how lady gaga’s ‘bad romance’ changed the face of pop
10 years on from its initial release, the impact of this seminal release is still reverberating.
10 years ago, the pop landscape changed forever. After 18 months of persistent graft and waving disco sticks in people’s faces, a then-23-year-old Lady Gaga was about to revolutionise her own career and pop at large with the release of “Bad Romance”. Taken from a re-release of her debut album, The Fame Monster – an eight song addition – the song cemented her artistry. No longer having to convince the public to pay attention, she instead commanded an already-captivated audience to relish in an avant-garde theatricality sorely missing in pop.
Gaga’s journey began with “Just Dance”. The electro-pop song had been a slow burner before it became a number one single in January 2009 and people started to take stock of the David Bowie-emulating party girl. The world was experiencing a “Single Ladies” comedown while simultaneously rejoicing at Britney Spears’s successful 2008 comeback. It was the perfect time for “Just Dance”, a straightforward banger indebted to 80s Cyndi Lauper and 00s pop’s penchant for europop.
Her subsequent debut album, The Fame, contained certified smashes in “Poker Face”, consciously risqué talking points in “LoveGame”, and repeat-worthy bops in “Boys Boys Boys”. Deceptively simple at first glance, the record was a relentlessly ambitious commentary on the hedonistic and intoxicating nature of sexuality, popularity and celebrity. Still, this incarnation of Gaga also played by the rules of an industry dominated by the Black Eyed Peas and lol pop. She sung her songs pitched higher than her natural register in order to get played on radio and, initially at least, played up the cutesy socialite party girl aesthetic.
Notions of her weirdness, however, were encouraged by increasingly outlandish outfits, gasp-inducing hats made of lilac hair and even a refusal to acknowledge entirely inappropriate rumours of intersexism that briefly followed her. Likewise, with every single release she upped the ante, pushing against the era’s anodyne club-set music videos in favour for weird high fashion takes on the complexities of fame, foreshadowing her next step. Then in September 2009, she stopped teasing the extent of her pop art and bled to death onstage in front of Beyoncé (and the rest of the world) while singing “Paparazzi” full-throated at the MTV Video Music Awards, as if to say: you’ve barely scratched the surface.
Barely a month later, “Bad Romance” arrived and it felt like her artistic vision was finally realised. With the 90s German techno and house-inspired track, produced by RedOne, she delivered a fully formed spectacle that utilised high fashion as costume to make a defiant statement that is arguably better understood in today’s post-#MeToo culture.
To appreciate the magnitude of the single’s impact, it’s important to understand the role haute couture played in its success. After sending late designer Alexander McQueen an early version of “Bad Romance” to debut during his final runway show, he sent Gaga the collection to wear in the music video before anyone else. The collection -- which included the armadillo boots Sarah Mower hailed “grotesque” following its presentation at Paris Fashion Week -- exaggerated the strength that she wanted the song and video to convey. Visually, pop at the time had become imprisoned by formulaic visuals and easily attainable aesthetics (think the Pussycat Dolls or “Party In The USA”) to which Gaga rejected in favour of extremes and extravagance. In marrying her musical artistry with McQueen’s vision, two revolutionaries united to transform the pop landscape into something thrillingly theatrical.
“I was really excited to make the opening scene [of the video] a fashion ad that was slightly moving but bizarre,” she said in a 2015 interview. “Alexander McQueen had sent us all his clothes from “Plato’s Atlantis” [his final runway show] and they were all so beautiful. We couldn’t believe that he’d sent them to us so that was also a very strong dictator in this video.”
Although designers sending musicians their collections was not a novelty 10 years ago, Gaga recognised this gesture as the honour of a pioneer who was actively revolutionising the fashion industry and embraced it to similarly transform music. Thus, the closing look of his show was worn in the video as the song builds to the nerve-shatteringly euphoric final chorus - those legendary armadillo boots included. “I just remember that when I wore that outfit, I just kept saying to everyone on set, ‘We can’t wear anything else by any other designers except for young kids and everything must look good with McQueen’s clothes and anything else cannot be used’,” she later said.
