Should Lady Gaga be the one to pay tribute to David Bowie?

By Stacia L. Brown

Pop star, Lady Gaga. Photo / AP
Pop star, Lady Gaga. Photo / AP

After the dust settles on the disconcerting news of a celebrity's death, one of the things fans begin to wonder is: Who will pay him adequate public tribute? Before long, awards shows - with their inevitable "In Memoriam" montages - spring to mind.

Depending on the show and the scale of the deceased's fame, a slideshow photo may not be enough. The star may also receive a stand-alone tribute - but in those cases, the tribute tends to fall short of fan expectations.

When Michael Jackson died, Chris Brown paid him a serviceable tribute at the 2010 BET Awards, but as a solo singer-dancer, it would have been impossible for him to live up to Jackson's mythos. When Whitney Houston died, Jennifer Hudson sang I Will Always Love You at the 2012 Grammys, a performance that was deeply affecting but also not quite enough somehow. When Celia Cruz died, Jennifer Lopez paid her tribute at the 2013 American Music Awards, and that - while quite the spectacle - didn't begin to sufficiently capture Cruz's cultural impact.

No matter the performer, fans want the performance to somehow reflect the enormity of what they've lost. And when the loss exceeds mere music, when the departed changed the very fabric of his or her generation's music, a truly satisfying tribute simply isn't possible, no matter the talent who undertakes the task.

This week, the Grammy Awards announced that Lady Gaga will perform its David Bowie tribute - alone. It's clear why she was chosen: Like Bowie, Gaga went through an extended phase of dressing "oddly," and by example, making clear for people that it's OK to embrace their awkwardness and their sadness and their distinct imperfections.

She made dresses of raw meat, veiled her face, wore body stockings under ornate, structured costumes. And then she pivoted, marcelled her hair and began appearing everywhere with legendary crooner Tony Bennett in support of their duet albums. She, like Bowie, knew when to pivot. She, like Bowie, represented liberation to fans who needed freedom anthems.

The late musician, David Bowie. Photo / AP
The late musician, David Bowie. Photo / AP

But there are other artists who shared the singer's eccentric rebelliousness and, given the enormity of his impact, at least one more of them should be sharing the tribute stage. This is one instance in which a tribute would be far better served with more than one performer participating, though if the Grammys must go with just one, my vote would have been for someone a bit older, one of Bowie's contemporaries, a fellow old-school convention-bucker: Grace Jones.

Where Gaga is a rather on-the-nose choice, Jones would have been a more inspired one. Fans have made aesthetic connections between Bowie and Jones for years, mashing up their songs and creating art that fuses their faces. Jones once covered the Iggy Pop/David Bowie-penned track, Nightclubbing. And in her 60s, she continues to defy expectation - just as Bowie did until his death two days before the release of his final, haunting, characteristically unusual album.

Bowie didn't campaign for the merits of being different. He didn't live or perform as though he were being emulated. That wasn't a responsibility that marked or guided his style or behaviour - onstage or off. His evolution, as much as it inspired generations, was his own.

His growth was his own. As deliberately crafted as his personas were, he didn't seem to relish being esoteric. He just wasn't much like other people; no effort to be so different from us was ever visible. All the same is true of Jones, and if anyone could pay him fitting tribute, by doing something entirely unexpected yet wholly authentic, it would be her.

Musician Grace Jones.
Musician Grace Jones.

For a decent Bowie tribute, musicianship wouldn't be all that would be honored. It would also be his decades of cultural impact, the permission his caprice and his strangeness seemed to grant those who strained at the confines of social mores and normalcy.

No single young or trendy performer is going to embody that quality in Bowie. Indeed a host of performers may not have even nailed it. But the Grammys could have gazed a bit farther beyond the box than Lady Gaga in their attempt.

- Washington Post

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