Six months earlier at the Super Bowl, Lady Gaga had something to prove.
Blame the theater kid in her, but Gaga has always felt like pop's younger sibling, causing a commotion in order to be taken seriously. Early comparisons to Madonna and Christina Aguilera didn’t help matters, and even in her collaborations with Beyoncé (“Telephone,” “Video Phone”) it was impossible to outshine a woman who seemed like the biggest star on the planet.
Following two critically divisive albums, Artpop and Joanne, Gaga relied on her athletic showmanship to prove to America that she had earned her position in America’s pop pantheon. As Doreen St. Félix wrote for MTV News at the time: “She was excellent, no doubt, making every mark and grabbing every note. She’s proved her athleticism. We know she can command the attention of an entire stadium audience. But can she bask in it?”
Enter the Joanne World Tour.
Gaga does nothing but bask during her two-hour tour de force, as I witnessed Wednesday night at The Forum in Los Angeles. Gaga subtly addressed criticisms lobbied against her for her muted politics during the Super Bowl as she frequently addressed her LGBTQ audience members and pointed out that the Super Bowl, to her, wasn't a celebration of herself, but a celebration of the queer community. And granted, there’s nothing quite like “Born This Way” being performed on a national stage days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, who has since gone on to display anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, alongside his Vice President Mike Pence with an equally intolerant track record.
But subtlety is not the name of the game when it comes to the Joanne World Tour. The extravagant set, bright and ostentatious costumes, and Gaga's let-it-all-hang-out attitude find the pop star at an ease I've never seen her at before. Even in restrictive costumes like her traditional white "Bad Romance" suit or the Bram Stoker fantasy of her blood red dress for "Bloody Mary," Gaga never once seems like she has lost control. She's a natural-born performer and this tour has been her greatest role yet.
Kicking things off with "Diamond Heart" and "A-Yo," Gaga pays special attention to Joanne this tour, whereas she stuck to safe pop hits of The Fame era during her Super Bowl performance. Here, Joanne has an audience that can appreciate its gravitas. Named after an aunt who passed away, after whom Gaga was given the middle name Joanne, she uses the country songs from her latest album to forge a bond with her audience. "Dancin in Circles" lets her extol the virtues of masturbation, "Come to Mama" is her kiss-off to homophobia, and "John Wayne" just lets Gaga ramp up her country, rock and roll aesthetics with one of her most extravagant numbers of the show.
Throughout the concert, bridges descend from the sky to form pathways whenever she needs to travel to one of the four stages she employs. The mainstage is where her raucous numbers with the highest spectacle take place, such as "Perfect Illusion," "Alejandro," and "The Cure." The design of it is beautifully rendered and asymmetrical to show off Gaga and the dancers behind her in their full glory. She uses the stages in the center of the audience — the floor features fans standing so they dance freely — for more intimate performances such as "Dancin in Circles," "Joanne," or "Angel Down" (which she performs after descending from the ceiling like a prophet). There is a small stage opposite the main stage where her piano rises when Gaga fully embraces the theatre kid within and shows off a bit.
Her acumen doesn't just extend to the visual language she employs or her vibrant dance numbers, but also to her musical talent and grandiose voice. Gaga sings live throughout the entire show and she uses her instrument wisely, juxtaposing grunge rock numbers like "Bloody Mary" with more emotional moments like a stripped-down rendition of "Edge of Glory." As if she's possessed by Elton John of decades past, Gaga is at her best when she's tickling the ivories, playfully interacting with the audience, or standing atop the piano and belting out rock hits like "Million Reasons."
The show's climax is "The Cure," a song Gaga debuted at Coachella which has taken on a special meaning for her. The past few years of her career, Gaga has had her abilities questioned and scrutinized. Despite being a skilled songwriter and excellent performer who gave us such hits as "LoveGame" and "Paparazzi," Gaga is often a go-to punching bag for critics who want to deride pop stars. Either that, or the commercial failures of projects like Artpop lend false credence to the notion that Gaga's best days are behind her. But "The Cure," the most recent song Gaga has written, is a vibrant anthem that rivals her greatest hits and is also a love letter to the fans that continue to support her when she needs it the most. "The Cure" is about how music heals wounds amongst us all and when she's at her lowest, she can sing the song and be reminded why she became the dynamo she is. During the concert, Gaga speaks often of the resilience of the LGBTQ community; but what's most striking is her own.