Adam Schatz (Landlady) Talks Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s Cheek to Cheek

Why did Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga make an album together? Good question.

Anthony Dominick Benedetto and Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta have released an album together. Recorded under the ink-saving stage names of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Cheek to Cheek opens with the standard “Anything Goes.”

“In olden days a glimpse of stocking/was looked on as something shocking/Now, heaven knows, anything goes!”

“Anything Goes” was written by Cole Porter in 1934, a year when Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman all had hit songs with their respective big bands. The time that’s passed between then and now is longer than the time that elapsed between Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s births. The fact that both artists have come together to release this record in this year of 2014 celebrates a remarkable survival.

Very few pieces of music join the platinum ranks of “Happy Birthday to You,” living on in the human voice for decades and decades beyond conception. Cheek to Cheek holds a defibrillator to a selection of songs all composed before a single television was in a single American home. Why have these songs survived this long? Why does “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” feel relevant enough for anyone to re-record? And why is Tony Bennett wearing more makeup than Lady Gaga on the album cover?

There are many different ways to inflect the question “why?” Curious. Pleading. Suspicious. Cynical. Hopeful. Demanding. This album, featuring duets and solo performances from both the erstwhile superstar and the current one, can be listened to in just as many different ways. We shall try them all.

WE LISTEN…

…IN A VACUUM

In a vacuum, where the history of jazz and of Bennett’s and Gaga’s careers do not exist, and only the sounds used to clean tape are heard, Cheek to Cheek is a gloriously pleasant affair. You can float around and listen to a jazz orchestra that has its shit together and two singers happy to be exactly where they are.

The willingness to show up is an important quality that shines through here. The names on the album’s cover are both genuinely present and excited to be singing together on an album that neither of their careers demanded. Interviews surrounding the release reveal the pleasure both sides felt working with each other but, of course, in the vacuum those interviews vanish and leave room only for the tag-team distribution of jazz-vocal classic after classic, each dropped sweetly on your pleasant head.

In a vacuum, the “Why?” is posed to the artists, and the answer the artists give us through their music seems earnest: “Because we felt like it.”

…AS LADY GAGA FANS

“Who is this old man and do I even have the time to type his name into the search engine?” we may briefly wonder before our index finger swipes the thought out of our skulls, as if we accidentally registered for Ancient Jazz Singer Tinder.

But the trust and enthusiasm of the Lady Gaga fan run deep, and this second Gaga release in two years is a gift, so we give thanks and ooze anticipation. Our fearless leader has beaten the odds time and time again, ably bearing the burdens of the strong woman in the public spotlight, and consistently empowering and entertaining us by doing what she wants whenever she wants to. Even if certain of the highbrow leanings on 2013’s Artpop may have escaped us, we’ll still follow Gaga into the fire time and time again. Or maybe we relished the Jeff Koons artwork and the introspective lyrics because the Lady Gaga fan is not just one type of person. We are strong in numbers and, goodness gracious, we’re ready to dance.

Even though we do not know how to dance to this.

The frills and effects are gone, revealing the human behind the concepts, the real woman singing in a tradition she holds dear, but whose influence often can’t be discerned in her public output. Do we love it because it’s her? Do we respect it because she can prove to the naysayers that she can, in fact, carry a tune without a computer to act as the proverbial brown paper bag?

We are confused. But we are open. Because a Lady Gaga fan remains ready for the curveballs. And the heart of our fearless leader will keep us from running away anytime soon.

“Why?” Because she is Lady Gaga, that’s why.

…AS TONY BENNETT FANS

“SIRI (Siri being the caretaker at the old folks home), WHO IS THIS LADY GAGA? I’M NOT SHOUTING! YOU’RE WHISPERING! IT’S THESE DAMNED HEARING AIDS… I CAN’T… WELL, OK THEN, YOU DO IT. MY NIECE VISITED ONCE, REMEMBER HER? THE MUSIC SHE LISTENS TO, CAN YOU CALL IT MUSIC? I JUST CAN’T EVEN…WITH THE TWITTER AND THE FACEBOOK AND THE BELL-BOTTOMS…”

We are the Tony Bennett fans who bought his 1959 release Basie Swings, Bennett Sings when we were 40 years old. We were hanging onto the music of our youth when we bought that album, scared of the darkness into which rock & roll might drag us. Count Basie leads the band, with Thad Jones on trumpet, who a few years later would leave us unsure about where big band jazz might drag us. In a world of uncertainty, Tony Bennett has been our anchor. No matter who swings, he always sings, and though his body may age, his pipes remain timeless.

