(Illustration by Eddie Alvarez/The Washington Post; Photo by Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)
Pop music critic

It’s Saturday night in Las Vegas, and Lady Gaga is doing that cataleptic-in-victory thing — an applause-bathing pose in which the singer’s freeze-tagged frame sponges up the hot rumble of 10,000 clapping hands while her cold eyes shoot death beams into the middle distance.

Who’s she staring at? For starters: Elvis Presley, Wayne Newton, Cher, Celine Dion, Barry Manilow, Lola Falana, Tom Jones, Charo and the entire Rat Pack. Britney Spears and Mariah Carey. Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani. Abbott and Costello (Bugsy Siegel booked them at the Flamingo in 1946). Donny and Marie (still playing the Flamingo in 2019). Siegfried and Roy, and that tiger who suddenly wanted to eat Roy in 2003. Every chorus girl who ever kicked her toes in the direction of heaven. Every bendable homunculus who ever signed up with Cirque du Soleil. Every stripper, crooner, magician, dancer and jazzbo who ever came to this glowing wonderland, dreaming that beautiful American dream of turning smiles into money. Even the city’s patron saint and haunting spirit, Wladziu Valentino Liberace. The only way for Lady Gaga to honor them is to waste them all.

So it goes when you’re trying to reclaim your spot as the biggest entertainer drawing breath. At 32, she’s just a kid out here, but Gaga knows how to be more famous in more ways than anyone in the lot.

Despite her radical posture, she remains pop’s ace student, a virtuoso competitor and a relentless pleaser who recently spent the first decade of her career seeking head pats from the music industry, high fashion, the art world, Hollywood, Bud Light, Netflix, Tony Bennett and the NFL. Now she’s planting her flag in the Nevada dirt with two separate concert residencies: a future-kitsch pop show called “Enigma,” performed in sci-fi riot gear; and a standards revue called “Jazz and Piano,” sung in ball gowns made from pulverized starlight. It’s all going pretty great. So much so, that in the middle of last Saturday night’s pop gig, she roared out to the neon city and all its ghosts: “This is our town now!”

Maybe you came here to play, but Lady Gaga did not. Instead of treating Las Vegas as a retirement bunker where fading talents go to half-sing to the least-skeptical audiences on the planet, she’s out here at the peak of her stardom, hitting all the big notes with every atom of her being. For a control-freaky overachiever, it must feel something like paradise. The only person she can disappoint within the city limits is herself. What more could she want?


Lady Gaga performs during her “Enigma” residency in Las Vegas. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Park MGM Las Vegas)

“GIVE HER THE OSCAR!”

That’s what some rando shouted near the big finish of Gaga’s Saturday-night engagement at MGM’s Park Theater — her fifth “Enigma” date since launching the show last month. She was easing her way into “Shallow” — the ballad that her character sings to paralyzing effect in the latest Hollywood remake of “A Star Is Born” — but when that errant Oscar-holler caught Gaga’s ear, her fingers jumped up off the piano as if the keys had become hot to the touch.

“It’s not about the award, it’s about the process of creating,” she said, pivoting toward the anonymous shout. “If you want to be a star, it better be because you want to change people’s lives, not change yours.”

The words marched out of her mouth with complete authority, as if she’d been practicing in the mirror every morning since the movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival. (She would likely recite them again the following Tuesday, as she officially updated her résumé: “Academy Award-nominated actress Lady Gaga.”)

But was this the real Gaga talking? Or the fake one? And is there a difference now? There didn’t used to be, back when she presented herself as a sentient, 24-7 artwork, singing about fame as if it were the most priceless metaphysical currency our civilization will ever know. In the process, she earned a devout listenership — the most zealous were there to greet the dawn of stan culture, dubbing themselves “Little Monsters” — and Gaga got so good at making them happy, she eventually had to sniff out new worlds to conquer. Hence, the album of jazz duets, the uptick in acting roles, the Super Bowl halftime show.

Through it all, the Lady’s feelings on fame began to change. “It ain’t all champagne and roses,” she declared Saturday while warming up “Million Reasons,” a renunciation-of-omnipresence-slash-falling-out-of-love-song from three years ago. “You pay a price.”

Okay, so was that the real Gaga? Why are we even asking tonight? Out in the real world, we might try to organize her swirl of paradoxical personas into some kind of order, but here, deep inside this perfumed labyrinth of colored light and nonstop sound, all you need to do is sip them up through your bendy-straw like so much strawberry milkshake.

To hear Lady Gaga sing “Shallow” in Vegas is to feel all of her iterations go swoosh in one happy blur — a celluloid dream inside a song dream inside a concert dream inside a Las Vegas dream. Plus, when the lights come up and those dream bubbles go pop-pop-pop, you still get to shuffle out onto the Strip and loiter around the only bubble in America with its own area code.

***

That’s how Saturday’s show ended. Here’s how it started: With Gaga dangling from the ceiling on a metallic thread, her spine slightly curved like a fallen rococo angel, her bodysuit shimmering, as if she’d just rolled around in a pile of shattered disco ball, her lips glowing orange, as if she’d just been Frenching a traffic cone up in the rafters.

