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Lady Gaga’s American Horror Story Performance Is Her Greatest Reinvention Yet

5 minute read

About two years ago, Lady Gaga looked defeated. The singer had staked her reputation on Artpop, her 2013 album that was intended—as she kept telling her fans—less as a collection of songs than as a statement of purpose. The only problem? Consumed with big ideas about fame, Lady Gaga had forgotten what actually made her famous. Sure, her outlandish costuming kept people talking, but only after they’d started talking about her classically built songs. Artpop lacked a smash-hit single or, really, any tunefulness at all; critics shrugged and the album underperformed.

What happened over the next two years, after the Artpop fizzle, is a master class in reinvention. The singer went back to basics, releasing an album of jazz duets with Tony Bennett (for which she won a Grammy) and performing with full-throated drama-kid vocals at the Oscars. There’s something inspiring about her resourcefulness; a star who was once so successful that she could enlist Beyoncé as her supporting act sees her peak of fame in the rear-view mirror, but refuses to go quietly without trying every possible remedy.

But for the umpteenth time in the past couple of years, Gaga is doing something entirely new. She’s appearing as an actress on American Horror Story, whose season premiere airs Wednesday night. None of these things directly relate to Gaga’s career as a pop performer in the vein of Beyoncé, Katy Perry, or Taylor Swift. But all of them add to the sense that she may just grow up to be the thing her generation didn’t know it needed: An all-around entertainer.

See the Characters of American Horror Story: Hotel

American Horror Story Hotel Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga as The Countess. Frank Ockenfels—FX
American Horror Story Hotel Kathy Bates
Kathy Bates as Iris.Frank Ockenfels—FX
American Horror Story Hotel Angela Bassett
Angela Bassett as Ramona. Frank Ockenfels—FX
American Horror Story Matt Bomer
Matt Bomer as Donovan.Frank Ockenfels—FX
American Horror Story Finn Wittrock
Finn Wittrock as Tristan Duffy.Frank Ockenfels—FX
American Horror Story Sarah Paulson
Sarah Paulson as Sally.Frank Ockenfels—FX
American Horror Story Wes Bentley
Wes Bentley as John Lowe.Frank Ockenfels—FX
American Horror Story Cheyenne Jackson
Cheyenne Jackson as Will Drake. Frank Ockenfels—FX
American Horror Story Chloe Sevigny
Chloe Sevigny as Alex Lowe.Frank Ockenfels—FX
American Horror Story Hotel Denis O' Hare
Denis O'Hare as Liz TaylorFrank Ockenfels—FX
American Horror Story Evan Peters
Evan Peters as Mr.March. Frank Ockenfels—FX
American Horror Story Mare Winnigham
Mare Winnigham as Miss Evers.Frank Ockenfels—FX
American Horror Story Shree Crooks
Shree Crooks as Scarlett Lowe.Frank Ockenfels—FX

Read More: Lady Gaga’s Performance at the Oscars Could Redefine Her Career

The new season of American Horror Story, subtitled Hotel, has been marketed around Lady Gaga’s role; this is understandable both because of how novel such an acting gig is for a music-world star and because AHS‘s longtime resident diva, Jessica Lange, has left the premises. In the absence of the most game performer ever to win two acting Oscars, someone has to carry the torch for divadom.

And the singer rises to the challenge in her own way. In her time onscreen as the notional owner of a mysterious haunted hotel, Lady Gaga speaks in a vaguely European, unplaceable accent; call it actress-ese. She makes textual all of her long-running subtextual references to drugs and sex by setting up lines of cocaine onscreen and engaging in a fatal ménage à quatre. Without spoiling the events of the episode, she’s evidently willing to take part in the carnage that the show demands of its participants—indeed, she runs the hotel in which the show’s deaths occur—and she’s so far less “morally ambiguous” than “morally despicable.” She is, evidently, the Big Bad of the season, and she is both unconcerned with career repercussions if she goes Bad and conditioned by years in the spotlight to go Big.

But what’s most surprising about the first episode of American Horror Story is how little it feels like the Lady Gaga Show. A star at her level of fame who wanted to work on TV could, perhaps, demand her own variety show on a broadcast network; the last big pop star who made herself quite so available on weekly TV was Cher, of Sonny and. But it’s even more standard for a popstar like Gaga would go back to work on the next album and put ideas of TV appearances entirely aside until the next Grammy ceremony or Super Bowl halftime show. When there’s finally vocal music on AHS, it’s a dark emo song perfectly suiting the visuals of Gaga committing murder. This isn’t Artpop promo, or hype for whatever is the next record; something longer-range is happening here.

Not merely has Gaga deigned to work on basic cable, but she’s offscreen for much of the first episode; both Kathy Bates and Wes Bentley in particular feel far more central to the proceedings. This is both a laudable acknowledgment of her acting experience relative to the more experienced cast—in her time onscreen so far, she’s been asked to be “imperious,” a tone she can master—and something that feels deeply weird. One of the most talked-about singers of the decade is now running for Best Supporting Actress?

