If you watched the American Music Awards on Sunday night, you saw Lady Gaga’s performance of her latest single, “The Cure.” The song is a love-heals-all-wounds ballad that sounds like everything else on pop radio, and the performance relied on the pyrotechnic tricks of arena shows.
It was a highlight of the AMAs, but for the little monsters in attendance at the Capital One Arena, it was an awkward appetizer for the rest of Gaga’s show. The live-to-tape performance was shot half an hour before the Washington concert actually started, a strange anticlimax that set the tone for a night of half-measures from the would-be queen of pop.
Gaga is touring in support of 2016’s “ Joanne ,” a soft-rock-and-country-kissed album that saw her time-hop in her pop DeLorean and switch muses from Madonna to Stevie Nicks. In kind, the gorgeously grotesque costumes and stagecraft that defined her early, avant-pop period have been replaced with glammy Americana: less Fame Monster, more Rhinestone Cowgirl.
In that way, Gaga’s latest phase is all hat, no cattle. The songs of “Joanne” are confident but modest at best, middling at worst. “Diamond Heart” and “Perfect Illusion” fared best Sunday, with Gaga backed by Robert Palmer video girls and goth-cowboy-biker guitarists. But nothing off the new album could compare with the vitality of the supercharged synth-pop of early singles such as “Just Dance,” “Poker Face ” and “Alejandro,” the last of which let her showcase her vocal prowess. Throughout the night, she hit her notes and then some, proving herself to be an underrated singer; her dancing, on the other hand, strained that old “dance like nobody’s watching” saying.
Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of platitudes from Gaga — a pop star who was woke before it was on trend — about feminism, being yourself and equality for all. But like the inane banter that she used to introduce each song, everything seemed canned, vapid and, at times, tonally deaf, like when she was mock-murdered by a dancer during “Paparazzi” and ascended to the heavens for “Angel Down,” a song she vaguely dedicated to “everyone we lost this year.”
At several times during the night, Gaga herself was lost — or at least off the stage — as she changed costumes. These interminable interludes featured unnecessary jam sessions but also teased the transgressive Gaga of old, in the form of experimental video interludes somewhere between Beyoncé’s video albums, David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and Gaga’s “American Horror Story” gig. The music in these shorts — noisy, off-kilter, with hints of industrial and trap-EDM — was perhaps the most interesting of the night. Imagine if Gaga made songs out of that instead of her parents’ record collection.
But no matter: The fandom that comes with Gaga’s level of pop stardom works as a cloak of invincibility. In the eyes of the sold-out crowd, Gaga could do no wrong. The same can be said for the fans that vote for the vox populi AMAs. Toward the end of the concert, the video screens were tuned to the broadcast to show the winner of favorite pop/rock female artist . . . Lady Gaga. Unfortunately, the acceptance speech Gaga gave after “shockingly” winning the award might have been her best performance of the night.