The first song to come bouncing out of her radioactive mouth was “Just Dance” — a surgically precise hit single about losing control — and when she finally touched down on the stage, she led by example, violently stomping around on one-and-three as though life were just too short to wait around for two-and-four.

Gaga’s music has always been in that kind of hurry. Whether she’s singing big-hearted affirmations or petty nya-nyas, she’s almost always out in front of the beat — and it’s the whatnextwhatnextwhatnext restlessness of her vocal phrasing that makes the songs go zoom. It’s hard to imagine it sounding any better than it does in Las Vegas, where anxious anticipation charges every cubic inch of communal airspace, where all those glittery games of chance echo the repetitive tension and release that we crave in pop songs.

As for the bigger anxieties currently coursing through our republic, Gaga spoke on them slowly, loudly, clearly. She chastened President Trump for his government shutdown, and then eviscerated Vice President Pence for defending his wife’s decision to work at a school that openly discriminates against the LGBTQ community. “You are the worst representation of what it means to be a Christian,” Gaga said. “What I do know about Christianity is that we bear no prejudice, and everybody is welcome.”

This was the realest Lady Gaga. The one who believes in equality, justice, free speech, truth to power, God, you, reflective outfits with strange protuberances, and above all, pop music’s grand utopian impulse.

Everybody is welcome.


Lady Gaga performs during her “Jazz and Piano” in Las Vegas. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Park MGM Las Vegas)

Sunday night. “Jazz and Piano.” The big premiere. There will be jazz, technically. And piano, no doubt. But the rest of it will feel like two hours of orange juice after brushing your teeth —and to kick things off, an excited young woman in an impeccable cocktail dress will be waterboarding you with Minute Maid. Hold still, please.

With an entire orchestra at her back, Gaga comes out to “Luck Be a Lady,” singing and swinging, snap-snap-snapping her fingers like a stressed parent trying to hustle a feral pack of kiddos through the sliding side-door of a Honda Odyssey. Her voice sounds so bright, it’s almost scalding, and when she welcomes everyone to the party with her New Yawk accent turned up a few clicks, she quotes Cole Porter as if she’s dying to put his maxim to the test: “Anything goes!”

Didn’t Gaga drive a Transformer across this very spot last night? Why does this feel a million miles further out there?

It must have everything to do with the unchecked brass in her singing voice, which threatens to oversell each song at the outset only to burn a hole through it by the end. She simmers down a few joules when her 92-year-old jazz tutor Tony Bennett materializes for a duet, but otherwise, instead of sinking into these songs — “Lush Life,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “New York, New York”— Gaga can only blast out of them. And when she does, the flames are preposterously beautiful.

During the costume changes, interstitial videos are projected into the concert hall during which our gracious hostess explains how she grew up besotted with the voice of Billie Holiday, and how she still marvels over the fact that certain pages in the Great American Songbook could “last a century.” This would be the evening’s clearest peek into Gaga’s unmappable brain space. She cares about durability. These tunes have value because they’ve survived.

And that’s interesting, for sure, but it doesn’t make it any less impossible to figure out why Lady Gaga thinks this is a cool thing to do. But, oh, she does, she does, she does, boopity-bop-do-bop . . . pahhhh, and her commitment is total, making the whole production feel like an aggressive hallucination that you don’t want to end. It’s a complete reversal of the night before. We’re the ones frozen and staring while Gaga has the night of her life. Anything is definitely going.

“And in case you forgot,” she announces at the close of the show in a burst of mock-gusto and genuine pride, “my name is Lady Gaga, and I’m here to stay!”


Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper at the “A Star Is Born” premiere at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

Here would be a very fine place for Lady Gaga to stay. She clearly wants to live forever and this is a city that stops time. Las Vegas will improve her vision and her vision is already improving Las Vegas. It’s a match.

For one thing, her ideas won’t rust beneath the pleasure dome. She can keep singing her Warholian ditties about fame’s divine magnetism while the outside world rots on social media. She can keep tsk-ing those paparazzi baddies while the rest of us figure out how to live in a digital surveillance state. She won’t have to keep switching up her personas, either, (just the costumes), and her too-fast singing will always prevent the songs from feeling musty, whether they were penned in 2016 or 1916.

Most importantly, Las Vegas is the only place in this sprawling vale of tears where a stage performer can take a legitimate shot at being everything to everyone without turning their life’s work into a prolonged act of self-annihilation.

Did Gaga come to Las Vegas at the zenith of her popularity to protect herself from oblivion? Sure feels like it. And now that she’s here, she’s made a pivot. Her music used to be a riddle about what’s fake and what’s real. But here (Las Vegas, Nev.), and now (A.D. 2019), it feels more like a negotiation between the past and the future.

If she truly wants to speak to the collective human condition, that’s the only way in. We all live together in time. And if the past and future weigh on every moment, why not come to Las Vegas to try to make that heavy feel light?

She’s locked in for two years with MGM — or, as she bragged from the stage, “Three, if I want.” Wink-wink. She wants. This is her town now.