It’s possible that we are undervaluing Lady Gaga. Alright, she’s coming in hot for 2019’s awards season following Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born. Yes, she’s forever a household name. But there isn’t that universal hysteria lent to Gaga that we employ with Beyoncé or Teslas or Meryl Streep. We don’t obsessively reappraise every moment of her intricately thought-out career — a career, she reminds her audience onstage, that was largely confounding to outsiders when she first emerged. In Vegas, there’s no visible excitement for the opening of her residency at the MGM Park this Friday. Zero. (In the hotel lobby there is one sad televisual sign that reads: ‘WELCOME LADY GAGA’ with a font so white, thin, and dull it should be cancelled.)
A cruise down the Strip reveals the usual chiseled, vacant stares from Sin City’s prime residents. Calvin Harris’s startled DJ face is indistinguishable from that of Tiesto’s or Zedd’s. Celine graces the facades of malls advertising her final dates. Her mug’s frequency is matched only by Britney’s who announces her return in 2019. None of the Strip’s familiars, however, have had the game-changing impact of Gaga this past decade. She was the first superstar of the internet age, arriving at the dawn of millennial narcissism with her intellectual take on instant celebrity. On her opening night here, though, she’s sneaking in Vegas’s back door, much like she snuck in the back door of pop ten years ago. Gaga is perhaps the most fast-tracked of all performers to have their own residency in Vegas, but if her debut is proof she will be the one to reinvent Vegas the way she reinvented the art of pop-stardom.
It’s as the underdog that Gaga has always excelled. For her residency, titled Enigma, she has studied excessively, offering snippets of rehearsals on her Instagram. Unusually for the age that we live in, this unveiling comes with next to no preamble or information. There is barely a welcome wagon on Friday. “Performance at 8 p.m.” is the only instruction. Secrecy is priceless these days, mystique unheard of, but Gaga has managed both. Surprise has been a strong suit in her past. She was a master of shock and shlock in the early 2010s: The meat dress. Birthing herself from an alien egg. Bleeding onstage at the VMAs. By the time her third album, Artpop, came out in 2013 we were burned out on her content-driven revolution. Since then her arc has been less of a climb, more breakthrough bursts staggered by occasional missteps.
But in Vegas, surprise is back on the menu. She flies into the arena on a zipline in a silver suit singing first single, “Just Dance” while playing a keytar (she will fly again later in a seated cage for “Paparazzi”). There’s something about seeing a superstar soaring overhead that changes your sense of perspective. Up in the roof she looks dainty like a Polly Pocket. Behind me is Katy Perry. I stare at Perry, staring at Gaga, zipping overhead and think about women and glass ceilings. For the next two hours, Gaga demonstrates her contribution to this pop era and to smashing the system, with an exquisite setlist, one that begins with her days shrieking about being a “free bitch”.
Her catalogue is catnip for Vegas; a blueprint for how to respect the role of entertainer. Gaga delivers full songs, full original choreography with full hair, makeup, and outfits that nod to previous milestones and tours. She pays homage to her greatest inspiration — David Bowie — by cleverly covering “I’m Afraid of Americans”. Her political tidbits are just that — tidbits. She references the current administration in “Government Hooker”, updating the lyric to: “John F Kennedy/I’ll make you squeal baby/Donald Trump, if you pay me.” Her material, now devoid of the blogosphere’s WTF-is-this-right-is-this-wrong diatribe, has grown better with age. She delivers a hit parade with expletives in between: “PUT YOUR FUCKING HANDS UP!” she screams, like she’s fronting a hair metal band. “GET OFF YOUR FUCKING FEET!” Her entrance with “Poker Face” and “Lovegame” allow the crowd the immediate release of a singalong before we are introduced to the plot that runs through the Enigma show.
This storyline is more considered than most Vegas residencies. Enigma is a motion captured character who tries to help Gaga see her true self during an Alice in Wonderland-style rabbit hole drop. “WHAT THE FUCK!” she freaks out, as she’s launched into eye-popping scenes that cross the video game Bayonetta with The Matrix and the planet Mars. This notion of (surreal) self-actualization fits well with the Gaga we’ve come to know since the Joanne album in 2016 (incidentally her poorest commercial performance, and thus represented by only one number tonight). Joanne’s DNA shed the character layers of Gaga and revealed more of Stefani Germanotta. Onstage she brings back some of that balance.
Take “Alejandro”; an Ace of Base-by-way-of-Cabaret belter that reduces queer men in the pit to tears. It’s a song about infidelity, engorged with innuendo. The line “don’t want to kiss, don’t want to touch/Just smoke my cigarette and hush” is a reminder that Gaga was so daring in her forthright sex positivity that the public doubted she was female. From her second LP Born This Way, “Sheisse” was written after a night out in Berlin in 2010. Introducing it, she screams: “I don’t speak German but I can if you lyyyyk!” and proceeds to speak gibberish Deutsch for a whole verse. “If you’re a strong female you don’t need permission,” she sings. Gaga has always served feminist smarts with devilish hilarity: there are audible gasps when she performs inside an anatomical spider that spits fire, wearing a bodysuit with neon strips lighting up her breasts and crotch, before picking up a guitar and shredding along to “Judas”. Her humor is liberatingly absurdist — like Streisand with added eroticism.
Then there’s her bodily surrender. In the Netflix documentary Five Foot Two in 2017, Gaga documented her fibromyalgia, a pain as invisible as it was crippling. Her physicality in this show is unnerving given that fact. At one point, on a meteor-shaped piano that emerges from beneath the stage’s tip, she stands upon her stool, twists her left leg in the air while bending over to play “You & I” with both hands. I think in yoga they call this a “revolved half moon.” You’d be hard pressed to find a yogi who can do this in stiletto boots in front of 5200 people while singing in mezzo soprano. There is no flinching, no sign of aches. Her defiance as a dancer is a physical manifestation of art as catharsis for emotional trauma. Her final outfit for “Born This Way” is a second skin — so nude and cut in to her upper inner thighs, you’ll want to ask the person next to you if they too see more of Gaga than they ever bargained for.
There are plenty gregarious dressers in the crowd too. In the pit a woman in a gimp mask with fishnets for bottoms cooled herself with a motorized fan, while two men in matching blue hair-dye kissed during “Bad Romance.” The so-called Little Monsters were also out in force. This is as much a show in their freakish honor as it is in Gaga’s. Her resurrection of her inner weird is a match for Vegas’s plea for rebellion. It’s also an equalizer. Before the show, my own guest tells me a story about Gaga’s pre-fame days, when she performed in New York City’s seediest holes. On one such night, his friend’s sister was in the crowd. Gaga spotted her, ushered the venue’s security to bring her backstage and asked her if it would be okay if she borrowed this girl’s jacket for her performance. Not knowing who she was, the sister gave Gaga her jacket because she liked the cut of her jib. It’s a personal interaction that Gaga still craves. For the finale she wears a simple oversized T-shirt and fishnets, the garb she’d make do with back in those hustling days.
During the final throes, that interplay between fan and star overwhelms her. For “Million Reasons” she sits at her piano to talk about all she’s shared with fans for ten years. It feels closer. Gaga never drew a line between artifice and reality. For her there doesn’t seem to be one. She bleeds superstar, a performer who is moving because she’s odd and odd because she’s moving. That’s why she can’t make it through the first verse of “Shallow” without breaking to catch her tears. “Thank you for believing in me,” she says. “I love you.”