Remember three years ago when Leonardo DiCaprio laughed as Lady Gaga walked by his table on her way to the stage to collect her Golden Globe for American Horror Story? That journey to the podium was the start of a slow and steady comeback, one that also included a Super Bowl national anthem performance, a David Bowie tribute at the Grammys, and a Best Original Song Oscar nomination for The Hunting Ground’s “Til It Happens to You” in the first three months of 2016 as well as a 2017 Super Bowl halftime-headliner gig.
It’s a dramatic career renaissance that has taken Gaga past her previous peak to new superstardom heights. In the past two weeks, she’s won the National Board of Review’s Best Actress prize and scored two Golden Globe nominations for A Star Is Born. She’s up for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture-Drama, and Best Original Song for “Shallow.” Somewhere, Madonna must be seething.
Gaga is so ubiquitous, so resurrected, so Oscar-bound that it’s hard to remember that nearly five years before A Star Is Born made her a supernova again, some people were starting to write her off. Her third studio album, ARTPOP, was suffering from sluggish sales, and the idea of “Oscar winner Lady Gaga” was practically unfathomable. With the singer parked at a career crossroads, I wrote the following essay on my blog Theme for Great Cities.
March 22, 2014: Can Lady Gaga Go from ‘G.U.Y.’ (Girl Under You) to Woman Back on Top?
“You can’t hit a home run every time,” an editor told me one Friday morning after slamming an article I had just turned in. Though he later recanted his negative review of my piece (he’d been in a rotten mood when he first read it, and a second pass got him to reconsider it “fantastic”), he stood by the comment in general.
Fifteen years later, so do I. I’ve now been at this long enough to understand and accept the reality of creativity: Not every editor or reader is going to connect with every article or blog post or book that I write. My work won’t always garner 1.2K “likes” and counting on Facebook (as my fourth HuffPost essay just did) or, “likes” or not, fill me up with a personal sense of accomplishment. We play to win, but sometimes we strike out. It’s the nature of any game.
That goes for pop superstars, too. Lately, the one people seem to be deeming a loser most is Lady Gaga, thanks (or no thanks) to ARTPOP, her under-performing third studio album. Thus far, it has produced only one Top 10 single, “Applause,” which, though arguably the best thing Gaga has ever done (and it didn’t need a shrill high-concept video to prop it up), only managed a number four peak on Billboard’s Hot 100. After nearly five months in circulation, ARTPOP has yet to go platinum, prompting People magazine music critic Chuck Arnold to wonder “What’s Going Wrong with the Pop Star?” in a March 20 editorial.
What a difference a couple of years, a virtual eternity in pop, has made. When Gaga’s “Born This Way Ball” tour hit Bangkok amid controversy in 2012 while I was living there, her arrival was front-page news. For weeks, it seemed she was the only thing everyone could talk about. Now I wonder if they even play “Applause” at DJ Station. Can her latest album’s third single, “G.U.Y.” (the follow-up to the Gaga-R. Kelly duet “Do What You Want,” which peaked at a lowly number 13), reverse ARTPOP’s fortunes when the video premieres today (March 22) on Dateline NBC? In other words, can this album, this career, be saved? Does this career even need to be?
Some might blame Gaga’s recent slump on the circle of pop life, which has rendered her overshadowed by younger envelope-pushing stars like Miley Cyrus the way she once overshadowed Madonna. Compared to Miley’s twerking and tongue lashings, her riding a wrecking ball nude and coming onto Madonna during an MTV Unplugged performance, Gaga’s meat dress now seems kind of quaint.
Or was ARTPOP just not good enough? As someone who has always found Gaga talented but her albums only intermittently entertaining, I’m not so sure about that one. As with her previous two studio albums, ARTPOP is no front-to-back musical masterpiece, but it has just as many standout moments: I expect “Applause” to hold up as well as “Poker Face” in a few years, and tracks like “G.U.Y.” and “Sexxx Dreams” — a British-accented, ‘80s-inflected porn anthem that stripteases between the edge of glory and flesh for fantasy — will probably live on in medium rotation on my iPod beside Born This Way’s “Government Hooker” and “Heavy Metal Lover.”
I don’t think Gaga’s sales decline has as much to do with Miley and a dip in musical quality as it does with the natural course of artist development, which is increasingly compromised by impatient label executives and sagging overall industry sales. We live in desperate times when artists are no longer allowed to gradually evolve into million-sellers or ride out a commercial storm or two. Every album is expected to be a blockbuster, and every pop star is only as valuable as his or her current album’s sales.
