Of all the events at this year’s Oscars, the one most anticipated was the tribute to The Sound of Music, the now fifty-year-old film based on the famous von Trapp family singers.
And of all people to present this classic musical, Lady Gaga, affectionately nicknamed “Mother Monster”—and best known for her rebellious anthems and provocative attire—is surely one of the most unexpected. Yet, present she did, as onlookers held their breath.
When the curtains rose, there she was, in a long elegant white gown, her blond hair perfectly coiffed—a vision, even, of grace. She proceeded to sing four of the film’s most-loved songs—“The Sound of Music, “My Favorite Things,” “Edelweiss,” and “Climb Every Mountain”—in perfect pitch, and with striking power. For five spellbinding minutes, she had the audience captivated, before bringing them to their feet. Julie Andrews then came onto the stage, visibly moved, and thanked an overwhelmed Lady Gaga.
As critic Daniel Montgomery wrote, “Whenever an awards show announces that an upcoming performance will be the moment we’ll talk about the next day, it never is, but you win, Oscars. That was a moment.”
This was the moment, indeed—and what some said could redefine her career. Rolling Stone said she had “climbed every high note” as she “belted out a gorgeous medley of songs from the film.” The mainstream Movieguide spoke of “Lady Gaga’s “surprisingly excellent tribute,” and even conservative talk show host Glen Beck called it “genius.” Perhaps most impressive, Maria von Trapp’s granddaughter, Elisabeth, described Lady Gaga’s performance as “exquisite.”
But not everyone was pleased. The hard-edged San Francisco Weekly complained that Lady Gaga had let her fans down by going soft, so to speak: “Secretly, we were hoping for some sort of LSD-laced reinvention of The Wizard of Oz,” they confessed, as if that would have gone over better. The performance “just made us sad,” the Weekly continued. “Sad that Lady Gaga didn’t present herself more creatively; with more pizzazz; more Gaga va-va-voom.”
It concluded: “Can someone please tell Gaga that she doesn’t have to be boring to be taken seriously? The Lady is at her finest when she’s pushing artistic and visual boundaries while making social statements in the form of excellent dance-pop hits.”
But can someone tell the avant-garde SF Weekly that the exact opposite might be true? As the tens of millions who watched the Oscars happily discovered, Lady Gaga excels, not only when she is “pushing artistic and visual boundaries,” but when she is raising classic art to new heights. Far from being “boring,” moreover, Gaga was the most riveting presence on stage that night. Nothing would have been more predictable than for a free-wheeling entertainer to show up and try to impose her own radical “interpretation” of The Sound of Music upon the audience. That Lady Gaga didn’t—and actually spent six months training with a daily vocal coach, to get the music just right—speaks to her artistic integrity. As Christopher Plummer, who played Captain von Trapp in the film, remarked: “She sang it so well in the style of the piece and she didn’t add any modern rock sounds. She did it straight and she has a lovely voice.”
Without overlooking her controversial videos, or calls for sexual liberation, it is worth noting Lady Gaga’s more conventional side—there is her Catholic upbringing, of course, and her recent album with Tony Bennett. She recently got engaged, and has always spoken well of her close-knit Italian Catholic family, as she now hopes to begin her own.
Whatever the future holds for Lady Gaga, we should not forget this “moment” at the Oscars—a moment of grace, a gleam of potential.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.