But as the episode wears on, it’s apparent that sidelining herself even in her own season of American Horror Story is a clever move for Gaga. On American Horror Story, she’s sublimated herself to someone else’s vision, saving for another day whatever she may have in store in her pop career. (Promoting the series, Gaga has lately put the outré fashions back in the closet, and her onscreen garb is not much more ornate; her simple dress at the Emmys was safe for vegans, with absolutely no meat.)

This suits Gaga well at the present moment: When it comes to her particular set of skills on TV, a little goes a long way. Indeed, by allowing Kathy Bates to take charge and reappearing only for enigmatic, compelling moments of accented bossiness (seriously, is she pretending to be French? German?), Gaga is doing the same thing she’s been doing since the fate of her last pop album became clear, when she popped in for surprise moments of jazz mastery or Oscars glamour. For both her devoted fans and the uninitiated, she ends up doing something that the nonstop album-promotional cycle never allowed her to do: Leave us wanting more.

See These Portraits of Stars Before They Became Really Famous

Julie Andrews
Julie AndrewsPhotographed for TV Times in 1977. If you want to get ahead, get a hat, as the English rose demonstrated in the stage version of My Fair Lady and then on screen in Mary Poppins. Here, she was reflecting on her image after raiding a dressing-up box for this fancy titfer. Time Inc. UK/TV Times
Maggie Smith
Maggie SmithPhotographed for TV Times in 1965. Downton’s acerbic Dowager Countess would surely have something to say about her real-life self being photographed on a beach. The following year, Dame Maggie received her first Oscar nomination for playing Desdemona in a film of Othello. Time Inc. UK/TV Times
Clive Owen
Clive OwenPhotographed for TV Times in 1990. Several years before becoming one of Hollywood’s leading men, the actor was snapped on the set of the ITV drama Chancer. The hit show charted the adventures of a wide-boy financial adviser.Time Inc. UK/TV Times
Roger Moore
Roger MoorePhotographed for TV Times in 1968, just before the final series of The Saint.Time Inc. UK/TV Times
Ian McKellen
Ian McKellenPhotographed for TV Times in 1982, at his London riverside home.Time Inc. UK/TV Times
Paul Newman
Paul NewmanPhotographed for TV Times in 1974. The motorsport fanatic was snapped during an interview about his love of cars. He first took to the track for real after being cast in a 1969 racing film called Winning. A few years later, he came second in the famous Le Mans 24-Hour Race.Time Inc. UK/TV Times
Emma Thompson Kenneth Brannagh
Emma Thompson and Kenneth BrannaghPhotographed for TV Times in 1989. The young couple, who married that year, were snapped for an ITV adaptation of Look Back in Anger. Time Inc. UK/TV Times
Tom Jones
Tom Jones Photographed for TV Times in 1987. The Welsh heart-throb was a consistent cover favorite for the magazine, happily posing here in swimming trunks in front of his Bel Air mansion.Time Inc. UK/TV Times
Michael Douglas
Karl Malden and Michael DouglasPhotographed for TV Times in 1974. The crime-fighting duo from the classic U.S. series, The Streets of San Francisco. Time Inc. UK/TV Times
Rupert Everett
Rupert Everett Photographed for TV Times in 1987. Looking mean, moody and magnificent, the former model posed for this shot by Patrick Lichfield to mark a screening of the film that made his name, Another Country. Time Inc. UK/TV Times
Joanna Lumley
Joanna LumleyPhotographed for TV Times in 1976 Only months later, she’d instruct a hairdresser to cut and colour her hair ‘like a prep schoolboy’, thus creating The New Avengers blonde Purdey bob that would cause a copycat frenzy at salons nationwide. Time Inc. UK/TV Times
Joan Collins
Joan CollinsPhotographed for TV Times in 1971. The age-defying beauty invited the magazine for an exclusive look around her palatial home in the year she was divorced from second husband Tony Newley. Racy film romp The Stud and U.S. soap superstardom were still to come.Time Inc. UK/TV Times
Helen Mirren
Helen Mirren Photographed for TV Times in 2005, after winning the TV Times Award for its readers’ All-Time Favourite Actress.Time Inc. UK/TV Times
Elton John
Elton John Photographed for TV Times in 1977. Having already achieved superstardom on both sides of the Atlantic, Elton reaches the pinnacle of his career, appearing on The Muppet Show in Oct. 1977. But Kermit still has to persuade the reluctant rocker to perform his hit 'Benny and the Jets'.Time Inc. UK/TV Times
The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones Photographed for TV Times in 1965, at the ITV studios in London. This was the year of their huge hit 'Satisfaction'. Time Inc. UK/TV Times
The Avengers
The Avengers (Diana Rigg & Patrick Macnee) Photographed for TV Times in 1964. An iconic shot taken when Diana Rigg took over from Honor Blackman in the ‘spy-fi’ classic. The name Emma Peel derived from the writers’ attempts to create a character with Man Appeal.Time Inc. UK/TV Times

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