Not all that long ago, Lady Gaga struck me as a mashup of Madonna and Marilyn Manson. The Madonna parallels were obvious. Here was a pop star who, while incredibly talented, relied on a provocative style and lyrics that were intensely personal and promoted self-worth and acceptance of others.
Here was also a pop star who relied on shock value (seriously, the meat dress) to maintain relevance, like a certain shock-rocker who spent his time at the turn of the century convincing America he was its most bitter enemy. This wasn’t true, of course. Manson was simply a talented guy who saw his path to fame and charted it. Hell, his best music was released long after his whole shock rock gimmick had worn thin.
But back to Gaga, who is headlining the Super Bowl halftime show on Sunday at NRG Stadium. Whether Gaga chooses to get political or falls back on her old tricks – namely, getting a little risqué to generate some headlines – is fairly inconsequential. Now she doesn’t need to.
I wasn’t always down with Gaga. I found her talented and provocative, for sure, but her act always struck me as a try-hard attempt to be the next Madonna. This isn’t really an insult so much as an observation; mimicking arguably the greatest pop star of the past 35 years is certainly no crime, and even drawing parallels to someone of Madonna's caliber speaks to Lady Gaga’s talent and charisma.
That said, I grew up on Madonna, and sequels are rarely better than the original, so I didn’t take Gaga all that seriously when she exploded on the scene with The Fame in 2008. It was impressive for sure; “Just Dance” is catchy as hell, and “Poker Face” was probably the best pop song of 2008. As with Radiohead, a band I found talented but never quite “got,” I admired Gaga in a way, checked out the catalog, then kinda wrote her off as a flash-in-the-pan novelty and moved on to other things.
Then came last year’s Super Bowl, when Gaga sang the national anthem. I hadn’t kept up with Gaga in well over five years, so I was surprised to hear she was even invited to sing the anthem at our nation’s biggest sporting event. If there’s one thing the National Football League attempts to eschew, often poorly, it’s controversy. I was even more surprised to see Gaga show up in a traditional, some might even say conservative, outfit, grab the mike, belt out one of the finest anthems in Super Bowl history and exit stage left without a hint of controversy.
This wasn’t the Gaga I’d long ago forgotten. Where were the flamboyant outfit, the wild hair and the exotic makeup? Hell, where were the theatrics? Gaga simply did what I always imagined she could — relied on straight talent in cementing her pop-star status. So I went back and revisited her catalog.
Born This Way was always doomed to disappoint. Coming off mega-smashes like The Fame and The Fame Monster, no followup could possibly deliver on the hype. So it makes sense that the record was viewed as a disappointment, even though it eventually moved more than 6 million copies. But in listening to Born This Way, the album maintains elements of its predecessors while expanding Gaga’s sound to include everything from metal to disco. Follow-up Artpop is a fun dance record that doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as Born This Way does.
But it’s 2014’s Cheek to Cheek – which Gaga recorded alongside legendary crooner Tony Bennett – that showcased her way with a lyric and, to some extent, proved she could master just about any genre of music. The album was a hit, and critics and listeners alike lauded Gaga for dialing down the dance-pop and showcasing her rangy voice. Gaga continued this journey with last year’s phenomenal Joanne, which certainly wasn’t as toned down as Cheek to Cheek, but which nevertheless remained an album designed to showcase its singer’s vocal chops.
Gaga will take the stage at NRG Stadium Sunday night, and what unfolds may very well be the most entertaining part of the game: the Patriots are a Super Bowl staple, and the Falcons — while entertaining — simply don’t resonate nationally. She may get political. Hell, she may rock the meat dress (doubtful) and revert back to her provocative ways. She’s even alleged to perform on the roof of the stadium! But two things are certain: She will entertain a worldwide audience with one of pop music’s best voices, and I’ll be watching every minute of it.
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