The last time Lady Gaga sang the national anthem in public was at a New York City LGBT pride celebration in 2013. She sounded great. She also modified the words: “Oh say does that star-spangled flag of pride yet wave”—at which point, yes, she waved a rainbow flag—“o’er the land of the free, and a home for the gays.” Some people did not love this.
She probably won’t take such liberties when she sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl on Sunday. But is it wrong to root for her to do something weird? Maybe wear a fun hat? February is a big month for Gaga, featuring three high-stakes nationally televised performances: first the Super Bowl, then a David Bowie memorial set at the Grammys, then a ballad at the Oscars. By the end of it, she will either have completed her surprising transformation into America’s leading gala singer, or will have left a portion of the world fuming at her sacrilege. She will also have further illuminated her answer to the question that a number of her contemporaries have been grappling with lately: Where does a pop star go when they want to take a break from the radio race while remaining relevant?
It was a year ago at the Oscars that Gaga staged her big coming-out as a normal-ish person. Her faithful and lovely tribute to The Sound of Music shocked people who hadn’t seen the videos of her pre-meat-dress performances under her birth name Stefani Germanotta, or hadn’t listened to her recent Tony Bennett collaboration Cheek to Cheek, or just hadn’t paid attention to her pipes on “Edge of Glory.” She also dropped the shroud she had long held up around her personal life, gushing on social media about her engagement to the actor Taylor Kinney. The year ended with her starring in American Horror Story, a decision that called back to her old loud-proud-freak routine while also attempting to demonstrate her versatility. Critics said her acting wasn’t great; the Golden Globes disagreed.
There’s no more sacred or scary gig than a Super Bowl performance of the national anthem. Botch it, and the caterwauling memes go into your permanent record. Truly nail it, and fans will write awestruck appreciations for decades, as Danyel Smith just did at ESPN with 3,000 words on Whitney Houston’s 1991 rendition. Smith’s article points out the oft-forgotten fact that Houston lip-synced then; indeed, many other landmark Super Bowl performances of the song, like Jennifer Hudson’s in 2009, were prerecorded. Judging by the backlash that followed the allegations of Beyoncé mouthing instead of singing at Barack Obama’s 2012 inauguration, though, lip-syncing is still a PR risk; if Gaga’s still trying to prove that she Really Can Sing, she might try it live.
Either way, she’ll be back in the spotlight a week later, facing skepticism from those horrified that the Grammys chose her to pay tribute to David Bowie. “She is not, however she might like to style herself, this generation’s answer to David Bowie,” Christina Cauterucci wrote at Slate. Well of course she isn’t and of course Gaga never actually claimed she is. But if someone has to take on the task, you could do worse than a star who uses ever-changing public personae as performance, has undisguised affection for cabaret, and has worked to undermine old gender and sexuality norms.
I’ll agree that the idea of one star of possibly fleeting popularity and still unclear historical importance trying to sum up a career as vast and influential as Bowie’s feels wrong. But that’s why it seems likely that other Bowie-connected performers will be brought in for Gaga’s three-to-four song medley; already, it’s been announced that the Chic guitarist and Bowie collaborator Nile Rodgers will participate. Really she has two choices for how to tackle the challenge before her. She can faithfully cover a few of Bowie’s defining tunes, making for a relatively safe bet as with her Sound of Music performance. Or she can do something weirder and newer that attempts to channel his adventuresome spirit. If it’s the latter she goes with, the risks of blowback are high, but so is the potential for a career-defining moment—maybe even the return of Gaga the pop star.
Gaga-uary will end, fittingly, with the Oscars, where she will perform the only piece of original music she put out in her year of normcore: “Til It Happens to You,” recorded for The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. The wrenching rock ballad is a frontrunner for Best Original Song, but if its release was an attempt to shore up Gaga’s credibility as a songwriter, the effort has been sabotaged. Last month, the musician Linda Perry tweeted that Gaga shouldn’t receive writing credit for the tune because the recorded version had barely been changed from the demo that co-writer Diane Warren shopped around a while back. Warren disagreed with that assessment and Perry backed down, but the damage had been done. It seems likely that Gaga’s contribution to the song, aside from the not-minor fact of belting it out forcefully, was altering just a few words.
Regardless, the Oscar performance should prove to be one more reassertion of Gaga’s musical skills outside of the context of Eurodance beats and wild costumes. If she executes well at each of these events, by the end of February, anyone who’s not impressed by her voice will probably never be. Afterwards, perhaps she’ll settle into a long career of respectable, slow, safe-for-everyone singing. Who could blame her? If she bows out from dancepop for good, expect a Vegas residency by the end of the decade
But fans of the ’08-’13 era when she did battle on the Hot 100 might argue that 2016 pop is sorely in need of a Gaga-like presence. The current chart dominators tend to be strained, calculatedly cool presences, whether it’s Bieber in his lip-biting “Sorry” phase or Alessia Cara acting like she’s so over partying or Selena Gomez shimmying blankly or Drake scowling from the top of the rap heap or Rihanna morosely messing around in the studio. All these artists refuse to find joy in nonsense, and to them I say ro-mah ro-mah-mah, Gaga oh-la-la.