Talent Always Wins: How Lady Gaga Monster-Clawed Her Way Back to Cultural Dominance
Is it 2010 again? Because it feels like 2010 again.
A few years ago, shortly after the release of Lady Gaga’s fourth album, ARTPOP, I was walking down the street, headed to some bar somewhere in Williamsburg with a couple of friends, when the conversation turned, as it often does amongst my pop-loving coterie, to Mother Monster herself. “Do you think she’ll ever be as big as she was a few years ago?” my friend asked, our boots pounding out a deadened beat as we made our way down the cold December pavement. At the time, we were living in the wake of Tsunami ARTPOP : middling reviews, stalled singles, walls crumbling behind the scenes, competition once thought of as cheap imitation rising effortlessly above the wreckage.
“No,” I answered half-honestly, not entirely convinced she was down for the count but not wanting to seem deluded either. “As much as I wish I could say otherwise, I don’t think it will ever be like it was.”
“But it doesn’t matter,” I added. And I meant it. Gaga’s “Imperial Phase,” which lasted from roughly early 2009 through early 2012 (though the end date varies depending on who you ask) was one of those rare phenomenons that changed (for the better, in my opinion) everything it touched. Every single she released during that time went top 10. Every video she put out was a bonafide event. Every teacup carried, every silver lobster headpiece worn, every Diet Coke can rolled into her hair became a meme, an icon. It forced her competition to try (and fail, for the most part) to out-weird the girl leading the charge. It was all-consuming. It was bright and it was meteoric and it was exciting. It was not sustainable. That kind of thing never is.
The wheels started to come off the Gaga Train sometime during the Born This Way era, but the big crash didn’t occur until ARTPOP impacted in 2013. I liked ARTPOP, and I still do, though I think it is far from her best work. Opinions about the music aside, it debuted at No. 1 and spawned one semi-major hit (and a couple of minor ones). It was in no way a slam dunk, but it was hardly a total commercial failure. Except many people believed and still believe the failure was not only total but career-ending. I wrote rather extensively about the failures of the ARTPOP campaign, and I don’t feel the need to reiterate here. But I will say this: most of us saw it coming. Because what she had before was never sustainable. The ARTPOP fallout was inevitable. When you burn that bright for that long, only one thing can follow: burnout. To fans like myself, it didn’t make much of a difference: she’d made a mark, and even on her worst day, she’s more interesting and challenging than the majority of her peers. I also never got the impression that she cared as much about maintaining her status as The One True Pop Star as much as many of her contemporaries care(d). That ARTPOP failed, in a cultural sense, to live up to The Fame Monster and Born This Way was irrelevant to me. It was, and is, enough that she is simply in the world, creating.
Too much (all of it the same) has been written about Gaga’s career trajectory: the rapid rise to complete cultural dominance followed by the inevitable backlash followed by the perceived implosion of her entire brand. We know the story because we’ve read it before, and not just about Gaga. It’s a story as old as fame itself, and it’s a story she’s explicitly told many times over through her own art, most obviously in the “Paparazzi” video, taken from her very first album. (“We love her again!” A prophecy being fulfilled as I type this.) There’s a part of me that wonders if the last three years have been part of an elaborate performance art project meant to demonstrate — in real life, in real time, with real people — that she’d called it from the start.
We all know the story — build someone up just to tear them down. But here’s the twist in this particular retelling: Gaga’s story didn’t end there, in failure.
Though Gaga has not released a pop album since ARTPOP, the last year has been, in many ways, the most significant of her still-young career. The change began slowly and quietly. In 2014, less than a full year after ARTPOP’s release, Gaga released Cheek to Cheek, an album of jazz standards with Tony Bennett. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Album 200 (and, it should be noted, sold more in its first week than Rihanna’s ANTI).
And then. That album spawned a critically-acclaimed tour which saw several of Gaga’s performances go viral. Apparently, after eight years, some people still didn’t know that the weird girl in the dress of meat could sing.
And then. Cheek to Cheek won a Grammy, bringing her total to six.
And then. Like a couture goddess stepping out of future’s mist, Gaga hit the red carpet at the 2015 Oscars, her custom Alaïa gown (and gloves) becoming instantaneously one of most memorable fashion moments of the year. And it didn’t end there: later, she took the stage for a now-infamous tribute to The Sound of Music, wowing just about everyone, including Julie Andrews herself.
And then. Days after her performance, Gaga swerved again by announcing a starring role on American Horror Story: Hotel. Could Gaga act? No one knew. But it didn’t matter: it made a strange kind of sense and people were, once again, curious. Curious and talking.
And then. She spent the majority of her 2015 sweeping up honors ranging from the Contemporary Icon Award at the Songwriters Hall of Fame to Billboard’s Woman of the Year mantle. She was the most talked about person at the Oscars and the Emmys. A surprising amount of people had a surprising amount to say about a woman they claimed was nothing, over.
