Lady Gaga will go down in history as one of pop’s great visual auteurs. With every new era, she has delivered instantly iconic imagery, fashion statements and, of course, videos that have further amplified whatever sound or style she’s experimenting with at the current moment. Inspired by the daring imagery of Michael and Janet Jackson, Madonna and David Bowie, Gaga has taken advantage of every mode of changing technology available to build complex, forward-thinking universes in her music videos. For 15 of her most memorable, thrilling videos, here are the stories behind how they were made as told by her collaborators.
Gaga stormed onto the scene in 2008 with this raucous house party-themed video, which quickly established the singer as a provocateur for the post-pop tart age. Sporting her then-signature platinum bangs, flat-top shades, and a lightning bolt sticker that paid tribute to one of her idols, David Bowie, Gaga’s visual introduction to the world came in the form of four minutes of frenetic, high-energy fun.
With cameos from Akon and Colby O’Donis — both of whom are featured on the track ± the Melina Matsoukas-helmed clip had a decidedly DIY vibe, from Gaga’s straight-out-of-the-mall styling to the seemingly random array of background props (blow-up killer whale? Check. A pre-Peloton spin bike? Check. Disco ball? Duh.) As a music video, “Just Dance” is a far cry from the sweeping cinematography and complex narrative arcs of Gaga’s later releases, but therein lies its charm. For all the pre-packaged acts that came before her, Gaga was refreshingly formula-free, a testament to an artist who had honed in on her voice — and style — years before landing her first record deal, or yes, starring in her first video. More was more in Gaga’s world, and the singer celebrated the ideas of extravagance and drama in full, glittery glory.
Gaga may have sung about having “had a little bit too much,” but even from her very first video, she proved that there was no such thing as excess.
By the time “Poker Face” rolled around in the fall of 2008, Gaga had already established herself as a full-fledged superstar, with a keen eye for aesthetic and entertainment bombast. It’s this level of commitment that made this otherwise straightforward music video pop, from the staccato-style choreography that matched the P-P-P stutter of the song’s chorus, to Gaga’s pool-side face-off with a Harlequin Great Dane (a breed that would make appearances in subsequent videos for “Love Game,” “Paparazzi,” and “Bad Romance” as well).
Shot over the course of a day at a mansion in Malibu, the video for “Poker Face” also introduced Gaga the fashionphile, from the latex catsuit and mirrored mask she wears while emerging from the pool, to that cut out blue one-piece that made shoulder pads and no pants another instant Gaga signature. The flurry of looks were bewilderingly strange and sultry, and as crop tops and cut-off shorts went the way of TRL (which had signed off the air just a month earlier), “Poker Face” positioned Gaga’s free-thinking fashion as the new litmus test for artists moving forward.
Even though it was filmed on a Los Angeles studio lot, “Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)” is pure Little Italy fantasia, a cornucopia of pink stilettos, cigars, spaghetti, Great Danes, and so, so many spray tans. “I wanted to show a different side of myself — perhaps a more domestic girly side,” the woman born Stefani Germanotta said of returning to her Mediterranean roots in the clip. “And I wanted to create beautiful, stunning Fifties futuristic fashion imagery that would burn holes in everyone’s brains.”
Directed by Joseph Kahn, “Eh Eh” was shot over the same weekend as “LoveGame,” and together they helped establish two of Gaga’s primary visual characters: the fashion-forward and campy sex robot, and the softer, sweeter party girl. The former may have eventually overshadowed the latter in the greater scheme of things, but “Eh Eh” is pure confectionary art.
When Gaga approached acclaimed video director Jonas Akerlund to direct “Paparazzi,” he was about to quit the biz all together. “I was getting bored, and didn’t understand the purpose of music videos anymore,” he tells Rolling Stone. “Then she showed up in my life.”
Free of the constraints of MTV’s censorship, the seven-minute murder ball that is “Paparazzi” was one of the first music videos to directly utilize YouTube as a platform for generating online buzz and fandom. And while “Paparazzi” gripped the public’s attention in every conceivable way (and introduced actor Alexander Skarsgård to a whole new audience after his True Blood debut), it was buoyed by the fact that it was surprisingly accessible. Sure, it looks weird, and it’s borrowing as much from Hitchcock and Fritz Lang as it is from Italian melodramas. But you don’t have to get all that to get “Paparazzi” — the chandeliers, blonde orgies and Minnie Mouse jumpsuits need no explanation.
Few videos captured the genius of Gaga more than “Bad Romance,” a mind-bending, futuristic set-piece with an elaborate plot matched only by the elaborate outfits designed by Alexander McQueen. The seductive, Blade Runner-esque thriller starts with a spacesuit-clad Gaga emerging from her pod, before stomping through a sci-fi sanatorium in a madcap fashion show that’s still one of the most visually arresting things she’s done (and that’s saying something). The plot revolves around taking down a Russian oligarch, but let’s be real: It’s also just a reason to show off those 12-inch Alexander McQueen ‘Armadillo’ boots, which were reportedly so hard to walk in, they caused models to pull out of a McQueen runway show due to “safety concerns.” Needless to say, Gaga pulls them off with ease.
