16 min read

In Vegas, Lady Gaga Mounts a Classy Tribute to a Late Friend

I know it's too late for a Q3 catchup but that's what this is
In Vegas, Lady Gaga Mounts a Classy Tribute to a Late Friend

The other day, Lady Gaga was spotted out and about in New York City to help promote “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” her collaboration with the Rolling Stones on their new album, Hackney Diamonds. In response, a number of Little Monsters remarked on social media that the Gaga “drought” was finally over, or at the very least seemed to be letting up.

I get what was meant by this—it’s been three and a half years since her last solo studio album, Chromatica (2020)—but it did make me feel a little insane because, to say nothing of all the other work she’s released in the past few years (a remix album, a collaborative album, a movie, a soundtrack album for a different movie, and more), it was only weeks ago that she performed one of the most meaningful live shows of my life.

During the weekend that September became October, I caught one of the last shows of Gaga’s most recent Jazz & Piano leg in Las Vegas. I’d always considered Jazz & Piano one of those “of interest but not urgency” experiences, figuring that it would be around indefinitely—and in fairness to me, she’s been doing it for half a decade on and off at this point. But when tickets went back on sale in the weeks after Tony Bennett’s death, some other force took hold and I panic-bought a couple. Worst-case, we can sell them, I told Scott, or we can fly in just for that evening. (He works a job that is real.) He surprised me, however, by not only having us hold onto them but insisting we make a real long weekend out of it, grabbing a couple other tickets to one of those burlesque/acrobatics shows the city is known for (hereafter “the booby show”) and making a few dinner reservations. He’d never been to Vegas, and I’d been there only once as a teenager with my parents and sister. (I honestly don’t remember why we specifically chose Vegas. Mom, when you get this in your inbox, can you remind me why we went to Vegas?)

Outside the Dolby Live theatre in the Park MGM Hotel, where Gaga has performed her residency throughout its run, there’s a merch shop/exhibit spanning her recording career. It’s mostly costumes or pieces of them, like her blue bodysuit from “Poker Face” (2008) and a taxidermized Meat Dress, but there are a couple other oddities: one of her keytars, one of her Golden Globes, the egg in which she entered the 2011 Grammys. When we first arrived at the hotel on the Friday evening, exhausted from the two flights and especially the shock of the desert heat upon landing, the exhibit was closed for the night. We’d get our fill of it the next day, but in the meantime I stared at the back of the headpiece from “Telephone” (2010) through the glass and felt my eyes well up with tears. Here it was from the front:

Vegas is one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever been to, and possibly more generally on the planet. That opinion is one I came home with ten years ago, but it somehow felt more correct through adult eyes and on the other side of the Trump era. (I say this at least in part because the Trump International Hotel looms in an unsettling and pretty obnoxious way—it’s huge and gold—over the Vegas Strip.) Everyone I’ve ever met there has been super nice and I happened to moan through every meal on this visit to the city, but it doesn’t take too many mental gymnastics to picture it as somewhere thousands of dreams have gone to die. Our hotel room seemed to vibrate a little from loud music being played elsewhere in the neighbourhood. At least five families we encountered had brought their newborn babies to the Strip. It’s also a pretty lawless land in terms of alcohol, so we at one point walked around a mall looking for souvenir shirts for our niece and her unborn sibling while drinking BuzzBallz. (We don’t have those in Canada, and I learned of them through Britney Spears a few months ago.) The last thing to include in this paragraph, probably, is that everyone in Vegas seemed to be named Kevin, from one bartender we had before the booby show to the guy who gave me the impromptu second ear piercings I’d been talking about getting since I was a preteen. (I got to hold my BuzzBall.)    

I mention all of the above because Jazz & Piano explicitly concerns itself with a very different period and understanding of the city. The costume vibe is feathers and satin and beading, and the Vegas being recalled is that of Marilyn and Frank and Dean (as per the interludes the play while Gaga swaps outfits). Miss Germanotta gracefully toes the line between “bygone-era jazz diva” and “foul-mouthed pop star,” two of her many modes; any sinning invoked/evoked in this particular Sin City show has to strike the right balance between the two, never leaning too hard into one at the expense of the other. So, there’s lots of gambling and mob talk, tattoos poke through her costumes, she flirts with people of all genders in the crowd, and she downs multiple glasses of brown liquor (in one case, in a matter of seconds) for our entertainment. At the same time, this universe does not feel like one that knows about BuzzBallz, if that makes sense.  