And then. She released “Til It Happens to You,” her first original song in almost two years. She co-wrote the song, which was used in The Hunting Ground documentary, with Diane Warren as a message of support for survivors of sexual assault. The powerful video went viral even without an appearance by Gaga. Somewhat predictably, the song was granted second life once awards season started. It is currently the favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Lady Gaga: Oscar Winner? Lady Gaga: Halfway to an EGOT? These things have about them a nice ring.
And then. American Horror Story: Hotel started. Though initially critics were somewhat indifferent to Gaga’s star turn on the popular series, as the season went on, more and more people took note of Gaga’s strong (and often subtle) work. It was exciting to watch her learn and become better as the season progressed.
And then. That same acting work earned Gaga a Golden Globe award. Her win, as well as her viral brush with Leonardo DiCaprio, lit up the internet for days. As with the Oscars and the Emmys, she was the most-talked-about person in attendance.
At first glance, her approach to rebranding seems disparate (and to some, I’m sure, desperate). From jazz covers to legacy awards to television acting to tribute performances, Gaga’s last year doesn’t fit easily into any one mold. But the theme, upon closer inspection, is clear: Gaga wanted to remind everyone, her haters most of all, that she is really f***ing talented. Beyond the costumes, the slick pop hits, and her naturally-provocative demeanor, she is a unique and varied talent. I am so much more than the woman who made that album you didn’t like, she seemed to be shouting.
Which brings us to February 2016, a month in which Gaga will become the first person to perform at the Super Bowl, the Grammys, and the Oscars all in the same year. One down, two to go. Her show-and-heart-stopping rendition of the national anthem at Super Bowl 50 won unanimous acclaim from nearly every corner of the globe. Some have already likened it to Whitney Houston’s bar-setting performance in 1991. By some metrics, it was the biggest moment of a big event, no small feat when you remember she shared her platform with Beyoncé, Coldplay, Bruno Mars, some truly weird commercials, and, oh yes, some moderately well-known athletes.
Of her two remaining performances this month, the most difficult will be her tribute to David Bowie at the Grammys next week. As I have argued, she is the right person to do the job, but paying tribute to a man whose music and legacy are as beloved as his will likely draw equal amounts of praise and criticism. But criticism won’t necessarily hurt her, not if she delivers. In fact, a little controversy could do good to remind people that she’s more than well-sung jazz standards and tributes, just as those jazz standards and tributes reminded people she was much more than ARTPOP.
Her performance of “Til It Happens to You” at the Oscars, like her win, seems like a lock. Assuming the Bowie tribute goes well (and I think it will), can you imagine the position she will be in? It’s hard to do, because it hasn’t been done before, not on this scale. Should she achieve it, she will have rightfully earned a pass out of the limbo she’s endured for two years. She will have earned her place among legends.
It’s not an easy road from there, but for the first time in quite a while, it seems not only possible that Gaga will stick the landing but likely. Following her month of high-profile performances, she still must meet the task of delivering a good album. A great one. This is no easy thing to do, but through hard work and unwavering determination, Gaga (and her team) have cleared the path of all obstacles, have shed the sticky weight of failure. No one can stop her but herself. She has primed her audience — old fans, new fans, and the still-skeptical — for the next phase.
I don’t know what to expect from her new album; we don’t know much about it. After two years of working to convince a sometimes-indifferent public that something powerful and unique lies behind the theatrics — not that anyone with half a brain didn’t recognize it years ago — I hope Gaga feels comfortable reincorporating some of the strangeness that made her famous during her early days. Following Sunday’s national anthem performance, she has nothing left to prove with regards to her inherent talent. But she still does have one thing left to prove, if only to the people who delighted in her downfall: that she’s the best damn pop star of her generation, and the most versatile one to boot.
It may be premature to assume her next album will be as good as we want (need) it to be, but if we have learned anything over the last year, it is that we should give her the benefit of the doubt. We wrote her off once in 2013, and look where we are now. She’s everywhere, doing everything. And nailing it each time. She accomplished the near-impossible: she made people care — about her, about her talent, about her work, and about her next move — again.
Occasionally I think back to the conversation I had with my friends in 2013 and feel a twinge of guilt. Not because I feel like I had given up on her — I hadn’t — but because I had underestimated her ability to surprise me. And more than that: I underestimated her ability to surprise others. Despite the motto Gaga fans have been using of late as a way of reveling in triumph, talent doesn’t always win. That’s not the way it works. Plenty of talented people fade from the spotlight or never feel its warmth to begin with. But sometimes, every now and then, once in a lifetime, maybe — for a once-in-a-lifetime star — it does win. Talent does win. You’re watching it win right now. And if all goes the way I think it will, you’ll be watching it for decades to come.