Two years ago, Lady Gaga released an album of relentless Eurodisco titled Artpop.
She appeared at its launch party in an outfit that hovered – “Volantis, the world’s first flying dress”. She fired her manager even before the album – which tanked – was released. These were the death throes, critics concluded, of a career overburdened by artifice and spectacle.
Now Gaga has fashioned a comeback: not with a new act of overt transgression, but singing jazz standards with Tony Bennett, embracing red-carpet Hollywood style, and broadly rejecting the excess of the past.
Last week, after a video of Gaga – real name Stefani Germanotta – belting out the Edith Piaf classic La Vie en Rose on stage in Switzerland was posted on YouTube, US culture critics speculated that Gaga’s embrace of apparent middle-of-the-road showbiz makes normalcy the “new transgression”.
“To be meaningful, outrageousness always has to have substance,” explains Bennett’s manager, his son Danny. “That’s the difference between art that lasts and art that’s disposable.”
For Gaga, he says, “it’s not a matter of ‘going back’ to substance, it’s a matter of reinventing and redefining oneself moving forward”.
In the echo chamber of celebrity, is being substantially normal just an elaborate new stunt for a woman who, as Vulture.com points out, once looked to “actively court confusion about her gender, sexuality, and even species, as though any kind of inscrutability only made her more powerful and alluring”?
Five years on, and seen against the contemporary gender revolution set in train by trans celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner, the provocations of Gaga’s 2011 album Born This Way appear prescient but also a little quaint.
But does Gaga singing La Vie en Rose count as a cop-out or rebellion against Twitter, Instagram, and the calculation and artificiality of outrageousness in the Kardashian era?
“If you rely on outrageousness then all you can do is escalate,” says Michael Lustig of the Hollywood culture site TheLipTV. “What is shocking now? Nothing. There’s no more censorship so trying to be outrageous or break nonexistent taboos looks like a tantrum for attention.”
Enter the world of Normalcy, aka “normcore” in fashion-speak. It’s been going for two or three years and, in the cycle of such things, may be heading for imminent backlash. Before that arrives, Gaga is cleaning up. She sang The Sound of Music at the Oscars, and, following in the steps of Amy Winehouse, teamed up with Bennett to sing duets.
Bennett, 88, and Gaga, 29, recently sold out four nights at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The pair are now on a tour of Europe and the US.
While dueting with the beloved Tony is by definition a heritage act – a convenient layby to stop in – it suggests Gaga is rejecting headline celebrity for something more substantial. It’s a reinvention, says Lustig, “designed to prove there’s something more there than a meat dress”.
“She proved she’s a vehicle for outrageous fashion but she couldn’t follow it up. She has plenty of money but she doesn’t have a career – and that’s a problem. Can she turn herself into Liberace? Can she be glamorous and appeal to a wider audience? Can she hold the base long enough to stay relevant?”
The lure of the mainstream, though not expressly stated, is self-evident. When the guru of Apple Music, Jimmy Iovine, failed to resurrect Britney Spears’s career, the former teenage superstar went to Las Vegas on a contract that paid her $310,000 per performance for 96 concerts over two years, or roughly $30m.
Spears’s residency was so successful that she renewed her contract for 140 dates over a further two years at $475,000 a show. Sir Elton John is reportedly earning $500,000 a show, or 88% of box office, at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, with Rod Stewart filling in when he’s off.
Gaga’s Artpop was another Iovine project, so it’s not unfeasible that Gaga may be looking to follow in the footsteps of Spears, Elton, Stewart, Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Celine Dion to a top-dollar residency in Vegas. Compared with trying to sell albums to a public that may no longer want them, it’s easy money.
While that may still be in the future for Gaga, promoters say it is essential for performers like her to link outrageousness with social conscience, a well-worn but effective path for singers from Madonna (who always managed to show up for the amfAR Aids foundation) to Miley “Wrecking Ball” Cyrus, who mixes her twerking and other stunt antics with a downhome country band (on the recommendation of Cyrus’s godmother, Dolly Parton), and support for Amnesty International.
Gaga is associated with campaigns to raise awareness among young women about the risk of HIV/Aids as well as inspiring her legions of “Little Monsters” toward self-belief. At minimum, says Lustig, mixing theatrics and outrage with being a social justice warrior means you don’t risk blowing through the pop culture as fast.
Gaga’s flight to quality – if that’s what Cheek to Cheek, her duets album with Bennett, represents – did not sit well with some critics when it was released last year.
“Sounds like a retreat,” wrote the LA Times’s pop critic, who suggested Gaga had “merely run out of ideas for the moment and wants to cover it up with borrowed prestige”.
Gaga coupled the change of musical pace with a change of fashion direction. She parted company with her stylist of six years, Nicola Formichetti, and hired Brandon Maxwell to be Haus of Gaga fashion director.
Her new hire dressed her in an Azzedine Alaïa gown for the Oscars. “He gets too nervous that my tits are going to fall out,” Gaga reported.
As for her change of look, the singer explained: “So many people want to be more edgy and darker and avant garde. But for me, it’s more interesting to celebrate being classic.”
But could going classy doom Gaga to further misunderstanding? That, after all, was part of her appeal. There’s nothing to worry about, says Danny Bennett. “She is a true artist and so is Tony. And, as Tony always says, there’s no such thing as old songs, just good ones.”
Bowie hopped from the Laughing Gnome to Ziggy Stardust, through the apocalyptic rocker of Diamond Dogs to the “thin white duke” of Station to Station.
Guitarist Mick Ronson recalled how fully Bowie made his transitions. “David had to become what Ziggy was – he had to believe in him. Ziggy affected his personality, but he affected Ziggy’s personality.”
The singer-songwriter and actor executed a swift change from country music to pop with last year’s monster album 1989. “The best choices are bold choices,” says Swift.
“I kind of had one foot in pop and one foot in country, and that’s really no way to get anywhere … I just picked the one that felt more natural to me at this point in my life.”
From a faux-Woody Guthrie hobo to a protest singer to hiding out after his “motorcycle crash”, Dylan’s most surprising transformation was his conversion from Judaism to Christianity in 1979 and the release of Slow Train Coming, the first of three overtly religious albums.
Some were infuriated. To those who stormed out of his concerts, Dylan responded: “The old stuff’s not gonna save them.”
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