Lady Gaga may not have won an Oscar on Sunday night, but her appearance at the Academy Awards registered as a clear victory.
Nominated for best original song with “Til It Happens to You,” her tune about college sexual assault from “The Hunting Ground,” the pop superstar unexpectedly lost to Sam Smith, whose often-disparaged “Writing’s on the Wall” became the second straight James Bond theme to take that award after Adele’s “Skyfall” in 2013.
Yet there was no doubt who came out on top as Sunday’s most effective musical act.
Following Smith’s shaky rendition of “Writing’s on the Wall” and the Weeknd’s snoozy “Earned It” (as well as a perfectly forgettable “Blackbird” by Dave Grohl during the “In Memoriam” sequence), Lady Gaga brought the Oscars show to a standstill with a fierce, deeply personal performance of “Til It Happens to You” that had the singer surrounded by a group of young people identified as survivors of abuse.
“'Til you’re standing in my shoes, I don’t wanna hear nothing from you,” she sang, practically convulsing as she jabbed her finger at the audience. “'Til it happens to you, you won’t know how I feel.”
It was an electric moment, full of the kind of spiky intensity we rarely see at highly polished awards shows.
The performance also reminded me of a Lady Gaga we haven’t seen for a while.
Over the last couple of years -- basically since the vomit-streaked spectacle she brought to the South by Southwest festival in early 2014 -- the singer has been carefully remaking her image, moving away from glam and punk toward something more old-fashioned and self-consciously classy.
It started with “Cheek to Cheek,” her duets album with Tony Bennett, behind which the two went on tour last year. Then there was her appearance on the 2015 Academy Awards, where she delivered an impressive, Broadway-caliber medley of tunes from “The Sound of Music.”
Last fall, she joined the cast of the FX series “American Horror Story,” eventually winning a Golden Globe for her acting work. And when the NFL needed someone to sing the national anthem at this year’s Super Bowl, it turned to Gaga, who wowed an audience of millions with her lung-busting performance (and her sparkly red pantsuit).
The transformation has been fascinating to watch. But for all of the show-biz razzle-dazzle she’s shown, this latest version of Gaga has sometimes made me wonder if she’s lost touch with the rawness of her earlier stuff -- the thrilling provocative streak that made her such a misfit hero around the time of 2011’s brilliant “Born This Way.”
Now it’s obvious she was just expanding her skill set.
Banging away at her white grand piano, her lacquered blond hair threatening to shake loose, Gaga struck a beautiful balance Sunday between precision and ferocity, pageantry and expression.
She hardly needed a trophy to take the night.