Lady Gaga Went Off the Deep End at the Grammys

Her divisive, twitching performance of “Shallow” continued to tie her early antics to her recent respectability.

Lady Gaga at the 2019 Grammys
Mike Blake / Reuters

She’s hatched from an egg, she’s done the meat dress, she’s bled out and died. But it all feels long ago, so Obama-era opulent, when Lady Gaga used award-show stages to perform magic tricks. Since 2015, she’s been more likely to tout gowns, grand pianos, and Tony Bennett when appearing before a national audience. In last year’s A Star Is Born, a much-rehashed Hollywood myth gained new energy from this tension: Does Gaga the great generator of Halloween-costume ideas still live in Gaga the prestige chaser?

Yes, she absolutely does, even if she no longer needs outrageous props to make a scene. At Sunday’s Grammys, Gaga put on the night’s most divisive performance by freaking out as if she were the girl from The Exorcist and the lyrics of “Shallow” were Catholic rites. The song itself is no work of chaos, with a slowly unfolding melody conjuring a romance and an opera-house roar calibrated for instant tears. But Gaga tapped into a previously undetectable wild-animal twitchiness while nailing her husky vocals, highlighting that this song—and her career—is fundamentally about passion. If some viewers cringed while others yaased, she reaffirmed her core appeal: Never bore ’em.

Studded in jewels from her eyelashes to her Infinite Jest–thick wedges, her physicality read as disco-ball Venom: gangly, glam, silly, dangerous. Unfurling from a praying-mantis crouch at the start, she quickly got to punching the air, pointing fingers, and generally making like Napoleon Dynamite in both his bird hands and “Canned Heat” scenes. Often the bedazzled mic stand appeared stitched to her hands, like it was a defensive weapon that she was also trying to unstick herself from. For the line about “keeping it so hard-core,” she looked into the camera and nudged her nose, making the universal gesture of enjoying cocaine. The implication was so blatant that I have tried to scrub this article of any variants of the phrase “on drugs” for fear of redundancy.

Gaga’s band—including the “Shallow” co-writers Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, and Andrew Wyatt—laid down smoldering metal-adjacent guitar tones, which helped the pastoral film duet fit Gaga’s WWE-match energy. But the song’s dreamy rhythm remained even as she gyrated in total defiance of the tempo. In the big “rahhhhh” climax, she lurched and lunged as the camera swirled around her: perfect TV. Meanwhile, band members all jumped in the air as sparks fired in oddly dreary fashion. The conventional rock-star stuff—for a song from a movie about rock-star stuff—was just so rote compared with whatever Gaga was doing.

Which was … what, exactly? “Shallow” and A Star Is Born put Gaga’s Ally against Bradley Cooper’s Jackson in an ideological debate: Is it ever okay to reshape oneself for the masses? As Gaga has indulged more traditional ideas of respectability in recent years, it seemed possible she was converting to the Jackson side, leaving behind the sardonic, Warholian deconstruction of fame from early in her career. But the movie’s press tour—in which she has performed acceptance-speech Mad Libs with pull-a-string-on-her-back reliability—hints at a synthesis. She’s overdoing it uncannily, mesmerizingly, grotesquely, and it’s up to the audience to decide what the intention is.

Same goes for this performance. If high-concept shticks such as Jo Calderone—the drag character she embodied for the 2011 VMAs—are out, it’s because Gaga wants to use her own body, and all its connotations in the public eye, to make statements. At the end, she bent forward, with her hair covering one eye while the other looked straight into the camera: the glare of a monster. Whether it represented an invented persona or the true expression of a woman’s inner rages is unsayable. All that’s sure is she’s off the deep end, still.