When Lady Gaga was exploding with her first album in 2009, jaded throngs were already buzzing that the woman was toast slathered with margarine. Overdone, overexposed, overcooked, and just plain over, virtually the second she’d whinnied her way out of the gate with her wig on straight! The whiplash-inducing quickness with which the knock-‘em-down crowd was anxious to push Gaga off her kitschy pedestal was staggering, and I had to promptly go to bat for the new star and nobly say, “Let’s give her a chance. At least another album, folks.” And I hate defending pop divas!
Well, three albums and four years later, she’s been declared over again, and this time it’s a little more complicated. Her first album, The Fame, percolated up the charts as it developed an audience, but after that, Gaga’s work has depended on instant waves of mass response in order to continually cement her superstardom. That‘s the danger of winding your way to the top; one false move or distracted side step and you’re already branded a has-been, your glad rags not fit to scrub windows with.
And Artpop’s debut numbers—which are in the 258,000 range—are hardly the kind that make record company execs dance a jig. Gossip reports have veered between “This is the biggest disaster since the Titanic hit the iceberg! Interscope will have to lay off 50 people!” and “This is exactly what they expected. Nothing more, nothing less”. But either way, you know they wanted better, especially considering the massive hype that Gaga has pulled off as if valiantly pumping a bike flat without bandaging it first.
For someone obsessed with the quirks of fame and applause, la diva may have lost a bit of her talent at garnering those perks. How did she get here? Well, as is now legend, Gaga launched her new career phase in August with a VMAs performance that was colossally off, her headwrapped entrance leading to forehead-crinkling queries of “Is she a nun? A Renaissance woman? A toilet bowl?” The rest of the number became way too self-consciously concerned with hair trigger coiff and costume changes to merit the approbation the song riffs about. Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus stole the night by dancing dirty with some plushies and sticking her tongue out a lot while sidling up to an appropriately awkward Robin Thicke. She was festive and fun to watch, but it was an act of petty larceny considering that Gaga could usually be counted on to pull off some artful act of attention getting that would leave all other awards show wannabes in her glitter dust. Normally, Gaga would be working with the giant teddy bears, not getting dwarfed by them.
Her live version of the same song on GMA—done to a Wizard of Oz theme—was similarly lacking, especially since Dorothy also seemed more consumed with costume switching than with serving anything substantial, and since the whole number was pulled off with what looked like a high-school level of theatrics rather than something a top artist would flaunt on national TV.
At the same time, Gaga was working with Marina Abramovic and creating pretentious yet riveting twaddle that at least made people notice and buzz again. She was no doubt alienating some of her Little Monsters, who don’t even know about Elvis paintings on velvet, let alone avant garde multimedia hijinks, but hey, you’ve got to stretch and evolve and the Lady was taking chances and shaking up the booboisie. She kept her easel up with her lavish artRAVE at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a stunningly pulled off soiree that was tightly organized and went to that high-reaching place that Katy Perry dares not visit. The building was studded with Jeff Koons statues, including a gigantic one of nude Gaga giving birth to a large ball, and the walls were covered with images of Gaga that seemed to span the seven ages of man, from mud-faced to (again) nude.
She followed that with some fully clothed H&M ribbon cutting in Times Square—not exactly high-end, but still, the exposure was massive. And the jewel in her Artpop crown was her SNL appearance, which got big ratings thanks to Gaga’s savvy mix of show biz pizazz and self-mocking humor. Her re-do of “Applause” as a sort of jazzy Broadway number, interspersed with shtick about the pitfalls of pandering, was totally Liza for the new world. And the gag in which she was announced as doing a cover of “Express Yourself,” only to sing a few bars of “Born This Way,” was a side splitting wink at one of the feuds that have kept her endlessly tabloid-relevant. Ending the show by spoofing her future self as a forgotten old hag who will only excite people because she knew Beyoncé was the kind of self-satirizing that generally endears people to celebs-in-crisis big time. But it didn’t sell records. Born This Way sold a million (though a big chunk of those were from a 99-cent deal), whereas Artpop’s numbers no doubt had Madonna doing a jig.
Also, Artpop was getting some bad reviews, critics claiming it’s trashy, inconsistent, off-putting, and cartoony, as some observers wondered why Gaga didn’t spend the time and money crafting better songs instead of creating visuals and hoopla. The duet with R. Kelly, in which she urges people to take advantage of her body, was probably not a good idea, though “Dope”—a piano-driven ballad about how pain numbing can lead to addiction—is getting some people high. It’s one of those tunes that reminds you that when Gaga just sits by the keys and belts from the soul, she has the potential to be the new Laura Nyro (and the new Liza).
And over the weekend, Gaga redefined the R. Kelly duet in a good way on the AMAs. She’s the new face of Versace, and she has a special with the freakin’ Muppets airing on Thursday. I should BE so over.
Furthermore—this is getting more and more complicated—the album’s just started! Some future singles from it might end up igniting, and as she tours, it could develop into a success, with major international business too. (Then again, I feel The Lone Ranger might break even thanks to DVD sales.)
I’m also enjoying Gaga’s new looks. She’s been doing exactly as I suggested a few years go and segueing into stuff that’s sexy and sparkly, with less gimmickry and fewer food groups. She could never top the meat dress, balls-wise, so it’s smart to start downsizing the fashion and come off as a frisky but confident artiste more than an eternal club kid in search of the next eye-popping object to festoon herself with.
But now that she’s looking good, what’s on the agenda? As you know, Gaga’s next album will be a series of duets with Tony Bennett, and that’s not exactly going to set the coffers on fire, but I still feel it’s a great move. Their feistily enjoyable “The Lady is a Tramp” was the highlight of Bennett’s last duets album, and with a project like this, Gaga’s showing what she’s capable of while expanding her brand and re-establishing the fact that she’s more than just a chart figure. And it’s better than reteaming with R. Kelly.
So Gaga isn’t over by a long shot. She can actually sing and write, she has the ability to surprise her fans with flashes of dry humor, and she’s said to not be a horrible ego monster offstage. I just hope she’s prepared to take a big pay cut next time.