Welcome to Needle Drop, our ongoing series about crucial pop music moments on TV. Today: Primetimer's managing editor Joe Reid revisits Lady Gaga's starmaking August 2008 appearance on So You Think You Can Dance.
In the hierarchy of Fox's talent competition shows in the aughts, American Idol was perched at the very top. After its inaugural season produced Kelly Clarkson as a legitimate pop sensation, and subsequent seasons introduced us to the likes of Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson, the network's flagship reality competition series was a sensation. So You Think You Can Dance, which premiered in 2005, produced by Idol's Simon Fuller and Nigel Lythgoe, was always more of a niche project. You don't need to be a Julliard-trained expert to appreciate the beauty of a professional dance routine, but it was far easier to play armchair vocal coach to a warbling Idol contestant.
Still, to the smaller-yet-disproportionately-passionate So You Think You Can Dance fanbase, the show was a marvel of unbelievably talented dancers, eccentric and creative choreographers, and recurring judges with all kinds of tendencies and foibles (Nigel was the stick-in-the-mud, Mary Murphy the braying ballroom expert, Mia Michaels the demanding artiste, and Tyce Diorio the brat of Broadway). Although it toiled for much of its initial run outside the mainstream gaze, that often felt like a benefit to its fans, like we were enjoying a corner of the pop landscape that not everybody was privy to. This feeling was hugely amplified by the fact that the show invited a pre-fame Lady Gaga to perform her future smash hit "Just Dance" live on the show in the summer of 2008.
SYTYCD was in its fourth season at the time, and following the Idol template, the show aired one night of performances and a second night of results, where the last-place dancers would be eliminated. The results show usually featured a group routine featuring all of the remaining finalists, the short solo routines that the bottom-finishing dancers had to perform, and some filler. Often that filler included a live performance by some pop artist or another. On July 31, 2008, that pop artist was a woman who called herself "Lady Gaga."
Up to that point, Gaga had only performed on American television twice before: the NewNowNext Awards on Logo, which were far more of a niche corner than SYTYCD was, and the Miss Universe pageant on NBC, which was low priority enough that Jerry Springer co-hosted it. So You Think You Can Dance was her biggest gig yet.
Looking back, the performance itself features so many of what we'd come to know as Lady Gaga trademarks, even if she hadn't yet attained the polish she'd develop over the years. From the beginning, it's clear that she's working hard to entertain, and harder still to impress.
Given her clear and evident appreciation for dancers, it's hard to imagine a better platform for Gaga than So You Think You Can Dance. She clearly revels in making herself a part of their ensemble, featured though she is. And in an interesting twist of fate, one of the two dancers eliminated in the same episode, Mark Kanemura, would soon find a home among Gaga's group of dancers, and would go on to be featured in her tours and music videos for years going forward.
Gaga herself would not be a stranger to the So You Think You Can Dance stage, returning in 2011 as a conquering hero of pop in towering platform boots and a screaming red military-inspired costume that had her looking like generalisimo of her own sovereign pop kingdom. At one point she threw one of the boots onto the stage in appreciation, something she said was a tradition in the dance community. Was that true? Throwing shoes? Who cares? Lady Gaga had found a band of fellow pop travelers on the So You Think You Can Dance stage, and it was a match made in dance-music heaven.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.