A curious thing is happening online: Out of seemingly nowhere, Lady Gaga’s 2009 VMA performance of “Paparazzi” is a trending sound on TikTok. If you watched it live 13 years ago, it always stuck with you. It was one of the most shocking and sensational star-making performances of any pop artist’s career.
Onstage at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium Thursday night, Gaga performed the song in a palace-like setting. After performing an extended, dramatic piano interlude, she emerged with fake blood covering her white bodysuit, belting the chorus like her life depended on it.
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Death, rebirth, blood, sweat, and tears have always been essential parts of Gaga’s ethos. She’s always been obsessed with how art interacts with and responds to tragedy. All of that comes together at Chromatica Ball, Gaga’s twice-postponed show in support of her 2020 release, Chromatica. The album dives into one of Gaga’s darkest periods (the lyrics are truly heart-wrenching … under the house-inspired beats), which came out during the world’s worst moments. But at her show on Thursday, there was only space for joy.
Gaga’s set looks like some type of Berlin nightclub: imposing and ominous. She took inspiration from brutalist architecture, as she wrote on Instagram before launching the tour last month. The Ball itself is split into distinct parts, each separated by lengthy interludes of Gaga posing in various high-fashion outfits. The prelude is a tour de force and a flex, kicking off the show with three of her earliest hits: “Bad Romance,” “Just Dance,” and “Poker Face.” One right after the other, the run of smashes comes swinging in like a hammer, with Gaga performing the first two from some type of cape-like shell, from which she slowly emerges. Her dancers (and the crowd) do the long-memorized video choreography for each, moves laid deep in our muscle memories.
The ensuing four acts are then structured around Chromatica itself, interspersed with songs from The Fame, The Fame Monster, and Born This Way mostly (sorry to the Artpop or Joanne devotees: Cuts from those albums were left off the set list entirely). One pleasant surprise was “Monster,” a Fame Monster deep cut that she hadn’t played live since 2014 before this tour. The moments when the old merged with the new were deeply satisfying, like the transition from “Sour Candy” to “Telephone” during Act Two.
Gaga is at her best when she’s at her absolute, most unbridled weirdest. The interludes make little to no sense and only some of them seem to be related to what’s about to happen onstage (like the brutalist hospital pictured before Act One that leads way to Gaga singing “Alice” from what appears to be some type of stone slab). The best of the interludes was before the finale, with Gaga at her most melodramatic. She recites a creepy sonnet about art and the responsibility of the artist: “This life is only art on life support, and nature is a knight. No king, no court,” she says as the vocals chaotically layer. If we found out later she was teasing her part in Joker 2, I’d buy it.
Gaga puts on one of the best productions in pop, but she’s just as good letting her immense voice shine. She took to the B stage in the middle of the floor for a large portion of the concert, and it was one of the most cleansing, and longest, acts of the show. Seated behind a piano that resembled a fallen tree, with branches jutting out, she performed a pair of A Star Is Born cuts. Her voice on “Shallow” was probably echoing all the way back to Manhattan. She dedicated “Always Remember Us This Way” to her friend Tony Bennett, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2016.
Later, before her stripped-down take on “Edge of Glory,” she shouted out Bruce Springsteen for inspiring the single, as well as the late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who played on it. She reminded the audience that Clemons died the day the video came out. She’s one of the rare artists to come through MetLife and not solely claim it as a New York show, giving props to some personal history she’s had in Jersey while growing up in NYC. “A lot of good things have happened to me here and a lot of bad things,” she said at one point behind the piano. “Let’s focus on the good tonight.”
Gaga used the piano moment to highlight the true sadness she was delving into on Chromatica. The album was largely celebrated for Gaga’s return to full dance pop, but beneath the surface is some of her finest and most personal songwriting. She stripped down “1000 Doves” and “Fun Tonight” to their raw cores. She could — and maybe should — have done a deconstructed take on the album instead of the remixed version she put out last year.
The finale was quick and high-energy after the piano portion, with Gaga running through extended versions of singles “Stupid Love” and “Rain on Me.” The latter was such a jolt of optimism and energy in 2020, when the world was faced with both incredible pain and confusion. It’s a celebration of life that feels even more prescient now that we can at least leave the house and experience moments like these.
Surprisingly, she didn’t end the show there. Instead, she put on an encore with the silliest encore selection possible: her Top Gun: Maverick soundtrack single “Hold My Hand.” It’s not the best or biggest Gaga song, just the most recent. Sure, there’s not a single power ballad in the world not worth paying to see Gaga sing. But it fell a little flat as the way to end the night when “Rain on Me” provided the show closure we needed.
Even 13 years after that VMA performance, Gaga is still breaking new ground for herself and the genre of pop music. Thankfully for us, she’s the type of artist who almost makes you impatient wanting to know what the next 13 will bring.
The Chromatica Ball set list:
“Born This Way”
“Always Remember Us This Way”
“The Edge of Glory”
“Rain on Me”
“Hold My Hand”
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