Coming off a fractious run as hip surgery curtailed a string of Born This Way concert dates, Cheek To Cheek initially raised a few eyebrows among Lady Gaga fans. Ultimately, however, the album, a collection of duets with legendary crooner Tony Bennett, proved a cathartic leftfield turn for pop’s newest queen, and marked the beginning of a new creative arc.
By the time of Cheek To Cheek’s release, on September 23, 2014, the world had become more than familiar with Gaga’s increasingly out-there dance-pop extravagance. That familiarity was, however, beginning to lose its shine for some. Her previous studio set – the ambitious ARTPOP, issued the previous year – attracted the first mixed notices of her career and a slower, if still impressive, sales start.
It’s likely that the solo release delayed the collaborative one, as most of the Cheek To Cheek recordings had been completed during spring 2013. The genesis of the duets album lay in a New York charity gala held three years earlier, when the jazz legend met the contemporary superstar and asked her to record “The Lady Is A Tramp” for his upcoming second duets project. That collaboration turned out so well that the pair discussed a more ambitious project, but it would take time for their busy schedules to synchronize. It wasn’t until a 2013 reunion at one of President Barack Obama’s ceremonial balls that Gaga was ready to announce that the project was definitely going ahead, revealing the name of the record.
“It’s me rebelling against my own pop music”
Gaga later admitted to journalists that the thought of working with Bennett had terrified her. She’d loved the singer since she was a girl, and his music helped her develop her voice; she had even been picked from her school to perform at a state-wide jazz competition. Returning to the genre again was, she says, liberating. “It’s me rebelling against my own pop music,” she said on the album’s release. “There’s a part of me that has been quiet for a long time that is now being reawakened, after years of producers and record-label people telling me to make my voice sound more radio-friendly.”
Certainly, the 11 songs on the standard edition, which were all recorded live with a band, introduced a richer, more authentic timbre to a voice people thought they had the full measure of. Cole Porter’s opening composition, “Anything Goes,” sets the scene perfectly with its playful, familiar melody and was a logical pick for the album’s first single, immediately dispelling rumors that the record would be an overblown indulgence. The fun the pair had making the tracks was evident in this recording and, more importantly, proved infectious.
From the well-known (a cover of the Nat “King” Cole standard “Nature Boy”) to the lesser remembered (Bennett’s own “Firefly”), Cheek To Cheek offered a seductive and nicely flowing mix giving both artists the space to innovate without reinventing anything too radically. The ad-libs and easy camaraderie of the two voices riff along nicely – especially on “Goody Goody” – with the title track seeing everything align perfectly.
Jaunty and light-footed (handy, given that the song was written by Irving Berlin for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ 1935 movie Top Hat), “Cheek To Cheek” perfectly captures the accessible but sometimes unpredictable spring of pop-oriented jazz. The song has been covered many times, but the Gaga and Bennet version perhaps comes closest to matching the Astaire original, which got inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame at the dawn of the 21st Century.
What’s particularly welcome on Cheek To Cheek is the space each entertainer gives the other. While Gaga would, no doubt, offer the elder statesman his place center-stage as a default, it’s not an invitation he accepts all the time. Each singer’s contributions appear evenly matched, and that’s in part what makes the album work so well. Both take some time alone in the spotlight (Bennett on “Don’t Wait Too Long” and Gaga on the more familiar standard “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”) but neither stays solo for too long.
A radical reinvention
Cheek To Cheek debuted at the top of the US Billboard charts and made the Top 10 in other major territories. A deluxe edition with extra songs was released in most markets and a vinyl edition was also pressed. Reviews were largely positive and, in between Gaga’s touring commitments for ARTPOP, she and Bennett made a number of promotional appearances, including a spot on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. In time, Cheek To Cheek would win a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.
Talk of a second duets collection proved premature, but Gaga and Bennett did take Cheek To Cheek on the road for 36 dates across Europe and the US into 2015. Perhaps inspired by the US TV concert they created for the record’s release, the gigs took them to smaller venues than Gaga had got used to playing, along with a number of jazz festivals. The chemistry between the pair was clear to see and critics raved about the shows.
A few decades may have separated both singers’ commercial peaks, and there was more than a little creative distance between their typical output, but Cheek To Cheek proved quite the surprise. For Bennett, it offered a fresh spin on an established, if evergreen, formula. For Gaga, it was a reinvention more daring than any she had yet attempted.
Signaling the start of wider experimentation with films and TV, and establishing herself as someone who could easily be trusted with a standard (check out her show-stopping 2015 Oscars tribute to The Sound Of Music), who would have thought these traditional standards would be used for something so radical as repositioning Gaga’s career? It just goes to prove the song was right: anything goes.