I had decided to wait to post my feelings about Lady Gaga doing the David Bowie tribute at this year’s Grammys as a way to give her a fair chance before tearing her apart for blowing it. Fortunately for the sake of this commentary, she gave me much more ammunition than she took away. It was basically as I expected it to be… and that is a terrible insult when it is in honor of a man who never did what was expected of him.
For starters, I never approved of the choice of Lady Gaga to be the one to pay tribute to Bowie at the Grammys. It should also be noted that I am a longtime David Bowie fan, so I knew I would be a harsh critic and should keep an open mind. Lady Gaga has always tried to align herself with the chameleonic superstar and we’ve had to deal with comparisons ever since she burst onto the scene with The Fame in 2008. These comparisons were already dumbfounding for a woman with one album on which she needs a team of cowriters on every track, whereas it took Bowie numerous albums full of eclectic brilliance which he wrote primarily alone before he became nearly the legend we know him as.
In the eight years since she debuted and began namedropping Bowie as one of her heroes, he has chosen to basically ignore her existence altogether. Granted, he hasn’t been as prolific in recent years as he used to be, but he did take a shine to a few modern stars such as Lorde and Beyoncé. This can not be a mistake: the Starman was very deliberate about what products he would attach his name to, such as rejecting a collaboration with Coldplay and telling them “It’s not a very good song, is it?”
The Grammys gave tasteful and fitting tributes to other dearly departed musicians this year. Glenn Frey, Lemmy Kilmister, and BB King all had a full song each performed by multiple respected names and/or colleagues of the deceased. But for fans of Ziggy Stardust, we get Lady Gaga’s bass-heavy warble staggering through nine of Bowie’s greatest hits in a six-minute span. There were no transitions, no time to adjust to any rendition, rushed costume changes, and little care in making the interpretations interesting or unique. We’ve already had one clumsy and unsettling medley like that, and David Bowie did it himself with Cher. It should also be noted that reducing Bowie’s legacy to a series of costume changes and a kitschy Vegas-style medley comes across more like a novelty item than a valid tribute. The deeply capable Lady Gaga, aka Stefani Germanotta, should’ve chosen one song to do justice to and preferably done it with other featured performers instead of only the token presence of Nile Rodgers, who’s role and relationship to David Bowie wasn’t even mentioned to the viewing audience.
Germanotta has mountains of talent and conviction as a performer. She has shown great humility and compassion in activism on social issues. She is also a well-calculated and well-marketed product. She has been surrounded by managers and songwriters since day one but has never been able to match her early success with latter albums like Artpop and Cheek to Cheek. She went from the Edge of Glory to the edge of irrelevance. Her bid to take the reigns of the tribute feels less like genuine sentiment than it does a bid to save a waning music career and piggyback off of his legacy, even going so far as to make a spectacle of herself getting his face tattooed on her side. Part of a calculated effort by her management team to use her recent acting success and performance of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl as a springboard to launch her music career back to it’s former dizzying heights, and it’s working like a charm with cries of “Gaga’s BACK!” resounding from the media and the internet community. The strikingly independent Space Oddity never attached his name to others’, making Lady Gaga’s apparent worship of him and pandering to his fans stand in stark contrast to his legacy and message, not in the spirit of it. It comes down to this: David Bowie was an innovator, Lady Gaga is an imitator, and she’s laughing all the way to the bank.