Last February, Lady Gaga took Houston’s NRG Stadium by force for her much-lauded Super Bowl Half Time Show performance. For many who had come to question Gaga’s relevance over the past few years, it was a reminder that she was a barnstormer act who was second to none. Armed with her stable of globally acclaimed hits, she sang, strutted and flew across the stadium commanding everyone’s attention like very few modern pop acts are able to do. Everything about the performance was a technical marvel that took months of planning and preparation to execute, but the most difficult part of the whole performance was how she would include music from her most recent album, JOANNE.

READ: Our review of Lady Gaga’s long awaited return to pop music, JOANNE!

While much of Gaga’s discography creates a patchwork quilt of electronic pop sounds, JOANNE eschews much of those chrome-tinted flavors in favor of a more analog production courtesy of producer Mark Ronson. The problem then presented to Gaga and her team was how they could craft a medley performance where these sounds could coexist. She chose to perform “Million Reasons,” a simple, but powerful ballad fixed at the literal and spiritual heart of the album. The end result was a performance that focused squarely on highlighting Gaga’s artistry. It has never been about the glitz or glam of her image. Rather, at her core, Gaga is an artist so unafraid of her own sentimentality that she’s willing to both build up and tear down her pop diva image to show it. In that light, the relatively quieter simplicity of JOANNE makes a lot of sense.

Lady Gaga

Fast forward a few months later and Gaga has now embarked on her Joanne World Tour. It is in many ways an extension and expansion of her Super Bowl performance; at the very least, the intention is the same. This tour is less about promoting JOANNE than it is about promoting Gaga as a premiere live act for all audiences, not just her little monsters. Watching from Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Gaga has taken careful care to weave a set list that feels balanced and accessible to fans both old and new. Of course, there’s no shortage of special effects and the visual components of the show are technically remarkable, especially keeping in mind that this performance is designed for arenas, not stadiums. You could not tell she had adapted it at all. Everything flowed and felt natural. Lady Gaga and her dancers were in militant lock step. The acoustics were great, and everything seemed to go without a hitch. It was a treat for the eyes just as much as it was for the ears.

READ: What’s the key to long-term success in music? We break it down here!

Gaga started the show with JOANNE’s opening tracks, the Springsteen-influenced “Diamond Heart” followed by some honky tonk straight out of a Shania Twain track courtesy of the track “A-YO.” Both of these songs brought you into the atmosphere of the show, but it wasn’t until she jumped into the tour staple mega-hit “Poker Face” that things really got going. At first glance, going from Nashville twang to gay club must-hear might seem like a bit of a haphazard misfire, but they surprisingly flowed very well from one song to the next, held together by Gaga’s magnetizing energy. That’s a theme that runs throughout this show. Whether it’s going from JOANNE’s “John Wayne” to BORN THIS WAY’s “Scheiße,” what brings this motley crew of sounds together is not a shared theme or message, but the artist herself.

Lady Gaga

That may seem like a logical goal for an artist’s tour, but very often tours play more like a greatest hits collection rather than showing all the facets of the artist who wrote those hits. THE JOANNE WORLD TOUR is no such tour. There’s romance and fury, grieving and celebration, all managing to coexist harmoniously together because they are all pieces of Gaga. Her hits take on new life next to her more recent ones, and the Joanne tracks benefit from the veteran ones giving them a platform to shine.

What we’re seeing here, a journey that was started at the Super Bowl last February, is Gaga finally finding her way as an artist. Since her debut in 2008, both critics and audiences have consistently cast off her artistry as being referential or derivative. None of these endeavors were gimmicks, though; not her outlandish outfits, her jazz album with Tony Bennett, or any of the other multitude of genres she’s tried her hand at. What is becoming abundantly clear now is that Lady Gaga has always pushed herself for the sake of finding her art. It has been a journey of absorbing her library of seemingly disparate influences and synthesizing them like a pop cultural blacksmith into something new and unique. She doesn’t regurgitate what came before her, she uses it in conjunction with any number of other influences to make a statement, which is why picking apart said influences and references is ultimately a futile effort. Yes, you can say that she’s been influenced by Grace Jones and David Bowie, but nothing has been achieved by stating so. Gaga is anything but subtle and has never denied her influences. She’d rather you focus on the larger tapestry that she is weaving instead.

Lady Gaga

That is the point of the JOANNE WORLD TOUR: to properly showcase her ever-evolving artistry to the world at large. The hits still sound as fantastic as when they first crashed the airwaves, but they are not what keeps audiences around. What keeps Gaga’s star shining and what carries the weight of this massive tour is the woman at the heart of it. Her tenacity of showmanship, effusiveness of emotions, and honest dedication to self-expression and personal freedom; those are the hallmarks of Lady Gaga, and they take center stage this tour.

The night after Gaga’s show, I was walking with a friend not far from Wrigley Field telling her about the show the night before. As we were waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk, a middle-aged woman and her friend overheard me and interjected. “Did you see Lady Gaga last night? What a show. I tell you, she’s just fantastic, so real.” I then thought to myself about how ironic it was that this woman had just referred to a pop star with the same authenticity usually only awarded to mainstay rock acts. But that’s Lady Gaga, not just a trumped up persona or a highlighter wig, but a real person fighting her damnedest through the grit of her teeth.

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