I Feel A Void: Lady Gaga’s Tribute to Bowie

Yeah, I saw Lady Gaga last night. After realizing I wasn’t going to be at home in time to catch the beginning and a quick text home, I knew I’d be playing with the fast-forward button on my DVR in order to squeeze in the more interesting parts of the Grammy Awards into my evening TV plans. Rest assured, Lady Gaga and Nile were on the top of that list.

Naturally, I watched some of the rest of the awards show as well. I don’t know about anyone else, but it very much felt like a LACK of awards show, and much more about just performances, which is fine…I guess…but it was strange to be five minutes into the broadcast and have LL Cool J announce that Lamar Kendrick had already won five awards. What the hell?  Maybe that’s just me.

As I continued fast forwarding whenever possible, I finally got to the Bowie tribute. Here is where things get tricky for me. First of all, I wouldn’t dare call myself a huge Bowie fan. I have dear friends who are huge Bowie fans, and it would be unfair to put myself in that same category. I will say that I have become far more of a fan since his passing, and that’s probably a subject for a much different blog post that has more to do with art than fandom. Moving on…

Performing something called a tribute is a very difficult balancing act. The goal of course is to honor the artist. That artist might be honored posthumously, as in the case of David Bowie…or they might be watching in person, as in the case of Lionel Richie last night. Either way, I truly believe that the people performing do so in an attempt to honor.  Do fair justice and respect to the work without making the performance about you (the performer) when it should be about the artist being honored. Make it too much about the person you’re honoring, and it can end up looking like a mockery of the very person(s) you’re trying to honor.

This goes as much for tribute bands, who make a living (or try to do so!) playing onstage in the persona of the band/artist they honor as it would for something like the Grammy’s where a huge portion of the show was dedicated to tributes (like last night). When I go to see a tribute band (I go often and have seen many, from Elvis and the Beatles to Oingo Boingo, Depeche Mode and Duran Duran to name but a few), the acts that are the most successful are the ones that take it seriously without going over the edge into ridiculous. Make too many jokes about the band you’re paying tribute to – and you’ve just taken that down a road that fans will not like. Play too much like your real-self, changing the original music and arrangements to suit your own taste, and you’re just a cover band, which is fine, but don’t call yourself a tribute act. There’s always a fine line to walk, and many bands do not do it well.

So, with that in mind, I watched intently as Lady Gaga’s face appeared on my TV screen and became painted like the Starman. She came on stage with beautiful red-hair and sang incredibly.  Had she just done that: relied on her voice, her obvious love for Bowie’s style, music and art, I think it would have been fine, I really do. But somewhere along the line, either she decided or someone told her that she should try to completely embody Bowie. And that’s where it all went wrong for me. I am not even a huge Bowie fan, and yet I couldn’t help feeling as though I was watching a poorly executed Vegas act in certain moments of the performance. It wasn’t her voice, gosh no. She was incredibly strong and did a beautiful job. It was theatrics that really got me. No one need point out that Bowie himself was theatrical. Believe me, the point has not been overlooked. The problem is, in recreating that drama, it felt very over-the-top, sliding down the steep terrain into mockery. It was pointed out to me by Katy Krassner that she really didn’t seem to be doing that intentionally (and I am sure she wasn’t), but I struggled with how to describe it all.  Campy is the right word. Picture a Vegas lounge act, and I think we’re on the right track.

Here’s the thing, at least for me: Lady Gaga sang beautifully last night. I want to make sure that point comes across. As much as I disliked and was confused by what was going on visually, her voice completely blew me away. I really don’t know that they could have found anyone else to do the job as well when it came to singing the songs. I loved seeing Nile every time he was given precious camera time, and I was thrilled to hear just a few bars of “Let’s Dance”.  I just don’t understand why her voice and Nile’s obvious talent and emotion for his friend weren’t enough without the theatrics.

The difference between Gaga and Bowie comes down to artistry. Bowie just knew how to make it all work together without one overshadowing the other, and he did it with ease. Bowie’s work never really looked like he was forcing it into being a spectacle, in my opinion. Even at the time of his death and in the making of the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus”, he was able to work in those deep, hidden messages without changing the intention of his work. Hell, I fell in love with Lazarus before I even realized what it was truly about. That it ended up being this lasting message to fans about the end of his life on this earth, and the idea that he made his death into this gorgeous supernova which becomes a black star (another word for a black hole) that will live on, just makes me long for more. (I could write and talk for hours about that single album and its artistic references. I mean, the man turned his death into a fucking multimedia event. Who does that?!?) When Bowie sang Starman, for instance, it wasn’t campy or in danger of becoming a late-night lounge act on the Vegas strip. It was just enough without going over the edge. That’s where the real art lies, and for me, that’s what last night’s performance was missing.

I’ll end with this thought: should the day come when it is Duran Duran being honored, I would hope that it would be done with the utmost in care and respect. I don’t need to see a full-mock up of the yacht from Rio, military suits, tigers, leopards, or a scene from Wild Boys on stage to honor them. I simply want to see respect from an industry that has offered them very, very little over the years. I would think that is all any fan would want.