Despite it being one of the main motivators behind my buying tickets, I wasn’t sure how strongly the spectre of Tony Bennett would feature in the show. Sitting in the crowd waiting for things to start, I flipped through the Playbill and found that it was largely a tribute to the late crooner. Here are a couple pages out of it:

Most of the songs that played during this pre-show period (if not every song, but I have no way of checking) were Tony’s—and not necessarily his better-known ones. It was stuff like “Because of You” (his first huge hit) but also “Hushabye Mountain,” a song he actually released before Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and its soundtrack came out. It was then his own voice that technically introduced Gaga at the beginning of the set—“Ladies and gentlemen, the incredible Lady Gaga”—when she came out dressed in full showgirl garb to perform “Luck Be a Lady.” Bennett would be mentioned by name only a couple times during the show. But for the knowing audience member—*raises hand*—his spirit was noticeably pumped into the entire thing.

The format of Jazz & Piano is as follows: there are four or so acts, broken up by either an interlude or a band-only stretch, and each act has its own costume. Gaga continually resets with jazz numbers performed while standing/swaying/swinging, then eventually migrates over to the piano to play stripped-down versions of her own songs—“Poker Face,” “Born This Way,” “Stupid Love,” “Paparazzi,” and “Bad Romance.” Every Gaga show involves piano, it’s just that the instrument in question isn’t typically a gleaming white Steinway & Sons. It has, depending on the moment, been a fire pit, a Rolls Royce, an evil tree, and other things along those lines.

In terms of the jazz stuff, there were several songs that have been on past iterations of the setlist—“Rags to Riches,” a song Bennett first recorded; “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Lush Life,” which both appeared on their first album together, Cheek to Cheek (2014); and “Do I Love You,” which appeared on their second and final one, Love for Sale (2021). Others were first recorded or popularized by Bennett’s friends, from Rosemary Clooney (a pre-fame friend) to Dean Martin, and Dinah Washington to (most notably) Frank Sinatra.   

But there was a lot of intention behind the new setlist additions in particular. “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” was originally sung by Fred Astaire in Easter Parade (1948), but it’s also the song via which Bennett made his big MTV comeback in 1993, when the video (starring Jose and Luis Xtravaganza from the House of Xtravaganza) used to play all the time on Buzz Bin. “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” was a new inclusion from Cheek to Cheek. “O sole mio” is a song that Bennett recorded on at least one occasion—not to mention a classic for any music enjoyer, to say nothing of being an Italian girl from New York—but indeed a tune that meant a lot to him personally, as it was a favourite of his father’s. In The Zen of Bennett (2012), a wonderful documentary about Tony that I should really revisit, you can watch him sing it from a hilltop in his ancestral Calabrian village.

Most emotionally, though, Gaga sang “Fly Me to the Moon,” the Sinatra classic. Past Jazz & Piano legs have featured it, but she did something this time around that I don’t believe she’d done previously, which was abandon her microphone for a portion of the song. As I’ve written before, Bennett tried to do that once per set on principle, to emphasize that the technology itself was an option for him; he could fill any performance space with his unaided voice if he wanted to. He chose “Fly Me to the Moon” for that moment during his 1994 MTV Unplugged set, which Gaga may have caught on TV as an eight-year-old. I couldn’t bring myself to record her singing her own version because I wanted to let it simply wash over me, and it was the stretch where I’d say I came closest to losing my cool.

What was interesting about all this new stuff was that she didn’t explain any of it (and there was a lot that was explained of her vision in the interludes and onstage monologuing). In fact, there were a couple seconds of audible confusion in my audience when her voice suddenly stopped coming through her mic. (Here’s what the performance looks like, by the way.) The set was arguably made much more powerful as a result: she paid tribute to her recently deceased friend not with any sort of sappy display but by winking every so often at those in the know. And I think Bennett probably would have liked that. I’m positive he would have liked the age range in the room, and how young the younger end of that range got; that was always his stated mission as far as enjoyment of the Great American Songbook, and one Gaga has already proven herself quite capable of carrying forward.

I left the Dolby Live feeling renewed in my admiration for both artists. And we proceeded to walk around that weird-as-shit city discussing how Gaga is strangely taken for granted as an all-around performer, somehow—including by fans, who can be especially hard on her for not being the exact artist she was at 25. I think she’s made fascinating work of weaving the jazz-diva thread alongside everything else she’s done since that first Born This Way (2011)-era performance of “Orange Colored Sky,” after which Bennett asked to meet her backstage. There’s no good reason to believe she would ever totally drop that thread, but, unlike certain others out there, I’m also not sure there’s any good reason she should.

And now for the official Q3 recap...

