Who the fuck is Lady Gaga? If we’d asked this question back in 2010, the answer would have been obvious. Gaga was pop’s saviour, an iconic superstar with an arsenal of hits, an image that was original, a relentlessly interesting musician on and off stage. She was compelling and enigmatic. She was the greatest pop star alive.
But fast forward to 2017 and everything is different. No longer at the cutting edge, Gaga’s place on the pop landscape has changed dramatically. The end of the Fame Monster era saw her descend into pompous self-parody, Born This Way speckled with genius but ultimately an overblown and overproduced affair, before reinventing herself as a jazz singer and then again as a country-pop star. Rather than expand Gaga’s enigmatic image however, these reinventions have only served to confuse it. Taking a look at Gaga’s show at the Superbowl this week, her identity crisis was laid bare.
Gaga has always been embarrassingly patriotic as we saw at last year’s Superbowl where she performed the national anthem. This year was no different, opening her halftime show with a rendition of ‘This Land Is Your Land’, which is being read by right wingers as a celebration of America and by left wingers as a subtle dig at Trump. If this were actually meant as a political statement, it pales in comparison to Beyoncé’s stomping celebration of blackness the previous year which rejected the intentional ambiguity of Gaga’s performance in favour of actual protest. Naturally it pissed off the right, but that’s what protest is supposed to do. If a protest goes unnoticed by the majority, then it isn’t really a protest at all. The ambiguity of Gaga’s performance betrays an uncertainty of her own image. Is she the angry protester we saw in the wake of the US election or is she America’s patriotic sweetheart? Try as she might, it’s impossible to be both at once.
And this is precisely the problem with Gaga – she tries to be everything at once. The polemic pop auteur and the cabaret jazz singer. The scuzzy singer-songwriter who rocks out at dive bars and the elegant songstress who plays piano for The Queen. What we saw at the Superbowl was an awkward mesh of several conflicting identities that pointed at a confused and directionless musician on the cusp of becoming little more than a nostalgia act.
Gaga’s performance was composed almost entirely of songs from her debut album (and its subsequent deluxe repackaging), the only exceptions being ‘Born This Way’ and ‘Million Reasons’, her latest single. The latter was notably the low point in an otherwise hit-packed set, Gaga’s more recent output nowhere near the quality of her earlier work. As a result, Gaga is forced to rely on her early hits – something no musician wants to do.
So Gaga is now faced with a dilemma. She can shrink into the comfort of the big pop hits that made her famous – maybe do a residency at Las Vegas and reissue The Fame in a few years’ time. Or she can plough ahead with her more grounded, acoustic stuff – perhaps release an unplugged version to accompany a Joanne re-release. Alternatively, for her next album, Gaga could attempt another reinvention. Having already covered so much ground already, this could be a difficult task, but if done right, could restore Gaga to her place atop the pop throne.
As it stands, Gaga is walking on thin ice. By failing to commit to a strong persona, she is ultimately persona-less. The once reigning queen of modern pop has lost her way amidst a tangle of flop reinventions and bad career moves that have alienated fans, removed her from the mainstream and failed to garner critical praise. If Gaga has any hope of returning to her former glory, she could learn a lot from the woman she was just a few years ago: innovative, forward-thinking and unafraid of taking a stand.