“I wanted to be an actress before I wanted to be a singer,” Lady Gaga declared on Sunday night (Jan. 10). “But music…worked out first.”
A tearful Gaga was onstage at the 2016 Golden Globes when she uttered these words, wearing a simple black dress and sporting an old-school glam look. She was elegant and graceful, a modern-day Marilyn Monroe, with no frills to detract from her beauty. The most surprising aspect of the muted styling: how expected it was.
No one thought that Gaga was going to show up to the Golden Globes while being carried in a giant egg, as she had done at the 2011 GRAMMY Awards, or dressed as a male alter-ego, as she had done at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. Lady Gaga’s Golden Globes look was as far removed from the paint-vomiting pop star of the 2014 South By Southwest festival as humanly possible. If anything, it was predictable that Gaga wasn’t going to be wearing or doing anything outlandish at the Golden Globes, because she’s spent two years scrubbing away the image of herself that left casual fans more or less exhausted by the beginning of 2014.
After years of going against the grain, Gaga needed a detour into normalcy. She wanted to be an actress before she wanted to be a singer, but she needed to be an actress — or a jazz singer, or an American Songbook champion, or anything else — before she returned to make more pop music. And now, her career is much better for it.
Now that we’re a few years removed from Lady Gaga’s ascent to superstardom, its brevity is all the more staggering. About three years passed between the release of debut single “Just Dance” in 2008 and the unveiling of her second studio album, Born This Way, in 2011, and those three years saw Gaga rearrange what it meant to be a pop star. She dominated Top 40 radio, populated the still-growing YouTube with eye-popping music videos and shoved high art and social issues into the modern-day pop lexicon. She had catchy hooks, but she would only present them while pushing boundaries.
In 2013, she began to push too far. ARTPOP, a high-concept album that combined art installations; an accompanying mobile app; a Terry Richardson-filmed music video; and a song that featured T.I., Too $hort and Twista, all while trying to continue a pop radio hot streak. “Applause” hit the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, and ARTPOP debuted at No. 1 with a sizable sum, but it wasn’t enough to keep critics from comparing its sales to the much-greater returns for Born This Way, and to wonder where the follow-up singles to “Applause” were hiding. That aforementioned Terry Richardson video? It was a controversial mess, and never got released. Meanwhile, artists like Beyonce, Miley Cyrus and Lorde were earning raves for the cohesion and bold directions of their concurrently released projects.
So what did Gaga do, after the low point of that 2014 SXSW performance? She did not retreat, but flipped the script. She recorded a covers album with Tony Bennett that didn’t aim for the radio and ended up winning a GRAMMY. She crashed the 2015 Academy Awards with a Sound of Music medley and reminded everyone that she can really, really sing. She signed on to star in American Horror Story: Hotel, aligning herself with a progressive kindred spirit in Ryan Murphy. And most importantly, she stripped away the ostentation that had at first piqued our interests, but ended up distracting from her inherent charisma.
Ostensibly, Lady Gaga did two big things on Sunday night: She won a Golden Globe award for her role on American Horror Story: Hotel, and she confirmed that she is releasing a new album in 2016. The follow-up to ARTPOP will likely be highly anticipated, because Gaga has accrued enough organic wins over the past two years to remind casual listeners that she’s still a major talent.
Maybe her comeback plays out like Justin Bieber’s, where she precedes her record with a daring collaboration and then picks the right producers for her own project. Maybe she issues a lead single that blows everyone away, or drops a surprise album as lush and revealing as Beyonce’s self-titled LP. Maybe she does none of those things, and makes a move that leaves us incapable of comparing her to other artists. Over the course of her winding career, Gaga has proven that such a move is very possible for her—and that’s a rare form of excitement.
Gaga’s next act may be unpredictable, but one thing came across as she accepted her Golden Globe on Sunday night: the pop auteur will never be anything but refreshingly honest. Fighting back tears as she collected her first major acting award, Gaga thanked her family, compared herself to Cher, and spoke from the heart. The Golden Globes aren’t considered a “major” award, but to Gaga, who radiated warmth in her 90 seconds onstage, the win was an emotional triumph. It felt great to cheer her on, and why shouldn’t it? The comeback is coming along nicely, and Lady Gaga has kicked off a year in which we are all rooting for her again.