🧐 Out as of September is Broad Sound: Volume One, a cool anthology of arts and culture essays that I copy edited. As the journal’s editor, my friend Ethan Warren (remember him?), writes in his introduction: “I extended an invitation that was more like a creative blank check: what essay would you love to write but doubt you could find a home for anywhere else?” The eventual pieces include (but aren’t limited to) an analysis of musical theatre in the world of The Simpsons and a meditation on the Rothko Chapel in Houston (a favourite of the Knowleses).

The books section: I’m still working on Britney’s The Woman in Me (heartbreaking!) and the two new Madonna books—Michael Dango’s 33 1/3 on Erotica (fandom-affirming) and Mary Gabriel’s Madonna: A Rebel Life (overwhelming, i.e. ~800 pages)—but aside from those…

  • I came into a copy of Jim DeRogatis’s Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly (2019, or 2022 for the updated and expanded edition that I read) at some point last year, and used a vaguely related research project as an excuse to read it over three or four days in August. (I don’t necessarily recommend inhaling it like that, but I knew if I put it down I probably wouldn’t pick it back up.) It’s meticulously reported and very disturbing, the details of the story maybe more heinous than the average person realizes, but I’ve also found myself describing it to people as one of the best de facto journalism memoirs I’ve ever read. As much as it’s about Kelly, it’s about DeRogatis spending more than two decades on a beat—the emotional toll that can take on a person, and how his life still had to happen in tandem with the whole thing
  • I can’t recommend Andrew Chan’s new book, Why Mariah Carey Matters, enough—beautifully written in addition to everything else, where I was dog-earing passages I wanted to revisit as early as the first page. Can’t really speak for the Lambily, but I found it a perfect read as someone only kind of familiar with Mariah’s work at the time of starting it. And I’d say that it’s maybe also quietly (quietly!) in conversation with Beyoncé’s Renaissance (2022), concerned as it is with things like Mariah’s relationship to remixes (including house remixes), the online and IRL communities that can spring up around a diva’s work, and her status as a career-long collector and reworker of Black music past
  • I also really enjoyed my friend Adam Nayman’s It Doesn’t Suck (2013), a critical study/reappraisal of Showgirls (1995) that’s largely about our cultural tendency to reappraise things. I watched the film for the first time (more on this below) so that I could read it on my Vegas plane rides

📝 Ahead of the VMAs in September, I wrote an explainer on Toronto-born artist Petra Collins—director of Olivia Rodrigo’s “vampire,” which was up for six awards that night—for CBC Arts. A screenshot of one paragraph went viral, and that’s all I’ll say about that. I first pitched the piece and had it accepted way back in January, when Miley Cyrus stans were convinced that Petra had directed “Flowers.” It turned out that she had not, but I’d already done so much research on Petra—I’ve also been a fan of hers literally since high school—that my editor let me circle back whenever we did get our timely music video hook. So huge thanks to Miss Rodrigo for those two GUTS (2023) collabs.  

The film section:

  • I’ve somehow only just caught up with Fantasia (1940), a movie that no adult in my life ever showed me or had lying around growing up, so that’s why. I think I’d have sought it out earlier if I’d realized what it actually was, which is to say: music videos. Turns out I’m more attached to the Nutcracker suite than I’d realized
  • The Arnold docuseries on Netflix is a fascinating PR masterclass (read: decidedly not a work of third-party investigative journalism; here’s a great piece on some of the specifics), and curiously uses a lot of the same strategies as the average pop star doc to tell Arnold Schwarzenegger’s story exactly how he wants it told. But it’s especially fascinating because he warns you up front that he’s a master image maker, then dares you to not buy into—or at least let yourself be a little romanced by—his various stints as Athlete, Actor, and American (those are the episode titles)
  • Showgirls! I can’t stop thinking about Showgirls. Was Gaga’s look in “The Edge of Glory” (2011) a reference to it? And what of those weeks leading up to her first announcing her Vegas residency back in 2017?
  • Meg 2: The Trench was exactly what I needed it to be <3
  • I also saw the Eras Tour movie in theatres. *Annoying voice* more of a filmed concert than a concert film, but I had fun for a solid two of the three (!) hours. More on this a couple newsletters from now, potentially  

🎙 I’ve gotten to watch several other new-to-me films for recent podcast appearances. In October, Little White Lies had me on Truth & Movies to talk about the Jamie Foxx-starring The Burial as well as two Matt Johnson films, The Dirties (2013) and this year’s BlackBerry. More recently, I was finally given a good reason to watch Labyrinth (1986) for the first time to talk David Bowie and the movie’s official novelization on Authorized. I can’t believe I’m still working on the big Bowie deep dive I started forever ago—I’m currently in 1995, for what it’s worth—but it was great to see and discuss Labyrinth with every bit of context behind it. I love context!