The video for “Bad Romance” took home the MTV Video Music Award for “Video of the Year” in 2010. It also briefly held the title for most-viewed video of all time on YouTube until it was surpassed by Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”
Director Francis Lawrence had helmed videos for everyone from Britney Spears to Audioslave, but after the success of his 2007 film, I Am Legend, Lawrence had decided to focus exclusively on making movies. Gaga managed to convince him to direct the video for “Bad Romance” though, impressing the director with her vision for the song, and commitment to the storyline. Lawrence returned to movie-making immediately after the video was done, eventually going on to direct three of the films in the Hunger Games series. He’s only directed one other music video since, stepping behind the lens for Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls),” in 2011.
Directed by Jonas Akerlund, Gaga’s “Telephone” video is a cinematic odyssey of epic proportions. Part Kill Bill, part Thelma & Louise, the colorful, nine-and-a-half minute visual features Beyoncé breaking Gaga out of jail only to get revenge in a desert diner against Tyrese Gibson (who selfishly took all of Beyoncé’s honey). The pair poison Gibson and the rest of the diners before dancing amid the carnage and driving off into the abyss.
In an interview with Variety for the video’s 10th anniversary, Akerlund noted that “Telephone” was a direct sequel to “Paparazzi,” his first collaboration with Gaga. “We shot the whole thing in two days,” he recalled, adding that the two pop stars were figuring out much of the choreography on the spot. Longtime back-up dancer Montana Efaw recalls a similar rush due to Gaga’s tour and press cycle, which included several big television appearances. “It was moving so fast, and we had to get all these takes in in no time,” Efaw tells RS, adding that the video was shot between an abandoned jail in Los Angeles and the California desert. “Beyoncé and Gaga were such champs. It almost felt like you were in a sports game.”
Moody, provocative and peculiar, Gaga’s video for “Alejandro” had all the hallmarks of an avant garde art film, with just enough camp to keep it firmly in Gaga’s wheelhouse. Directed by famed fashion photographer Steven Klein and styled by Nicola Formichetti, the eight minute-long clip was like a series of editorial shots come to life, with Gaga in various states of dress (and undress) while surrounded by taut male models sporting bowl cuts and boxer shorts.
The clips play like a cross between “Rhythm Nation” and Cabaret (at one point, Gaga even sports a Liza-like wig while doing her best Fosse-inspired moves), with nods to BDSM, the military, and being cosseted in a convent. The latter imagery created an uproar after the video’s release, with church groups accusing Gaga — who at one point is dressed in a latex nun’s costume — of misappropriating religious iconography.
Gaga never addressed the controversy directly, and it quickly died down, with critics agreeing that the video was perhaps less of a political statement, and simply an artistic one. It wouldn’t be long though before the Catholic League came for Gaga once again, over a video with religious themes that couldn’t be denied.
After the historic, massive run of her debut album The Fame and its expanded reissue, The Fame Monster, Gaga’s sophomore album was heaped with outsized expectations. In true Gaga fashion, she paired an empowering arena pop anthem with an avant-garde, forward-thinking video. Directed by Nick Knight, “Born This Way” is a surrealist adventure. “We shot the video in Brooklyn over two days. We had to hide the location,” choreographer Laurieann Gibson told MTV News soon after the video’s release, adding that it was important for Gaga to film the video in New York City, where she grew up. The video is an ambitious, sci-fi romp that bills itself as a “manifesto of mother monster” before an Alien-esque birthing scene and full choreographed tableau.
“To get her to be a better dancer, it’s just a process of getting it out of her and getting her confident. So I just told the story of the record,” Gibson explains. “There’s lots of pushing and birthing. There’s lots of punching the adversity. It’s very symbolic.”
Efaw tells RS of her initial excited confusion about the direction of the video, feeling like a “little alien” in the make-up chair after all the pointy prosthetics were added to her face. “From ‘Born This Way’ on, I learned to not be too shocked because I knew Gaga was going all in,” she says.
Gaga has always cited a myriad of influences for her videos, but for “Judas,” the singer went literal, telling the story of Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus. Released in 2011, the music video was directed by Gaga and her longtime choreographer Laurie-Ann Gibson, with The Walking Dead star Norman Reedus taking on the titular role, and Gaga as Mary Magdalene.
“I mostly remember [Gaga’s] fearlessness on the back of a motorcycle, hanging backwards off the bike doing 80 down the 101,” Reedus tells Rolling Stone of the experience. “I was totally overtaken. Her work ethic was mind blowing: dead serious and also full of imagination.”
Shot over two days in Los Angeles, the video portrays the disciples as a modern-day biker gang, who eventually meet their fate at the “Electric Chapel” when Judas reveals his true intentions. Gaga attempts to silence Judas by pointing a gun to his mouth, only for it to be revealed as a lipstick gun, in a now-infamous sequence where she smears a red stain across Reedus’ mouth.
