Lady Gaga will perform a solo tribute to David Bowie at the Feb. 15 Grammy Awards, according to a report from the New York Times. Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich says Gaga was already slated to sing during the ceremony, and though after Bowie’s death in January many other musicians asked for a shot at a Bowie tribute, Ehrlich decided a three-to-four-song Gaga medley would be best.
What a shame. Bowie’s dazzling, decades-long career and ever-evolving persona changed the culture forever; his fans would be hard-pressed to deem any single performer worthy of his final tribute at the most-watched music event of the year. Tributes are inevitable and necessary—the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, for example, brings contemporary musicians together for live musical tributes to its medal recipients each year, and they’re usually beautiful and heartfelt. But posthumous celebrations are a taller, and tougher, order. Tributes feel less like a definitive statement when the honored party still walks the earth.
And Gaga is a particularly disappointing choice for such a visible tribute to the beloved pop icon, despite her stated adulation of his work and persona. “When I fell in love with David Bowie, when I was living on the Lower East Side, I always felt that his glamour was something he was using to express a message to people that was very healing for their souls,” Gaga told the Hollywood Reporter just before Bowie’s death. “He is a true, true artist and I don’t know if I ever went, ‘Oh, I’m going to be that way like this,’ or if I arrived upon it slowly, realizing it was my calling and that’s what drew me to him.” She continued: “I thought it was interesting to dress like a fashionista and kind of envelope myself in this plastic image and sing things that are very heartfelt and wrap them up in something kind of not heartfelt.” Gaga is a savvy businessperson and a talented singer; she has successfully navigated the global music economy and given us a few genuinely inventive pieces of art. But she is not, however she might like to style herself, this generation’s answer to David Bowie.
It’s true that both Gaga and Bowie have played with gender in exhilarating ways. Gaga has endured Gawker-fueled rumors that she was born male, and, like Bowie, embraced masculine and feminine tropes with equal fervor in her early days in the spotlight. Lindsay Zoladz writes of Gaga’s early career:
When it came to female pop stars, we were still reeling from the Britney-Christina-Jessica era, during which the only acceptable kind of femininity that presented itself was au naturel—eternally sun-kissed and low-cut-jean ready and never having anything too weird or opinionated to say. In this world, Gaga’s take on femininity—all boxy silhouettes, cyborgian dance moves, and grand, Warholian pronouncements—was, to many, utterly illegible. “I’m not going to make a guy drool the way a Britney video does,” she said in an early interview. “[W]hat I do is so extreme. It’s meant to make guys think: I don’t know if this is sexy or just weird.”
But Gaga’s musical nods to social justice themes (“Born This Way,” “Til It Happens To You”) have been heavy-handed; her social media advocacy has been muddled. And one of her most popular anthems, “Born This Way,” advanced a reductive, enduring narrative around gay identities—as opposed to Bowie, who opened new avenues for sexuality and gender expression that didn’t revert to a birth-based biological imperative.
More importantly, her early boundary-pushing output has often been mistaken for a cultural revolution. As Nathan Heller wrote in Slate in 2011, “For all of her attention-getting gambits [and] gnomic utterances…Gaga is basically a totem of the cultural establishment, an agent of the reliable old forms more than radical new ones. She claims to be a ‘monster,’ but she’s in fact pop’s leading conservative talent.” Much of Gaga’s appeal used to be based on pure shock; now it’s predicated on the whiplash she orchestrated to elicit some kind of surprise from her audiences at the revelation that she can “actually” sing, all while playing “Imagine” at athletic competitions and winning TV awards looking like a Marilyn Monroe double.
This isn’t an argument for some other performer to take over the tribute. None of the other scheduled Grammy performers— Adele, Kendrick Lamar, the Weeknd, Carrie Underwood, Sam Hunt—would make a better solo Bowie tribute, because Bowie’s legend is greater than the sum of its parts. A few covers of his songs, which must either try to imitate or transform his talents, will never feel sufficient. So how to enact a proper posthumous homage? David Bowie lived a dozen lives in his career. Just show them to us in a humble, respectful montage.