-R

6 thoughts on “I Feel A Void: Lady Gaga’s Tribute to Bowie”

  1. I agree I think GaGa should have sang one song or maybe not dress in crazy costumes I agree she is very talented I loved the songs but it was very theatrical I started listening to Bowie after he died he was an amazing performer I was not much of a fan either was disappointing they had to be showy and yes one day when they honor Duran Duran I hope its not a theatrical production

  2. I was writing a comment, which completely disappeared, so either it is lost in cyberspace or I accidentally submitted an incomplete comment to you!

    I didn’t watch the Grammy’s last night, so when I started to read your post, I stopped to pull up a clip and watch it first.

    My initial thought? Very over the top. Seemed more like something you would see in a Broadway musical. Fine if it’s a Broadway show where you expect all the bells and whistles, but I am not sure completely sure it worked in this instance. To be honest, I didn’t know what to think when I was done watching it. And am not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

    I read your comment about it being “theatrical” – I think that’s spot on. But that being said, Lady Gaga sang beautifully. The performance was everything you would expect from her, but IMO maybe just a bit too much for the circumstances. Disclaimer: While I like most of her music, and think she is one hell of a showwoman, I tend to prefer her jazzier side, which may be why I’m not sure what to think.

    I think you will find a mixed jury on this one. One thing of interest though. Apparently, David Bowie’s son wasn’t too thrilled either from the quote that I read from him about the performance.

  3. Didn’t see the Grammys, just watched a clip of the whole Lady GaGa Bowie tribute. She has a great voice and (in some of the songs) the right spirit and attitude, but I agree it was way too theatrical, more like a spoof of Bowie than a tribute in places.

    Any honouring of Bowie is always going to attract criticism because of what he meant to fans and to fellow musicians. Maybe it would have been better to show clips of Bowie throughout his career, followed by a more understated performance, involving Nile joined by a few other iconic artists playing one or two complete songs.

    Afterwards, I had to watch Duran playing Rebel Rebel on MTV’s Most Wanted, just to help me un-see what I had just seen.

  4. IMHO – I would have like to have seen several artists paying tribute to Bowie tying in a song or era that you could clearly have direct ties to the artist. Having say Paul McCartney sing Fame (tie in with John Lennon who co-wrote), Madonna signing Let’s Dance as a fellow chameleon and 80s icon (stretch – she’s on tour), Gaga with Changes, the remaining members of Nirvana and Beck with the Man Who Sold the World (which was performed at a pre-grammy bash) – to me that would’ve way more memorable.

    I give Gaga credit that she sang great and that’s a lot to have on one’s shoulders to have to encompass such an amazing and wide ranging career in a short span. However, I think she needed help not to make it campy and Vegas-esque.

  5. Hi DailyBlackStar blog writers and commenters! I loved the Gaga tribute. Let me explain why.

    One word: Vaudeville.

    Bowie had a love for everything that was strange, different and beautiful, no matter what. He even built his own career on such beliefs. And it certainly shows on the variety of different persons he would create throughout his extensive career in the show business and art world.

    This is why I loved the campy, exagerated gaga dance moves, facial expressions, etc, etc, all in under 6 minutes and with a perfect vocal performance that’s hard to disagree!

    Gaga and Nile Rodgers played a perfect tribute to Bowie beacuse they weren’t afraid to be campy, obnoxious and on the edge of bad taste. They knew of Bowie’s love for Vaudeville and Cabaret.

    It shocked people because if was not reverential and it became dangerously close to vaudeville & cabaret acts (which is generally viewed as bad taste and of an old age). Bowie surely laughed his ass off and marvelled at her dance moves and singing.

    1. Well, vaudeville and cabaret were among America’s first foray into the world of pop culture as they began during our industrial revolution here. Prior to that, pop culture wasn’t really a “thing” – particularly because the country was agriculturally based until that time when cities started being built around industry, and leisure time did not come into play until that time as well. Vaudeville and Cabaret were known for their shock value, but it’s also how a lot of cultural context (and subtext) was/were spread during that time. After all, how better to get people to discuss something but by shock, right? All of that was already being done (and still being done at that time) even during the days of the Salons in Paris. Think of all that scandalous art on display. 🙂 All of vaudeville and later, cabaret was done in a similar vein, with just enough tongue-in-cheek to get the point across to those who cared enough to notice. Very much like art, music, film, and dance today. Those who want to see those deeper hidden meanings can, and those who don’t…don’t. (to put it simply) 😉

      I do see the parallels between a cabaret act and their tribute, although I completely discounted them yesterday. Yes, I know that the purpose probably was to shock. I just didn’t love it. I think I would have enjoyed it far more with a little less brashness and a little more thought into the creativity. A little more of a deeper hidden meaning, maybe? I’m not sure. I need to think on that.

      -R

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