Concert review: Lady Gaga authentically introduces ‘Joanne’ to OKC
for The Oklahoman
“You saw the cowboy hat and knew I was coming for you.”
A 14,000-strong sold-out crowd in Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Arena was littered heavily with pink cowboy hats in homage to the cover of Lady Gaga’s 2016 record “Joanne.” Both the record’s album artwork and the songs therein mark the 31-year-old pop star’s latest country-tinged artistic incarnation. The record also finds her at her most vulnerable and, aesthetically at least, a little at home in the Midwest.
The release of “Joanne” followed a tumultuous period of self-discovery in Gaga’s life: She’s spoken candidly in recent interviews about suffering depression, pain (she has fibromyalgia) and of wanting to quit the music business altogether. The period after 2013’s conceptual album “Artpop,” which received a lukewarm critical reception, found her experimenting as an actress on “American Horror Story” (for which she won a Golden Globe) and releasing an album of jazz standards with Tony Bennett.
In the end it was spiritual guidance from her middle-namesake, her late aunt Joanne who passed from lupus complications before she was born. Her connection to Joanne and the familial reflection that ensued are ever-present throughout “Joanne,” the album. The record contains Americana and country-esque instrumentation and writing, referencing a “blue collar and…red-state treasure” love interest in “John Wayne” and smoking a pack of Marlboros in “A-Yo.”
Show and album opener “Diamond Heart” is a Kelly Clarkson-esque pop rock stunner, an autobiographical track about Gaga’s strained relationship with her father and early job as a dancer in NYC that features a soaring chorus worthy of Gaga’s vocal prowess.
Gaga’s early hits “LoveGame” and “Just Dance” centered on pulsing beats and flat, electronic melodies, and performances of those songs perhaps benefited more from their familiarity and the likability of her band and dancers than from musical skill.
But the duration of “Joanne” shows Gaga for the powerhouse vocalist she is. She’s also an adept classical pianist, as many learned during the 2017 Super Bowl Halftime Show. Both of those talents were on full display through seven acts of more hits than even I realized she had.
Like the divergence in her song stylings, her dancing and crowd addresses were a charming mix of snarling and sweet, high art and vulgar. She was as likely to seem Faust-ian, engulfed in flames, as to make the sign of the cross. All of these are dichotomies she wears proudly.
“I might be a bad girl,” she said, smiling, “but I’m holy as hell.”
If “The Fame” and “The Fame Monster,” released in 2008 and 2009, made her a bona fide dance pop megastar, 2011’s “Born This Way” made her a figurehead for equality. Prior to performing that album’s title track, she polled the audience first to ask who identified as LGBTQ and who did not and saying, “That’s fantastic!” to both responses.
She followed up by saying, dryly, “I would feel compassion for someone (here) not in favor of equality.” Then, after a pause, “Because this is going to be a very awkward couple of hours.”
Her connection to those communities explains some of her fans’ devotion, and frequent messages of love and acceptance netted cheers as loud as any song throughout the night. (I will say here that of every concert I have been to at Chesapeake, the crowd at Gaga was by leaps and bounds the nicest to each other.)
“The Joanne World Tour” has all the pyrotechnics and energy of any major arena tour, but Gaga—née Stefani Germanotta—spoke often throughout the concert about authenticity, about being vulnerable with the crowd, largely comprised of superfans who dub themselves “Little Monsters.” She remarked on a fan’s phone case and posed for a picture, wore a jacket handpainted by a fan and at one point walked into the crowd to hug someone as requested in a note thrown onto the stage, a “MonsterGram,” as she called it.
For most people, discussing authenticity atop a stage platform after literally having been lowered on a bridge from a balloon-like truss affixed to the arena ceiling might come across as hokey. Somehow, though, Gaga made it real.
She spoke about putting kindness into the world at every opportunity and asked the crowd to send love to the victims of the California wildfires. She prefaced an acoustic performance of the title track from “Joanne,” a heartbreaking folk track, with a story about finding and accepting pain and trauma and reconciling the self before and after. She called the audience a disco ball, each member a mirror in which she could identify parts of herself.
The show’s encore performance was Gaga at her best: solo at a piano, glittery jumpsuit blinding in the stage lights. She performed the anthemic ballad “Million Reasons,” recently nominated for a 2018 Grammy. She capped the song by placing her pink cowboy hat on the piano bench, told the crowd she loved them and disappeared into the dark.
“Oklahoma,” she said, “thanks for letting me borrow your hat.”