In the end, it’s Gaga — as Mary Magdalene — who pays the ultimate price, as she’s stoned to death while wearing a bejeweled white frock, with Judas and Jesus nowhere to be seen. Is she the sacrificial lamb? Or just a Chanel-clad crusader who meets an accidental fate?
“I watched her work into the wee hours of the morning doing take after take,” Reedus says. “Dancing with the boys, then the girls, then solo over and over again until it was perfect. I was in awe.”
Joseph Kahn was set to direct the “Edge of Glory” video before a disagreement between him and Gaga led to the pop star’s Haus taking the reigns. The final product is another tribute to where she comes from: Gaga strutting down the streets of NYC, while also dancing on fire escapes and stoops. She’s joined briefly by Clarence Clemons, the late E Street Band member, who plays the sax solo on the song.
“I wanted to create my sweater set of a video,” Gaga said during a press conference in Singapore. She revealed that when she danced on the fire escape while shooting the original video, she realized she needed to pare down the vision and pay tribute to her roots. “I had a fire escape outside my teeny tiny apartment in New York. I used put on all my clothes, and I would go out on the fire escape and I would dance.”
For Gaga’s first foray into country-pop, she set out to Nebraska to remember a great lost love. Wandering down a dirt road in a black veil, she’s struck with the memory of her past: a barn, a mermaid, a mad scientist and, of course, Gaga’s male alter ego: Jo Calderone. “She was totally in character,” Efaw says of Gaga as Calderone. The dancer portrayed Gaga’s body double in the scene, imitating the singer’s flamboyant piano playing whenever Gaga was dressed as Calderone. “She was sitting up on the piano like a dude, with a cigarette. She was like, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?’ I think I just started laughing, and she laughed too!”
Besides Calderone, Gaga’s other on-screen love interest for the video was actor Taylor Kinney, whom she would eventually date. During an interview with Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live, Kinney recalled an improvised kiss during a scene that led to Gaga slapping him after the take. “It was just awkward,” he said. “The next take, I did it again, and she didn’t slap me.”
You may have heard that Lady Gaga’s work draws heavily from fine art and fashion. Oh, you haven’t? Well, let the video for “Applause” remind you just how much she loves Warhol and Botticelli. Directed by fashion photography duo Inez and Vinoodh, “Applause” is Gaga’s attempt at bringing “iconography in motion” to her work, animating pivotal scenes from art history, film history, and her own career.
That swan body, for instance, was inspired by an earlier photo shoot she did with Interview magazine. And according to Inez, that part where Gaga glides down the runway in purple, holding up her own leg like Jesus holding the cross, was drawn from the artist’s real-life hip injury that left her unable to perform for months. “She’ll do anything in this video to make her audience happy and give them inspiration,” Inez said. “We wanted to bring it back to a very basic element.”
Shot in Hearst Castle, Gaga’s directorial debut, the Artpop film “G.U.Y.,” is an epic work that features everything from cast members of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills to the resurrected “bodies” of Jesus, Michael Jackson, and Gandhi. Clocking in at nearly 12 minutes, the video features four songs from Artpop as Gaga embodies a Greek goddess, a broken bird, and a criminal mastermind.
“There were so many scenes in that one shoot,” Efaw, who appears in the all-white dance scene, recalls. “I would go watch different ones as they were shooting. It was all going so fast and everything felt so elaborate and expensive.”
“She wanted us to feel and look beautiful and fierce,” RHOBH star Kyle Richards told The Hollywood Reporter soon after the video’s release. “There was one scene where I kill a man. She was like, ‘I want you to whip that ponytail even more. Go back and really exaggerate your head-flipping.’ I was like, ‘Whatever you say.’ Even if I get whiplash, it’s OK. Lady Gaga told me to do it.”
One of a trilogy of music videos from her cowboy-inspired album Joanne, “John Wayne” sees Gaga reuniting with Jonas Akerlund for a rapid-fire, beer-swilling tale of outlaws and freaks causing mayhem on a country road. In just under three minutes, the Tarantino-esque video packs a huge amount of chaotic surprises, most notably when Gaga’s thigh-high boots start shooting bullets. “I think we shot it all in one day — that was a crazy day,” Akerlund tells Rolling Stone. Though not as well-known as “Paparazzi” or “Telephone,” “John Wayne” certainly stands out from the more subdued, sincere visuals of the Joanne era.
If you grew up watching any of the Spy Kids movies, or The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, then you’ll easily recognize the aesthetics of “Rain on Me.” It’s directed by Robert Rodriguez himself, who brought his love for giant CGI stadiums and cyberpunk to the Gaga universe. That would be a star-studded collaboration on its own, but then there’s Ariana Grande, who goes toe-to-toe with Gaga when it comes to sci-fi outfits, a cyborg dance squad, and Sailor Moon-worthy hair.
“We wanted to keep with the style that [Grande is] comfortable with, while staying with the futuristic theme of the video,” said designer Laura Pulice, who created the latex costumes for the video.