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Olivia Rodrigo’s malfunction, explained

Selena Gomez was certainly surprised.

Olivia Rodrigo sitting on a floor covered in moss for her MTV performance, wearing a red top and skirt
Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for MTV

The MTV Video Music Awards, known as the VMAs, hold the title of most chaotic awards show on television — though the Oscars (in recent years) have certainly given it a run for its money.

The VMAs were the site of Kanye West’s infamous interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech back in 2009, the same year Lady Gaga shocked the audience by appearing to bleed out on stage during her performance of “Paparazzi” — and who could forget Miley Cyrus twerking on Robin Thicke in 2013?

Olivia Rodrigo was among the headline performers of this year’s ceremony, after the release of her sophomore album, GUTS, came out last week. Rodrigo began performing her lead single off of the album, “Vampire,” when things appeared to go very wrong, something that’s turning into a trend for the VMAs.

Olivia Rodrigo standing on stage singing for the MTV awards, looking confused as equipment goes up in sparks around her
Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for MTV

The beginning of Rodrigo’s performance seemed to go pretty smoothly, when lights above the stage appeared to start exploding and falling to the ground. Then, the camera filming the performance seemed to fall on its side. Then, sparks began flying everywhere, and the forest set design came crashing down. Soon, a stage manager of some sort escorted Rodrigo off of the stage.

While Olivia appeared to run off, “Traitor” — a song from her previous album Sour — began playing. Then, her hit single from the same album, “Good 4 U” played before malfunctioning and skipping, starting the chant “Good 4 u, you look happy and hel- hell! hell! hell!”

After that, Olivia appeared on stage once more with her dancers, perfectly fine and post-outfit change, performing her latest single, “Get Him Back!”

Was the malfunction accidental?

While it was soon clear the effect was intentional, many viewers on social media were initially fooled. Ramin Setoodeh, a journalist at the awards ceremony, tweeted a video he filmed, captioned “Olivia Rodrigo seems startled by the fireworks onstage.”

“I can’t be the only confused person during this Olivia Rodrigo performance. I thought the stage was catching fire and producer escorting her,” user @TheLifeOfAlexx tweeted.

“I literally thought Olivia Rodrigo was gonna die on that stage,” @BabuFrikster added.

Many viewers picked up on Selena Gomez’s reaction in the audience when the apparent stage malfunction occurred, appearing very surprised and covering one of her ears during the explosion. Later, the singer-actress explained her reaction, stating “I heard a loud noise and it scared me”.

While much of the internet, as well as the audience, bought into the impressive technical trickery, a lot of Olivia Rodrigo’s fans picked up on the reference to the music video for “Vampire”.

In the video, which perfectly resembles Rodrigo’s VMAs performance of the song, Olivia sings in what appears to be a misty forest. It is quickly revealed that she is performing on a stage as part of an awards ceremony, where things start to go wrong. In a slight difference to the real performance, Rodrigo is injured by the stage lights crashing on top of her, and starts bleeding. Perhaps this was a little too graphic for MTV, post-Lady Gaga.

Just like the VMAs, the audience began to grow concerned as the stage started sparking, before a stage manager escorted Rodrigo off of the stage. As the song continues, an increasingly distressed Rodrigo runs off into the street, trying to outrun the people chasing her.

The first single to follow up her multi-Grammy winning album Sour, “Vampire” is a lead single to a new, darker phase of Olivia Rodrigo’s career. The song’s lyrics describe a person who targets Olivia and drains her for all that she’s worth, and this “fame-f***er” sinks their teeth into the young musician, under the guise of love.

The music video is a perfect visual example of this. What seemed so simple early on in Rodrigo’s music career, when she was still a teenager finding unprecedented success as a pop star, is now ugly and frightening. Due to her star status, people move quickly to take advantage of the 20-year-old, still naive and adapting to adult life in the spotlight.

Before her music career, Olivia Rodrigo first gained notoriety as an actress on the Disney shows Bizaardvark and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, as well as a guest role on the sitcom New Girl. Given the number of viewers fooled by the planned stage malfunction, Rodrigo’s acting during her VMAs performance proves that she is very much a triple threat.

About the author

Bethany Gemmell

Bethany Gemmell is a writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Bethany's beat on We Got This Covered is mainly reality television, but when she's off duty, she is often found re-watching Better Call Saul for the millionth time.