The superstar’s longtime visual director talks to The Hollywood Reporter about helping her navigate an “exciting” return to her dance-pop roots — and reveals how the Haus of Gaga is currently operating in quarantine amid the coronavirus pandemic.
This week was supposed to look very different for Lady Gaga.
The superstar had planned to drop her hotly anticipated sixth studio album, Chromatica, on Friday. But, due to the global spread of the novel coronavirus, she has indefinitely postponed its release. Now, new music can wait — Mother Monster is focused on saving the world.
In response to the pandemic, Gaga has partnered with the international advocacy organization Global Citizen to raise more than $35 million for the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Additionally, she is curating the musical lineup for a two-hour special, One World: Together at Home, set to air on NBC, ABC and CBS April 18, benefitting those impacted by the coronavirus.
Grateful as they may be for her efforts, though, Gaga’s legions of fans — affectionately known as her “Little Monsters” — are reeling over the delay of her next LP (if increasingly despondent tweets demanding a new release date for Chromatica are any indication). Luckily, its lead single, “Stupid Love,” still made its way out into the world before it was effectively shut down.
And with the glittering feel-good record came a colorful music video depicting Gaga as a “Kindness Punk,” promoting peace and unity among different tribes caught in discord. Since its Feb. 28 release, the clip — which was filmed this January in the picturesque Trona Pinnacles of the Mojave Desert — has racked up nearly 60 million views.
As choreographer and longtime Haus of Gaga visual director Richy Jackson tells The Hollywood Reporter, the meaning behind “Stupid Love” feels particularly important not only in the face of a universal health crisis, but during a time marked by political divisiveness.
“This video is saying that just because we think we’re different, there doesn’t have to be violence or conflict. We can always have a conversation. We can always party together. We can always dance and sing together. The video is an interpretation of real life. Even though we, as a global society, may have separated ourselves from one another, we are really all the same,” he says. “I just hope ‘Stupid Love’ and Gaga’s music can provide some type of healing.”
Below, Jackson — who has also worked with the likes of Katy Perry, Meghan Trainor and Jojo Siwa — talks more with THR about the making of “Stupid Love,” helping Gaga navigate an “exciting” return to her dance-pop roots and brainstorming ideas for the upcoming Chromatica Ball tour while quarantining at home in Los Angeles.
First off, how are you holding up right now?
I’m doing good. I’ve been staying home, trying to put in place and plan everything that needs to be done right now for the Haus of Gaga.
How is the lockdown impacting the way the Haus of Gaga is currently operating?
We had to shut down everything, like everyone else. We’ve been waiting in quarantine like the rest of the world, and it has been frustrating. There were some promo performances that would have been fun to do, but of course they can’t be done now. After having so much momentum with the “Stupid Love” video, pressing pause has been hard.
Thankfully, the “Stupid Love” video was shot and released before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic in the U.S. How much time did you have to prep for it?
Conceptually, we had about a month to prep. But actual grassroots rehearsal? We had about six days to rehearse it.
That’s really fast. Does Gaga typically work at high speed?
Every music video is different. The pace is never the same with Gaga. But given everything involved in the making of the “Stupid Love” music video, I would say we had to be very efficient with our time. We had to cast 49 dancers, so that was a very important part of the prep. And with those dancers, because we were casting for the different Chromatica “tribes,” we wanted to cast a very wide range of dancers with different vibes, ethnicities, shapes, sizes and looks. After a three-day span where we tried to figure out who would be perfect for this, then we started rehearsal. That was six days, and then we shot the video in two days.
What was your immediate reaction when you heard “Stupid Love” for the first time?
I freaked out just like the fans did! I love that it’s such a feel-good record. And, so, when I first heard it, I thought to myself that this is the perfect time for this kind of song. Now is the time, when the world can be so divisive. Over the last several years, pop music — to me, at least — has leaned a bit more on the emo side. It’s been a bit moodier. So, to hear a record like “Stupid Love,” it was a reset. It invokes celebration within us all. And that’s evident from the way we’ve seen fans react, whether that’s on Twitter or in a TikTok video. We needed this feel-good record right now.
