Lady Gaga, the shape-shifting belter whose ascent over the last nine years helped usher in pop music’s shift toward electro’s rigid beats while giving a huge boost to its overall weirdness quotient, began her career gutting it out at small clubs in New York City under her own name, Stefani Germanotta. During her fast-paced, splashy show at Fenway Park on Friday (the first of two there this weekend), her production numbers — full of onstage costume changes and big beats — were balanced by heartfelt speeches and chats with the audience that gave off if not the sweaty, cramped feeling of catching a band at a small bar, at least a sense of camaraderie with the performer and her audience members.
Gaga started off with a barked command: “Don’t call me Gaga,” she sneered, “call me Joanne!” It’s her middle name and the name of an aunt who passed away before she was born; it’s also the title of her most recent album, which made up the bulk of Friday night’s set. That album was hailed as a deep dive into “realness” for Gaga, another step away from the overblown oddness of her 2013 album, “Artpop.”
Her new album’s back-to-basics reputation is a bit overblown; while its lyrics are abstractly reflecting on her own life, the electro-cowboy stomp “John Wayne” and the storming “Perfect Illusion” are only two “Joanne” selections firmly rooted in dance-pop’s ideas. From top to bottom, the night was defined by Gaga’s acrobatic, rich vocals and overwhelming charisma. But a few moments allowed her to break from the big beats and synchronized dance moves of her biggest hits like the stuttering “Poker Face” and the grandiose “Bad Romance,” which were for the most part faithfully re-created by Gaga, a wide array of modular costumes and cowboy hats, and her phalanx of dancers.
Gaga preceded “Come to Mama,” a welcoming if slightly impatient look at the way discrimination and dogmatism divide society, with a short speech welcoming the LGBTQ community to the show and stating, “The truth is that everybody’s gotta love each other.” Seated at a translucent piano, she played up the similarity between “Come to Mama” and the sort of strutting numbers that give musical-theater heroines the chance to dust themselves off and declare themselves stars, to great effect. “The Edge of Glory,” a triumphant synth-rocker from 2011’s “Born This Way,” was flipped into a stark piano ballad dedicated to the late Sonja Durham, the former managing director of Gaga’s creative team Haus of Gaga; she died in May of cancer. And the delicate ballad “Joanne” was introduced by Gaga talking about her dealings with anxiety and depression and its familial roots, and her hope that songs like it could help people realize that even with all the grand production and costume changes, she was still just a person like them.
The night ended with the weeper “Million Reasons,” which she preceded with a high-five-punctuated walk around the stage’s lip and dedicated to her most fervent fans (who dressed up for the occasion in glittery capes and uncomfortable shoes). She wore a version of the giant pink cowboy hat that she sports on the cover of “Joanne,” and as the song drew to a close, she waxed philosophical one last time: “Sometimes it’s important,” she said, “to try on somebody else’s hat to understand.” The restlessly morphing pop star doffed the hat and placed it on the microphone stand, then walked off, allowing the spotlight to shine on her ad hoc sculptural work, which was perhaps a statement on taking time to listen.
With DJ White Shadow
At Fenway Park, FridayMaura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.