Lady GaGa and Reinventing Star Image

This article was originally published in OPENWIDE back in 2015, and was written by Michael Usling

This article is a follow-up to an article titled “Forgive me ARTPOP” that I wrote in Volume 14, Issue 4 of OPENWIDE back in April 2014. In that article, I argued that the lack of commercial success of Lady GaGa’s album ARTPOP validated the core intention of the work in the first place. Since then, it was interesting for me, as a Lady GaGa fan and MIT student (and specifically after taking Dr. Keightley’s MIT3211F The Culture of Celebrity), to watch the evolution of ARTPOP and how the album became another defining moment in GaGa’s career, and more importantly how it fits into her collective star image.

ARTPOP was not a commercial success and many critics dismissed the album, claiming that GaGa was ‘over’ and that she had lost the ‘intuitive artistry’ unique to her career. According to Nielsen, 2011’s Born This Way sold 2.3 million copies; ARTPOP has sold 750,000 to date. ARTPOP only spawned two music videos, for “Applause” and a short film for “G.U.Y.”, which is unusual when compared to Born This Way’s five videos. Or even when looking at Katy Perry, who put out 5 music videos for Prism (side note: can you believe “Just Dance” and “I Kissed A Girl” both came out 7 years ago this month?) But as I argued before this is what I think can be read as an ARTPOP moment happening in real life, speaking to the fact that sometimes commerce conquers art no matter what the integrity of the work is. So I think that it’s interesting she took the criticism, her reputation and did what she did: played out the course of ARTPOP, and quickly moved onto her next project and subsequent reinvention.

        10 months after ARTPOP came out GaGa released a duets album with jazz legend Tony Bennett titled Cheek to Cheek. In interviews GaGa would repeatedly say how she had “never been happier singing this music with Tony.” It is interesting to watch the dynamic of the two in performances and obviously interpret how GaGa having a jazz legend christen her career brings the question of authenticity and integrity into the work. Growing up GaGa was a classically trained jazz musician, and knowing this information works to authenticate the fact that she is indeed vetted to put out a jazz standards album at 28. But the fact that it is with one of the world’s top selling artists especially seeks to authenticate her as a well-rounded talent, in a way that ARTPOP never would have been able to. Cheek to Cheek received rave reviews from critics and has sold over 500,000 to date and also won this year’s Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. GaGa and Tony performed the title track at the ceremony and they go on tour in support of the album across the U.S., Canada and Europe this summer.

Another recent and noteworthy event in GaGa’s career was her Julie Andrews / Sound of Music tribute performance at this year’s Academy Awards. The performance had the Internet buzzing for the exact same reason that it did when GaGa released songs like Poker Face and Bad Romance; that there was this weird chick, who used a lot of technology in her music, but still had a really incredible voice underneath it all. Celebrities were raving about the performance, and Julie Andrews herself told the media that the performance was “stunningly good” and that she “had always been a fan, and now I’ve made a new friend.” This quasi-surprise performance is interesting for the reason that it basically served the purpose of reminding the mainstream culture via a cable network awards show: “Bitch… I can still sing!”

Just days after this performance GaGa announced on her Twitter that she will make her formal acting debut as a series regular on the fifth season of American Horror Story, titled Hotel. Leading the cast opposite Matt Bomer, personally, I cannot wait to see how this all pans out. GaGa studied at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for three semesters before she dropped out, has made cameos in Sin City 2 and Machete Kills, but has never really had to play someone else’s character. I am curious to see how she will perform in a scenario where she is not the chief player in charge. Moreover, will this foray into acting work to corroborate her artistry, and expand the territory of her star image? GaGa’s serious acting has been displayed only in short-form music videos for songs like Telephone, Marry The Night, and G.U.Y., but those characters were more or less at the creative authority of GaGa and her team.

It is interesting to note these three recent developments in GaGa’s post-ARTPOP career, and how they all serve to authenticate what we know GaGa to be: a dynamic artist whose best talent is her ability to surprise. Cheek to Cheek, the Oscars performance, and her television debut all represent new territory for the GaGa, but these surprises do not deviate too much from what we should expect. With these projects and the fact that GaGa is currently recording new pop music for 2016 with RedOne (Just Dance, Alejandro, Judas), I love that it is still exciting to watch the contemporary living artist of our time (there I said it) develop her star image, and produce projects that authenticate her true authenticity as an artist.

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