Gaga has championed diversity and acceptance since the beginning of her career. But why was that particularly important to highlight when casting the dancers for the “Stupid Love” video?
She is the queen of inclusivity. The Haus of Gaga has always been about that. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and that’s what makes us beautiful. And at the audition, I found dancers that looked different and moved different. It was important that we celebrated every type of person with this video, during the particular political and social climate that we’re living in. There’s just so much going on right now that I thought it would be incredible to champion everybody.
Your choreography also includes sign language — tell me about the decision to make that part of the video.
There’s this lyric: “All I ever wanted was love.” That line right there, I knew that we needed to do sign language. So, we even took it one more step further to include the deaf community. They may not be able to hear, but they know that we’re with them. That felt like the perfect line to let them know that “Stupid Love” is also for them. It’s for everyone.
In total, 49 dancers were cast in the video. Is that number significant in any way to Gaga?
It is what she wanted. She was very adamant about having that number. At the time, the number 49 was a number that she just felt really fantastic about. She really pushed to have that specific number. Now, why is that? I have no idea. Gaga always keeps us guessing.
How involved was Gaga in the casting process with you?
She lets me cast. We’ve worked together for so long and she tells me, “I know you’ll put the best people around me.” She’s always been very trusting of her team, loves walking into a rehearsal and then finally meeting whomever we’ve cast. They see her for the first time and she’s always so warm, welcoming and inviting. She hugs everyone and thanks them for being a part of whatever project we’re working on. And it was the same for the “Stupid Love” video. These dancers’ mouths dropped — because a lot of them have experienced other artists who don’t operate that way.
How would you describe Gaga’s work ethic?
She is someone who always gives it 100 percent. She always tries to find new ways to be better. She is constantly asking herself, “How can this touch more people? How can it be more impactful? How can we get our message out there?” I love her work ethic and how hands-on she is because it keeps me on my toes. It keeps the entire Haus of Gaga on our toes. We’re always thinking about how we can raise the bar. Because she has so much belief in herself, in us and all that we do together, it just inspires us to be great.
How did the Haus of Gaga react when “Stupid Love” leaked online in January? Did it prompt any conversations about going with a different song as the lead single off Chromatica?
I thought to myself, “Well, the fans are back at it!” There was no discussion about going a different route because we were already moving forward with the video at that point anyway. While leaks aren’t great, what was nice to see was how the fans responded to it. It was clear that they loved it. It was reaffirming to us because people were so excited even though they didn’t know if it was a real record or not. It was interesting to see how people were performing to it before it actually came out, to see what they saw in the song. And then, meanwhile back at the ranch, we knew we had something else coming for them.
How did the concept for the video come about?
When she and I spoke about it, she had the concept and said that she wanted groups of different people with different colors coming together. They’re all separate and part of different tribes, but by the end of the song, we all come together. So, with that, I then said, “Well, how do I separate them not only by their colors and their looks, but how do I separate them through dance?” Pop music involves all sorts of movement: hip-hop, voguing, abstract movement, classical, modern and jazz. So, I decided to choreograph each tribe in a different way, with different movements.
What was it like choreographing different dance styles for each tribe?
It was amazing, and I was really excited for that particular part because as a choreographer, you hardly ever get a chance to do that. With “Telephone” and “Bad Romance,” there was one style for each video and it worked. But for this, with the separation of the colors, there was no other approach. And I was more than up for the challenge. I embraced that part of the job. I loved it. And the dancers were absolutely gagging. We let everyone see each other learning their different parts. I loved the entire process. I wouldn’t change anything about it.
There has been a lot of chatter about the meaning behind the “Stupid Love” video. Of course, the political parallels seem apparent — but what is your interpretation?
