The past two years have, admittedly, been very frustrating for Lady Gaga and her fans. Five years ago she was untouchable; a blueprint for the 21st century popstar. Equally parts campy and sexy, Gaga’s music may have not been that cutting edge but her image was. And then Gaga bought into her own fame. The same characteristics she was criticizing in her first album ended up being her down fall. Perhaps Gaga was never that creative, I began to wonder. Surely she was talented–she has a great voice–but her ideas seemed stale and overwrought. Without the creative team of Haus of Dada behind her, Gaga seemed floundering to create the magic and shock value that fueled her career at first.
Artpop, in the nicest critique possible, is a beautiful mess. Listening to it a year later, I appreciate the hard electronic sounds; at times it’s brilliant with “Sexxx Dreams”, but mostly it’s overblown. Gaga wanted to make it clear that she didn’t give a fuck about mainstream appreciation with Artpop, yet most of 2013 found Gaga frantically searching for ways to compete with Katy Perry. It was disappointing and all together frustrating to watch a popstar who was once so poised become so unhinged. (Equally ironic, Madonna seems to be in the same tailspin with Rebel Heart. Perhaps this is much needed karma after Madonna helped in ending Gaga’s reign for a bit)
Every singer has a moment where their career seems to be floundering. Some never seem to recover (Christina Aguilera) and others find their way back despite themselves (Britney Spears and Madonna). It’s safe to say Gaga has been in that phase for two years. But then, the Academy Awards happened.
Gaga’s performance of The Sound Of Music medley was mind-blowing in how perfectly composed and without gimmicks it was. It will certainly be looked at as a career defining performance, and it was just what Gaga desperately needed after a tumultuous two years of bad press. More than anything, The Sound Of Music medley put the focus back where Gaga has needed it for years: on the music and her voice. Gaga’s need for theatrics and gimmick wore thin after her third album Born This Way. It was time to start over and reinvent, but instead she plunged deeper into ostracizing her audience with Artpop. Her image felt inconsistent, and her album was just as all over the place.
But lately, it seems Gaga seems to be at peace with herself. She’s looked more glamorous and less like a parody of herself in public and award shows. And she has reason to rest easy: with the release of Cheek to Cheek with Tony Bennett and a Grammy award for Best Jazz album, Gaga finally has what she craved: respect. Of course, she had respect long before she decided to become a serious musician with Tony Bennett, but this respect seems to have calmed her. Equally calming seems to be her engagement to Taylor Kinney. Gaga, for the first time in a long time, seems content to not be everywhere. Instead she seems okay with her place in pop culture and with being out of the press. This has instantly made her more likable. And it’s transitioned to the best performance of the career.
The same week Lady Gaga performed on the Academy Awards, she announced she will be joining the cast of American Horror Story: Hotel. The news was met with elation and intense excitement from critics and casual fans of the show and Gaga. It’s hard to decide who is benefiting most from this casting: this week has been the most Gaga has been in the press since Born This Way. Likewise, AHS had a rough season with Freakshow. The show failed to spark interest or iconic moments, with many critics feeling the show had lost it’s spark. Both Gaga and AHS are at points where it’s make it or break it. They need each other equally, and it was smart for Gaga to jump on in the most unexpected venture she’s done yet.
With the winning week she’s had, it begs the question: Is Gaga’s imperial era set to happen in 2015? A popstar’s imperial era, as defined by Pop Justice, is the era when no one can come close to touching their star power. For Beyonce, it was the release of her surprise album to present. For Britney Spears it was 2000–2004. Gaga had a taste of this imperial phase during the Fame Monster, but I would like to wager that she was so young in her career that her potential was still at large. The important thing to remember about Gaga is that at one point she was great. She was thought-provoking and interesting. In many ways, Gaga’s mysteriousness in the early phase of her career helped in bursting her to icon territory. Once that mystery was lost and the public saw Gaga sweat trying to recapture her crown, the illusion was broken.
But perhaps Gaga’s best work is to come. I would like to think Artpop was a hard learning experience for her. The ArtRave stands as one of the most bizarre and energetic shows of 2014, but it was also strictly for the fans. To put it bluntly, the four minutes Gaga performed the SOM medley at the Oscars was more moving than the entire ArtRave show. What Gaga needs again is passion and unexpected moments of brilliance. Pop music is past shock value. The public wants relatable popstars again; it’s the only reason I can find Taylor Swift and Katy Perry are the top of the game right now. To truly succeed, Gaga will have to appeal to the masses again but also stay true to herself. She will have to realize that only going with what she believes is best, will hurt her. After the Sunday’s performance and Gaga’s calm demeanor, though, I would like to think she’s listening to her critics.
I have always been hard on Gaga because I know she’s capable of better. I watched, with many other popstar fans, in disappointment as she further drew herself farther into a hole of oblivion and mediocrity. But after Sunday, I’m beginning to think Gaga is ready to come back with something of substance. The reception of her performance perhaps proved what she needed to see most: she can succeed by just toning it down and letting the work speak for itself.