When we were 40 years old, our new Tony Bennett album included the Cole Porter show tune “Anything Goes,” and now at age 95, we hear the song again on the newest album from our fearless leader. There’s a woman singing with him whom we have been unable to avoid because sometimes the TV gets left on. But she has a nice voice.

Why? Why don’t more people make music like this these days? We remember when this was fresh. We don’t care for the new guard. But we’re not supposed to.

…IN A COURTROOM

Your honor, Lady Gaga is clearly the one on trial here. I submit to you and the jury of skeptics the following items of evidence:

Exhibit A: Her ability to sing on key in an exposed setting.

Exhibit B: A proper respect for the legend she’s sharing the spotlight with (although her fame and album sales at this point in time absurdly outstrip those of said legend).

Exhibit C: Did I mention she can actually sing? Listen! It’s jazzy. And Tony approves!

Why? Why must we make assumptions about our pop stars’ abilities and potential? Why must we constantly be judging the abilities and approaches of our female singers under the brightest of spotlights?

…AS A CLASSICAL JAZZ CRITIC

We appreciate anyone daring enough to record these timeless classics from the great American songbook.

…AS A MODERN JAZZ CRITIC

Why? Why does anyone need to record and release this music ever again?

…AS MYSELF

Initially, I echoed that last sentiment. A search of the recorded music database Allmusic.com for the song “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” produced 1,114,245 results. We can assume there are some duplicates in there, deluxe editions and reissues, but even given that margin of error, one million-plus recordings of any song is an absolutely insane figure.

Somehow these songs have become permanent, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” being at the top of the heap.

But permanent may not be the right word. In my youth, as a saxophone student from the fourth grade through senior year of college, these songs were mandatory.

Jazz standards were never presented to us in terms of the beauty of the songs or the inventive creativity that flowed between the show tune and the jazz singer and the instrumentalists. These songs were presented to us as a requirement.

Statistically, as far as the human heart is concerned, it is impossible to imagine a million different artists feeling truly connected to and sufficiently inspired by “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” to put it on their album. It isn’t even close to Duke Ellington’s best song — but when he wrote the music, it rang true with his trademark fire, humor and personality, and Irving Mills’ lyrics reflected a sincere sentiment amongst the innovators of jazz at that time. Shot with fire from Ella Fitzgerald’s chest, the melody and words ran circles around everyone in their path.

Imagining a moment in history when that song felt current is like imagining the first edition of the Old Testament hitting the shelves of Ye Olde Barnes & Noble. By 2014, all interpretation has been milked dry, all relevance has gone sour, and all reading feels required.

Maybe the Lady Gaga fan will hear “It (If)” and realize they’ve never heard a song so artfully constructed. Maybe they’ll see a light at the end of the commercial tunnel and want to learn more and feel more, inadvertently attempting to narrow the gap between themselves and those Tony Bennett fans of yesteryear.

So they type the first three words of the song title into Spotify and discover a daunting supply of recordings of songs like these, some heart-wrenching and anxious and pure, and many others dull, trying and just painfully bad. But the most infinite category into which Cheek to Cheek falls is “just fine.” It is a passive danger-zone that makes me wish a guard dog were posted up at the pressing plant to devour any album that doesn’t add anything to the world.

A resounding “why?” will resound through the room if a Lady Gaga song is played on the phonograph at a party of Tony Bennett fans, or if a Tony Bennett song comes up on shuffle at a party of Lady Gaga fans. That alone makes this project fun on paper, and if nothing else, head-turning.

Yet, the burning question of “Why should this exist?” has no answer, and repeated listens do not elicit a convincing response. Repeated listens slowly sink Cheek to Cheek into the quicksand of mediocre mistreatment of once-great songs, torn apart by too many versions until their spirit and passion is as extinct as the men and women who breathed life into them in the first place.

Lady Gaga should keep trying new things. Tony Bennett should just enjoy his life. And we should find some new excitement to listen to.

Adam Schatz is a musician. His band Landlady has just released the album Upright Behavior on the Hometapes record label. His saxophone and keyboard sounds have appeared on albums by Vampire Weekend, Those Darlins, Hospitality, Sleigh Bells and Quilt. His previous published works consist solely of a column about donuts and not-donuts for Brightest Young Things. You can follow him on Twitter here and hear Landlady here. (Photo credit: Sasha Arutyunova.)