There was a bearded nun and 6-foot-plus drag queen in hot pants and stacked heels. There were bunny ears, pig noses, military officers caps and a dominatrix in fishnets and leather. Glitter? Check. Tutus? Check. Tie-dye boas? Check. Christmas-light bracelets and necklaces? Of course!
And that was all before Lady Gaga took the stage Friday at the packed United Center, the show within the show. The fans came prepared because many of them knew that their diminutive heroine in the wigs, space-suits and feathered wings is one of them, and eager to celebrate not just their presence, but their otherness.
She performed the gay anthem "Born This Way" seated at a keyboard with gospel-soaked fervor in her voice. Turning to a fan next to her on the piano bench, she said, "When I look at you I see myself," and then to the audience: "There's nothing wrong with loving who you are."
Later, she turned "Applause" into another reflecting mirror. Rather than a song about her star power, she turned the audience in its subject. "Cheer for yourself, cheer for each other," she urged as the electronic beats danced underneath her.
Gaga's inclusiveness presented a sharp contrast to the events that occurred 35 years ago not far from the arena. During "Disco Demolition Night" on July 12, 1979, in Comiskey Park, disco albums were burned and the subcultures that created the style of dance music Gaga champions – primarily gays and African-Americans – were tacitly denigrated. But Chicago is also home to house music, the disco offshoot that birthed the electronic rhythms in much of Gaga's recent music.
On a stage that resembled an arctic city with roadways extending far out into the audience, Gaga delivered a more concise, less prop-filled set than her previous tour. It did, however, come equipped with its own roadie wielding two leaf blowers to clear the stage of the mounds of confetti that rained down throughout the show.
The 95-minute set, supported by a five-piece band and a dozen dancers, animated the songs from last year's so-so "Artpop" album. "My artpop could be anything," she declared at the start, and made good on her claim as she embraced bluesy rawness in "Manicure," the gothic electro-pop of Depeche Mode in the title track and arena rock in "Gypsy." On "Venus," she veered from bubbling dance rhythms into the type of soaring chorus that ABBA might covet.
"This ain't no lightweight pop music," Gaga sneered, and indeed, her melodies boasted a harder edge and reached deeper into the underground than many of her arena-pop peers. Her fashion sense is less about sexuality than individuality. How else to explain that psychedelic Goldilocks ensemble or that mutant-squid head dress? Her music can be just as bold and abrasive, especially in the way she turned "Swine" into a tribal stomp or underlined the feminist cry in "Donatella" with grinding synthesizers.
Gaga's early promise is that she offered a twisted take on diva posturing and marketing on her way to selling more than 20 million albums. She was the anti-diva who owed as much to David Bowie, Grace Jones and Klaus Nomi as she did her predecessors and peers in the pop arena. That promise hasn't been entirely fulfilled on her recent albums. But her show had a lean, linear drive that placed the emphasis squarely on the music as augmented by her entertainingly bizarre costume choices, instead of the fake blood, starlet-eating giant "fish" and special effects that gummed up her previous tour of the world's hockey arenas. Backing tracks were in evidence, but her band and most importantly Gaga herself weren't canned. She made sure everyone knew it, too, her heavy breathing clearly audible over her head-set microphone.
There was one other bit of transparency, when she performed a complete costume change at center stage. Two handlers helped with the clothes, but the singer ripped off her own wig. Like her fans, she was just being herself.
Lady Gaga set list Friday at the United Center
6. Just Dance
7. Poker Face
9. Do What U Want
10. Born This Way
11. The Edge of Glory/Judas
13. Sexxx Dreams
15. Bad Romance