Into the city like a superhero Lady Gaga swooped on Friday, all rhinestones and blond locks and moxie.
She came to the aid of the needy, paying the layaway tab for about 25 struggling families at a Tampa Burlington Coat Factory. She was a magnet of mystique, drawing a stream of fans to a mural in Tampa Heights that they believed she might visit. And shortly before her concert at Amalie Arena, she took on the system itself, tweeting her support for the restoration of Florida felons' voting rights, encouraging her 74.4 million followers to sign a petition for the cause.
The only thing missing from her superhuman day was a mask. Luckily, Lady Gaga no longer needs it.
Gone are the days when critics could dismiss 31-year-old Stefani Germanotta as an art-pop creation, a dress with a singer attached instead of the other way around. As spectacular a pop production as Gaga's Joanne World Tour may be – so many stages! so many costumes! – she's also never seemed more human, putting her face front and center and relying more on her ferocious voice and personality than ever before.
"Don't you call me Gaga," she purred to the sold-out crowd of more than 17,000. "Call me Joanne tonight!"
The reference to her middle name – the title of her latest album, and a nod to a relative who died young – reinforced Gaga's more recent embrace of self and being. She was just as present when snarling, writhing and popping her rehabilitated hips as she was seated behind a piano or acoustic guitar, dispensing life advice and letting her absurdly powerful voice blow away any semblance of artifice.
"All I can tell you," she said, "is if you have a light that shines bright, at some point, somebody's going to see it."
Hers must be blinding to cut through the layers of production on this tour – four stages across the packed floor, linked by bridges that descended from the rafters, all illuminated in showers of rainbow lights. Her main stage rose and fell like a breathing beast, tilting at sharp angles as she and her 10 backup dancers stomped and marauded in lock-step precision.
And then there were Gaga's many costumes. Counting and recounting them all would be next to impossible – each seemed to evolve with each song, adding or shedding a layer without Gaga even leaving the stage. The glittering pink cowboy hat and black leather jacket she wore for kicky power-pop openers Diamond Heart and A-Yo were gone within two songs, as she roared into Poker Face and Perfect Illusion, leaving Gaga to thrash and whip her hair like a cyclone.
There were moments where the Gaga of old returned – like Bloody Mary and Dancing In Circles, in which she strolled out in a red bodysuit and fedora with red roses dangling from the brim, rolling seductively and posing for fans' Instagrams. Just Dance was as close as she came to recreating the choreography from this year's Super Bowl halftime performance, down to the enormous keytar and human microphone stand. And it wouldn't be a Lady Gaga concert without at least one mask – a white feathered affair for Bad Romance that nodded to her past as an otherworldly pop alien.
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But it also seemed like Gaga spent all night stripping her old self away. On Applause, it was her dancers who wore outlandish floral kimonos, while Gaga herself stuck to a simple black catsuit — and she stood out all the more for it. For Come to Mama and Edge of Glory, she took everything away but her piano, speaking about equality and acceptance and the importance of nurturing one's talent and ambitions.
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Scaling back her reliance on shock and provocation was a risk, but it has enabled her to get closer than ever to her core Little Monsters. After Bad Romance, a shower of flowers and gifts and notes came came flying to her feet. Maybe they were plants, maybe they were real; who can say – but either way, when she opened one with a rainbow Thank You on the front, the emotion inside was too real.
"Your song Just Dance is now written on my arm," she read from the card. "It inspired me when I used to go to Pulse nightclub and scream." There was a hitch in her voice just then, and she hopped down from the stage to hug the weeping fan who threw it.
And then, before closer Million Reasons, she strolled around the stage in her signature pink fedora, waving at the audience and taking it all in, when she spotted Cam Parker, the Tampa muralist who's been campaigning to have Gaga stop by his building-sized tribute on N Franklin Street.
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Parker passed a poster-sized print of the mural from his spot on the floor to the stage.
"You made this mural here in Tampa?" she said. "For me?"
She admired the portrait. It was just an image of her face – no masks, no costumes, no artifice, just her. She looked entirely human up there, smiling and posing as she held a little piece of Tampa in her hands.
At the same time, it's hard to imagine her looking more heroic.
— Jay Cridlin