Graham: Gaga, Kanye and the long tail of fame
Nine years ago the two superstars were due to tour together. Now they're in very different places in their careers
Lady Gaga is headed for an Oscar nomination.
Kanye West is crashing board room meetings at Quicken Loans.
Two artists, two trajectories. At one point their stars were set to align, but it wasn’t meant to be, and they have been traveling on differing paths ever since.
The year was 2009, and the white hot button-pushing pop star and the red hot flame-throwing rapper were set to combine their talents on their joint “Fame Kills” outing, which is now one of the greatest pop tours that never was.
Stages were designed, tickets were on sale, promo videos were released.
But in the wake of Kanye’s microphone-snatching incident with Taylor Swift at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards, the tour was abruptly canceled, and the two artists went their separate ways.
Both survived, and thrived, in the aftermath of “Fame Kills,” which was set to hit The Palace of Auburn Hills on Jan. 14, 2010. (Sniffle)
Locally, Gaga announced a show at the Fox Theatre, which promptly turned into two shows at Joe Louis Arena. Her star continued to grow.
Kanye, meanwhile, retreated to Hawaii where he cooked up 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” the most celebrated album of his career and one of the decade’s musical high-water marks.
Both would go on to make collaborative albums with other artists, which they followed with joint tours: Kanye with his mentor Jay-Z; Gaga with her musical hero Tony Bennett.
And over the years they experienced various career highs (his incendiary “Yeezus” album) and lows (her “Artpop”).
But today, the two artists are in very different places.
Gaga, 32, is receiving the best reviews of her career for her magnificent performance in “A Star is Born,” which opens in theaters this weekend, and she’s on the shortlist to earn an Academy Award nomination for the role.
It's a new realm for Gaga, whose pop career hit its peak in the early '10s. She's set to begin a one-year Las Vegas residency later this year, which is no longer a realm for has-beens, but is indicative of the way her career was trending.
The 41-year-old Kanye, meanwhile, is in the midst of a bizarre year – even for Kanye – where his inflammatory statements, mostly about politics, have made more noise than his music (he released the half-baked, underwhelming “Ye” in June, and just pushed his new album “Yandhi” back two months).
This week, Kanye was in Detroit, visiting with Dan Gilbert and his family of companies. He was seen on social media taking in a Quicken Loans presentation and jumping up on a desk at the College for Creative Studies and filibustering about the need to leave Elon Musk alone. (It’s unclear who in the room was bothering the beleaguered Tesla founder.)
It’s a version of the same speech he’s been giving for years, which mostly consists of name drops of famous creatives (Steve Jobs, Walt Disney) and the need for people to engage with love.
This came after a poorly received appearance on last week's "Saturday Night Live," where his rambling show-closing speech was cut from the broadcast but made the rounds online. It touched on his current favorite topics: his red Donald Trump cap and his ideas on slavery, provocative subjects about which he comes off woefully misinformed.
But Kanye, much like Trump, feeds on attention. So in his game, as long as people are talking about him, he's winning.
“Fame Kills” remains a spiked, loaded title; both Kanye and Gaga have built their careers around various commentaries on fame.
In 2016, Kanye made a video for his single “Famous” that featured versions of himself, Trump, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Bill Cosby and his wife, Kim Kardashian, all lying naked together in a large bed, while Gaga titled her debut album “The Fame” and followed it with “The Fame Monster.”
Kanye has played the instigator for years. He’s built his persona on riling people up and has gone to extremes to keep the flames of the celebrity gossip machine stoked. He used to have the music to back up his antics, but with that gone (or at least slipping away), the one-time visionary has been left exposed as, well, a fame monster.
Gaga, meanwhile, captured headlines early on by being outrageous (the meat dress, the blood-soaked awards show performances, incubating inside an egg on the Grammys red carpet) but has moved on from shock tactics to more substantive work. It’s been a successful strategy for career longevity.
Gaga appears to have things under control, Kanye not as much. Does fame kill? Not really. But with nothing behind it, it’s a hollow, feckless conceit.