December 3, 2017
Artists frequently receive notes and letters from fans like the one Lady Gaga read onstage last night from a Houston follower named Steven. The letter expressed how her empowering songs gave him the courage and strength to win his life back from crushing anxiety. When she finished reading it, she stepped into the crowd, found the author and hugged him tightly.
There was something in that hug that seemed just as cathartic for Lady Gaga as it was for the fan. A lot has happened to this city and that artist since February and much of it has been painful. We began 2017 together on a high, when she came to Houston to perform a thrilling set for the halftime show at Super Bowl 51. After that, she lost a close friend (and a native Houstonian) to cancer. She shared with us the story of the chronic pain she battles daily. For our part, we experienced one of the harshest natural disasters in U.S. history.
But, as she noted several times during an often-poignant set, that pain has made many of us stronger. And in our resolve, both Houston and Lady Gaga have earned some victories in 2017, too. We are rebuilding and have learned some important lessons in the process. Her album, Joanne, which she admits is thematically about pain, was recently nominated for a pair of Grammy Awards. It was a difficult year, to be sure; but, we all shared a group hug of sorts last night and vowed to end it on a high note, the way it began.
Gaga arrived on the main stage – one of four spaced across the floor of Toyota Center – just around 9 p.m. and right after a countdown in over-sized, pink, digital numbers that had folks scrambling for their seats. There were no floor seats for the 23-song set. Those with floor tickets milled about in general admission fashion, moving from one stage to the next to be near Mother Monster. The show began with “Diamond Heart,” from Joanne. The newest album is solid collection of songs and the record’s tracks framed last night’s show, from the upbeat opener to the night’s reflective closer (and Grammy nominee), “Million Reasons.” She ran through “Diamond Heart” and the party-starter “A-YO” before she addressed us for the first time of the night.
“Now, I know you know how I feel about this place,” she spoke, and the crowd’s deafening roar suggested we did indeed know her feelings about Houston. That set the tone for a night of mutual admiration.
Gaga said she spent part of Sunday with “Pam,” a storm victim she met through Team Rubicon, which unites military veterans with first responders in emergency response situations. Before she dedicated “The Edge of Glory” to Pam, she shared how they met while she visited Hurricane Harvey-hit homes. She said Pam’s stoicism was inspirational.
“Thank you for showing me what true bravery looks like. Nobody should have to live in their trauma,” she said.
She co-dedicated the ballad to her friend, Sonja Durham, who succumbed to breast cancer in May. Durham was managing director of Haus of Gaga and a fellow Houstonian. The two were friends for more than 10 years, Gaga said. Durham’s parents were in the crowd and, if you ask Lady Gaga, so was Sonja, at least in a spiritual sense.
“There’s some strong, good-hearted people here,” she said, summing up what she’s learned about us.
Of course, this was a pop concert and it had all the recognizable elements of one. There was outlandish stage design and pinpoint choreography and about a half-dozen costume changes that had Lady Gaga in everything from a body-gripping, black velvet onesie to a flowing red robe to a cowboy hat, custom-made by her sister. There were big hits, like “Poker Face,” up high in the set, and “Bad Romance,” near its end. When she wasn’t speaking to us directly, Gaga’s powerful voice came through loud and clear in song.
But the night was largely about this bond we now share. She’s part of us now, even if she doesn’t have Houston appreciation days like Drake, even if she could never have actually called Houston home before like Beyonce. She understands who we are and what we are about. This diminutive New Yorker who is beloved and known the world over gets us and that kind of makes her one of us. She’s lived among us preparing for one of the biggest shows of her life, has roots here through cherished friends and has, at least once, brought her entire entourage to Spanish Flowers for late-night Mexican food. You can hardly get more Houston than that.
Personal Bias: I’ve always enjoyed Lady Gaga’s music. It’s danceable, fun and occasionally uplifting stuff. But, I admit, I’ve become hyper-aware of her work since she came to wow during Super Bowl 51’s halftime show earlier this year. As a proud Houstonian and an avid music and football fan, I hoped her performance would be among the best in halftime show history and she didn’t disappoint. Later, when I saw the Netflix documentary Five Foot Two, I learned she is just as vulnerable to injuries of the human heart and body as we who aren’t uber-talented, mega-confident, global superstars. I learned that she cherishes and relies upon the support and love of her family - always a winning strategy as far as I’m concerned. That she was willing to share all of this intimate stuff with fans who’ve come to adore the spectacle endeared her to me further. All that background made last night’s show even more enjoyable.
The Crowd: Big-hearted Little Monsters.
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Random Notebook Dump: There are a couple of good reasons most of the photos in this piece are of Lady Gaga fans and not Lady Gaga. For one, no media photography was approved for Sunday’s Houston show. But secondly, a Lady Gaga show is as much about her fans as her. Particularly after last night’s bared sentiments, it seems wholly appropriate to turn the lens on the people she affects. Turns out, they also have a resounding impact on her life.
Come to Mama
The Edge of Glory
Born This Way
Dancin’ in Circles