In Vegas, a weird, wonderful Lady Gaga is reborn
In just over a decade of pop prominence, Lady Gaga has cycled through more categorical eras of identity than some artists go through in an entire career. She's always been a sculptor of her own distinction, marking her stages by some principal fashions (the meat dress!) or stroke of sonic style (the country one!), or otherwise heretofore unexpected pocket in the zeitgeist that her grand persona suddenly seemed to fill at exactly the right time (American Horror Story and Tony Bennett!).
But what's strange about Lady Gaga in 2018, then, is how she has all but exploded the celebrity we know. Her 2016 album Joanne had already hinted at that as a possibility: a more human layer behind the spectacle, an artist capable of great personal storytelling without reliance on a beat or a bedazzler. Her meteoric turn in the fall's A Star is Born would further seal the change, sending her on a charmed ride through (a still ongoing) awards season as an actress who utilizes a different kind of flash. So if, by the end of 2018, Gaga has proven herself too multifaceted to be any One Thing her biggest detractors want to say she is and similarly too capacious to wear only the predictable hats her biggest admirers want to see her sport once more, then the 32-year-old's road has culminated, or at least pit-stopped, in an unprecedented place with a curious question: Who is Lady Gaga, right now? Or perhaps, who was she, ever?
It's a patly-worded question, but it's true and, in any event, certainly relevant — and evidently, almost divinely so, as Gaga's next great act hits the notion of identity head-on just as one of the most formative years of her career comes to a close. The mystery of Gaga, in her past glory and future potential, is explored in the singer's newest show, Enigma, an explosive Las Vegas residency which opened Dec. 28 at the Park Theater at the Park MGM, the first major stage show for the musician since her Joanne world tour. If the question of who Lady Gaga is isn't exactly resolved here, it's certainly deconstructed, dispelled, and chased down a futuristic dystopian wormhole.
The 100-minute show's story — because of course there's a story! — follows Gaga's onstage encounters with a mysterious CGI android from the future named Enigma. Bearing the singer's voice and motion-capture mannerisms, Enigma claims to Gaga that she is "the mystery of you," containing "the parts of your brain that you don't understand… parts of you that feel misunderstood." Enigma (who also has her own planet, because again, of course) challenges Gaga and her company of friends-slash-dancers to enter "the simulation," taking a chronological tour of the singer's five-album-plus music catalogue in order to deduce answers about a seemingly wayward Gaga's future by revisiting her once-confidence past.
"Only in the simulation will you be able to solve the mystery of who you are and why," Enigma explains, and lest this review include too many weirdly specific quotes attributed to the CGI android lady, it's all a wild, visually kinetic way of saying this: Give them the greatest hits, and give 'em in a way only Lady Gaga can.
Enigma begins with an aerial Gaga flying stagebound from the rafters with keytar in hand and shimmering metallic jumpsuit on point (one of several she wears throughout the evening). Her dance floor star-makers from The Fame — "Just Dance," "Poker Face," and "LoveGame" — set the tone for a night of hits that Gaga rediscovers, as it were, with the euphoric momentum settling in with flashbacks and fan-favorites like "Dance in the Dark," "Beautiful Dirty Rich," "The Fame," "Telephone" (sans Beyoncé), and a tumultuous "Applause." Deep fans will appreciate the homages the first act contains to the original aesthetics and choreography that defined Gaga's early rise; new fans will be no less clued in to understanding exactly how she ascended to stardom so quickly.
We then plunge into the DANGER portion of the evening, after a theme-park-ride-gone-wrong "Paparazzi" and a passionately performed "Aura" (one of several underrated songs which she admirably selected to include here and re-elevate on her own terms). It's a fiery interplanetary hellscape, replete with pyrotechnics, heavy-metal machinery, and a gargantuan mecha-robot suit-contraption (with claws!); should audiences still be following the story, they'd find songs like "Judas" and "The Edge of Glory" as key indicators of Gaga rekindling the rebelliousness she would claim in the second act of her career, memorably through Born This Way and its defiant lyrics. The tone continued with a brief diatribe into political fury via a cover of David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails' "I'm Afraid of Americans"; at some point between that and "Government Hooker," something certainly sounding like "Donald Trump" was yelled to the headbanging crowd.
There is indeed an end to the Enigma narrative, and one could argue even a hint of an emotional payoff. After "Alejandro," a resonant "A Million Reasons" marked the only piano-bound ballad Gaga would perform during the evening (save for her encore) and pled the case for the importance of preserving roots, offering a nice sentimental button to the conclusion of Gaga's reconciliation with Enigma (or her completion of the simulation, or voyage across the planet, or, God, or something like that). Immediately afterwards, Gaga buoyed "You and I" with the gleeful message "Only you can heal you" and definitively concluded the journey by filling the sold-out Park Theater with that rare ebullience that can only come from screaming an anthem at the top of your lungs.
By the time the lights went dark and Gaga's identity was fully restored and all that Germanotta jazz, "Bad Romance" and "Born This Way" lead the trio of encores with every ounce of pure, fiery Gaga energy you'd expect of her biggest hits. And then, because there's no reason not to, Gaga covered "Shallow" from A Star is Born. Perhaps better suited for the narrative than anything else in her set list (and not just because of its zeitgeisty buzz), the tune marked Gaga's self-realization in its fullest — diving, floating into some exhilarating unknown ether with both fear and fearlessness — and sent audiences out on a moving note, elevated to a place almost as high as the very one from which Gaga descended at the beginning of her weird, wonderful show.
Enigma is, on the whole, rather nutty, and not just in the wild CGI creation with whom Gaga earnestly interacts (not to mention a second avatar of Gaga's — an anime superhero — whose elaborate interval travels across Planet Enigma give the singer enough time to change outfits offstage). But Enigma the show is a damn good time, and it's admirable in its attempts to elevate a greatest-hits gathering into something striving for more, something that perhaps even galvanized an artist in the peak of her career to take a Vegas residency in the first place.
Enigma is Gaga's way of sharing an epiphany that we can only assume she's recently experienced and strove to manifest creatively in the way that best suits her. At some point, Gaga lost who she was — whether by her own fault, or the machine around her, is only for her to say — but Enigma, in as much as we need from it, serves as her way of affirming that she's never been more secure in who she is, and that the most atypical parts of Lady Gaga are just as present and valid as the parts we perhaps have told her we'd have an easier time accepting. A "normal" Lady Gaga, as it were. I am guilty of it myself in defining Gaga through her eras of outrageous outfits and specific sounds, but even that's not for me to define anymore; Gaga's message is almost universal that human beings are not ladders of substitution, but pyramids of accumulation. You can Star is Born AND you can Artpop. Maybe she didn't realize or accept that for a time, or was told not to; maybe I, and I imagine many of her fans, didn't either.
Her way of showing us is bizarre and beautiful, but Lady Gaga has always spoken in theatre and spectacle — and in her stunning Las Vegas debut, her vocabulary has found a perfect home.