Lady Gaga is many things, and many words come to mind when attempting to describe her. Lately, the word or quality that I would most closely associate with her career would be “frustrating”. As appealing as she can be, there’s so much about her reputation that I simply don’t buy. Firstly, I do not buy into the notion that Lady Gaga is avant-garde. Those who label her as such apparently were in an extended coma during the late 90s when Madonna and Bjork were coloring and expanding the image of the modern pop star in exactly the same way. Secondly, I see no angle that would bring me to the conclusion that Lady Gaga is revolutionizing pop music itself. Lest we forget, her career is as a musician. No amount of beef entrails sewn into a pantsuit is going to change the fact that her songs are standard, essentially unsophisticated radio hits. But whichever way you slice it, Lady Gaga is a massive phenomenon that will likely be around for while, no matter how many times I have to roll my eyes before I admit it.
So, in 2014, when Lady Gaga’s cultural footprint is as deep as ever, how could she think to reinvent her career in a new, surprising way? If your first inclination was: “record a jazz album with Tony Bennett”…then you’d be absolutely right. Her latest effort, Cheek to Cheek, is a collection of jazz covers, sung with Bennett, ranging in source material from lounge music to to jazz to musical theater. Ok, yes, we get it; this is definitely a different direction for Gaga. But gimmick aside, how is the music? And more importantly, how is her singing?
The most noticeable problem with the album, which is exemplified in the opening track, “Anything Goes”, is that Gaga clearly put very little thought into what any of these songs are actually about. “Anything Goes,” the title track from Cole Porter’s 1934 musical, is a cheeky, sexy, naughty little number (for the era, anyway) about how “times have changed” and that, of course, “anything goes” in the rowdy, prurient modern world. Gaga’s rendition is bafflingly off the mark. Her phrasing is jarring and all over the place. Every time her vocals kick in between instrumental breaks, it sounds like she’s singing a different song. Notably on this track, she’s also straining to sing outside her natural range. It’s hard to embrace the bawdy double entendre of the lyrics when you’re teetering on head-voice the entire time. As with most of what she does, much of this music just ultimately feels superficial. It’s designed to inspire a fundamental effect rather than to be moving in any authentic way. Her teased-out wig on the album’s cover should have been the first tip off.
Some songs, however, actually seem to suit Gaga pretty well. The title track is the perfect mix of the material and Gaga’s personality, and is one of the few times where she and Bennett sound like they are actually singing a duet. Other tracks (like “Anything Goes”) feel like the two were recording on different planets let alone in the same room. Unfortunately for the two singers, who are both undeniably talented, none of the eleven tracks are ever going to be great because the arrangements just do not pop. There are flurries of interesting instrumentation, but overall the music never lays foot outside the category of “background music.”
But this project, at least on Gaga’s part, seems to be a concerted effort to remind the world, “oh, right, she can actually sing too,” of which it does a decent job. Lady Gaga has a good voice. She doesn’t have a great voice, and probably not one memorable enough to carry a career on without her colorful public persona, but generally her actual chops as a singer don’t disappoint. Again, the issue is how she interprets the songs and the way she sings them. The tenor of each rendition seems to be “I’m a jazz singer right now, I should sing like I think jazz singers sing.” Sometimes this works better than others.
One stand out track here is their interpretation of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy”. After the notable cover version by David Bowie for the “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack, this iteration is still able to breathe new life into the song. However affected her performance may be, Gaga actually nails the soft, breathy, mysterious qualities of the song. And she is a great compliment to Bennett here.
So, she did it. She surprised us all. And the end product is definitely not awful. But the surprise lies mostly in its concept, musically there’s nothing outstanding here. This album is not unlike Lady Gaga herself – once you cut through the novelty of it all, there’s not a ton that’s that terribly interesting underneath.