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Lady Gaga’s Long Game: How She Fought the Fame Monster to Find Lasting Success

Illustration: Israel Ovalle
Illustration: Israel Ovalle

When Lady Gaga was chosen as Billboard’s 2015 Woman Of The Year, some raised eyebrows given Gaga’s absence from the charts this year. It’s been two years since 2013’s much-maligned ARTPOP, and one year since the face-saving jazz team-up of Cheek To Cheek with Tony Bennett, but it’s not as if downtime has been on Gaga’s agenda throughout the year.

This may have been a relatively “slow year” in Gaga Land in comparison, but it’s evidence that she’s playing the kind of long game likely to pay off: 2015 has seen Gaga flit between a number of roles and maintain a healthy public profile, while slowly shifting the perception of her place in the pop pantheon.

The first true show-stopping moment came in the form of Gaga’s turn at the this year’s Oscars, where she turned in a note-perfect Sound of Music tribute that quickly became one of the show’s most talked-about moments. It was a throwback to the kind of faintly camp spectacle that once littered these kind of shows, and a canny move on Gaga’s part.

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“Everybody wants to see the decay of a superstar,” Gaga told Anderson Cooper in a 2011 interview for 60 Minutes “Isn’t that the age that we live in? We wanna see people who have it all, lose it all.”

There she was discussing that 2009 MTV VMAs performance of “Paparazzi,” a shock-art turn resulting in Gaga bleeding to “death” before the show’s rapt audience.

For all their differences, there are similarities between both that high-concept take on “Paparazzi” and Gaga’s Oscars performance: Both play against our expectations, whether it’s the gasp emitted after seeing a then-burgeoning pop icon bleed on stage or see an oft-dismissed contemporary star take on old songs — and nail them. Both are pop talking points, and engaging performances that make you realize Gaga’s ability to (still) surprise.

In some ways, Gaga’s slow transformation into something altogether more grown up — a woman with an attractive fiancé who belts out jazz standards with Tony Bennett and takes her acting craft seriously — could be read as a dismissal of her pop success. After ARTPOP was a commercial failure by her sky-high standards, was Gaga spending this year repositioning herself as something beyond pop music?

But a look at how 2015 unfolded on planet Gaga shows a grown-up, but true-to-form journey that references moves she’s already made in the past with a new sense of promise.

The Oscars was the new kind of show-stopper for a Gaga who had to challenge the perception of what she had to offer after the cumulative effect of Born This Way and ARTPOP began to distract audiences from her considerable talent and fatigue with a public persona that was slowly moving from endearing and eccentric to overcooked — and sometimes baffling.

“This is a year when I’ve really been following my instincts and really doing the things that I love,” Gaga told Billboard in an interview about her Woman of The Year honor. And while it’s easy to read that as typical celebrity self-hype, it also makes sense for Gaga in a year where she seemed as happy to follow her muse instead of keep up with her contemporaries.

Alongside her Oscars turn, Gaga turned up at a televised Stevie Wonder tribute, sang “Imagine” at the 2015 European Games, joined U2 and The Rolling Stones on stage, and even mashed up the drag-king aesthetic of Born This Way’s Jo Calderone with her Cheek To Cheek era in a TV tribute to Frank Sinatra. They all seemed like projects Gaga was passionate about being involved with, and tie into her narrative of being a fan of rock, soul and the American songbook.

Having spent much of 2014 on the road with her ARTRAVE Tuor and releasing Cheek to Cheek with Tony Bennett, it’s interesting that 2015 is the year where Gaga sowed the seeds of how people may begin to see her differently by clearly indulging her passions, and even opening herself up to new experiences as a performer.

Among those new experiences is “Til It Happens To You,” the harrowing rock-flecked ballad Gaga co-wrote with songwriting legend Diane Warren for campus-rape documentary The Hunting Ground. Backed by a stark black and white video that highlights the pain of rape victims, it’s a hard listen, but one that feels full of catharsis. It allowed Gaga to discuss her own experiences of sexual assault, and a willingness to be even more honest than perhaps her most devoted fans would have anticipated.

Gaga’s other musical contribution this year was significantly different: a breezy and faithful-to-the-original cover of Chic’s “I Want Your Love.” Recorded as a part of a fashion film to promote Tom Ford’s Spring / Summer 2016 collection ,it’s a sophisticated but free-spirited visual that gives Gaga ample room to shine. She lets rip by throwing herself on the floor and serving up plenty of attitude. It’s a paired back look that still ripples with an inherent Gaga-ness; proof that that her appeal as both a pop performer and someone with a wild side isn’t just tied to whatever she wears. Disco throwbacks have come and gone in pop music over the last number of years, but Gaga breathes new life into a classic in a manner that suggests her own pop nous is still firmly intact.

