Somehow, the Little Monsters knew about the show in advance. When I arrived at The Satellite, a divey music venue tucked into a corner of Los Angeles' Silverlake, a crowd of Gaga aesthetes was already standing three deep across the way. Some of them even held pastel boards, presumably with sketches of their queen. I'm not sure what their plan was beyond that, but they had the sketches, damnit. The Satellite used to be The Spaceland, briefly the coolest music venue in Los Angeles. Now it's just another dive in a city full of them. Gaga herself, in her "Poker Face" days, was briefly the coolest music artist in the world. Now she was in town trying to prove that she hasn't become just another pop star. Gaga's transition into Joanne seems inexplicable, if commercially savvy. Presumably, she has her rock transformation to thank for landing her the Super Bowl halftime show. Still, why would the artist behind "Paparazzi" decide to professionally wear jean jackets?
In the bar, it all made sense. Even before she got to the venue, the tension was high. Perhaps spirits were buoyed by the free Bud Light, which was being handed out by a cadre of polite women carrying tin pails full of ice and cans. They were everywhere; the second you finished a drink they'd be standing at your elbow. I've received worse service at restaurant openings. The lights dimmed several times. Each time, the crowd would shriek in anticipation. They'd been there, or in the street, for hours. One Little Monster had travelled from his school in Irvine to arrive there in the early afternoon. He gained entry to the venue — which holds roughly 200 people, the largest of Gaga's three-city Bud Light Dive Bar Tour — after he performed the choreography from "Telephone" in the street. Celebrities like Brie Larson (sans Jacob Tremblay), RuPaul, and Ashlee Simpson presumably gained access more easily. Ru did not apologize for spilling champagne all over me last time I saw him, though to be fair he has no idea who I am.
Gaga has a well-earned reputation for inspiring intense outfit creativity in her fans. Maybe they've grown out of it, or maybe she has, or maybe it's just that you don't want to get in full costume to go to the Bud Light Dive Bar Tour, but everyone looked like they had just wandered in off any street in any town in America. I recognize that that's the point of this endeavor, but just saying. When
Gaga, er, Joanne, finally arrived — in Elvis Presley's old white convertible — she did so to screams. When she stepped on stage alongside Mark Ronson and her backup dancers (you can take Gaga out of the pageant, you can't take the pageant out of Gaga, etc.), she did so to ecstatic wails. I don't have to tell you what happened when she, clad only in a white T-shirt, dumped a Bud Light on her head. She leapt into the crowd and was held aloft by people who didn't even think twice about touching a beer-sopped shirt.
The songs, bolstered, by a live audience, gained an immediacy and meaning they don't have on the recorded album. "A-Yo" is a whole lot better when an audience of rapturous fans is singing it right back to her. “Million Reasons,” which recently hit No. 1 on iTunes, becomes a haunting song about staying with someone you shouldn't. And once Gaga explained that "Joanne" brought back to life the part of her father that died with his sister (the album's namesake), the song became heartbreakingly bittersweet. To play devil's advocate for a second, however, what's the point of even putting out an album if you have to go around explaining it to people?
To my disappointment, she did not play "Grigio Girls." Despite it's baldly ridiculous title, it's my favorite song on the album. Unlike many of the other songs, which can seem like cookie-cutter rock fare, there's a kernel of honesty behind it. At the concert, someone in the know told me that the song is, in fact, a real reference to Gaga and her friends, who get together and drink pinot grigio. Hallelujah. I wish more of Joanne were like that — built on tracks with a kind of "I know it's embarrassing but" honesty, and less on nonspecific songs about nonspecific feelings. But for one special night, everything came into sharp focus. Then we all filed out of the venue, and Joanne became just another album, and Gaga was back to being Gaga again.