As Ryan McGee so astutely pointed out in his recap of Saturday Night Live this weekend, Lady Gaga decided to turn most of this weekend’s episode into a humble pie tour unlike anything a celebrity would undertake without a scandal to bounce back from. Although there hasn’t been much that could be considered a controversy in Gaga’s past six months or so, it’s very possible that her behavior during both this appearance and her visit to Graham Norton’s couch last week were part of a slow but steady pivot to make herself more welcoming and appealing to more casual fans during her promotional tour for Artpop, her recently released album. While the strategy she’s undertaking to attempt this wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for almost any other pop star, it’s markedly different from other album releases she’s undertaken in the past. A large reason her recent appearances have seemed out of the ordinary comes down to one major thing: normalcy.
For the past two months, more or less since “Applause” was released, Gaga has seemed desperate, needy, and possibly worst of all, unprepared for how to market an album at this stage of her career. While her “Pop Wars” peers (Katy Perry, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus) have been casual about their album releases (or at least as casual as you can be when you’re an entertainer known worldwide), Gaga went straight for the frenzied side of things, constantly tweeting out instructions to her fans to download and watch her singles online as much as they possibly could to boost her statistics heading into fall. This strategy would have seemed frantic no matter what, but when Katy is calmly talking about her daily life in the same timeline it makes Mama Monster out to be even more crazed for attention in comparison.
Just judging by my own experience with the usually pop radio rotation I listen to, “Applause” got probably the least the least amount of airtime out of the half dozen singles dropped this fall by her competitors. It doesn’t help that it wasn’t a very good first single obviously, and her follow-up release “Do What U Want” is much stronger in almost all regards, but between the poor performance of her launch single and this week’s lackluster sales numbers for the Artpop release, there was definitely a need for her to reassess her efforts to promote both her music and her personality during the talk show circuit. Which is exactly what she did in her two major appearances in the last two weeks, and to great effect. She made great decisions in regards to which songs to perform, and came off as self-deprecating rather than defensive in any of her interview bits of sketch appearances on either show. To spell out her best tactics, let’s briefly go through each musical performance in order.
The Graham Norton Show, November 11, 2013:
In a change from how Graham Norton usually starts the show, Lady Gaga performed a song to start everything off as well as one at the end. I can imagine part of this decision boiled down to her need for costume change time, but the addition of another song when musical guests usually only receive one serves the larger purpose of helping her to increase awareness of the album as a whole instead of based only on singles for which fan mileage varies at the moment. It also gave her the chance to show off her vocals in one performance and her skills as a dancer in the other. Performing “Do What U Want” to open the show, Gaga rocked a sequined pair of black pants combined with a sheer top and feathered head piece, and topped off with her signature Alexander McQueen Armadillo heels. Besides the headpiece, it was a fairly normal outfit that allowed her to move around the stage and dance with her guitarist in a more traditional way than the highly choreographed set pieces she usually enjoys. She also didn’t hesitate to laugh at herself once she joined the other guests on the couch, seated next to Jude Law and fan-girling like any of us mere mortals would if we got that chance. Instead of taking jokes about her potentially injury-causing feathers to heart she used it to establish rapport with the other guests while also segueing between Graham’s questions and friendly banter with everyone on the couch. Things really got rolling once June Brown joined the guests, as her and Lady Gaga got along like old friends. To say they were kindred spirits would be an understatement and if someone were to pitch a June Brown/Gaga buddy comedy I think it could be incredibly successful.
Her second song performed was “Neptune” which was the point she decided to let her inner freak flag fly a little bit. Backed by a half dozen scantily clad dancers, and draped in what looked like half a roll of turquoise party streamers on top of a bra she may have borrowed from The Little Mermaid, she executed a jerky but fun performance of one of the songs from the new album that I like the least. The performance made up for a lot of the lackluster feeling I have towards the song however, even with a guitar transfer that was executed awkwardly. The most revealing part of her appearance here was when she was open about her outfits with Graham, saying it was “how she dealt with her insanity”. Without coming off as too unhinged (or again, too defensive) she was able to be open about why she enjoys dressing in exceedingly crazy wardrobes and still bring it back to the other guests. All in all, her time spent on the red couch was well served for her image right now and should have done a good job of convincing anybody on the edge to at least give Artpop a listen once through.
Although she was the musical guest on multiple occasions before this weekend and taken part in a good amount of skits, Lady Gaga had never been the host outright before nonetheless double duty. Her theatrical side could surely handle anything the show threw at her and any jitters another host would have the first time around would surely be nonexistent, right? Right. It turned out exactly that way, and even though ever sketch she made an appearance in wasn’t A+ material her gusto and commitment for each was right where it needs to be for an episode to avoid falling flat.
Whether it was the show’s decision or her own, the choice to perform “Applause” only as a parody of itself was her best choice, seeing as not performing it at all would probably disappoint some fans but wasting one of the two performance slots on a single that has already faltered would be pointless. Again, she starts off here pretty normally clothed and escalates as the show goes on. Her dress for the opening monologue represents the city she’s in well, with an art deco vibe straight out of 1920’s New York. Plus, even though the song was reworked to be a joke about her need for attention it didn’t keep her from singing it beautifully, if more subtly than the recorded track. Wise decision on her part.
For the first song performed as an actual stage performance, Gaga once again went with “Do What U Want” but this time with the featured artist on the song present, R Kelly. Of course he entered the stage the only way you could expect him to, by slinking slowly and silently on in the back until it was time for him to sing. Never change, Robert, never change. His presence puts this performance just higher than the Graham Norton one on my scale, as his verse is one of my favorite parts of the song and what makes it just that much different than anything else on this album. Putting aside the, um, “dance moves”, the pair took part in while on stage, this performance was well done and, again, normal compared to many others. Her silver sequin jumpsuit was flawless and the wig she wore gave a vague Donna Summer feeling to the whole look.
Instead of performing “Neptune” for the second time in the same week as well, Gaga instead decided to perform one of my personal favorites off Artpop, “Gypsy”. It gives her another opportunity to show off her vocal talents without having to worry about dance moves at the same time. Gaga has never been shy about breaking out some piano playing on stage before and here she went full Elton John with a flashy outfit and hot pink piano. Her voice sounded great and this was another well executed chance to show off some of the other songs on the album (and possible future singles). However, this performance involved yet another guitar-transfer mishap that took her out of the song for a few seconds and looks unprofessional at this point in her stage career. The tweaks necessary to make a performance go smoothly should be made long before the night of the show and would have allowed the audience to stay focused on the genuinely entertaining atmosphere she was creating.
All in all, I would give her a solid A for Graham Norton and somewhere between a B and a B+ for SNL, as both appearances were just entertaining enough off the stage and a home run on it. Again, if she continues to market herself and Artpop like this for the rest of her late night appearances (and probably an awards show or two) the feelings about the album are almost guaranteed to stay positive for however long it stays in the pop culture rotation. The lesson learned here is that as long as a promotional pivot happens before it’s too late, good things can come of it. Utilizing television as a platform to show how personable you are isn’t exactly new to celebrity culture but it’s surprising how infrequently stars use it at this point outside of a major image rehabilitation stunt. Stop acting so desperate towards fans and the press and act like an actual human being for once, maybe this album will come out on top in the Pop Wars of Fall 2013 in the long run.