I admitted last week that I was eagerly awaiting Lady Gaga’s appearance on Saturday Night Live this past weekend, and for a little while, it seemed she was going to let me down. Her first song (the much higher-profile of the two performances, obviously), was a mostly dialed-in version of “Paparazzi,” a song I find somewhat terrible under normal circumstances and completely infuriating when presented in a way that accentuates what is surely one of the more grating vocal performances in recent pop music.
For her second performance, though, buried somewhere around 12:50am, she did a medley of her earlier singles, snippets of a new song called “Bad Romance,” and some other stuff that I’ll get to in a minute.
To start, she stands in the center of the stage, wrapped inside a contraption consisting of a half a dozen or so concentric, moving circles. It doesn’t seem to be functioning properly, and it’s hard not to laugh. At one point it looks like she gets hit in the head, and it’s impossible not to laugh. It takes her a second to regain her composure. Even as she tries to sit at the piano bench, she struggles, the circles making it difficult for her to get comfortable. The music stops. She tries to adjust the microphone, which she’s having a hard time accessing because of the circles. She gets settled, flashes a smile and quickly gets back into what at this point I think we can call character. She starts to play piano and sings a verse of “Bad Romance,” before stopping abruptly, taking off her sunglasses, placing them on top of the piano and saying, calmly, almost sheepishly, “Hello, SNL.”
She continues with the “Bad Romance” chorus, now a bit more upbeat, and you immediately know it’s going to be a massive hit. She stops, though, and goes into another new song, which I assume was written specifically for the occasion: “Born in New York, in Lenox Hill of ’86/Cheered for the Yankees with my dad in Section 6./And after traveling, just dancing round the world/I still prefer a beer and whiskey with my friends on Rivington street.”
She’s killing it on the piano as she segues into a stripped down version of “Poker Face.” She’s done it like this before, but it’s a little weirder this time, somehow more aware of itself.
Then she stops again, smiles at the crowd and goes back to singing about New York, this time over a fast-moving, playful piano line. She misses the pretty girls, the cheap hot dogs on 72nd street. She sings, now slower, “I was just a waitress on Cornelia, now I’m living my dreams, baby, singing ’bout my poker face.” The piano speeds up again, she screams “New York!” and ends with the long, delightfully drawn out declaration that “It’s Saturday night.”
It is, hands down, the single strangest performance I’ve ever seen on Saturday Night Live, and I’d even venture to say it’s one of the best. Aside from the fact that she’s finally succeeded in making every single thing she does a major pop culture event (which is essentially what she’s been threatening all along) there’s something about the way her stupid contraption seemed to be broken, and how she fought through it—confidently, but not smoothly enough that you didn’t know she was fighting it–that’s becoming more and more endearing. That the very same person, the same victim of poor taste and even worse execution, could sit down at a piano a minute later and proceed to subvert so much of what playing SNL is supposed to be about, in a way that doesn’t seem particularly offensive or bratty is even more impressive. From breaking through the fourth wall and addressing the audience, or stopping to fiddle with her sunglasses, to playing a brand new song and one seemingly thrown together in a few minutes before the show—the whole thing could almost be considered disrespectful. And maybe it was (or maybe it would have been if SNL hadn’t known exactly what was going to happen, which I’m sure they did), but it was also celebratory and, in its own way, extremely gracious, cognizant of the night’s importance. It’s like she took a break from being Lady Gaga, a quick breather to give thanks and recognize what she’s accomplished. It would have been the least strange thing we’ve ever seen her do had she not done it on one of the biggest stages in all of pop music.