Ten years ago, a star was born when Lady Gaga bled to death during a haunting rendition of her then-recent single “Paparazzi.” Save for one unscripted confrontation between a drunk rapper and a 20-year-old country singer (you know the one), her stirring performance was the highlight of the MTV VMAs, which people still cared about because it was 2009 and pop culture hadn’t died yet.
At this point, Gaga had just released her first album, The Fame, and amassed two international №1 hits with “Just Dance” and “Poker Face.” Not too bad for a 23-year old NYU dropout. But while her debut was a satirical look at celebrity culture as seen from the outside, her sophomore effort, The Fame Monster, released on the cusp of her global ubiquity, was an examination of how fame can metastasize and destroy from within. Her bleeding VMAs performance was the perfect bridge between these two eras.
In this willingness to lean into her fears, Lady Gaga made the transformation from bubbling pop act to bonafide rock star — the album cover was even shot by fashion’s resident rock aesthete Hedi Slimane. A decade later, it continues to resonate as her strongest work to date and stand as a consummate demonstration of her preternatural talent.
The lead single, “Bad Romance,” was a juggernaut of a pop song, amplified by gothic club textures that pulsated through it like warm blood and infected the world with its ineluctable “Rah-rah” refrain. Inspired by her fear of love, it’s a dark and cinematic earworm, replete with Hitchcock references, a spoken-word Madonna-esque bridge, and some French pillow talk for good measure, that soared to the top of the charts in over 20 countries. It might just be the greatest pop song in the last ten years.
But it was so much more than a song. “Bad Romance” was part of a cultural watershed that thrust Lady Gaga, a fearless gay icon from the start, into the heart of the mainstream. That it arrived at a time when queer youth were bearing witness to a new gay rights movement was no coincidence. It was an ode to the fear of romance itself that struck a chord with a generation of gay kids coming out on the internet. It was a singular declaration about where pop music — and the world — was headed. And we were lucky to be a part of it.
The rest of the record echos this sentiment; the universal queer experience of finding joy within darkness. No more literally is this experienced than in the melancholy and empowering “Dance in the Dark.” Against a massive New Wave backdrop of titanic synths, Gaga emerges while paying homage to fallen icons like Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, and JonBenet Ramsey. The song was given new depth and made all the more poignant when she performed it at the 2010 BRIT Awards as a tribute following the sudden death of her friend and frequent collaborator Alexander McQueen.
Ironically enough, while confronting these celebrity-induced fears, she flaunted some of the most celebrated aspects of queer culture. The Queen-slash-Elton John redolent “Speechless,” a pleading piano rock ballad framed by the spirits of two of the most flamboyant performers ever, has become a fan favorite. The “Telephone” video, in all its Quentin Tarantino-meets-Thelma & Louise glory with lesbian undertones and a Beyonce feature, was pure over-the-top camp. (The first pack of cigarettes I bought was not to smoke as part of my own teen rebellion, but to make cigarette sunglasses to wear to her concert.) “Alejandro” was the longing and seductive Ace of Base-inspired bop that was the most Europop tune to have chart impact in the US since, well, Ace of Base in the ’90s. And the accompanying epic-like video was a perfect harmony of S&M subversion and tender heart. She seamlessly threaded different facets of queer culture and made them digestible for a new generation.
Lady Gaga had constructed her own fantasy world. It was a beautiful place, filled with weird fashions and even weirder people and utterly free of judgment; a safe space if there ever was one. Each time she offered glimpses into this fabulous universe, with every music video and conceptual performance, it felt like a personal invitation into a world much better than our own. It was the perfect escape, and all gay kids fantasize about escape to some degree. It might as well have been somewhere over the rainbow.
In the years since, Lady Gaga has released four more chart-topping albums, toured with Tony Bennett, nabbed a lucrative Las Vegas Residency, and won an Academy Award. She’s even entered the beauty game with her own line of hyper-inclusive makeup. On the cusp of a new album — the increasingly mythic #LG6 which might be titled Adele for all we know — she again has the public hungrily awaiting her next move. Gaga is the ultimate chameleon, but it’s only an extension of the ambition and fearlessness that she made standard for herself with The Fame Monster. By taming her own demons, she inspired a generation of little monsters to fight for themselves.