The many looks of Gaga in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
What a difference a year makes.
“I was doing yoga today,” says the indefatigable Lady Gaga over lunch at Joanne, her parents’ restaurant. “And my yoga teacher was like, ‘What the fuck?’ I had my toe up over my head, I was in some weird fucking position, I was talking to her about some David Lee Roth song—I don’t know what was going on. But she was like, ‘I don’t know what happened to you from before you left for the ArtRave and now. I just know that I need you to stay this way.’”
As 2014 began, it was far from certain how Gaga’s year would go. Her entrance on a barbecue spit at South By Southwest in March played as something of a metaphor for what she’d been enduring in the media at the time—gratuitously vicious roastings of her as “over”, after the supposed “flop” of her album Artpop. And yet here we are. I would venture to say that Gaga has in fact had a more varied and interesting year than any of her peers. The grungy, stripped-down turn of that SXSW set. A historic week of concerts to close Roseland Ballroom, with a Gotham-centric show that mirrored the gritty, faded glory of that fabled venue. The transformation of Artpop into the blissful transcendence of the ArtRave tour, which concluded with a Paris concert whose live stream broke records for Yahoo and Live Nation. And of course, living out what Gaga says was “the dream” of making a jazz record, Cheek to Cheek, with larger-than-life octogenarian Tony Bennett—a collaboration that will continue into 2015 with 35 live dates around the world. This is what “over” looks like? Keep your pop music horse-race numbers, please. If you can make a case for a major music star who’s had a more intriguing year than Gaga, I would love to hear it.
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No surprise then, that she’s in great, almost giddy spirits, when I slide into a booth at her family’s Upper West Side eatery. “It’s a wonderful thing when you’re waking up happy,” she says enthusiastically. Over Gaga’s shoulder is a picture of her boyfriend of three years (and currently the subject of a flurry of “will-they-or-won’t-they-get-married?” talk), actor Taylor Kinney. I observe that I’ve always thought her man has eyes so much like Leonardo DiCaprio, the two could play brothers. “Totally”, she concurs. “I want to see Taylor and Leo in a movie together, directed by Martin Scorsese!” Also on the wall—a New York State license plate that reads “LADYGAGA.” (Hey tourism board, want an actual New York girl to be your ambassador? I got your native right here.) “Tony said the other day, ‘Gaga the reason you’ve done so well is because you’re from New York,’” says the Lady. “And it’s true, I’ve got thick skin, but I needed to get myself healthy again. It was like Frankenstein, you know? It was like I was in pieces and all of a sudden I was all sewn back together.”
In a sense, you can trace the eclectic thrills of Gaga’s 2014 through her style. While there were hotel comings and goings, promo appearances, and a performance at a much talked-about Harper’s Bazaar Icons soirée that were all memorable, it’s the images of her live shows that endure the most. And talk about contrast! On the one hand you had SXSW— sporting a rats’ nest of white dreads (a holdover look from her Artpop video by Inez & Vinoodh), a bikini, and covered in performance artist Millie Brown’s vomited paint. On the other, only a few months later, there were the glam outfits of her Cheek to Cheek special with Bennett, filmed at Jazz at Lincoln Center. How could those possibly be the same artist? “That’s Lady Gaga!” she says. “You know, I’m the lady by day, and I’m Gaga by night. And I’m always going to be that way, because it’s a testament to your discipline as a musician. I do like to drink, I like to get crazy, I like to go out with my friends, and I like to sing rock and roll. I used to go-go dance! And I like to be inspired by young artists, people like Millie who are outrageously hard, disciplined individuals. But at the end of the day I’m a classically trained pianist and I’m a singer, and that’s what allows the girl that goes out at night to also go on stage with Tony Bennett at Lincoln Center. Because I know how to do it.”
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For Cheek to Cheek’s album cover, shot by Steven Klein, and parts of the special, broadcast in October on PBS, Gaga sported a mane of black curls that recalled “If I Could Turn Back Time”-era Cher. But at other points in the show, wearing a jazz age headdress, she brought to mind another Italian-American gal like herself—Liza Minnelli. There have even been recent rumours that 2015 might include some sort of collaboration between Gaga with a G and Liza with a Z. While Gaga dismisses them as just that—rumours—she does recall the first time she met the icon. “Are you kidding me? She made the most epic entrance of anyone I’ve ever met,” she laughs. “She walked into my dressing room, she threw her fur coat on the floor, her diamond earrings were flapping, and she goes, ‘I’m here!’ It was totally unreal!”
Gaga herself knows how to make an entrance – as she did night after night on the ArtRave, rising up onto the stage in a bejewelled costume outfitted with Jeff Koons’ blue “gazing ball.” This latest mega-show may have connected with fans more intimately than any of her previous tours, she says, something she found especially gratifying considering the sniping around Artpop upon its release that it was a “clinical” record. “With that album it’s like I was creating my own acid. Acid is a synthetically created drug, in laboratories, and I created a synthetic musical drug for myself to survive my life. But then as I travelled around the world I met more and more kids that were fully fucking Artpop to the wildest galaxies of their dreams. Kids whose whole lives were changed by the album. You know, Planet Venus is a place that they go in their minds when they are at home, to escape their family life, their troubles, their depression.”
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Gaga considers herself a songwriter, and over four albums she has by her own estimate written “90 per cent” of her songs. But this year, she’s done double duty, alternating between singing her own material on ArtRave and along with Bennett, performing standards from the Great American Songbook—songs written in an era before a premium was placed on singers also being songwriters. Gaga sees a value in both kinds of music, with one caveat: “If you’re not gonna write your own music,” she tells me, “you better be able to blow. Because if you can’t blow, there’s no reason to do the job. But then you think about artists that can’t really sing, that have songs written for them, and it’s like, well why are they artists? Why are companies paying money to promote them? Because they’re beautiful and look good on camera and are kinda-sorta singing along? It’s like karaoke for pretty girls. When you’re a singer-songwriter it doesn’t really matter if you’re beautiful. What matters is that you create a relationship with your fans, and they care what you have to say.”
And Gaga clearly has a lot still to say. Thanks to a mixed bag of projects, the endorsement of a jazz legend, and an approach to touring that didn’t leave her feeling “beaten to a pulp,” it’s been a year of revitalization and rebirth. In fact, she’s so inspired that she’s already been working on new songs for her next project, though she won’t reveal much about it—except with a metaphor. “I want the fans to be surprised,” she says. “But I will just tell you that it’s a wonderful, soul-searching experience. And it’s very unlike the last album in that way. I made that album on the road. Artpop was, you know, the acid-making record. And this record is like—my old self as a cadaver. And I’m just, I’m operating on my old self.”
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As they say, what doesn’t kill you…Turns out those nasty epitaphs on Gaga’s career were a wee bit premature. Does she feel vindicated? “I guess I feel more of a personal vindication within myself,” she says. “That I could do it, you know?” Soon she will ring out a very good 2014 in Las Vegas, singing classic songs, maybe with a glass of champagne in hand and most definitely with Bennett by her side. “Everything happens for a reason, and every career goes through ups and downs,” she concludes. “And I think when you’re able to be self-aware, that’s when you can say, ‘Oh wow, everything’s going great now. This is the way it’s supposed to be.’ And that’s how I feel again.”