Lady Gaga has delivered two awards show performances in the span of one month, and the most shocking thing about each was how sedate they both were. Eye-popping theatrics are usually par for the course when it comes to Gaga, but at the Grammys and Oscars, there was no blood-spurting, no male alter egos, no in-song costume changes nor giant eggs to burst out of onstage. At the Grammys and Oscars, Gaga sang decades-old classics, without dancing, or wearing an elaborate outfit. And in both instances, she absolutely dazzled.
The Academy Awards in particular felt like a major coup for Gaga. Asked to perform a medley of songs from The Sound of Music in honor of the 50th anniversary of the film’s release, Gaga took what could have been a thankless task during the final hour of an endless telecast, and turned the performance into the music moment everyone was talking about on Monday morning. Wearing a dreamy white dress and setting aside the red gloves that she had worn on the red carpet, Gaga powered through a medley of “The Sound of Music,” “Do Re Mi,” “Edelweiss” and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” with a warm smile and zero false notes. The performance earned a standing ovation and a hug from Julie Andrews; more importantly, it felt like the kind of showcase that becomes a career cornerstone.
How did this happen? It’s not rocket science: Gaga has a tremendous voice. It’s an instrument that is sometimes obscured on her own dance hits — songs like “Poker Face” and “Applause” even find the pop star speak-singing on the verses — but anyone who has seen Gaga perform live knows how often her pipes can rise toward a stratospheric note and bring the house down. It’s the type of voice that has been molded through classical training but conveys Gaga’s oversized personality with every melisma.
It’s also the type of voice we haven’t heard nearly enough of lately. Gaga diehards are well aware that she can make one’s skin tingle during her headlining shows, but how often has the casual fan seen that side of Gaga over the past five years? The pop diva’s career has been defined by pushing aesthetic boundaries, and while she sets aside ample time during her concerts to sit behind a piano and strip down her artistry, her public persona has been dedicated to the type of innovation that often drowns out the sound of the simple song craft that serves as its foundation. We can hear Gaga’s powerful pipes at work during her iconic 2011 American Music Awards performance of “Bad Romance,” for instance, but it’s also easy to be distracted by the costume, the headdresses, the choreography and the props surrounding them.
Gaga’s commitment to spectacle has been the bedrock of her awards show performances, music videos, album artwork and promotional opportunities. It’s a mind set that made her a superstar, but in 2013, that approach to pop hit a brick wall. ARTPOP may have produced a Top 10 hit in “Applause,” but its rollout was too elaborate even for Gaga’s lofty standards. Pop fans were asked to parse through a baked-in app, a Jeff Koons partnership and a flying dress, not to mention some overly cloying TV performances of “Applause.” Reviews for the album were mixed; none of the follow-up singles were smashes. The whole affair seemed to reach a tipping point during a bizarre, gross performance at South By Southwest in 2014, where Gaga’s performance-art included her being vomited on and sticking a piece of sausage in her mouth. Lady Gaga’s art-pop had become too much art, not enough pop.
Since her artRave tour in support of ARTPOP concluded last fall, Gaga has done the previously unthinkable: she dialed everything back and embraced the classics.Cheek To Cheek, her American songbook duets album with Tony Bennett, did not spawn any Hot 100 hits, but became another No. 1 album for Gaga upon its release last September, and eventually earned her a Grammy for best traditional pop vocal album. Most crucially, it was a project that showcased her musicianship, looping in older Bennett fans upon its release and younger pop fans when she and Bennett performed an Irving Berlin standard at the Grammys earlier this month. Cheek To Cheek was not a monster success, but a respectable move to right the ship of a career that was veering off course.
A year removed from an avalanche of Artflop jokes, Gaga is one of the big winners of the Academy Awards, where she continued leaning on songs that everyone likes and presenting them in a refreshingly straightforward manner. Gaga will undoubtedly try to break new ground in pop music with her original material at some point, but right now, she’s untying a career that became too knotty and betting on her voice to keep her audience entertained. It’s a bet that’s paying off in spades.