When it was announced that Lady Gaga was going to be performing the David Bowie tribute at the 2016 Grammys, I was optimistic. Now, I am not a fan of Lady Gaga per se. But I think she is immensely talented, and a real artist. I like her attitude. I like that she hired Clarence Clemons to play sax on her record and then had her fans record messages to cheer him up when he got ill. And I like that her very existence pisses off white rockist dudes–”How dare she!!!111”
Admittedly, Gaga wouldn’t have been my first choice, but it absolutely made sense. I completely believe that she was inspired by his music and by aspects of his career. I thought it would be interesting, and if nothing else, the participation of Gaga guaranteed that it would not be boring, unlike most Grammy™ Dead People Tributes.
The week began with Gaga getting a David Bowie tattoo. Given that I personally know at least a dozen people who have gotten a David Bowie-related tattoo in the past five weeks, this didn’t seem attention-seeking or performative (although let’s be honest: the entire concept of Lady Gaga is attention-seeking and performative). The fact that she documented it? IT’S LADY GAGA.
Then, there was the video of her getting her makeup done while listening to “Blackstar” from ★. Gaga is getting a little bit misty. Fans were up in arms, completely forgetting their history for five minutes–why is she filming getting her makeup done??–because what I saw was an echo of the early footage in the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars live concert movie, which begins with Bowie in a dressing room, getting his makeup done.
Finally, time for the big reveal. Gaga arrived at the red carpet in a gorgeous royal blue suit with decked out in sequins, as though Nudie Cohn made a suit for a shorter Bowie.
The cut of the suit was Bowie-esque, very reminiscent of the suit on the cover of David Live, and her hair was the bright carrot orange pompadour of that era as well.
Here’s how the 9-song Gaga Bowie tribute broke down, minute by minute:
1:00: SPACE ODDITY: The tribute begins with an intense closeup of her face. The makeup she wore on the red carpet is gone, replaced with makeup very reminiscent of the original video, to the degree that the light even faded in exactly the same way. But about 20 seconds in, animation begins to draw the Alladin Sane lightning bolt on her face, which is followed by a spider (obviously a tribute to the Spiders From Mars), which spins and removes the lightning bolt, replacing it with the astral sphere (the gold disc in the center of the forehead, that was actually the correct makeup for Ziggy).
I’m going to point out that “Space Oddity” wasn’t on either of those records.
00:53: CHANGES: Gaga walks out onstage draped in a full-length cape that was a very very good replica of one of Bowie’s stage capes designed by the Japanese designer Kansai. The Chinese lettering on the original cape (yes, it was Chinese, not Japanese) spelled out “David Bowie” in what was essentially Chinese transliteration.
1:10: ZIGGY STARDUST: The cape is removed and Gaga is wearing a white version of the blue suit from earlier, and a long pink feather boa. I saw two eyes of two different colors embroidered onto the suit.
She adjourns to a special pneumatic keyboard for a few more seconds of the song, before transitioning into…
1:45: SUFFRAGETTE CITY: This was a straight-ahead delivery of the song, just one chorus.
2:12: REBEL REBEL: Gaga tosses the boa and disappears behind a special effects screen briefly, which creates the impact of a many-limbed Gaga. She sings the first line and then cuts to the chorus.
2:35: FASHION: Gaga is joined by dancers wearing what look like the Chinese silk pajamas you used to be able to buy in Chinatown before “buying something in Chinatown” meant a Coach purse knockoff.
3:10: FAME: Gaga is tied up with a rope by the pajama dancers. Then they’re replaced by dancers in black clothing and she gets free. Some of her moves are familiar, or could be familiar, or it could just be Gaga.
3:35: UNDER PRESSURE/LET’S DANCE: We hear exactly two bars of the “Under Pressure” intro, before the band shifts straight into the “Let’s Dance” riff. Nile Rogers, who’s been in the band the whole time, gets to share the spotlight for the riff he wrote, Gaga leaning on him while she’s singing. This was actually the best part of the tribute, kind of like a mutual David Bowie admiration society.
4:54: HEROES: this was a “Heroes”/“Born This Way” mashup, with a super upbeat and almost Vegas dinner show arrangement that was the complete opposite of the actual “Heroes.” That’s okay, because Bowie changed the tone of “Heroes” over the years. And this was meant to be a celebration of the man’s life and art, and not a memorial service.
Ultimately, Gaga’s Bowie tribute at the Grammys was disappointing because it tried to do too much in too short of a time slot, so nothing got a chance to breathe or be anything. If she wanted to do a medley (which I hate, but that’s Grammy currency these days), pick less songs, say, two or three. Doing nine songs ended up feeling like Elvis’ “Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite.” I would have honestly loved to hear what Gaga’s considerable talents could have done with one song, performed well and with intent, than this hot mess.
But I bet David would have loved every minute of it.