Lady Gaga can still fill a stadium, even when radio turns its back

Lady Gaga performing in the Super Bowl LI halftime show in February.
Matt Slocum/AP/file
Lady Gaga performing in the Super Bowl LI halftime show in February.

When Lady Gaga leapt off the roof of Houston’s NRG Stadium during halftime of Super Bowl LI, the ever-shape-shifting pop singer assumed her latest pop form — stadium-headlining powerhouse boasting a medley-worthy array of hits, a star whose flair for the dramatic was made for the grandest stages. Gaga’s “Joanne” tour, which hits Fenway Park Friday and Saturday nights, is certainly a marker of her status as one of the world’s biggest pop stars, up there with fellow class of ’08ers like Katy Perry as well as more recent entrants like Lorde and Halsey.

To get the obvious question out of the way: “Joanne,” Gaga’s fifth album and the tour’s namesake, came out last October, and it’s pretty good as far as pop records go; it’s full of sticky hooks and forays into ridiculousness that Gaga can (mostly) pull off because of her put-on-a-show gumption. The rhetoric surrounding it tended to focus on the ever-slippery ideal of “authenticity,” focusing on the collaborations with rockers like Queens of the Stone Age leader Josh Homme and Beatle descendant Sean Lennon, the ridiculously large pink cowboy hat she sported on the album’s relatively subdued cover (no woman-as-motorcycle motif a la 2011’s “Born This Way” this time out), and the brief release-week tour of “dive bars” that were really just smaller clubs in industry-heavy cities. (Among them: Storied New York watering hole The Bitter End, where Gaga would occasionally play back when she was plain old Stefani Germanotta.)

“Joanne” is by no means a stripped-down dispatch from Gaga’s GarageBand files, though. Instead, she borrows from ideas of “realness” (which usually involve guitars) while still playing around with persona. She adopts a Stevie Nicks croak in the opening measures of the apocalyptic disco track “Diamond Heart,” and adds some nasal vowels to the “Perfect Illusion” chorus in a way that almost codes as sneering-British-punk. The giddy “A-YO” is an amped-up two-step punctuated by a luscious electric-guitar solo, while “Sinner’s Prayer” is a grizzled anti-love song dipped on Old West grime. But the big beats that accompanied her entrée to pop stardom in the late ‘00s are still there, particularly on tracks like the swooning “Dancin’ in Circlesand the ravenous cowboy stomp “John Wayne.”


Then again, anyone looking to Gaga for buttoned-down “realness” of the musical kind is on a bit of a fool’s errand. Which is not to say she’s not talented, or that she operates apart from the canon. Her malleable voice can tunnel into a full-on bellow as easily as it can play utter blankness; ballads like the intense “Joanne” lament “Million Reasons” and the end-of-night anthem “Yoü and I” were designed to have lighters (and cellphone lights) waved along with their live renditions; her partners in crime have included smooth-listening icon Tony Bennett (with whom she recorded the 2014 standards album “Cheek to Cheek”), rocket man Elton John, and irascible indie dude Father John Misty (who co-wrote two “Joanne” tracks, including “Sinner’s Prayer”).

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What makes her a great pop star, and transforms her from prodigious balladeer Stefani Germanotta into larger-than-life pop icon Lady Gaga, is her penchant for kicking all of that up a notch, and introducing listeners to a fantasy world where the potential for one to be oneself is infinite. The hat on the cover of “Joanne” is the first obvious sign that she hasn’t given up the ghost of grandiosity just yet, and its songs, thankfully, bear that out.

Yet Gaga, like other women in her cohort, has had ups and downs on the singles charts, normally seen as the arbiter of what “pop” sounds like at any given moment. “Joanne,” like the most recent releases by Perry, Lorde, Halsey, and the reinvigorated Kesha, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the chart that measures consumption of albums. It sold 170,000 copies and moved 201,000 album-equivalent units — which includes the aforementioned number as well as aggregated sales and streams of individual tracks — in its first week, and has since been certified gold (meaning that more than 500,000 copies have been shipped). But its singles initially had soft landings; while the Super Bowl performance boosted “Million Reasons” into the top five, the synthpop dust storm “Perfect Illusion” peaked at No. 15. In April she released “The Cure,” an electropop meringue that resembles the simple, singsong vein of The Chainsmokers’ unavoidable 2016 hit “Closer” and its EDM-pop clones, like the Zedd-Alessia Cara trifle “Stay” and the Cheat Codes-Demi Lovato bit of froth “No Promises.” That it allows Gaga to sound, at times, like herself vocally might be why the song peaked at No. 35; the trend of pop’s female vocalists being given minuscule supporting roles by their collaborators is so widespread, even Lovato’s mighty voice is made small on “Promises.” (Rihanna has been the exception to this rule; Taylor Swift might be with her new single.)

Do musicians need radio support — or even high-charting singles where they’re first-billed — to still be considered “pop stars”? This question is one of many that have swirled around the music industry’s current era of chaos, which is recalibrating notions of success as fast as it can. Gaga’s track record and indulgence in spectacle no matter what, as well as her ever-shifting definition of what “pop” can include and her ability to pack baseball stadiums for multiple-night runs, would seem to indicate that she’ll be just fine. Even if she does, one day, decide to release without fanfare an album full of songs originally recorded to four-track tape, with the cassettes’ hiss serving as her backing choir.

Lady Gaga

At Fenway Park. Friday and Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $86, 877-733-7699,

Maura Johnston can be reached at