In my opinion, the message is that we all have our groups, tribes, political parties or people that we see ourselves the same as. And those perceived differences cause division. But this video is saying that just because we think we’re different, there doesn’t have to be violence or conflict. We can always have a conversation. We can always party together. We can always dance and sing together. The video is an interpretation of real life. Even though we, as a global society, may have separated ourselves from one another, we are really all the same.
Does that message feel especially impactful in 2020 — an election year where we’re also experiencing an unprecedented universal health crisis?
Yeah, it has a lot to do with what’s happening today. Whatever you’re into — whether that’s a certain political party or even a certain type of fashion — there can always be unity. We can all get along and communicate. If anyone’s upset, they can just go out to the desert and dance it out! And with the coronavirus going on, I just hope “Stupid Love” and Gaga’s music can provide some type of healing.
The video was shot entirely on iPhones in partnership with Apple. How did that impact your approach to the choreography?
When they first told me that it was being shot on iPhones, I was a little nervous. To hear that it was being shot on phones with 49 other people, plus Gaga, I chuckled. I was like, “OK, really? We’ll see.” But when we got out there, it was iPhones on Steadicams, iPhones on drones, iPhones everywhere! I really was in disbelief until we actually got there, and I saw them attached to all the equipment. As it pertained to my choreography, I just thought we had to be as big as possible and we had to give them everything. So that’s what we did, and it turned out to be so beautiful.
Where does “Stupid Love” fall in the pantheon of all the videos you’ve done with Gaga? Would you say this is your best collaboration yet?
I think it’s right up there. If we’re comparing it to “Bad Romance,” “Telephone” and “Alejandro,” they were all great for their time and they’re still great. But I think I might love “Stupid Love” more because I got to do so much more. I got to choreograph different styles. I got to work with the most people I’ve ever worked with in my entire career. Believe it or not, we had more people working on the “Stupid Love” video than we did on Gaga’s Super Bowl performance in 2017. The styling was also epic. Dancing in the desert. The list goes on and on. This is the most rewarding project I’ve worked on so far in my career.
What can you tease about the rest of Chromatica?
I know nothing! Even I haven’t heard anything beyond “Stupid Love.” She has to keep it under wraps as much as she can. That’s what we’ve got to do these days to avoid more leaks.
After Joanne and A Star Is Born, which were relatively stripped down compared other eras in Gaga’s career, was there excitement in returning to a more dance-pop sound with “Stupid Love”?
As a club kid myself, absolutely yes! Listen, Joanne was a different record and what I love about Gaga is that she will go left, she’ll go right, she’ll go center. You never know where she’s going to go. And I will always roll with her. But in this particular instance, I was beyond thrilled. I knew the kids would be going crazy for “Stupid Love.” It’s exciting to get back to that.
The Chromatica Ball tour is still scheduled to kick off in Paris on July 24. Where are you in the process of putting that together and is the coronavirus quarantine impacting the prep at all?
For me, we’re still taking in the reaction to the “Stupid Love” video and seeing where that’s going to go. We still have some time before the Chromatica Ball. We haven’t really started the creative for that yet. Here in quarantine, I definitely am thinking about ideas for the tour, though. That’s on my mind 100 percent. I’ve got to really absorb it and figure out the moves and motifs that people are loving, what’s getting them excited. Even seeing some of the drag performances to “Stupid Love,” I am absolutely gagged and inspired. I’ve even seen a girl doing the “Stupid Love” choreography on stilts. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get Gaga on stilts! (Laughs.)
How would you describe the evolution of your working relationship with Gaga?
It’s been 13 years. I had met her when she was still on MySpace. To give you a timeline, this was before “Just Dance” even came out. At that time, she was someone who was trying to break into the industry. No one knew who she was, what the music was or how to move to it. We’ve done so much since then, but the relationship I have with her, in many ways, is still the same. We still ask the same questions: How do we be great? How do we push the envelope? How do we raise the bar? It’s always been about how we can be our best selves. We’ve both been like that all these years. That has not changed. We’ve been giving it our all for more than a decade. And I don’t ever see us stopping.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.