Lady Gaga Pivots Back Into Form as Pop Music's Best Chameleon

For a while it seemed that the over-the-top personality of Lady Gaga was at risk of going away, but her recent performances prove otherwise.
February 16, 2016, 5:46pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey Canada

When Lady Gaga first walked onto the pop-music scene eight years ago, people paid attention. She was a human spectacle—an artist who wanted to earn her fame by being “different.” Her strange appeal came in several forms: self-immolation, Whoville-esque wigs, calculated nudity, and the infamous raw meat dress. But once she found her way to the top, she seemed to have lost her balance. Now, Gaga is in transition, trying to find her footing in an industry that’s constantly sprinting forward. By nature, contemporary pop music has a shorter life expectancy. The chart-toppers of the genre come marked with expiry dates, easily replaced by younger talent able to sing the same generic “oohh’s and ahh’s.” Adaptability is a lifeline for pop musicians—the thing that can keep them from fading into irrelevancy. With Gaga’s recent performances at the Grammy Awards and the Super Bowl, along with her acting debut and a new album in the works, it’s clear that she wants to move beyond her old reputation to become a respected artist. But can she get there?

It was spring of 2008 when the world got its first taste of Gaga. Her debut single, “Just Dance” embodied all the cliches that make pop music so redundant. Conceptually, it was pretty meaningless; a classic tale about a drunken night out that resulted in a lost cell phone and a blurry memory. Featuring American singer-songwriter Colby O’Donis and vocals by Akon, it felt like Gaga was overcompensating for something. But still, the song had a strange way of making itself cozy in your memory. Four months later came The Fame—a fitting album title that would mark the pop star’s cannonball into the industry. It sold over 15 million copies worldwide and sat at the top of the dance/electronic charts for over 100 weeks. Within a year, Gaga needed a bigger trophy case. She was given Billboard magazine’s Rising Star award and hauled in an additional three titles at the MTV Video Music Awards. After the release of The Fame Monster in 2009—an eight-song EP including hits like “Bad Romance” and “Telephone”—she became the first artist in digital history to have three singles pass 4 million in sales.

Lady Gaga carved out an identity that was more tailored to her musical self after the release of her second studio album, Born This Way, in 2011. The lyrics had substance, touching on important issues like individuality and sexuality. Characterized in the book Lady Gaga Superstar by Jean-Pierre Hombach as "something so much deeper than a wig or lipstick or a fucking meat dress,” Born This Way sold over 1 million copies during its first week. Soon after, Gaga was ranked as one of the “World’s Most Powerful Women” in Forbes magazine. As Gaga built her musical repertoire, her brand rose alongside it. Nothing she did could be categorized as “normal,” not even launching a signature fragrance. While bottles of perfume marked with the names of other celebrities used scents like vanilla or lavender, Gaga’s had notes of blood and semen. At the 2014 SXSW conference in Texas, she let some 17-year-old vomit luminous green milk all over her chest. It wasn’t thought to be artistic or edgy, just unnecessary. She was constantly trying to one-up herself, and in the process she forgot about what it means to produce good music. She went from a rising star to a falling one. Eventually, people stopped caring and Gaga was tossed aside like a stale piece of bread.

Artists like Madonna and David Bowie remained in the industry for decades despite the constant turnover of new talent. They both had their fair share of questionable moments, but they both maintained a degree of relevance throughout. In a 1994 interview with David Letterman, Madonna asked him to smell her underwear. She lit crucifixes on fire and used the late Princess Diana to promote one of her albums. A photo of Bowie appearing to be doing a Nazi-salute sparked a lot of controversy, and he wore too many outlandish outfits to keep track of. But these stars always recovered from their tumbles. And as they evolved musically, fans followed. Throughout the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, Madonna was a “transgressive and chameleon-like icon of music and pop stardom,” as written by Nathan Smith in an op-ed for The Advocate. She didn’t follow trends; she invented them. Her lyrics were about more than drunken outings. They were about love, sexuality and society—things that are eternally important. Bowie was no different. He pushed boundaries, influencing not only music, but film, fashion, gender and sexual identity. There never seemed to be anything tiring about his perspective, despite a nearly 50-year-long career.

Gaga wants to be transgressive and chameleon-like too. She tried to take her most recent solo album in a new direction, but it failed miserably. Artpop is the embodiment of what makes generic pop music so terrible. Her originality evaporated and was replaced with disco-infused noise; it’s like she was given 10 Scrabble tiles and asked to write the lyrics using nothing else (“Dance, sex. ARTPOP, tech”). There’s nothing authentic within a 100-mile radius of this album—no mythical creatures, no obscure costumes. It only sold 258,000 copies during its first week, a mere fraction of albums past. Her “little monsters” moved onto the next chart topper, seemingly bored with her hocus pocus bullshit. For a while, Gaga wandered aimlessly in search of some direction. A 2014 collaborative record with American jazz/pop singer Tony Bennett seemed like a random transition. One day, she was a pop-star. The next, a cabaret singer. In the midst of confusion, it became easy to forget that Gaga used to be a force in music. But her tribute to Bowie at the 58th annual Grammy Awards served as a reminder of what she could be.

Gaga became “Lady Stardust” on stage, emerging wearing a costume and fluorescent orange wig inspired by the early 70s Ziggy Stardust days. She performed a medley of hits including “Space Oddity,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Rebel Rebel,” and “Fame,” joined by Bowie collaborator Nile Rodgers, all without any gimmicks. Ken Ehrlich, longtime producer of the Grammys, said in an interview that the performance would be a true homage to who Bowie was—musically, and in fashion and pop culture. And it was, it was theatrical and tasteful without flaming instruments, decapitated heads, or egg-hatching. It captured what Bowie represents, and what pop music can represent. The Rolling Stone called it “Astonishing,” and the New York Times tweeted, “back is the Lady Gaga we all know.” Her performance of the national anthem at the Super Bowl earlier this month was another reminder of her potential as an artist. There was nothing elaborate—she wore a sparkly red jumpsuit that radiated maturity and proved her worth with pure vocal talent.

But Gaga still seems to be searching for herself, looking for some sort of balance between who she was and who she wants to be. Last year, she played a sex-crazed, serial killing vampire on the latest season of the popular horror anthology TV series, American Horror Story—a role that earned her a Golden Globe award. Remnants of her old self came through. She wore over-the-top gowns, hats the size of small dinner tables, and a monster-like glove that doubled as a murder weapon. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Gaga said that her role on American Horror Story influenced her creative process. "I have returned to something I've believed in so much, which is the art of darkness.”

This new album is a chance for Lady Gaga to reconnect with her audience; a chance to prove that she doesn’t need to dress up like Kermit the Frog, or light herself on fire to stay relevant. “Til It Happens to You,” the song she co-wrote with American songwriter Diane Warren for the 2015 documentary film, The Hunting Ground, is a good start. Nominated for a 2016 Oscar Award, the single sends a powerful message about rape culture and is beautifully performed. If Gaga can discover similar meaning and depth in her upcoming lyrical work, that could be enough. Her new album is a shot at redemption. She’s still on the edge, but glory finally seems to be within reach.

Nicole Schmidt is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter