Lady Gaga, slowly walking the stage, sets a hypothetical scene: imagine you meet a stranger or go on a date, and you bare your soul to them. You tell them your darkest secrets and let them in. Knowing all of this, they still reject you. Then you must say, she finishes, “I was born this way.” And, as you’d imagine, she then steps heart-first into the triumphant throbbing of “Born This Way” during which a dancer wraps Gaga into a white tulle floor-length skirt that looks suspiciously like a visual nod to a wedding dress.
This sounds close enough to a vampish and actorly display from 2012-era Gaga, but things have changed. Last year's Netflix doc Gaga: Five Foot Two was always going to color this imaginary anecdote of rejection and numerous moments in the tour. The film showed the severe physical pain Gaga endured while making Joanne—the very same illness, in fact, which led to her European tour (including this Milan gig) being rescheduled last September. Many people were jarred by the Gaga, the person, displayed in that making of her fifth studio album. They didn’t expect the impact a uniquely demanding schedule would have on someone they’d naively perceived to be bulletproof. In the film, she can appear exhausted, irritable to the point of cross, in physical pain, and surrounded by people at all times but essentially, pervasively, lonely. A human being. “I sold 10 million and lost Matt. I sold 30 million and lost Luke. I did a movie and lose Taylor. It's like a turnover. This is the third time I’ve had my heart broken like this,” she says, sadly and plainly. What Gaga wants nearly as much as her career and fans, is a partner, a family. The physical and emotional strains of stardom are evidently sacrifices for brilliance.
If Joanne is Gaga being quote unquote authentic, if it represents a clear down-to-earth break from previous albums, then the first of her subsequent live shows in Milan intriguingly reveals the ongoing tussle between ‘art project Gaga’ and ‘vulnerable Gaga.’ This gig feels like the moment she emerges from the intimacy of people’s iPads and TVs and back to her well-established position of blinding live performer‚ but now she’s pulling at the contours of artifice versus “realness” more than ever.
As the show opens, half a set list before her heartfelt “Born This Way,” Gaga appears onstage alone in a simple sparkly cowgirl outfit with the Joanne hat on, singing “Diamond Heart” into a vintage mic. Mimicking the Joanne track listing, she swoops into “A-YO” next, this time joined by other guitarists who accompany her as the camera swings into her face at dodgy angles like an 80s glam rock video. Imagine The Fame Monster Gaga doing classic ‘guitar music.’ This is high production make-believe in a dive bar; stripped-back Gaga. But it’s not all ‘someone accompany me on that guitar for a second.’ Longtime appreciators get to enjoy “Telephone” and “Poker Face,” or revel in how Gaga sashays about and rides a man like a horse on “Alejandro.” A ginormous PVC dress she wears at one point, which looks like an oily dessert, is the sort of thing she’s famous for. And frankly few others in recent pop have ramped up glamorous camp ridiculousness better. There’s a reason your mum would’ve known who Gaga was if you’d just described one of her outfits circa 2010.
Watching these sections of the show, their drama is rendered all the more impressive when you remember the full extent of the hard work and physical pain poured into them. That, after all, became a major trope in Gaga: Five Feet Two. As the film did then, this gig exemplifies how performers in general and women in those roles especially are supposed to dazzle and beguile, but we’re never meant to see them sweat. This is just as true if they are also one of the most famous solo artists in the world.
Gaga explores showing a crack in that public veneer, with a series of short videos that play between stage set-ups. In one, she’s laughing and drinking bubbles in a well-lit dressing room—call it a Moulin Rouge moment. Suddenly it morphs into something Black Swan-like, chants of “Gaga” and the cries of a crowd sending her spotlit face into contortions. In another video, she writhes between two looming white walls that appear to be closing in and ready to squash her. These could realistically be a metaphor for anything. But all I could think was: is this the suffocating fight between two Gagas—the one everyone wants and the one she feels she is? And more than that, is this a sort of aggressive turmoil she feels is a part of this album’s story, now that so many fans would have presumably seen her struggle in last year’s documentary?
Two highlights of the show come from the Joanne album. She retells the touching story of her belated aunt who died from lupus—a disease she herself tested borderline positive for—before performing the album’s title track simply, seated and accompanied by two guitarists. The song hits as hard as it did when she played it off her phone to family members in a particularly intimate scene from Five Foot Two. Her approach to staging the show’s closing track, “Million Reasons,” becomes the second highlight. Who else would perform this otherwise straight-forward ballad while wearing a sparkling cowgirl hat on a holographic crystal grand piano with lasers firing down onto the keys as she plays?
There’ll no doubt be some who prefer the sex and flamboyance of older Gaga material. But that hasn’t disappeared entirely and her show is still, as it’s always been, utterly conducted for the fans. Her Little Monsters are named and spoken to throughout. They aren’t seeing a different Gaga, rather the same singing, dancing, spectacular star they’ve followed from the start. It’s only her live performance that’s in mid-evolution.
None of this should be a surprise. Even early interviews depicted this same multifaceted pop star. In a 2011 Guardian profile, friend and performer Lady Starlight says of Gaga: “She just throws herself into her work. She’s very focused on ‘What am I doing next?’ That’s the way; just the tunnel vision.” That profile later depicts her in all her “contradictory glory” as business woman and “needy neurotic.” In a Vogue interview from a similar time, she spent the entirety of the previous day self-soothing in bed by rubbing her foot, something she does when she’s feeling lonely. In a back and forth with Stephen Fry for the Financial Times she says, “…people are imperfect in a perfect way. I always find it’s so interesting to have conversations about my work because in the past ten minutes you’ve pointed out to me that some people find me to be artificial while others find me to be quite real with the world. Isn’t that interesting?”
It is interesting that many people had forgotten that dichotomy, or supposed one: confident, shock-pop, ‘artificial as if coated with glossy lacquer’ performer, and sensitive, real, longing-to-be-loved human. As Gaga took a slight backseat in pop culture consciousness over the last few years, the flamboyance, meat, feathers and YouTube videos of her fabulous diva moments became the caricature that remained. Joanne and Five Foot Two reinstated that. These shows are the stepping stone towards a new and textured Gaga, one who will no doubt continue to evolve during her Vegas run. Fantasy and reality were always supposed to co-exist with Gaga—now she wants you to see them gel.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.