“It’s been a decade since I played to an audience this size,” Lady Gaga said, in one of many look-how-far-I’ve-come moments during this invite-only hometown concert. “I went from playing for 30 people to 300 people to fifteen hundred people,” she continued, adding on even more zeroes before concluding, “and that’s down to one thing: you and I,” providing a perfect intro for “You and I,” her most Billy Joel-esque song.
As big-artist shows at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater usually are, this one was a full-circle moment — the intimacy and history of the venue tend to draw out introspection and gratitude. But even more for Gaga, this was a dramatic homecoming — she grew up in the suburbs, moved to the big city and struggled, but she worked hard and now, so many of her dreams have come true that she has to keep thinking up new ones. On top of that, it’s Pride Week — which got its own mid-show speech — so it was also a homecoming for the audience she’s nurtured since the very beginning of her career.
“What a historical moment for me in my life,” she told the crowd in one of countless gushing moments. “I see all your beautiful faces, and I feel you. I was just a girl in an apartment on the Lower East Side with a keyboard, and it feels so good to be here — I’m home and I’m with you. I go all over the world,” she concluded, “but I’ll always come back home.”
And if it all got a bit self-indulgent and had maybe a whiff of altitude sickness from the dizzy heights of fame, well, who’s ever met a humble icon, diva or queen? And when they’ve put in the work for the art — as Gaga unquestionably has and does, burning untold calories and brain cells in tonight’s high-energy, hit-filled set — being “normal” isn’t part of the job.
The concert was the 2019 edition of an invite-only annual megastar series SiriusXM stages at the Apollo for contest-winning fans, which is also streamed over its channels; past artists include Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Pitbull and Guns N’ Roses. The artists often take advantage of the special setting and targeted audience by serving up a custom set aimed directly at the die-hard fans in the 1,500-capacity venue as well as the millions of listeners out there in satellite radioland. It’s a rare opportunity to go big and intimate at the same time — and, of course, look back and inward.
Gaga essentially has already done that with her ongoing “Enigma” residency in Las Vegas, which opened late last year and recently extended into 2020, and tonight, she played a tightened version of that show, pummeling the audience — gloriously — with eye-popping visuals, nearly non-stop dancing, and hit after hit after hit. And as tightly rehearsed as the musicians and dancers were — months-long residencies, after all, can get dull — the novel setting and emotional homecoming gave the show a unique spontaneity.
She dove right in: Just after 8 p.m., the band struck up an overture and Gaga emerged in a flood of blue light, brandishing a keytar and clad in a catsuit so bedazzled with tiny mirrors that my seat companion shouted, “She’s wearing a disco ball!” Then Gaga played a familiar note sequence on the keytar and took the audience back to the beginning of her career — “Just Dance,” the opening track on her 2008 debut album, “The Fame” — then roared into a 25-minute barrage of early favorites: “Pokerface,” “LoveGame,” “Dance in the Dark,” “Telephone,” launching a 14-song set that was overwhelmingly focused on her first three albums (she played just one track each from her last three, including last year’s soundtrack to the Oscar-winning “A Star Is Born“).
Ordinarily such a run of hits can be exhausting, but this was a well-paced set that rarely lagged, with breathers built in as between-song banter, instrumental interludes and the oft-criticized — and, frankly, really silly — self-examining onstage dialogues with her virtual avatar Enigma, which Gaga described as “my inner voice, my conscience, my gut” (which it may be, but it’s hard to hear her exclaim, “Enigma, I’m scared!” without thinking, “Ain’t no Oscar here”). And while the evening had a few odd moments, like a recollection about spending “so much time with my friends” in Harlem — “one of them lived here!” — and some strange makeup that almost looked like a fake tan, they were minor distractions in a powerhouse set that brought the house down from its opening moments.
Gaga was accompanied by six musicians and six constantly strutting, posing and vogue-ing dancers; a perfectly synched light show; and wildly colorful futurist scenes and prismatic video backdrops. We lost count of her costume changes, which ranged from sparkly bikinis to fluorescent green boas and an Aladdin Sane-esque gold number in a shape unknown to the natural world, all worn with a variety of mostly turquoise wigs (and her real, turquoise-tinted hair as well).
She may well be the hardest-working person in show business. Unlike Beyonce —whose regal, stock-still stare is the center of her being — Gaga is in constant motion, busting and grinding and huffing and hustling with her dancers nearly every second that she isn’t bashing the hell out of her piano, all while singing at the top of her lungs with remarkable precision. At one point a dancer flipped her completely over his shoulder and her voice didn’t waver; at another four dancers held her horizontally and moved her body in a kind of undulating fish motion, and there wasn’t a single gasp or exhale (see the Instagram video below). And it’s almost definitely not a recording; she’s apparently developed superhuman breath control.
“Hands up! This is your pride!” she yelled toward the end of the hour-and-40-minute-long set, before tearing into a rousing, triumphant “Born This Way” that had the Pride-Week-heavy crowd in a frenzy. After a long bow the lights went down and the musicians left the stage, and after a few moments the crowd realized that she hadn’t played a single song from “A Star Is Born.” The crowd started chanting “Shallow!,” her guitarist came out and began the song’s unmistakable chords, and Gaga came out onstage seemingly dressed as Ally, her humble character in the film, but clad in a Lady Gaga t-shirt.
“I used to sit in my apartment and write songs about fame, boys, my family,” she said, sitting down at the keyboard. “And I made it. And then they tried to take me down, and I put my head down and got back to work. And then I looked up one day, and I had a f—in’ Oscar in my hand.” The crowd roared. “You can do anything that you put your mind to. Every time someone tells you no, you tell yourself a thousand more: ‘Yes, I can do this.’
“‘Cause I’ll tell you something,” she concluded, before launching into the song that opened a whole new era for the career she celebrated on this night. “They thought my sh– was shallow. But I look into all of your eyes and I feel this room, and there ain’t nothing in the world deeper than this.”
Setlist (from setlist.fm)
. Just Dance
. Poker Face
. Dance in the Dark
. The Edge Of Glory
. Million Reasons
. Yoü and I
. Bad Romance
. Born This Way