Gaga has been busy logging studio time this year, although in a far more low-key way then the much-hyped ARTPOP. That was an album that had a title and a sense of expectation weighing over it well over a year before it was released. Now, we have fleeting Instagram references to “LG5” (inspired by the fan use of R8 before Rihanna named ANTI, perhaps?), reports she’s working with RedOne and Mark Ronson, but precious little information about what it’ll sound like. And that’s enough.

The promise of a future return to pop is tantalizing enough, and with the varied nature of what she’s got up to this year, there’s still a considerable profile for Lady Gaga that doesn’t feel tied to the tired pop promotional circus.

Still, Gaga’s turn on American Horror Story: Hotel lent itself to press whirlwind. The initial announcement, a short promo clip that could have been an outtake for The Fame Monster album artwork, felt like a 2009 Gaga throwback with something new: acting.

As the hype around Hotel’s debut settled, responses to Gaga’s role as The Countess, the owner of the Hotel Cortez and someone manipulating all of the show’s many characters, were somewhat mixed. In some scenes her undeniable knack of bringing a visual to life is apparent; just her glowering in her Countess finery sells the point. And in others, her accent work gives her line reading a stilted quality that sells her short. Still, episodes such as the season highlight Flicker, where we see a pre-Countess origin story, show her emote and bring together a backstory with aplomb. She’s experimenting, trying to broaden her talent. At times it works. At times it doesn’t.

Hotel shows off Gaga’s willingness to experiment, and presents a grown-up outlet for her mix of the spooky and weird (and still faintly glamorous). The Countess often feels like an older sister of the kind of zany, intense and yet appealing character Gaga was at height of her Fame Monster period.

Hotel too shows her readiness to get her feet wet in a manner that recalls the slow burn of a year Gaga spent in 2008 laying the groundwork for her pop takeover.

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Although debut album The Fame arrived in Canada in August 2008, and the U.S. later that October, Gaga spent much of that year on the kind of promo hustle that many a breaking major label pop act go on: From a debut TV performance at the NewNowNext Awards to stomping around at Miss Universe (!) to her rough-around-the-edges but charming Transmission Gaga online video diaries, the willingness to experiment was already there. Even in those lo-fi videos, the same earnestness and willingness to try and mix art and pop is there.

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It’s her early promo tour that shows how things quickly blew up for Gaga once the pop charts embraced her. In Summer 2008, she turned up at Dallas gay bar, the Round Up saloon, for a brief performance with flashes of Grace Jones, Madonna, Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani in its DNA. (It was a short promo set she would later perform countless times that year.)

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Three years later, she returned to the venue for a surprise performance of Born This Way, now a fully minted superstar, paying tribute to the groundwork they’d put in three years previous. Full circle doesn’t even begin to cover it.

There are echoes of that same method of laying the groundwork in what Gaga is up to now — accepting awards from the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, The National Arts Awards and that aforementioned Billboard gong — but also in her continued willingness to try new things.

Even her “change the world” messaging seems less preachy (and somewhat patronizing) these days, more grounded in stuff Gaga herself is going through: Her to-the-point speech at Yale University during an event co-run by her Born This Way Foundation had a directness about her experience in the pop world.

“I started to say no,” she confided to the crowd, admitting that the pop spectacle of shilling fragrances and endless self promotion was a distraction. “Slowly but surely, I remembered who I am.”

She continued her directness when accepting her Woman of the Year Award at Billboard’s ceremony, bluntly noting how the industry is still “like a f–kin’ boys club that we just can’t get into,” and that for Gaga, she doesn’t always feel “when you’re working — that people believe that you have a musical background, that you understand what you’re doing because you’re female.”

We’re used to being entertained by our pop stars, often enjoying the kind of spectacle Gaga mentioned in 2009: the rise and fall of artists who’ve had a fall from grace. At that time, her contemporaries were fellow female pop titans like Rihanna and Katy Perry. This year has seen both of those women try to push the glittering, pressure-laden successes to one side and figure out where to move next: Rihanna is leading up to the (hopefully soon) release of ANTI, an album that seems destined to shift away from the chart-obsessed streak of her earlier work, while Katy Perry quietly puts to rest the colorful wigs and cartoon persona that has typified much of her output of the last few years. These are performers in flux who want to maintain some kind of profile and connection to their audience, but are still plotting out their next move.

This year saw Lady Gaga not only work on projects that showed off her considerable talents, but refine the messages and imagery she puts out into the public.

She isn’t just reminding us that she has a talent. She’s showing us the confidence she has to play the long game; to know that if she gets to work in her own time, she can endure as the kind of savvy, engaging (and occasionally infuriating!) pop titan we so sorely need.

Lady Gaga, Then + Now:

Next: Lady Gaga Discusses The Power of Saying 'No'

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