The music section: My current music listening straddles two spheres for the most part: Operation Tie Up That Taylor Swift Project, For God’s Sake and Operation Clear Tidal Queue Because That, Too, Has Gotten Ridiculous. A couple recent albums I’ve enjoyed a lot are Troye Sivan’s Something To Give Each Other and Cleo Sol’s Heaven. A couple less recent ones I’ve enjoyed are David Bowie’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1995) and Janet Jackson’s janet. (1993) (since Janet is another open case file—been having a lot of fun with that one).

📝 Sometime in the spring or early summer, I was connected with a very cool Toronto woman named Nan Devitt Tremblay. Nan helped get FashionTelevision—a show I grew up watching and trying to learn from as an industry-obsessed teenager—off the ground in the mid-1980s, when she’d decided to spend a decade or so living in Paris with her growing family. Content to be a mostly invisible player in the program’s story for a long time, she recently decided to finally “claim a seat for [herself] in the metaphorical front row.” And it was an honour to get to profile her and that decision for CBC Arts last month.  

The video section: I’m still trying to figure out what I should do with these 2023 video-watching records at year’s end, so let me know if you have any ideas. In the meantime, here are some faves from the last few months:

  • Elton John’s “Original Sin” (2002), directed by David LaChapelle (yet another open case file) and starring Mandy Moore as a teenager transported to the 1970s by John’s music (with Elizabeth Taylor as a co-star!)
  • Tiny Jag’s “Princess Angelou” (2022), a video that’s doing a lot of cool stuff with relatively little
  • Between Friends & Teezo Touchdown’s “Redlight” (2023), whose concept endeared it to me by default  
  • Olivia Rodrigo’s “Get Him Back” (2023), which felt to me like a triumphant release-week moment 
  • Jungle’s “Back on 74” (2023), the Jungle video that got me to watch all of Jungle’s videos back-to-back in a single sitting the other day… has anyone else out there been Jungle-pilled?
  • I’ve recently caught up with Nemahsis, a Palestinian-Canadian pop singer and fellow Torontonian whose quieter cover of Lorde’s “Team” you may have heard/seen when Bella Hadid and Lorde herself shared it recently. She won the Hi-Fidelity Award—for being “consistently creative and innovative” visually—during this year’s Prism Prize ceremony, and this is a great one-stop to both read more about her/the award and to watch her videos, which are excellent

📺 Also in October, I got to make my official TV debut on CBC’s The National, one of Canada’s nightly news programs. The segment itself—written by Jenna Benchetrit, who’d interviewed me earlier this year about how social media is changing stadium tours—was about Taylor Swift and Beyoncé both having concert films coming to theatres, and the implications of that for both fans and the theatrical industry. The piece was only a couple minutes long in total, but a bit more of our conversation appears in the text version of Jenna’s story.  

The life section: This fall has been A Lot for many reasons, so I’ve been really grateful for the more therapeutic/restorative stuff I’ve been up to—cooking up a storm, watching four friends get married (and spending a week in beautiful Nova Scotia for one of those weddings), hearing my two-year-old niece’s Darth Vader impersonation (!), screaming my lungs out on the Big Apple Coaster in Vegas, and seeing Shania Twain in her kooky wig era with my mom and sister.

📝 I was kindly asked by Chris Cassingham, a programmer I’ve been connected with forever at this point, to write the programme notes for an October screening of Amanda Kramer’s Give Me Pity! (2022) at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. The film is partly a send-up of musical variety specials from the 1970s and 1980s—a format that used to be more par for the course for diva types in pop, kept alive these days by only a few—and, having spent quite a bit of time with those this year for one of my research projects, I ended up putting a lot of love and research into my notes on the film. My hope is that people will have some fun with the footnotes in particular.

The Roy section (hereafter to be integrated into The life section, probably): Maybe a year and a half ago, I started joking whenever tipsy about the theoretical dog I wanted to have one day named Roy (which I generally find a funny name for a dog, but it’s also what Goldie Hawn won’t stop calling her “son” Travis in Overboard [1987] because she has amnesia—just a bit I’ve always really enjoyed). The joke then at some point became “my Weimaraner Roy” because I liked the idea of having a big dog a couple years out, or whenever we did decide to get him. Unbeknownst to me, Scott secured my Weimaraner Roy sometime in September, and then surprised me in mid-October holding him (wrapped up in a bow) in our doorway.

Roy is a full-time job at the moment, as three-month-old puppies tend to be—if you know, you know—but he’s taking well to our lifestyle so far. By which I mean: he’s very good at watching music videos with me every morning, and he seems to find Ice Spice especially mesmerizing, as is his right. ●

Mononym Mythology is a music video culture newsletter by me, Sydney Urbanek, where I write about mostly pop stars and their visual antics.

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