the pair were mentioned in every headline the next morning, and the moment dominated pop culture discussions for weeks to follow.
But when it comes to the 2009 VMAs, another name should come to mind: Lady Gaga. The star, a mere 23 years old at the time, had released her debut album The Fame one year prior, and become a household name in that same time. After months of climbing, her debut single “Just Dance” finally hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 2009, followed closely by “Poker Face” in April, with singles “LoveGame” and “Paparazzi” creeping into the top 10 shortly thereafter. It was the future pop diva’s first time at a major award show, having tied for the most nominations that year with Beyoncé herself. She walked away with three awards, including best new artist.
Her crowning achievement of the evening, however, was not an award or nomination, but her performance. Gaga had already made a name for herself as an eccentric, creative performance artist through her high-concept music videos — though the world still had yet to see soon-to-be-legendary live moments as the infamous meat dress at the following VMAs, her egg-pod entrance to the 2011 Grammys, or that time she had a performer vomit on her at SXSW in 2014. No one could’ve been totally prepared.
Now, 10 years following what is widely considered to be one of Gaga’s greatest performances to date, MTV re-released the official footage of the performance — long only available via bootleg — on YouTube. Fans everywhere cheered online as they saw clean, clear footage of their Mother Monster properly introducing herself to the world. And ten years later, it’s still just as shocking to watch.
Beginning sprawled out on the stage underneath a fallen chandelier, singing a stripped-down chorus to “Poker Face,” Gaga quickly transitioned into a dramatic rendition of her latest hit, “Paparazzi.” Staggering around the ornately decorated set, clad in a mask, cape and bejeweled bra and panties (and at one point a rhinestoned forearm crutch), the avant-garde performance seemed to give the audience artistic whiplash, as they searched the stage for what would come next. In a candid moment, as Gaga bashed her feet and hands on a nearby piano, the camera cut to Sean “Diddy” Combs, mouth agape, understandably attempting to grasp what he was watching.
And then there was the blood. Lurching across the stage, wailing that she was “your biggest fan” and that she would “follow you until you love me,” Gaga was suddenly covered in faux-blood dripping from her abdomen, much to the audible horror of her audience. As she sang the song’s final strains, a team of backup dancers strung her up to a rope as she screamed, hoisting her above the stage. The camera zoomed in, and viewers stared at Gaga’s glossed-over eyes covered in fake blood as she slowly spun, looking as though she’d violently hung herself. The star dropped her mic, both literally and figuratively.
Gaga certainly wasn’t the first to turn a VMAs performance into an event — Madonna had wowed audiences with extravagant sets and conceptual performances across multiple decades, as had artists like Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and Eminem. But Gaga’s first-ever performance at the award show proved to be more than just a flashy show of talent. The singer had a point to make, and she made it.
Perhaps containing the most closely studied lyrics of her The Fame era, “Paparazzi” deals, on the surface, with unrequited love — the song’s protagonist pines for her lover’s attention, creating a metaphor of herself as the crowd of paparazzi aiming for a glimpse of attention from her lover, the celebrity.
But the song and video both operate as a clear-cut commentary on the status of celebrity media in the late ’00s: In the video, which earned her three nominations at the 2009 VMAs, Gaga is seen as a starlet being thrown from a balcony by her lover, which is obsessively captured by standing-by photographers. She recovers and eventually kills her boyfriend as the press eagerly watches on, while grotesque flashes of dead young women periodically blink into frame.
The toxic relationship between tabloids and (specifically female) stars had reached a fever pitch back in 2009. Britney Spears was still attempting to put the worst of her highly publicized personal demons behind her. News of Lindsay Lohan’s struggles with sobriety filled the pages of tabloids. Rihanna’s face had been plastered across the homepage of TMZ earlier that year after suffering abuse at the hands of her then-boyfriend Chris Brown.
Gaga even told MTV News that she wanted the performance to focus on how “the celebrity sort of has this inevitable demise that we love to watch” back in 2009. She reflected further on the subject in her 2017 documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two: “If I’m gonna be sexy on the VMAs and sing about the paparazzi, I’m gonna do it while I’m bleeding to death and reminding you of what fame did to Marilyn Monroe. And what it did to Anna Nicole Smith. Her VMAs performance was an eerie exploration of the celebrity’s role in attracting and even begging for obsessive attention, while simultaneously serving as a scathing indictment of the way celebrity gossip media can uncaringly hyperbolize the low points of young women’s careers.
And yet, Gaga’s artful performance was ultimately overshadowed by the very thing she was attempting to comment on. When Kanye West stole the microphone away from Taylor Swift, the then-19-year-old then was suddenly bombarded with endless media attention surrounding her reaction, which one MTV writer said transformed her from a successful musician to “a bona-fide mainstream celebrity.” Kanye, meanwhile, embarked on a public apology tour, starting with The Tonight Show with Jay Leno the next night.
On any other year, “Paparazzi” would have been heralded as the show-stopping moment of the ceremony. But however overlooked it may have been at the time, the performance did serve as a precursor for things to come for Gaga at the VMAs. The very next year, the star donned slabs of meat for the red carpet, a fashion statement that dominated the night’s headlines. The year after that, she kicked off the ceremonies with a riproaring “Yoü and I,” performed as her greasy alter-ego, Jo Calderone. And in 2013, she opened the show again with another wild performance, this time for “Applause.”
“Paparazzi” set up Gaga to serve as the VMAs’ ruling star for the next half-decade, and it’s not hard to see why. Audiences may not have ben prepared for it back in 2009, but one decade later, let’s call out Gaga’s twisted, strange performance for exactly what it was — an underappreciated performance art masterpiece, and one that proved that for better or worse, she was indeed ready for those flashing lights.