Sure, she seems to be having a successful run with Cheek to Cheek, her 2014 collaborative album of jazz standards with Tony Bennett (more on that later because it may be crazier than most of the obviously crazy things she’s known for), but there’s been a lull in the fame and celebrity surrounding Gaga for a few months now. The woman who arrived in an egg at the Grammys, the woman who wore the meat dress (which apparently really stank), the woman who performed with a ‘vomit painter’ on stage, the monstrous feminine, the mother creature, the weird fiction narrative come to life... is now wearing jumpsuits and her original hair colour, and crooning with an 88 year old performer of show tunes. She’s doing it well, by all reports, but it’s just not as interesting, is it?
With Tony Bennett, Gaga is a tempered-down version of herself. She's still occasionally seen with green hair or pink, but when she's with Bennett, she has gone back to her original dark brows and hair (even if styled as a 70’s Cher style ‘fro or Princess Leia braid) and her patented get-ups are reduced to swishy long dresses made of regular boring materials like silk. She’s relying totally on her voice to carry her through this, which is great since, surprise - she really can sing. I do miss the spectacle element, because that’s something so much a part of what she does, but in a way it’s sweet that she’s respecting the much older, more experienced entertainer she’s with by not distracting from what they accomplish with their voices alone.
What no one wants to talk about is 2013’s ArtPop - the album and accompanying music videos that seem to have left everyone cold. Maybe Gaga went her own way and she just didn’t connect with as many people, maybe it all finally just got too weird, maybe the music industry is crazy to not consider an album that still sold over 2 million copies a success, but still, I have to agree: nothing that came from ArtPop felt like it had the longevity of something from The Fame Monster.
After cancelling the Born This Way tour after damaging her hip and needing surgery, Gaga reportedly went back to re-evaluate her next album, launching ArtPop with the single "Applause", her 12th top—10 hit in the US.
"Applause" was in her usual solid electro-pop mode - a single with a video that was full to bursting with dozens of different references and images, including those of Koons, the artist who created ArtPop’s cover. What it wasn’t, though, was a song that could become an anthem as "Born This Way" had.
In fact, there were some real stinkers on the album and the elaborate music video for "G.U.Y/Venus/Manicure" with its confused mix of mythology and Gaga’s usual Jesus-obsessions was a bit of a mess. The video features Gaga has a fallen angel, hunted by men who seem to discard her and take her money (why does she have money? do angels need money?). Once she has been rejuvenated in the pool of a magnificent castle (California has castles! The things I learn every day), Gaga wreaks revenge on said men by injecting them with Gandhi’s blood (or something. If you have a better idea, I’m all ears!) and turning them into an army of Gaga-clones.
Fine, she does have a scene where a guy famous on YouTube for playing MineCraft helps bring back Michael Jackson, Gandhi and Jesus from the dead (what? not your top 3 choices?), but it’s still not very original since she spends the entire time looking like a young version of Donatella Versace in long white-blonde tresses and pouty-face, letting The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills take over the chorus (who are they? what do they want? why do they exist? I need answers, America!) and sings up to a disembodied Greek god’s head in the sky. There’s also a totally impractical but fantastic gold latex bondage swimsuit as visual relief, but that's still not enough for anyone to sit through the 4 minutes of credits that roll at the end, mentioning every single person to every have come into contact with Gaga. It’s okay though, because according to Gaga, this whole thing was meant to have a ‘hallucinogenic effect’. If only the music was enough to get us through this bad trip.
But let’s not dwell too much on ArtPop. It’s not that every song that came before as brilliant - we all make mistakes, right? Let’s go back a little to the earlier album that did so, so well - Born This Way from 2011.
The first single was, of course, "Born This Way", a song now embedded in our minds, controlling us into singing along whether we’ve got all the words down or not. The thumping club-style rhythms, the rumbling synth that breaks off into steady hand-clap beats - it moved everyone who heard it, in club, car or desk chair.
It wasn’t just an anthem for the LGBT community that Gaga had always supported, it was an anthem for every little ‘monster’ out there, every single person who has ever felt alienated in any way. And Gaga took alienation to heart and literally, with the video presenting her as the ‘Eternal Mother’ who hovers in the ‘multiverse’ and gives birth to a race that knows no prejudice, the mother monster who must be both good and evil to protect the perfection she has created. That, plus a frantic punk-pop dance sequence in which Gaga keeps her knobbly alien sub-dermal shoulder-cheek-temple prosthetics on while prancing around in designer underwear.
And hey, just so you know - the black & white slime in the orgy sequence? That’s designer slime by a famous guy called Bart Ness. He’s famous for his slime art. I’m not even kidding.
As much as I love "Born This Way"’s original version, I do have a soft spot for the Bollywood Remix - not because I’m particularly fond of Bollywood music (I’m not), but because it’s really, really good. Mixed by Indian music producers Salim and Sulaiman Merchant, it takes nothing away from the aggression of original track but adds some fantastic dhol and sitar sounds as well as some alaap in male vocals, which isn’t at all something you’d have heard Gaga include earlier.
