Oscars this, Oscars that, blah, blah. Birdman, blah blah, can’t believe what she was wearing, blah blah…Save all that for somewhere else. Did anyone catch Lady Gaga’s performance???
Behind her onstage flamboyance, constantly-changing appearance and wild swings between outrageous clothing and no clothing at all, it turns out Lady Gaga can actually sing.
I mean really sing, y’all.
During the 87th Academy Awards last night, the surprise musical performance of the evening was Gaga’s effortless delivery of a medley of tunes from The Sound of Music, a tribute to the musical’s 50th anniversary. It was a surprise for two reasons: first—Lady Gaga came onstage looking pretty much normal. No outrageous wigs, no meat dresses, no masks. Just a beautiful woman in an elegant gown.
Second—and most importantly—Gaga nailed every note as though it were Julie Andrews herself. If you closed your eyes, at times you’d have thought it was Dame Andrews singing it. (Seriously—move over, Carrie Underwood.)
But it was more than channeling—it didn’t feel like we were hearing a musical impression. For the first time, it felt like we got to see the talent behind the antics—and the talent was truly impressive. From the very first phrase, “The hills are alive…” it felt like we were in an arresting moment—and the moment held us throughout.
To hear Lady Gaga performing what would today be considered “standards” is not a surprise: she’s been dueting all winter with Tony Bennett, after all. Neither is it the first time a pop-culture-sex-symbol-diva has turned to the standards in an attempt to show her legitimacy as an artist—Christina Aguilera went through a traditional phase in the not-too-distant past, for example. But what set this performance apart was the way in which Lady Gaga performed the material. So many times this comes off as risky and awkward for a modern performer, like trying to walk in oversized shoes. Not for Gaga. She owned the shoes last night, belting out the high notes as though she’d grown up singing them.
We kept waiting for the gotcha moment—for a surprise change of tempo, or for Gaga to rip off the gown to reveal a slinky cabaret something-or-other. It never happened—and for someone who’s built her reputation around that kind of thing, that was almost as surprising as the vocal delivery. Nothing but elegance, front to back.
And as a fitting coda to the moment—Julie Andrews herself came onstage at the end of the number, obviously as impressed as the rest of us were at her performance, thanking Lady Gaga for her rendition before presenting the Oscar for Best Musical Score to Alexandre Desplat for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
It wasn’t the only important musical moment of the night. Equally poignant, for an entirely different reason, was Common and John Legend’s performance of “Glory” from the film Selma, complete with a choral reenactment of the march across Edmund Pettus Bridge. The song itself went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song. A quieter but also poignant performance came earlier in the evening with Tim McGraw’s frail-voiced performance of the Glen Campbell-penned tune “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” another nominated song from last year’s documentary film Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me, which explores the country singer’s ongoing battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
On the more forgettable side was Maroon 5’s performance of “Lost Stars” from the film Begin Again, and show host Neil Patrick Harris’ opening number, which was admittedly funny and entertaining, but paled in comparison to what his Tony Awards performances demonstrate that he’s capable of. Rita Ora’s performance of “Grateful” and Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “I Can’t Let Go” (during the In Memoriam segment) fell somewhere in between the two extremes, while Tegan & Sara’s “Everything Is Awesome!!!” (from The Lego Movie) at least brought a bit of comic relief to a part of the show that was dragging in momentum (and the Lego statuettes that were passed through the crowd became a standing joke for the rest of the evening).
So the aftermath chatter about who-won-what-Oscar will continue over the next few days, and then we’ll gear up for the next awards season. But from the standpoint of music history, Lady Gaga’s performance has the potential to be a changing moment for her career, positioning her to make the leap from headline-grabbing diva to joining the pantheon of American music icons (in other words, the right to stand next to Tony Bennett). It all depends on whether she leans into this moment or lets it pass.