Lady Gaga Takes Las Vegas
Ten years and two months to the day after her debut album was released in the U.S., Lady Gaga started her residency on the Las Vegas Strip. Just like Gaga herself, the show is simultaneously opulent, over-the-top, spellbinding, confusing, aggressive, tender, and utterly brilliant. And that was all before Bradley Cooper joined her on stage.
A Brief History of Lady Gaga’s Career
Sometime in late 2008, a friend of mine and I were leaving The Abbey in West Hollywood when a hysterical (and obviously drunk) young man walked up to us. He gestured across the street and yelped, “Oh my god. Do you know who is in that limo? It’s Lady Gaga!”
I gave him a quizzical look and said, “Oh, is she the one who sings that song ‘Just Dance’?”
“Yes! She’s signing autographs,” he responded.
My friend and I looked at each other and then we looked at our watches. We headed straight to the car bypassing the frenzy that was ensuing across the street. “Who cares?” I said. “She’ll probably be a one-hit wonder.”
To quote Pretty Woman, that was a big mistake. Big. Huge. Over the next few months, I realized just how huge a mistake that was. Not only did she dominate the pop charts with a string of hits after “Just Dance” (she scored a total of 7 Top 10 hits within 2 years of her first Billboard chart appearance), but she also became a nearly instant LGBT icon with her bizarre aesthetics, club-ready beats, and messages of authenticity and inclusion.
By the time her second full-length album “Born This Way” was released in May 2011, a significant backlash against Lady Gaga had taken foot. The smash hit lead single was criticized by many of being a thinly veiled retread of Madonna’s late 1980s hit “Express Yourself” and the album’s bold mix of sexual and religious themes only added fuel to the fire when it came to the Gaga-Madonna comparisons. Furthermore, Gaga’s increasingly bizarre looks (which perhaps peaked when she wore the dress of raw meat to the MTV Video Music Awards in 2010) and discomfort-inducing, in-you-face television performances made her a lightning rod for controversy and obscured the astonishing degree of raw talent that existed beneath the crazy costumes.
I remember watching one of these performances on the couch with my friends and saying, “Soon she’s going to get to the point where she is so shocking that the most shocking thing that she can do will be being normal. She’ll probably release an acoustic album called Stefani in a year or two.” (Lady Gaga’s real name is Stefani Germanotta.) Unlike my initial dismissal of Gaga when she first came on the scene, this observation was fairly prescient. After releasing the even more bizarre, ostentatious, and aggressive ArtPop album to diminishing commercial and critical returns in late 2013, her career pivoted remarkably.
Less than a year after ArtPop was released she released Cheek to Cheek, an album of jazz standards with Tony Bennett. Her ability to hold her own with a 19-time Grammy-winning legend 60 years her senior was as successful at convincing more conservative industry members and music lovers that Gaga was a true creative force to be reckoned with as it was at confusing her fan base. A few months later, she wowed the world with her stunning live medley from The Sound of Music at the 87th Annual Academy Awards, which even drew raves from Julie Andrews herself.
After stepping back from the spotlight for a bit, she came back in the fall of 2016 with the album I had long predicted. OK, so it wasn’t an acoustic album called Stefani but rather a rock-oriented album called Joanne (named after her late aunt). The opening single “Perfect Illusion” was divisive (it only peaked at #15 before quickly fading), but the album did fairly well critically and commercially and spawned a smash single (“Million Reasons” became her 13th Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100) and a staggeringly successful tour (the Joanne World Tour sold 841,935 tickets over the course of 49 dates and grossed $94.9 million). The era was undoubtedly buoyed by her extremely well-received stint as the halftime show performer at Super Bowl LI in January 2017.
Now nearly 10 years into her career, with numerous hit albums, songs, and tours under her belt, Gaga decided it was time to conquer film. Her first foray into acting came with a starring role on the fifth installment of the anthology series American Horror Story (which premiered in late 2015). Her stint was a ratings hit and an undeniable headline-grabber, but despite winning her a Golden Globe for Best Actress, the performance fell short of convincing folks that she had what it took to truly break into acting.
