Honestly, who better than Lady Gaga to pay tribute to David Bowie at the Grammys? The pop star who made a career plan out of the ongoing shedding of his celebrity skin has many, many heirs — and we’ll get to them in a minute — but none so devoted in ambition, effect, and creative affectation as the woman who only-sort-of-ironically sang “Born This Way.”
The lengthy tribute to the late Bowie, who died Jan. 10, was built up as an emotional climax of Monday’s Grammy Awards telecast and was put together by Lady Gaga with the show’s musical director Nile Rodgers, who co-produced Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” album back in 1983. It was a gimmicky but heartfelt six-minute nostalgia trip through eight Bowie classics and as many of the singer’s dramatic personae, as Gaga, Rodgers, and a host of musicians and technicians romped from one end of Bowie’s peak career (“Space Oddity”) to the other (“Let’s Dance”).
The tribute wasn’t the high point of the 58th Grammy Awards — that would be the astonishing one-two punch of the cast of Broadway’s “Hamilton” followed by the incendiary Kendrick Lamar — but it reminded viewers/listeners of why Bowie’s music will continue to resonate for a long time to come. He had a knack for the killer hook, at least for the first two decades of his career. But the Gaga set also honored the ch-ch-ch-changes that made her idol seem so revolutionary in the ’70s and ’80s and remain a crucial influence on the pop landscape of today.
Before Bowie, a pop musician had one assigned meaning that he or she carried forward, with alterations, throughout a career. The singer born David Jones took his cues from various sources — Warhol and Dylan, mostly — and gave them a series of fresh twists, all of which Gaga and the current generation of pop stars emulate as best they can.
One of those twists was conscious theatricality — a post-modern peacock showiness that had roots in cabaret, glam rock, and gay camp. Bowie wore a dress on one album cover, became an alien rocker from Mars for another, a thin white duke for a third. Which was the “real” Bowie? If you thought that mattered, you were missing the point. Lady Gaga and her peers have just taken that mutability more directly into the fashion arena, with dresses made of meat and Rihanna runway shows. But it’s still all about performance.
Another strand, less talked about but just as influential, was Bowie’s ambition. We forget how shocking that seemed in 1971, when careerism was what your parents’ generation cared about, not the blissful Woodstock Nation. Of course, all those singer-songwriter saints were hugely ambitious — even Dylan, especially Dylan — but they hid it well. Bowie played up his yen to sell the world, and it gave his act aggression, energy, forward drive. Some mistook it for cynicism, but even that seemed novel at the time.
Today, ambition is the first arrow in a pop star’s quiver. In part, that’s thanks to Madonna, a critical link between Bowie and the current generation. Look at Gaga or Rihanna or Katy Perry, singers whose urge to succeed is the constant behind all those costume and image changes. Look at Beyoncé, who has realized her ambitions and rules over the pop world like a queen. Look at a figure like Kanye West, who has made ambition and ego neurotic central pillars of his ever-changing persona and who has just tripped on his own sword with the botched release of “The Life of Pablo.”
There’s a third aspect of Bowie’s legacy, too: vulnerability. You change skins because you’re scared or insecure or don’t like who you are. The singer copped to that in a 2002 interview, when he said of his early years, “Even though I was very shy, I found I could get onstage if I had a new identity.” Millions of alienated misfits intuitively tuned into that side of him, including a New York kid named Stefani Germanotta who had her own history of depression and abuse and dreamed up a wild, protective outer shell she called Lady Gaga.
In that same interview, though, Bowie acknowledged that “at a certain age, you realize you are no longer becoming. You are being.” He had lasted long enough to be sincere, off his records if not on them. But where does sincerity fit into the pop landscape today? In the alt-indie strummers, perhaps. Certainly among anguished, thoughtful rappers like Lamar — the true heirs to the singer-songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s in that personal expression, creatively wrought, is their goal and art.
Among the Top 40 divas, there’s a posturing of sincerity, of “meaning it,” that Lady Gaga seems to be pushing at hardest. The duets with Tony Bennett, the “Sound of Music” medley at last year’s Oscars, the relatively kitsch-free rendition of the national anthem at this year’s Super Bowl — all seem an attempt at an irony-free pop persona that even Bowie never quite felt comfortable with. He loved the masks too much, and all the things he could do with them.
Maybe Lady Gaga does, too. Maybe her new sincerity is just another character she’s working on. That would make her turn at the Grammy’s a true tribute to the master. And, like the man said, ain’t that close to love?