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Music Ten years of “Paparazzi,” or how Lady Gaga mainstreamed the grotesque

May. 28, 2019
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“Stop leaking my motherfucking videos,” Lady Gaga tweeted ten years ago today (or the early hours of tomorrow, if you’re in Australia as she was).

Despite being a decade old, the quote is still frequently memed among Little Monsters. Over the years, many a blog and academic article have misprinted or mischaracterized it, giving it an exclamation point that never existed or referring to it as an “angry outburst.” It was arguably more of a strongly-worded plea, but, as is the case with many memes, its online life has largely eclipsed the context of its being tweeted. 

On the 28th of May in 2009, Lady Gaga was finishing up the Oceania leg of her Fame Ball Tour—her very first as a headliner—when her music video for “Paparazzi” appeared online. It wasn’t scheduled to air on television until the 4th of June, and so the leak had come a full week early. The 23-year-old had only been in the public eye for about a year. This was before the meat dress or any of her clashes with the Catholic League, but she was already starting to make a name for herself as a provocateur. She didn’t dress like the average pop newcomer; in December, she had released the rarity that is a NSFW Christmas song; interviewers desperately wanted to know what a “disco stick” was. Luckily, her still-developing brand of provocation was proving itself to be commercially viable: her first studio album, The Fame, would ultimately produce “more No. 1 Billboard Pop Songs chart singles than any other first album in history.” (It was reissued with additional music in late 2009 as The Fame Monster.) 

 In May, the last of the album’s singles, “Paparazzi,” had yet to be released. And, judging by the obvious frustration in her tweet, she was looking forward to its rollout. Watching the video for the first time, it was easy to see why. Lady Gaga had put out five music videos in the preceding twelve months (not including the ones she made cameos in). All were highly original endeavours, each with an array of memorable looks and settings. Still, there was something different about “Paparazzi.” At almost eight minutes long, it doubled as a short film—not unusual for pop artists, but something that she specifically had yet to try her hand at.      

“Paparazzi” was Lady Gaga’s first video with Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund, who’d later helm its so-called sequel, “Telephone,” and most recently worked with her on “John Wayne.” It opens the way several of his projects do, from Beyoncé’s “Haunted” to this year’s Polar: on a lavish mansion by the sea. (“Paparazzi” and “Haunted” were both filmed at Villa de Leon in Malibu.) We find Lady Gaga in the middle of a love scene with her boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård, just weeks before the premiere of True Blood’s second season), in which the two profess their love for one another in Swedish. He carries her to the terrace to continue their makeout sesh, and it’s clear that his ulterior motive is to be photographed with her. She smashes a bottle over his head; he cusses her out and throws her off the balcony; in slow-motion, she poses for the camera as she falls to the pavement, a Vertigo­-like spiral backgrounding her almost certain death. 

As she bleeds on the ground, the paparazzi arrive to take close-up photos of the scene, complimenting her good looks. “The message here is clear,” writes Amber L. Davisson. “Even when starlets fall to their doom their bodies are sexualized.” Rather than die, however, she reappears being helped back onto the villa grounds in a wheelchair and neck brace. (Understandably, audiences were and still are divided over the video’s representation of disability. I highly recommend this piece by Anna Hamilton on how “there is much about ‘Paparazzi’ that wavers between potentially subversive and downright troubling.”)

For the remainder of the song, the star peels off her “brazen body cast” and clothing, and dances for the camera. She enjoys the company of blond triplets on a couch. Numerous dead models are scattered throughout the villa, their fates never explained. Lady Gaga is ultimately reunited with her boyfriend, but, when she sees a tabloid cover story about a new It Girl with the subheading “NO MORE LADY GAGA,” she fatally poisons him. She turns herself in, telling 9-1-1, “I just killed my boyfriend,” and is arrested and booked, hamming it up for the cameras all the while. For theatre kids—a group that the star has always catered to, since she herself belongs to it—it’s impossible not to think of Chicago’s Roxie Hart. The only thing more fascinating to the public than a dead woman is a murderess.       

