‘Cheek to Cheek’ by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

| Music Editor
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Did anyone ask for this? Anyone? You? You asked for this? Listen, I get it. It sounds crazy enough: a collaboration between Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, singing jazz standards no less. Surely, Gaga would bring some of her oddball art-pop sensibility to these timeworn tunes. Throw in Bennett’s lounge-singer-on-autopilot shtick (seriously, do they just take field recordings of the guy at this point?), call the thing “Cheek to Cheek” and the results would be nothing less than clinically insane. Right?

Not right. No, what these unlikeliest of partners have wrought is boring. Like when you turn on one of those Ken Burns rip-off joints about the Jazz Age on PBS and there’s some dinosaur rambling on about how things were different back then. Better. Simpler.

And that’s exactly what “Cheek to Cheek” tries to evoke: a time when jazz stirred up the controversy twerking does today, when Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby ruled the charts. As a time machine, it’s fairly successful. It certainly sounds like it was recorded 50 years ago. But why regurgitate the classics, beyond the simple fact that people love buying things they like in new packages?

Quoth Gaga (in a Twitter Q-and-A), “I hope to spread jazz to the younger generation, its joy, its authenticity. And to honor Mr. Tony Bennett.” Let’s break this down:

1. “I hope to spread jazz to the younger generation…” Kids don’t listen to jazz. Just as jazz displaced Tin Pan Alley pop, so did rock displace jazz (and hip-hop displace rock) as the dominant genre of America’s youth. For better or for worse, culture has evolved, and sticking your mug (topped with what I can only assume is one of Cher’s wigs from “Moonstruck”) on $15 worth of half-century-old retreads isn’t going to turn back time.

2. And if you’re truly looking to bring jazz to a younger audience, why not channel its endlessly inventive spirit? Why stick to its most conservative iteration? Make it weird. Make it yours. Throw out the orchestra and bring in Max Martin or Hudson Mohawke and blow it all into a million pieces. Would it be a disaster? Most likely, but at least it would make me feel something beyond vague disinterest.

3. “…its joy, its authenticity.” Ah, the age-old question: what does authenticity mean in the 21st century, where Lil B and Riff Raff turn performance art into minor celebrity, where genres and media bleed into one another like so many tributaries in the river of popular culture?

See, what Gaga’s done here is conflate “old” and “real.” Funny that she should fetishize the “good old days,” given her (once successful) efforts to sit at the forefront of modern pop. Or maybe it’s not funny at all. Maybe, this is simply the next stage in Gaga’s plan to mask her musical conservatism with gaudy outfits and ideas. Not this time, Gaga, not this time.

4. “And to honor Mr. Tony Bennett.” This is where the real problem lies. Gaga’s reverence for Bennett is clear in both the press she’s done for the album and the album itself; not a single hair on Bennett’s silver mane is tousled as Gaga sacrifices every ounce of her personality for the sake of fitting snugly into his staid aesthetic. But in morphing into a boilerplate cabaret chanteuse, Gaga commits the worst sin of artistic collaboration: she makes herself replaceable. Her anonymity is such that you could swap her with just about any of Bennett’s previous collaborators and the project wouldn’t be all that different.

In fact, it could only stand to benefit from an influx of personality. Gaga certainly seems to enjoy herself, but that doesn’t justify this utterly forgettable album’s release (as far as Bennett’s concerned, I’m pretty sure he has to sing jazz standards 24 hours a day or he’ll turn to dust, so you can’t really blame him).

But if “Cheek to Cheek”’s biggest fault is its function as sonic wallpaper, why not ignore it? Why not let Gaga and Bennett enjoy its one week of relevance before it’s buried in the dustbin of misguided curiosities? Because train wrecks are more interesting than fender benders, and this album won’t even release your air bags. Let’s hope stranger waters are ahead for Gaga. It’s time for her actions to match her talk.

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