Lady Gaga might be pop culture’s most surprising phoenix.
It wasn’t even a year ago that we had ruled her career dead. Her high-concept, haute-pretentious album, ARTPOP, was a commercial and critical disaster. (Albeit one I predict will be deemed “underrated” in the years to come—“Gypsy” is a legitimately excellent song.) Pop music’s most reliable hitmaker had fallen prey to her own artistic ambition and exhausting pop art persona. Consumers had rendered their verdict: over it.
But from the ashes of ARTPOP, Gaga is rising amid a string of shrewd, unexpected career decisions. The result? Culture’s craziest kook has reinvented herself as a bit of a classic entertainer. First was a Grammy-winning album of standards with Tony Bennett. Then a ferociously delivered tribute to The Sound of Music at the Oscars. And now, the news that she’s been cast as the lead in the next season of American Horror Story.
If you’ve seen any of Lady Gaga’s epic music videos—especially the monologue opener to “Marry the Night”—you already know that Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, the NYU-trained theater nerd who would become Lady Gaga, is a seriously talented actress. It makes sense. If acting tests the courage of a performer’s convictions, no artist devotes herself to the craft, whatever it may be at that given time, with the bravery of the singer who walked around in those shoes.
And American Horror Story is a playground for her particular kind of talents. For one, its existence has always echoed the credo that Gaga herself preaches: Weirdos and oddballs cannot and will not be ignored, and when otherness is embraced, it makes you the most powerful of all. But Horror Story and Gaga isn’t just a perfect marriage of messaging—it’s an unrivaled matching of creative outlet and skillset.
From revelatory turns by Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, and Kathy Bates to theater of the absurd moments that have become the series’ calling card, American Horror Story is a home for go-for-broke performances, fearless characterization, and deranged storytelling that makes the casting of Lady Gaga on its next season both obvious and inspired. She is going to be so freaking good on this show.
More, the exuberant reaction the casting has already sparked reveals just how slick and successful Lady Gaga’s transformation over this past year has been. In many ways, between her embracing of Hollywood glamour and almost schmaltzy promotion of old Hollywood standards, Lady Gaga has become the modern-day Bette Midler.
It’s a look that suits her so well, and it’s so smart it’s hard to give her enough credit for it. It allows her to act grown up and strips her of the trippy aesthetic that used to alienate us from her as a performer, but still fosters the bombast and brassy personality that Gaga couldn’t silence if she tried.
Gaga’s always been adept at driving the conversation. Gone, however, are the conversations about meat dresses and disco sticks and male alter egos and music videos inspired by Jeff Koons. Smartly, after being bruised by the ARTPOP failure, Gaga is focusing the conversation on one essential thing: her irrefutable talent.
Hers is an excellent voice on Cheek to Cheek, her album with Tony Bennett. Crooning classics like “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Anything Goes” showcase that voice in ways that her heavily—and often brilliantly—produced pop songs often mask. They illuminate something that the effortlessness of Gaga’s talents often make you forget: that in order to make the perfect pop song—and “Bad Romance,” “Poker Face,” and a handful of others are perfect pop songs—you need to have crazy-impressive vocal chops. Gaga is an incredible singer.
And should you have doubted that latter point at all, her performance at the Oscars was more than enough to change your mind. In just 10 minutes, Gaga changed the way the world saw her, all while staying true to the singular directive that has driven all of her career success: take goddamned risks.
Was performing a Sound of Music tribute risky? For the love of Julie Andrews, yes.
For one, these are indelible songs immortalized by the voice of Ms. Andrews, who was in attendance while Gaga performed. More, the tribute took place in the third hour of a show that was already interminable. She was not singing to a hospitable audience. The world was exhausted by an overlong show and not in the mood to have Best Picture further delayed by a seemingly random tribute to a 50-year-old movie.
But then she sang. She absolutely nailed it. Immediately, and continuing on in the days since, her performance was ruled as the highlight of the Oscars. People couldn’t stop talking about her voice, and how unbelievably talented she was. Gaga was back, but she was different. She wasn’t just a pop star. She was a talent.
And while it may seem that all it took was a twirl on a mountaintop for Gaga to change the direction of her career, it’s clearly been a carefully calibrated transformation. Her performing has been subdued. Where she once was a cultural shit disturber, she now is simply charming. Her enthusiasm over her engagement to actor Taylor Kinney might have made her seem the most normal she’s ever seemed, and her Oscar appearance proved that she can still rise to music’s biggest challenges.
It’s fitting that Wednesday’s news that she’d been cast on American Horror Story caps it off, as nailing her performance at an award show celebrating movies made us all crave to see her act. Not act like her cameos in films like Machete Kills. But really, honest to god act.
Well, our prayers have been answered. And the results are inevitable—you know she’s going to freaking kill it. Of course she will, she’s Lady Gaga. She’s a phoenix. (She once literally dressed like a phoenix. Obviously.) And it’s her time to fly.