Thanks to Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga is cool again
When Lady Gaga busted on the scene with the release of her 2008 album "The Fame," there was an understanding that this sudden phenomenon had an expiration date. Gaga, a creation of New York musician Stefani Germanotta, was defined by her fluidity in more ways than one. The appeal sprung from her constant reinvention, taking an aesthetic pioneered by the likes of Madonna and constantly spinning it in fascinating directions. With the release of "Born This Way," the fluidity of her persona took on metaphorical qualities as a symbol of ethnic, sexual and gender midpoints.
At the dizzying rate in which Lady Gaga took on an entirely new skin, it was no wonder that it all came to a screeching halt when her hotly anticipated "ARTPOP" did not live up to the impossible critical and financial expectations bestowed upon it. Drenched in the iconography of the New York art world, the premise was too insular; easily appreciated by Gaga's "Little Monsters," but boring to the casually interested. Gaga was placed into a labyrinth of her own design, where being edgy appeared lazy.
All the while, lost in this hoopla was the fact that Lady Gaga's best asset was not her progressive social commentary or her willingness to sport a dress made entirely of raw meat, but that she is a phenomenal singer and musician. When so many of the artists she shares airtime and a penchant for elaborate costume work with rely entirely on their image and top-notch production work, Gaga is unmistakably the real deal.
Just as Gaga was about to quit music entirely, musical legend Tony Bennett enters from stage left and helps usher in her best work since "The Fame Monster." "Cheek to Cheek," a collaboration between Bennett and Gaga, is a delightful collection of jazz standards that is decisively inoffensive. Someone more cynical might even call it blasé. After all, these are songs heard by many before performed in the ways they have heard them. That said, there is merit to the concept of a classic. Sheer talent can never go out of style.
It speaks volumes about the direction Gaga's career has been headed in that something appearing to be so safe is a genuine departure for her. There is a nakedness to her vocal stylings in "Cheek to Cheek" that has been long missing from her pop work; not quite as naked as her Marina Abramovic-inspired performance stunt that was used to promote "ARTPOP," but revealing nonetheless. Bennett, a very talented performer of the Great American Songbook but certainly not one to overshadow comparable acts of the past, allows himself ample room on each track to allow Gaga to steal the show.
This is truly a collaborative effort, and an effortlessly listenable one at that, but Bennett did not need the career boost or any redirection in his image. At 88-years-old, Bennett's personal legacy is solidified; all there is to do now is pass the sensibilities of Jazz on to a new generation, if they choose to accept the offering. By allowing Lady Gaga to deliver an undeniably impressive performance on "Cheek to Cheek," Bennett has made her cool again.
More importantly, perhaps the Great American Songbook is also receiving a bit of the windfall.
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