The second track that’s stayed with me from Born This Way is probably my favourite Gaga song. "You & I" is a full-thrust country-rock song that perfectly features Gaga’s two strengths - thumping piano beats that sound almost like a cabaret performance and fierce, angry vocals. But it doesn't feel like most of her other stuff - certainly not like the massive dance hits she’s known for, like "Poker Face" and "Bad Romance". This feels much more raw and honest. Gaga is reported to have said she was meant to lay down sample vocals so she smoked 30 cigarettes, drank some whiskey and ended up belting out what was used as the final vocal track for the song. Queen’s "We Will Rock You" is sampled in the track which also features the electric guitar stylings of Brain May.
About the video, Gaga has said ‘[it] is quite complex in the way that the story is told, and it's meant to be slightly linear and slightly twisted and confusing, which is the way that love is’. Take from that what you will, but it’s a slick little piece of film, in which the performance part features a blonde Gaga in a little nude-coloured slip and pale make-up in a corn field, singing up to her male alter-ego Joe Calderone, a dirty, angsty James Dean character, who is seated on the piano that blonde Gaga is playing. She’s very much singing to herself here - well, to an avatar of herself, which is what Gaga ultimately is - a string of avatars, creations, representations, versions, fictions.
It still shocks (and I suppose, intrigues) me that the same album that spawned "Born This Way" and "You & I" also managed to squeeze out some real duds. For those critics who tore her apart for ArtPop, it should really be no surprise. The first and last tracks on Born This Way should have shown us what was coming - they both just left a whole lot to be desired. If there was ever a sign she was headed the ArtPop way, these tracks were it.
Lady Gaga started to direct her own videos, and she referenced her own life a little too obviously, no longer creating alter egos but simply playing versions of herself from her own history. No more the monstrous feminine, no more mother monster - just Gaga, being the most real (and least meaningful) version of herself. It was sad and we should all have seen the signs.
The first of those signs came in the the first track on Born This Way. Even the set-up to "Marry the Night" is long and tedious. I want to like it more for it’s attempts at surrealism but then I recall the voice over that says ‘the lie is more honest because I invented it’…yes, well, no, it’s really not. The video is about her time between labels, wanting to leave LA and her move back to NYC.
Just as the actual song is about to start (about a few hours into the set-up) there you have Gaga, red-soled high-heeled boots, chandelier earrings, black and red claws and leather-clad backside hanging out of a Trans Am while cars burn around her. And then she’s relearning everything she knew - new dance moves, new look, new crew - hey, haven’t I seen this 80s dance movie before, with the fierce blonde in denim? Was it Desperately Seeking Susan? Things are terribly ubiquitous here - there are quick clips of her quitting drugs, moving on, dancing in the streets, wearing a massive hat that won’t fit into a limo and finally pouring gasoline over cars - oh we get it, Gaga, you grew into yourself and you were on FIRE.
Just a final thought on "Marry the Night". It was released as an early promotion for the album on FarmVille. Yes, that Facebook game you keep rejecting invites to.
And just what, what was the last track on the album: "Edge of Glory"? I understand that some may think the video is startlingly simple and appreciate it for that - but let’s be real - this is Gaga! When has she been simple? Why would she be simple? She doesn’t even change outfits! There’s no discernible choreography! Everything happens on the same street! Her hair and make-up - the two things Gaga uses constantly to recreate her image even if nothing else is altered - stays the same throughout the video. It’s like she’s a Cats outtake. Or a Blade Runner reject.
I’m very ambivalent about the song itself too. At first listen it doesn't have much - none of the girth, drama or fun of her bigger tracks. Even if you give in to the ‘tonight yeah baby, tonight yeah baby’ refrain, it still feels like a truly forgettable 80s Springsteen ‘did he really write that?’ track. Clarence Clemons, the saxophone player from the E Street Band is featured on it and, while he may be great, the sax just adds to the dated feeling of the track. Yeah, sure - let’s call it ‘retro’ and leave it at that. From the retro stylings of "Edge of Glory" to the retro styling of Tony Bennet - see? It makes complete sense.
Recently the Guardian asked Margaret Atwood to pick who would play her in the film of her life and Atwood’s response was ‘Somebody short. Or else Lady Gaga.’ Now that’s something I’d pay to watch. From Atwood to Bennett - it's clear that the greats still believe there's something special about Gaga. She's been avant garde, she's been controversial, she's been plain outright strange. She's associated herself with vomit painters, created Warholian associations neo-pop artists like Jeff Koons and Nathan Sawaya the Lego artist, and now it's almost as if she's now come full circle. She's paring down and shedding the extra baggage she's accumulated over the years - the wild costumes and explosive scenarios and set-ups needed to perform are gone. Is this Gaga's time to regroup and learn from consummate performers? She's talked about having lost her love for singing until Tony Bennett came along - could this be Gaga's great rediscovery? She's still a great vocalist when it comes to the classics, but I do miss the madness. Here’s hoping singing the classics gives Gaga what she needs to be explosive all over again.
Incidentally, about that performance with Gaga and the vomit painter - if you’re wondering whether chugging coloured milk & forcing yourself to throw it up on a pop start is art, let me tell you that any kid who accidentally chews up a crayon can do the same. Is that art? I don’t think so, but here's a picture of Gaga with tentacles.