Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore? Lady Gaga is riding one of the weirdest career resurrections ever witnessed. Not so long ago, she looked totally over, coated in glittery loser dust. But look at her now — she’s America’s cowgirl sweetheart, an Oscar contender, riding the blockbuster success of “Shallow” as A Star Is Born fever just keeps raging. It’s more than a comeback — it’s a shocker twist that changes everything about the Gaga story. Even a longtime fan like me didn’t see this coming.
Back when she first blew up, Stefani Germanotta was fond of saying things like, “God put me on Earth for three reasons: to make loud music, gay videos, and cause a damn ruckus.” Her music and videos might have changed, but she can still serve gourmet ruckus. La Gagz, never having been noted for her restraint, goes full-blast in a performance where she sings, dances, loves, weeps, suffers. She chomps the scenery like she’s trying to win an EGOT, a Super Bowl and a Nobel Prize for chemistry in one movie. (Madonna tried to pull off this same makeover in a dozen flicks and failed each time.) Now she’s hosting the Met Gala ball with Harry Styles, where the theme is “Camp” — hopefully they can dress up as each other?
Gaga earned her legend with the disco-stick sleaze of her Monster Ball tour — I’ll never forget the night she blew my mind at Madison Square Garden, strutting in a Forties bustier with nipple dart-guns shooting electric sparks, telling us, “May you dream of rock & roll and the future!” In a bland time for pop, she stood for the timeless values of sex and scandal. But even then, she was into the Seventies soft-rock muse — after one of her piano ballads, she said, “That is some 1974 shit.”
Her comeback smash, “Shallow,” is all 1974 shit — a rootsy folk-pop duet with her director, Bradley Cooper. For the big climax, Gaga hits a money note that can rip holes in the sky. Nostalgia might be for geeks, as she once sang in “Applause,” but “Shallow” is loaded with nostalgia for 1990s Lilith Fair real-ness, as Cooper does his best Eddie Vedder imitation. On one level, “Shallow” has nothing to do with the disco glitz that made her famous. It sounds more like the other pop star who defined 2010 — the country girl with the acoustic guitar. Who ever thought Taylor Swift and Gaga would scale new heights in 2018 by trading musical styles? Imagine going back in time, playing “Shallow” and “Look What You Made Me Do” and making people guess which was Gaga.
But Mother Monster is always a great pop fan before she’s anything else. She wants to try everything once, even her most terrible ideas. She gets a kick out of dancing into disasters like 2013’s Artpop (the kind of horrible album that can only be made on purpose), then into successes like her Tony Bennett duet album or her Sound of Music medley at the Oscars. Then right back into disaster. Joanne, from 2016, looked like the kind of career-killing bomb there was no coming back from — she sounded out of touch, like a third-rate Jewel tribute act. The only fun was unintentional comedy gold like the pompous piano ballad where she began with the line “I confess I am lost in the age of the social.” For a fan, it was sad — the end of the line.
But as we all should have learned by now, the end of the line is where Gaga likes to throw a party. A Star Is Born is an instant classic. (Unlike the 1970s Barbra Streisand version, this one sadly doesn’t have any scenes where a Rolling Stone reporter scores an interview with Kris Kristofferson by sneaking into his mansion and doing drugs naked in his pool.) The movie is full of boneheaded ideas about how pop music works, but it’s not the first time Gaga has turned bad ideas into great songs. (She also turns great ideas into bad songs — you’re not a true pop legend until you do both.) Against all odds, she’s keeping the promise she made onstage at the Monster Ball, all those years ago: She’s making us dream of rock & roll and the future.
This post appears in the December issue of Rolling Stone as Rob Sheffield’s monthly column, Sound and Vision.