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.