No one playing Coachella this year, or maybe any year, shouldered more critical expectation than Lady Gaga. After the extremely pregnant Beyoncé rain-checked the gig, conversations almost immediately centered on who would replace her—and, inevitably, how no one really could. And so we set Gaga up to fail from the start, her name immortalized on that iconic lineup poster with an implicit, invisible parenthetical of "(instead of Beyoncé)."
It was hard not to see the selection as a bit Insert-Spectacular-Empowered-Female-Pop-Star-Here. Naturally, social media was rampant with speculation over how Gaga would compare to Beyoncé before either had set foot on the main stage.
That's a pretty reductive view, but it also is what ended up making Lady Gaga a hell of a 2017 headliner. You could almost hear her knuckles cracking as she took the stage for "Scheiße," and not just to complement her costume's Gestapo leather daddy vibes. Being the underdog is Gaga's element, her milieu, her practice, her shit. Her pop is just a little too on-the-nose for Coachella's rap and EDM palette, too alternately weird and corny to ever have Beyoncé-level universal appeal. She's the option B who's at her best when she's being challenged to make sure you never call her that again. And at Coachella, running through a 19-song set of hits, recent material, and a new single "The Cure," Gaga ensured everyone stood corrected.
Choreography and pyrotechnics abounded, but the stage presentation was not the focus. A pretty boilerplate setup by Gaga's elaborate theme ball standards,his was more about Gaga front and center, singing "Bad Romance" while nailing that famously nasty choreography; it was Gaga belting show-tune style alone at the piano, releasing just enough vibrato to remind us she's not lip syncing; it was Gaga climbing down into the crowd and kissing a bewildered older cowboy type on the cheek (who must've been a plant, but sure).
She also never mentioned Beyoncé, save for including her verse in "Telephone." Gaga's set never quite lost the feeling that it was out to prove a point, but you also can't really blame her—this was her show, Gaga the Coachella Headliner, another identity to throw back in the face of her naysayers. Her voice is spectacular, but it's her confidence that sells it, bantering with the familiar candor of a corner bartender while navigating the set through untoward stylistic shifts. She'll take the slinky, post-EDM R&B of "The Cure" into the power balladry of "Edge of Glory"—only to tease out the latter's full-camp chorus into a climax that had the crowd screaming like it was a Calvin Harris drop. Lady Gaga doesn't flinch, so you don't either—she just expects you to keep up.
That's not to say it was perfect. Some of her more sleekly-produced, clubby pop numbers like "Million Reasons" and "Applause" might work in a stadium, but when you're playing to a crowd caked in dirt and beer sweat, appetites tend to be a little more visceral. It's the only main stage Coachella set I've seen where the entire crowd, at least as far as I could see, was on its feet dancing—hard. Yet Gaga is a performer who revels in that which doesn't make sense: Where a year earlier an invisible Calvin Harris pushed buttons for a frenzied crowd, there she was writhing atop a grand piano in a red Joanne hoodie and sequined thigh-high boots, singing a Broadway-style ballad to 100,000 screaming people, and reminding us that maybe what's around us isn't supposed to fit in an ideological box.
Gaga upholds the pop tradition of contradiction eked out by those like Prince before her: She's a queer practicing Catholic, a body image activist sponsored by Doritos, a patriot singing about transgender life at the Super Bowl. Her recent forays into jazz, country, and now the 90s R&B of "The Cure," aren't relevance grabs or pandering to convention—they're an artist leaning into who she is instead of who she's up against.
Now her message is more coded: accepting the multiplicity of identity, and the contradictions that define it. For whatever reason, Gaga remains a divisive artist, but her message has always been about unity. She's the "and," not the "or." It's not Beyoncé or Gaga. It's not sequined stilettos or a hoodie. It's not partying at a music festival or marching in a protest. It's not escapism or empowerment. It's the spaces in between where we figure ourselves out. She's shown us where she stands; instead of looking to her, maybe it's time to ask ourselves the same thing.
Andrea Domanick is gonna marry the night. Follow her on Twitter.