Sorry, Doritos, T-Mobile, and Audi, but the Lady Gaga brand left you all in the dust during Super Bowl 50. It might be crass to think of her emotional National Anthem rendition as an advertisement, and, strictly speaking, her appearance was not an ad in the same way we think of a paid placement. But make no mistake: within 2 minutes and 30 seconds, she re-interpreted her personal brand for a global audience by demonstrating she can capture our attention through the power of her voice alone instead of through elaborate costumes and staging.
And she did so the old-fashioned way: through performance.
The past few years have not been always kind to the Lady Gaga brand. She has endured her share of withering press largely because her 2013 album ARTPOPfailed to match the commercial and critical success of its predecessors. Her baroque video productions and songs have been laughed at for veering into the realm of self-parody. Over the past few years, Kat George has written of “The Slow and Bitter End of Lady Gaga’s Career” in Noisey, Matt Miller of HeyReverb has discussed “How We All Become Bored” with Lady Gaga, and Lauren Duca of The Huffington Post has asked, “Lady Gaga Was the Biggest Pop Star in the World. What Happened?” — to cite a few examples of the blowback she has endured.
Never mind that from 2013–15, supposedly a period of decline, she has been ranked consistently among Forbes’s highest-earning musicians. For the past three years, she has earned $172 million according to Forbes, with most of her money coming from touring as well as commercial ventures such as her Fame fragrance.
But here’s the problem with branding: perception can be reality. For every dollar she’s earned, she has encountered the “Yes, but” from the pop cognoscenti. Yes, she makes millions from touring — but she’s simply playing off her already-established fan base instead of winning over a new audience, answer the critics. Yes, she creates a Grammy award-winning album with Tony Bennett, Cheek to Cheek in 2014 — but she’s interpreting pop standards instead of writing new material, the naysayers respond.
Lady Gaga has outflanked her critics by taking her case directly to a broader audience well beyond her core base of Little Monsters, as she affectionately calls her fans. For example, in 2015, she turned heads with a vocal tribute to The Sound of Music at the Academy Awards. At the time, her delivery showcased her singing talent over her oftentimes-controversial theatrics.
But the Super Bowl is another matter. The Academy Awards have a smaller, more narrowly defined audience (although 37 million viewers for the 2015 Oscars ain’t bad). By contrast, Super Bowl 50 was watched by nearly 112 million people around the world — and a far broader audience that includes outliers whose enduring impression of Lady Gaga is the meat dress she wore on television six years ago.
She was considered to be a controversial choice to sing the National Anthem given her flamboyant reputation. But as it would turn out, her rendition challenged perceptions. The National Anthem is notoriously difficult to sing, and many performers are simply happy to sing the patriotic hymn without screwing it up. But Lady Gaga, attired in a simple red Gucci pantsuit, delivered a soaring performance worthy of a Gospel choir. She not only nailed the high notes perfectly but also caressed them, and she invoked drama through her phrasing and pacing until she brought the song to an emotional end.
Before the Super Bowl even began, social media exploded with largely reactions from astonished viewers, including a firestorm on Twitter, which was significant because social media reflects a more democratic reaction beyond the filter of professional journalism. Even rough-and-tumble Reddit users had kind words.
But journalists also fell over themselves to describe the moment, ranging from Patrick Ryan of USA Today (“Touchdown, Lady Gaga!”) to CNN’s Melonyce McAfee (“Lady Gaga Nails National Anthem at Super Bowl 50”). Her more subdued (for her) look had its desired impact: both CNN and USA Today focused on the quality of her vocal delivery, as did most of the national and regional news media. As Troy Smith of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote,
Anyone who doubted Lady Gaga’s vocal chops heading into the Super Bowl 50 national anthem was (A) foolish to begin with and (B) proven completely wrong.
With one performance, she demonstrated that her success is rooted in an enduring talent. And by relying on the Super Bowl, she literally sang over her critics and took her case to 112 million people.
There are more moments to come: she has performances scheduled at the Grammy Awards and the Academy Awards again, making her the first musician to perform at the Super Bowl, Grammy Awards, and Oscars in one year. And with a new album coming later in 2016, the trifecta is no coincidence.
The Lady Gaga brand is not only looking strong, but deep.
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