However, in the fall of 2018 she broke the long steak of failed “pop singer tries to be an actress” projects when her remake of A Star is Born hit theaters. The film was released to glowing reviews (it has a 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is currently nominated for 8 Academy Awards) and subsequently grossed over $418 million globally and spawned a #1 hit album. Lady Gaga’s performance in the film has already won top honors from the National Board of Review and at the Critics’ Choice Awards and has received nominations from every major award granting body, including the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Screen Actors Guild, and the British Academy of Film and Television. She has also won nearly every award possible to date for co-writing “Shallow,” the signature song from the film.
Lady Gaga Takes on Vegas with “Enigma”
In an interesting bit of timing, just as the awards season that A Star is Born featured so prominently in was kicking off, Gaga was kicking off her long-gestating Vegas residency. Located at the 5,200-seat Park Theater in the Park MGM, Gaga has two different shows playing a total of 32 performances between December 2018 and November 2019. The first show (which claims the majority of the dates) is Enigma, which promises a celebration of her pop music career. The second is Jazz and Piano, which promises a showcase for her pipes and musical artistry with a collection of reimagined hits and jazz standards. Eager to get tickets since the residency was first announced in December 2017, I snatched them up when they finally went on sale in August 2018. Little did I know how special the show on January 26, 2018 (the date I selected essentially at random) would be.
Ever since Celine Dion revitalized the Las Vegas residency in 2003 with her blockbuster residency at Caesars Palace, A-listers have been flocking to the various stages on the Strip. Artists as diverse as Britney Spears, Bruno Mars, Cher, Brooks & Dunn, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Jennifer Lopez, Gwen Stefani, Ricky Martin, Backstreet Boys, Bette Midler, Shania Twain, and Mariah Carey have all had successful runs. But getting Lady Gaga, particularly at this particular stage of her career, was an undeniable coup for Sin City.
The show began shortly after its scheduled 8pm start time. (The three great advantages to seeing concerts in Vegas versus stadiums and arenas are the more intimate venues, the streamlined entrance and exit procedures, and the prompt start times.) She descended from the ceiling over the crowd in a move reminiscent of her Super Bowl appearance. Decked out in futuristic silver suit with long teal locks and a bedazzled keytar, she effortlessly rocked through her first three singles (“Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” and “LoveGame.”) Gaga subsequently launched into a boisterous 5-song set of early career dance hits that was bursting with colorful costumes and excellent choreography.
Things took a dark turn just before the show’s midway point, when her performance of early hit “Paparazzi” ushered in a particularly aggressive string of songs that included the utterly bizarre first track from ArtPop (“Aura), a trio of tracks from Born This Way that are heavy on controversial themes and even heavier on the bass, and a brief cover of David Bowie’s 1997 single “I’m Afraid of Americans.” At this point, the show started to strain ever-so-slightly. The loudness became almost unbearable (my husband seriously thinks he suffered some permanent hearing damage from the event), the songs became less familiar and catchy, and Gaga’s persona shifted from one of confident pop star to innuendo-lacing, f-bomb dropping, Trump-bashing provocateur for a bit too long.
Things get back on track when Gaga returned in a new ensemble for impassioned renditions of two of her best songs — “The Edge of Glory” and “Alejandro.” The action then switched to the center stage where she sat down at the piano and belted out a raw take on “Million Reasons” and a rousing rendition of “You and I.” Her impressive artistry as a vocalist and a musician was on full display during this section. It was hindered ever-so-slightly by the fact that her monologue to her fans about how important they are to her and how important inclusivity and authenticity is went on a bit too long and seemed ripped from the Taylor Swift handbook. But nevertheless, it managed to be moving and the audience clearly ate it up (myself included). Gaga then took another brief break and returned to the stage for a crowd-pleasing one-two punch of “Bad Romance” and “Born This Way,” perhaps her two most iconic songs. Both songs translated spectacularly to live renditions and were delivered with splendid choreography.
