“Las Vegas, are you ready to play some fucking poker?!”
Lady Gaga actually said this to a crowd of 5,000 at the MGM Park Theater on a chilly Saturday night in mid-January after descending from the rafters in a mirrored bodysuit, spinning like a disco ball and kicking her legs like Elaine Benes at an office party. Naturally, it was the intro to “Poker Face”, one of the two Gaga songs I could name.
The aerial entrance was the beginning of her Enigma show, a pop spectacle I attended in hopes it would turn me from ambivalent to Little Monster. As someone two years older than Gaga (who is 32), my version of teen pop was defined by Britney’s plaid skirt, not a dress made of meat. My vague impression of Gaga is that she’s a Pop Artist, emphasis on artist, but she’s never really entered my orbit outside of a few tunes I’d been forced to DJ at weddings. Her music never really drew me in, but a recent magazine profile piqued my interest, and a high budget Vegas production seemed like an ideal Gaga baptism.
For 90 minutes, Gaga danced around a neon Tronscape stage that looked a cool place to play laser tag. A couple of Hot Topic manager types played guitar, a cyberpunk pianist held court in a custom wraparound hula hoop of a keyboard. The drummer, the MVP of the power outage (more about that later!), had enough cymbals to open his own Guitar Center. No surprise, they played as perfectly as robots.
Speaking of robots, the very loose plot of the show revolved around a big screen CGI robot guiding Gaga through a sci-fi “simulation”. The only way out was to overcome her insecurities, which were never really explained. It was half baked at best and felt like a bad Saturday morning cartoon. I wasn’t expecting an arthouse film, but it seemed conceived by men wearing khakis, not glitter.
This was Gaga’s first Vegas residency, the ultimate distinction of pop canonization. Given her artistic reputation and infinite resources, it seemed like a chance to make something that might shock the pair of retired ladies sitting in front of me who complained about paying upwards of $500 for their balcony row L tickets, which they still considered a deal given the $1500 StubHub price. But the only thing that seemed to blow their mind was when Gaga stopped “Million Reasons” mid-verse to call Mike Pence unchristian, which seemed to freeze them in their seats, even when the full crowd stood for the entire. They were a sharp contrast to the woman dancing behind me in highlighter green fuzzy boots and matching wig who proclaimed that if she face planted down the stairs, she’d die happy.
So you could say the crowd was a mix of Little Monsters and Regular Monsters.
They played the hits, about half of which I recognized, with short segways in which Gaga and RoboGaga talked about their feelings. Naturally there were costume changes—sequins, neon stripperware, Xena Warrior Princess armor, an avant runway flapper dress. Maybe it was the distance, but I was never wowed, and spent more time trying to decipher her tattoos (that’s a Rainer Maria Rilke poem in German on her bicep).
Musically, I was surprised at how hard the songs rocked. I wasn’t expecting bubble gum, but there were moments when it felt like I was watching a female version of Marilyn Manson, an observation I had moments before she sang “You want to see me naked, lover” in “Aura”. The lyrics largely dodged romantic pop conventions and were about individuality, rebellion, being misunderstood. The guitar angst came into full effect when the power dropped out during a costume change.
The video screens went black, house lights flickered, and the amps went silent. The band soldiered on silently, clueless thanks to their in-ear monitors, the drummer pounding away on all those cymbals. The crowd looked confused, then uncomfortable for the hapless musicians, then worried. Was this part of the simulation? A deconstruction of pop concerts? A terrorist attack? A sign that somewhere within the attached casino, George Clooney and Rihanna just left the vault with a bag of diamonds and are vaping in front of the Fountains of Bellagio?
After a couple awkward minutes and one thrown guitar, the amps powered back on, but still no Gaga. It was then, in an half-lit theater while these hired guns played riffs that sounded out of a late ‘90s Ibanez commercial that I understood what Lady Gaga is all about.
I grew up on alt rock radio, my first concert was a super tour of Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, and Staind. These Korny guitars soundtracked my first few years of high school, before I found classic hip-hop, indie rock, and electronic music. I saw this aggressive music as a symbol of my individuality (shoutout to Wild at Heart, and Tool). The seemingly endless jam session happening onstage reminded me of my high school band. I realized that I was the late Gen X version of a Little Monster, someone looking to radio alt rock to empower my vague rebellious identity.
After 10 minutes, the screens flashed back on and Lady Gaga emerged riding a mechwarrior. She told the crowd we were rocking so hard that it blew out the power (in reality, it was a faulty transformer that took out half the strip).
I hate to spoil the next two years of her residency, but an hour and a half into the show, Gaga breaks out of the Enigma simulation. She plays the last two songs solo at a piano that looks like it’s on loan from Tim Burton. This is when she really shows her chops and reminded me that I wasn’t at some Ozzfest reunion, but rather watching a world-class talent.
Ballads “Million Reasons” and “Shallow” were stunning. She paused mid-verse to banter, railing on Trump, endorsing a Biden/Michelle ticket, and plugging her mother’s mental health non-profit (she was in the audience). Then she’d jump back into song, her voice ricocheting between registers with the confidence of a vocal superstar like Cher, whose footsteps Gaga has followed as a LGBT icon.
The show ended with one last impromptu costume change. Someone tossed a homemade shirt onto the stage and Gaga ripped off her own T, put on the fan’s shirt, flashing the crowd a Little Monster claw hand sign. It led to more banter about how art isn’t about the awards, it’s about creating. It isn’t about changing your own mind, it’s about changing other people’s.
So, did she change mine? Given her left field reputation, I expected to be wowed by an extreme stage show. In that sense, I was disappointed. This wasn’t Gaga disrupting Vegas, it was Vegas disrupting Gaga. Surprisingly, what impressed me most were the moments when she stripped back the neon, sitting alone at the piano. It made me wish I was at the show the following night, when she’d ditch the Enigma theme to perform jazz standards.
I won’t be buying a pair of fuzzy boots or tickets for her next arena tour, but I do have a new appreciation of her role as a pop figurehead for misunderstood millennials. Had she been born a decade earlier, she would have been the voice of my generation too.
Dan Gentile is a writer based in Austin. Follow him on Twitter.