Author Lucy O’Brien called the video “a striking and innovative reflection on the media industry that [Lady Gaga] both exploits and that exploits her.” Indeed, she seems to have entered show business with an above-average understanding of what exactly she was in for. In a behind-the-scenes video, the star—noticeably quiet compared to now, but already self-assured—tells the camera, “I was inspired by the mugshots of some very famous blond girls, and I decided that there was really an art to fame.” (Elsewhere, she named Paris and Nicky Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Nicole Richie as some examples.) It was wild that an artist would center their debut album on the subject of fame; it was wilder yet that the whole thing worked.

Even if you missed the video, there’s a good chance you heard mention of Lady Gaga’s performance of “Paparazzi” at the MTV VMAs later that year. Just in time for the song’s final chorus—start at 3:05, and you’ll see a mesmerized Diddy in the audience—fake blood begins to seep from her top, which she smears over her face and torso. In a matter of seconds, the crowd audibly shifts from amused to horrified. The performance ends with her “hanging listlessly by one hand” from the rafters. Of the whole thing, she told Elle, “I feel that if I can show my demise artistically to the public, I can somehow cure my own legend. I can show you so you’re not looking for it. I’m dying for you on domestic television—here’s what it looks like, so no one has to wonder.” Again, the woman had ascended to fame keenly aware of how celebrities, and especially women, are made into public objects—even in death—and already had a plan to circumvent it.      

This sort of subversion has always been a staple of Lady Gaga’s work. Take the Vertigo reference at the beginning of the video. She’s a vocal fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography: later that year, she’d sing “I want your Psycho, your Vertigo shtick / Want you in my Rear Window / Baby you’re sick” on “Bad Romance.” She’d come back to Vertigo yet again a few years later, kicking off the “Born This Way” video with its score. With “Paparazzi” in 2009, almost a decade before she was appearing on red carpets in Old Hollywood glam, Lady Gaga fashioned herself as an updated Hitchcock Blonde figure. She tricks us into thinking that she’s Kim Novak falling to her death in Vertigo by her lover’s hand, but then abruptly twists the narrative.

Sex and violence have long been invoked by pop artists in order to make a splash. What was new with Lady Gaga—as evidenced by both the video and performance—was that she was mainstreaming the grotesque, sometimes even body horror. “I have an obsession with death and sex,” the star said. “Those two things are the nexus of horror films.” Dying on stage had been done before; in adding blood, she’d crossed a new line. Horror had typically appeared in an artist’s work as a career one-off, and all in the name of good fun (see: “Thriller”); for a star to make it a chief part of their act was unusual. Rihanna has killed several men in her music videos, sure, but only after reaching a certain level of success; with Lady Gaga, the violence came almost immediately and was often self-inflicted.

In the decade since “Paparazzi” was released, we’ve seen Lady Gaga take the murderess act to new heights; we’ve seen her in fake teeth and bruises; we’ve seen her as an alien giving birth in prosthetics; we’ve seen her bring vomit to SXSW. This isn’t a “celebrity goes to the grocery store with no makeup” kind of rawness, as tabloids do entire features on; it’s intentional, highly stylized ugliness—sometimes emotional, sometimes physical. 

Watching Billie Eilish’s first crop of music videos—in which she levitates, her nose bleeds, and syringes are stuck in her back—I can’t help but think that Lady Gaga, in just over a decade, has made it possible for young women in pop to do weird and scary things on the mainstream stage. In a recent ad for Calvin Klein, Eilish revealed that her affinity for baggy clothes has everything to do with not wanting to be objectified by the public: “I never want the world to know everything about me.” Evidently, she’s beginning her career not unlike Lady Gaga did—thinking about what she’s up against and how she might be able to shield herself from it. It’s a lot harder to sexualize or exploit someone who’s already doing both on their own terms.