Let’s be clear, I was blown away by Lady Gaga’s performance at the 2015 Oscars. It was a gloriously endearing tribute to a classic film with a soundtrack that has stood the test of time, beautifully concluded with an embrace shared by Gaga and Julie Andrews herself. I stand with the blogosphere in asserting that this live performance was one of her best vocally. She carried the listener with her on a beautiful, nostalgic journey with every note she hit. While she wasn’t nominated for any awards, she won the night with that performance.
Where I get confused is the storm on Twitter which ensued afterwards, with a plethora of tweets being posted by surprised individuals who were apparently new to the idea that Lady Gaga could sing. Every live performance of Gaga’s prior to this one has consistently offered some indication of her vocal ability, from her intimate, confessional performance of the “Born This Way” promotional single “Hair” on NBC’s “A Very Gaga Thanksgiving” special back in 2011 — where she sang and recounted her experiences with bullying over just a piano — to her 2013 debut performance of the “ARTPOP” lead single “Applause,” fit with several costume changes, insane choreography and a booming voice which still managed to stand out over the precautionary backing track. But while Gaga’s vocal ability has always been apparent, aside from that Oscars performance, it has also shared the stage with elaborate costumes, sets and theatricality. Why is it that the public is able to testify to her talent only when those theatrical elements are stripped away?
Gaga’s use of a stripped-down vocal performance isn’t entirely a new tactic female artists have used to represent a transition process between thematically different albums. Last year at Coachella, Lana Del Rey — several years after an infamously disastrous vocal performance on Saturday Night Live that some believe might have inhibited the American success of some of the singles from her debut album “Born to Die” — astounded music bloggers and other detractors, as well as vindicated die-hard fans, with a gorgeous performance of her older songs and some of the material from her then yet-to-be-released album “Ultraviolence.” That game-changing performance knocked down the first domino in a chain of events which resulted in exceeding sales expectations during the album’s first week, debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 albums chart, despite little commercial advertising for the album and no radio singles.
Using a female artist’s personality as a justification for minimizing her talent isn’t an entirely new tactic the public has used either. Rappers Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks — Minaj known for her cartoonish and over-the-top rap-persona and Banks notorious for the (sometimes justified, often well-argued) Twitter beefs she often finds herself involved in — were clear examples of this. Although I was not a huge fan of the singles Minaj released ahead of her 2014 album “The Pinkprint,” the album resulted in what I ultimately believe was the best album of last year, with those singles making more sense in the context of the whole project. But her music was not even a major part of the discussion around Nicki Minaj last year. Despite releasing some of her best rap verses on promotional singles and remixes leading up to the release of her first two album singles “Pills N Potions” and “Anaconda,” the topic about Minaj most talked about last year was how big her butt was in the “Anaconda” music video, resulting in many memes on the internet which worked to mock her and minimize her talents as a rapper. Similarly with Banks, the news that surrounded her last year involved various Twitter beefs and her losing her record deal, as well as a discussion on what defined her as her “strong personality,” instead of the subsequent independently-released album which was highly lauded by critics.
To bring the discussion back to Gaga, many are speculating that she’s ditching the costumes for a while and is going to allow her voice to be the focal point of her next album. That’s a possible hypothesis. A low-quality leak of her piano ballad “Till It Happens To You” — which is to be featured as the theme of the highly-anticipated documentary film about campus sexual assault, “The Hunting Ground” — has surfaced and supports that hypothesis with its minimalist production. But there are also rumors about her getting in the studio with the producer behind some of her biggest hits “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,” Moroccan-born Swedish dance producer RedOne, as well as famed disco producer, Giorgio Moroder, who is now making a comeback with his highly-anticipated first solo album in 30 years, “74 Is the New 24,” implying that synthesizer-based production is still going to be a large part of her music. But whichever route she takes, her voice is always going to be a focus. It always has been. The question is whether or not listeners will allow themselves to get past the costumes and the production and her personality and recognize her talent, as they are able to do with many of her flamboyantly-dressed male counterparts like Elton John, Liberace, KISS, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Kanye West, Adam Lambert, Slipknot and Prince. It’s time that we stop bashing female artists for embracing and owning the ability to express themselves through clothing assigned to them by patriarchal gender roles associated with femininity — and not appreciating their talents and abilities — while lauding the riskiness of these male artists defying gender stereotypes by embracing the art of costume and still giving them the male privilege of being judged only by their merits and not solely their appearance.