It's hard to decide who needs more protection from Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga's unbearable new duets album.
On one hand, you want to shield older traditionalists familiar with the material -- well-worn standards out of the Great American Songbook -- from the shallow, deeply unimaginative renditions here. On the other, it seems a shame to expose younger pop fans -- those who've taken heart in Lady Gaga's once-powerful message of self-affirmation -- to the full breadth of her new-found cynicism.
How else to hear "Cheek to Cheek," which follows the perceived failure last year of the singer's "Artpop"? Ever since Lady Gaga's third studio album was branded a bomb (despite relatively strong sales), she's been on a mission to put herself willfully outside the pop mainstream, as if to tell naysayers, "You can't fire me, I quit!"
That kind of petulance can be combustible fuel for an artist, as we saw several months ago during Lady Gaga's thrillingly confrontational (and memorably vomit-streaked) performance at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. You left that punk-inspired show convinced that the singer had found renewed energy in a fresh approach -- that perhaps desperation had driven her somewhere interesting.
In contrast, "Cheek to Cheek" sounds like a retreat; it's plenty desperate, but in a way that suggests she's merely run out of ideas for the moment and wants to cover it up with borrowed prestige.
She may be borrowing from close at hand: In the promotional run-up to the album, the two singers have spoken about their shared Italian American background, and Lady Gaga has no shortage of experience in musical theater.
Indeed, her vocals here -- in cabaret staples such as "Anything Goes," "Nature Boy" and "Let's Face the Music and Dance" -- are as strong in a technical sense as they've ever been. And Bennett's singing, of course, hits all the right marks (at least in those moments when Lady Gaga makes room for him). Ditto the plush arrangements.
But talent for Lady Gaga has always been a means to an end, and on "Cheek to Cheek," there is no end beyond cheap exploitation: of a bunch of important songs she brings nothing to; of an 88-year-old legend with whom she has zero chemistry; and, most dispiritingly, of our eagerness to follow her down an unlikely creative path.
Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga
"Cheek to Cheek"
1 star out of 4