In contrast, Hollywood’s heaviest hitters, the Tom Cruises, the Sandra Bullocks, the Will Smiths, are allowed to have a flop movie or a string of failures without being cast aside completely. A commercial rebound is always considered to be a distinct possibility. Nobody is calling Will Smith over in the United States after his last film, 2013’s After Earth, only grossed $60.5 million during its entire North American run. (The bulk of its cumulative intake, $244 million, came from overseas markets.) In fact, he still landed the coveted spot at the recent Academy Awards as the Best Picture Oscar presenter.
Can Gaga rise again? Can ARTPOP? If “G.U.Y.” doesn’t do the trick — and considering how infrequently, third and fourth singles change an album’s course for the better, I predict that it won’t — there’s always her next studio album. The sophomore jinx is a dreaded beast in the world of pop (see Duffy, whose career might never recover from 2010’s Endlessly), but it can be overcome (see Nelly Furtado, whose third album, 2006’s Loose, brought her back from the brink of commercial disaster that her 2003 second album, Folklore, pushed her to). The more success you have under the belt, the more likely you are to survive a flop if you dare to deliver the next time out.
Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Consider Beyoncé’s current self-titled album, as People’s Arnold did. Two years ago, after 2011’s 4 merely went platinum and failed to produce any Top 10 pop singles, many were writing off Beyoncé the same way they’re writing off Gaga now. But divas from Tina Turner to the ladies of Heart to Madonna to Kylie Minogue to Mariah Carey to Jennifer Lopez to Cher (over and over and over) have weathered career ebbs to emerge more commercially viable than ever, just as Pink did after 2003’s brilliant Try This, her own third album, failed to find as significant an audience as its two predecessors.
Fleetwood Mac followed up 1977’s Rumours, one of the biggest-selling albums of all-time, with Tusk, a 1979 double album that produced half as many Top 10 hits (two) and only reached number four on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. Between 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, another monster of ’70s pop, and 1979’s Spirits Having Flown, which hit number one and produced three Hot 100 chart-toppers, Bee Gees stumbled pretty badly with 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a flop film with an only modestly successful soundtrack (number five, merely platinum and no hit singles).
Ten years later, U2 would follow its own massive career-defining The Joshua Tree with Rattle and Hum, a forgettable fire among U2 albums that now seems like a place holder between Joshua and Achtung Baby. And then there’s Britney Spears, whose current album, Britney Jean, is her first official flop. Her two-year engagement at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas might seem like the equivalent of her being shuffled off to the dreaded has-been list, but her sell-out shows make an eventual rebound seem almost like a foregone conclusion. So it’s probably too soon to award Gaga a permanent residency on that ignominious list.
If anything, ARTPOP’s lack of spectacular chart success means that a year or two from now when Gaga releases her fourth studio album, it won’t be quite as eagerly anticipated as albums number two and number three were, and that could very well be a good thing. Nobody was anticipating Beyoncé, which meant Beyoncé was able to release it on iTunes at the stroke of midnight last December 13 when nobody was looking. And look at her now.
Gaga could use the underexposure, whose flipside may, in fact, have helped temporarily do her in. Who knows? Her next multiplatinum phase, if it arrives, might even surprise us all in more ways than one: Maybe, for once and finally, it will just be about the music.
Climax of a comeback
Interestingly, the climax of Gaga’s comeback has hinged on her big-screen performance as a singer who goes from being just about the music to being about everything but the music. Personally, I think both A Star Is Born and Gaga’s performance in it have been overrated. Her singing is unimpeachable, but her acting, though solid, isn’t the revelation some have made it out to be.
I may eventually get around to writing about all the reasons why I didn’t love A Star Is Born. For now, I’ll just say that if, like the 1937 original, it had been a movie about actors and not musicians, if Bradley Cooper hadn’t devoted a bulk of screen time to showcasing Gaga’s singing and songwriting prowess and had just required her to act, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post.
If Gaga wins the Best Actress Oscar for being a fantastic singer on February 25, I’ll hold my applause. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be appreciative of Gaga. In a year of travel and searching, during which my professional future has been a big question mark, her perseverance and success has given me hope that if I continue to work hard, the unexpected — the good unexpected — might greet me in 2019.
Her “100 people” anecdote is hokey as hell. The recent trajectory of her career does a much better job of underscoring the beautiful unpredictability of life and the power of serendipity than A Star Is Born’s narrative or Gaga’s oft-repeated comment about how it only takes one person in a hundred believing in you to help make your dreams come true.
What a difference a day, a week, a month, a year, a half-decade can make. Thank you, Gaga, for reminding me yet again.