I think it was that song “Applesauce” – oh, sorry, “Applause” – that first had me wondering what was up with Lady Gaga. Was this irony? Self-awareness? Was she serious? She struck me from the start as someone who probably watched her VHS copy of Fame way too many times, a driven young woman who could have existed in any era; in the ‘30s, she’d have been Ruby Keeler, who showed up in musicals up to her armpits in spunkiness and clunked around the set; in the ‘50s, she’d have knocked on every door in the Brill Building, belting for every mini-mogul who might be able to whip her into a proximity of Connie Francis or Jo Ann Campbell; she’d have been most at home in the ‘70s, cutting a few upbeat easy-listening singles and then getting a summer-replacement variety show on one of the networks, where she could do tribute medleys, duets, and comedy bits with David Frye and Franklin Ajaye. She has that up-for-anything eagerness that Cher and Midler have.
I used to see girls like that all over the city, going on auditions, doing showcases at The Bitter End, getting small roles off-off Broadway, recording demos, hitting the clubs. If Gaga had anything special going on, I missed it, but I’ve missed things before, and as time went on, it looked like I must have been mistaken, because look: Elton digs her, and so does Tony, and she’s showing up everywhere. Even Howard Stern was smitten when she went on his show and screamed something that went “The edge! The edge! The edge!’ like she was in the pit at a U2 concert. It seemed overwrought and jokey to me, but friends told me differently. She was real, they insisted, even as the music reminded me of Taylor Dayne.
She can really sing!, I heard tell, and then I saw her on the Oscars doing a medley from The Sound of Music. See! Very nice, really. But you could fling a rock down Broadway from 50th Street and randomly hit an understudy in any musical now playing who could have done that, not to mention any true musical theater star like Kelli O’Hara, Sutton Foster or Audra McDonald. Gaga got extra credit, I think, for being from the pop world, for the element of the unexpected: that girl who wore the dress made of meat? She has a voice? Who knew? And that album with Tony Bennett just made me sad, because that was the album he should have made with Amy Winehouse, an artist who could have done emotional justice to that material and that history, who never gave the impression of playing dress-up the way Gaga does. Gaga flings herself into the role of slinky chanteuse, but she’s only moderately convincing. Check out the scenes of Bennett and Winehouse in the heart-shattering doc Amy, and weep. But the calls kept coming: she’s doing a Sinatra tribute. Oy. What could that be? I was hoping for “Everybody’s Twistin’,” but they gave her “(Theme From) New York, New York,” and as anyone might have predicted, it was far closer to an impression of the song’s original interpreter Liza Minnelli than to the Chairman of the Board. It’s fine, that’s who Gaga is, an entertainer from the old school, and if she did have that ‘70s variety show, that’s what it’d have been: Julie Andrews one week, Liza the next, then maybe a six-minute medley of songs by that hip new rock star David Bowie.
Oh, wait. That wasn’t her imaginary variety show. That was the actual 2016 Grammy Awards, a spectacle so transcendently goofy that it made all the liberties and inaccuracies of HBO’s Vinyl look like a Pennebaker documentary. The next day, I posted a puzzled comment on Facebook, and my smart-ass friends made some brilliant comparisons, like one observation that Gaga was channeling Lola Heatherton, Catherine O’Hara’s character from SCTV (to which I added that Seth MacFarlane could be her Bobby Bittman), or another calling it a lost sketch from a Carol Burnett Show. As counterpoint, some people rallied to Gaga’s defense, praised her artistry (in general, not in the specific case of the Bowie debacle), and pointed out that as an older gentleman, I might not be the right demographic to appreciate the glory of Gaga. Which I don’t deny, but as someone who thinks Taylor Swift’s Red and Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream are pretty exemplary Pop Albums, and has sat riveted during a Swift arena show whilst being the oldest non-parent/chaperone in the room, I don’t completely buy that it’s a sign of aging. I think, honestly, that Gaga really does live for the applesauce.