The next David Bowie?
It’s the knee-jerk reaction in culture to both pay homage to the icons and mint the new generation of greats by proclaiming today’s stars the second comings of their supernova forefathers.
The next Michael Jackson? At various times Usher, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, and Beyoncé have been in contention. Is Britney Spears the next Madonna? Is Selena Gomez the next Britney Spears? It’s a practice both frivolous and essential.
But the next David Bowie? How can there be a successor to someone so singular, so unique, so impossible to pinpoint and unabashedly weird—all the while so undeniably genius.
Lady Gaga may not be the next David Bowie. But if anyone can approximate the mood, the message, the spirit, and the stirring camp as the recently deceased icon, it’s the human and the alien in our Mother Monster, Lady Gaga.
Only one person can truly wear the lightning bolt. But occasionally lightning strikes twice.
It’s a testament to how fiercely we possess our affection for David Bowie that Gaga’s big, ambitious tribute at Sunday night’s Grammy Awards was met with such polarizing reaction on Twitter. For everyone 140-character fawning over Gaga’s tenacity and extraterrestrial talent in the loving salute, others found her drag and kitsch to border on blasphemous.
Of course, poking and prodding outrage and testing our tolerance for performance was a habit of Bowie’s. It’s fitting that such a raucous homage to his legacy at the Grammy Awards by the pop star with the most experience in the realm of instigating and provoking would elicit the same kind of reaction.
Let’s be clear, though. No one but Lady Gaga could have performed this tribute.
For sheer significance, there is no other artist today who engages with such glee the orchestration of new personas and the reinvention of identity.
No other artist embodies his legacy so richly and so poignantly, the idea that there is a safe space—either on this world or some other—for those of us who are “others,” whose spirits are louder than those around us are capable of hearing. No other artist so ferociously believed that pop culture is art. Heck, Gaga even once sang, to vague amount of sense, that “art’s in pop culture in me.”
So many pop stars would brazenly charge down the path Bowie trailblazed, where stylistic reinvention was essential, identity was fluid, and creative freedom flowed because of it. But none seemed to have been able to find the space ship at the end of that path. There’s no doubt Gaga did.
It’s probably why she took her Grammy performance so seriously. Before the ceremony started, she posted an Instagram video of herself crying while getting her Bowie makeup painted. She walked the red carpet in homage to him. And she crafted a meticulous, large-scale salute to the proprietor of the mothership.
She started with a stirring, technically precise few bars of “Space Oddity,” lighting effects washing some of the most iconic Bowie images over her face.
She then sped through a dizzying medley of Bowie’s hits. “Changes,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Suffragette City,” “Let’s Dance,” “Heroes,” and more: each one stoking an eruption of giddy applause from the audience, each one fading to the next hit all-too-quickly—Gaga barely had time to get into the groove before it was on to the next.
She peacocked and pranced and strutted and boogied. Her vocals were flawless. Her wardrobe channeled Ziggy Stardust, the performance styled to the Aladdin Sane album. There were robotic legs, a dancing mechanical keyboard, and psychedelic lights. And there was Bowie.
There was Bowie’s joy. His exuberant weirdness. There was scale and spectrum and ambition, all of it at once scattershot and meticulous. It was queer and cheesy and 100 percent committed by Gaga.
Perhaps some of Bowie’s menacing darkness was missing in what was ultimately a passionate celebration.
At times the homage more closely resembled an over-grinned American Idol finale performance than a serious Bowie tribute. (A little camp goes a long way.) But there was something endearing and special—and yes, perhaps even singular—to what Gaga managed to accomplish with her underrated talents and, more importantly, her love.
It’s been and will continue to be a huge month and a half for Lady Gaga.
Her transformation into “serious actress” earned her a Golden Globe award for her performance in American Horror Story: Hotel. She performed a rousing rendition of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, all the while staying true to the spirit of her unabashed queerness and weirdness. She is nominated and will appear at the Oscars in two weeks. And she just gave one of the most talked about performances at the Grammys.
She’s done it all with a mix of glamour and grit, a commitment to embodying her authentic, most unusual self while still challenging our norms and even her own boundaries. She’s employed the theater of her imagination to stop the show, if for no one else at least for herself.
“I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring,” Bowie once said. I like to think that maybe he’s given Lady Gaga that map.