Throughout the show, a motion-captured CGI character named Enigma comes and goes. She is Lady Gaga’s alter ego who exists in “the simulation.” Apparently only in “the simulation” can you find out who you really are … or come to terms with your past … or get on the right path … or … honestly, I don’t know. It really makes no sense. It is clumsy, bizarre and, ultimately unnecessary. The device is obviously intending to create a structured narrative to the show and to provide a mechanism through which Gaga can explore deep themes relevant to her personal and professional development. Although it never truly worked for me, it certainly did not derail the show for me either. It worked well enough because it was undeniably and unapologetically Gaga. It’s still not clear to me how well this particular show will work for those who aren’t already Gaga fans (which is a real consideration for a Las Vegas residency), but her fan base is large enough and the show is strong enough, that I think things will be just fine.
But even after a 20-song, 100-minute spectacle, the evening’s highlight still had not occurred. As she took the stage for an encore to sing current hit “Shallow,” which interestingly was the first mention of her current hit album during the night, she clearly looked nervous. As the crowd quieted down, she mentioned that she had a friend in the audience that she wanted to invite on stage. Just as I instantly suspected, the camera panned to Bradley Cooper, the 7-time Oscar nominee who starred opposite Gaga in A Star is Born (in addition to directing and co-writing the film). The crowd went absolutely wild as Cooper, dressed casually in jeans and a baseball hat, made his way to the center stage.
They embraced tenderly and fumbled through their preparation to duet on the smash song. Surely the decision for him to join her on stage was not the spontaneous one that they were trying to sell it as, but it nevertheless played that way. He sang the first verse impressively (remember that he only learned to sing and play the guitar for this particular film) as Gaga hung on his every note. Then as she took over he stared at her with a look that was reminiscent of how his character Jackson stares at Gaga’s character Ally throughout the film. It was a look that definitely contains amorous notes but is not dominated by them. Rather, it was a look characterized by immense respect and pure fascination. As the song intensifies and increasingly requires the two to harmonize, they became physically closer, ending in a passionate embrace that ended up further fueling speculation on social media that the two stars (both of whom are in committed relationships) are nursing romantic feelings for one another.
Watching an instantly iconic big screen moment unexpectedly recreated in front of you by two A-listers is an experience that’s hard to describe. The 5,200 people in the sold-out crowd were clearly bewildered. It was a spectacular and surprising end to an unforgettable night.
It is unclear where Lady Gaga will go from here. Will her next album veer toward early career dance hits (as Enigma would suggest) or jazz (as Jazz and Piano would suggest) or pop-rock (as Joanne and A Star is Born would suggest)? Will she put making new music on hold and pursue a film career after her spectacular big screen debut? Or will she take a break from it all and focus on her mental health and personal life (so well-documented in the Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two)? No one knows, perhaps even Gaga.
But one thing is for certain — Gaga’s legacy is cemented.
Enigma Setlist for January 26, 2019:
Setlist #/Song Title/Parent Album/Billboard Hot 100 Chart Peak
- Just Dance (The Fame, #1)
- Poker Face (The Fame, #1)
- LoveGame (The Fame, #5)
- Dance in the Dark (The Fame Monster, Unreleased)
- Beautiful, Dirty, Rich (The Fame, Unreleased)
- The Fame (The Fame, Unreleased)
- Telephone (The Fame Monster, #3)
- Applause (Artpop, #4)
- Paparazzi (The Fame, #6)
- Aura (Artpop, Unreleased)
- Scheiße (Born This Way, Unreleased)
- Judas (Born This Way, #10)
- Government Hooker (Born This Way, Unreleased)
- I’m Afraid of Americans (David Bowie Cover, Unreleased)
- The Edge of Glory (Born This Way, #3)
- Alejandro (The Fame Monster, #5)
- Million Reasons (Joanne, #4)
- You and I (Born This Way, #6)
- Bad Romance (The Fame Monster, #2)
- Born This Way (Born This Way, #1)
- Shallow (A Star is Born Soundtrack, #5)
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