Long gone were the cutesy hair bows or those Jersey Shore-esque diamanté-covered sunglasses, as Gaga embraced otherworldly designs as a way to overcome the very human struggles that she was singing about. The white crowned latex suits, the chandelier top, the orbiting rings, the Polar Bear-headed (faux) fur coat, the firework cone bra; these Haus of Gaga creations were her armour, making her seem untouchable. She was a revenge-seeking survivor in her own campy, feminist version of Taken. We know now that Gaga is a sexual assault survivor, however we did not then. In a 2015 interview where she revisited the video, she stated: “I wanted to look like a drugged out, a sort of sick little doll […] they just drugged me to bring me into all of these men who were gonna try sell me off for a lot of money, which is basically how my whole life felt until that point.
“[By the end of the video] I’m really powerful and I’m saying, ‘You know, go ahead and buy me, go ahead and pay for me, and you’ve no idea what I’m gonna do for you after this happens.’”
But “Bad Romance” and The Fame Monster also shook the music industry. The latter took inspiration from horror tropes and explored “the dark side” of the themes her debut album was centred around. Instead of being a standard album reissue that tacked a new single on for Christmas sales, she pushed for it to be a standalone project that flipped her debut on its head. Where The Fame divulged in the excesses of wealth, glamour and lust, its follow-up explored the toxicity of obsession, objectification and overindulgence. It wasn’t dismissive of the earlier optimism, but simply more reflective, with Gaga describing them as “yin and yang” in interviews. The heavier, gothic material initiated the industrial sounds she would pursue later on Born This Way, while the 180 degree reboot proved that new artists could reinvent themselves during their debut. Without it, Lana Del Rey may not have taken us to Paradise so soon, while Rihanna’s annual reinventions -- when she was actually a popstar -- may have been more spaced out.
The song itself also reintroduced her as an entirely different artist to the one many had met just nine months prior, one who was creating on a different level -- and at a different speed -- than her peers. The lyric “I’m a free bitch, baby” was more of a mission statement for the entire release, as she delivered her most unrestrained, almost demented, vocal performance with a music video that played out more like a fashion show and feature-length movie hybrid. Each performance peered through another window of the Haus of Gaga from the golden-clad bathroom on The X Factor to the smokey piano room at The Ellen Show. Whether it was a family talent show or daytime fodder, every opportunity was a moment to push her creativity and narrative forward. For this same reason, she redesigned her debut arena tour with weeks to go to complement the new twisted addition to her album.
The legacy of “Bad Romance” is, like Gaga herself, layered. Her creative partnership with McQueen completely transformed the relationship between music and fashion. The fearless storytelling of the video invigorated the music industry to take risks again, highlighting the importance of unique artistry as opposed to a singular aesthetic across the board. Everyone from Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry to Bebe Rexha and Ava Max have battled to out-quirk one another with clownish costumes, while unnecessarily long music videos with tumbleweed intros became popstars’ go-to (and desperate) attempt to convey their own deep artistry. Her influence travelled well beyond aesthetics, too, as the single and The Fame Monster brought a grittiness and raw transparency to pop’s booming but empty and inane EDM craze. By killing herself onstage with the last performance of The Fame era and rebirthing at the beginning of the “Bad Romance” video, she hit refresh on her career after only 18 months and went full on pop art.
Arguably, the championing of Lady Gaga’s creative freedom laid the groundwork for similar artists to confidently realise their own visions throughout the subsequent decade. We have witnessed some stumble as they looked to Gaga for too much inspiration, while others flourished as they pushed their own boundaries without compromise. Even Gaga herself got lost in the pressures of ARTPOP, her own vision stunted by the impossible expectations she set with The Fame Monster.
At the time, though, the industry got caught up in the elaborate nature of "Bad Romance” and its visual extravaganza. But really, its magic lay in the fact that it wasn’t simply dress-up for dress-up’s sake. The clothes and aesthetics were her armour and the video her fantasy, giving her a chance to be vulnerable and reveal her past traumas through her art. It put purpose and intention back into the charts, even if it took the rest of us longer to understand that industry-shifting pop music is more than just performative. Instead, it’s exposing and unfiltered; bonkers but brilliant.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.