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Lady Gaga is more than a provocateur. She's the best live performer in pop

There's a scene in the new documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two where Lady Gaga is surrounded by her team and producers for the NFL, describing her dream Super Bowl halftime show.

"I want to do the opposite of what everyone thinks that I'm going to do," she says. "Everybody thinks I'm going to come out there on a f- - -ing throne in a meat dress with 90 shirtless men and unicorns, right? And that at the end I'm going to do something shocking, or that's going to freak everybody out?"

She's not wrong. This is a woman who rocked the cover of Rolling Stone in an assault-rifle bra; who once hired a performance artist to vomit on her mid-show at South by Southwest; who once traversed the Grammys' red carpet in an egg.

"But it's not even in the neighborhood of what we're going to do," Gaga tells them all.

Again, she was not wrong. The most shocking aspects of Gaga's halftime performance at February's Super Bowl LI were a leap from the roof of NRG Stadium (later revealed to be pre-taped), and an impressive flying football catch at the end. Her performance was more about precise moves and pitch-perfect delivery than any sort of fashion gimmick. Yet afterward, everyone from Hillary Clinton to Ivanka Trump agreed it was, as Time and Billboard and countless others put it, one of the best halftime shows of all time.

This, today, is what we've come to expect from Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, 31. No longer is she merely a "pop provocateur," as described by the Netflix synopsis of Five Foot Two. At this moment in 2017, Lady Gaga is nothing less than the best big-game singer on earth.

Better than Beyoncé, you ask? Better than Adele and Bruno Mars and Chance the Rapper and Bruce Springsteen?

Yes. She is. She has proven it time and again in her still-young career, and she's done it on the biggest stages. The Super Bowl. The Academy Awards. The Grammys. The MTV Video Music Awards. Her peers have played these stages, too, and many have crushed it. Not like Gaga.

Her concert at Amalie Arena on Friday mostly sold out the day it went on sale, and it's not because of some meat dress or bubble gown or egg. It's because her live performances, especially those at the highest level of scrutiny and intensity, are master classes in living, breathing pop artistry.

• • •

When the pressure's on and the cameras are running, "you definitely want to make a performance that everyone remembers," said Ashley Evans of production agency the Squared Division, which has directed and choreographed awards-show performances by Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato and Ariana Grande. "You have to take risks and you have to try new things to push you in that way."

Gaga does this as well, and as consistently, as anyone. Yes, she can still do the flashy, spectacular things that caught everyone's attention in the first place. She can transform into David Bowie at the Grammys, just as she once transformed into her drag alter ego Jo Calderone at the VMAs. She can leap from the roof of the Super Bowl, just as she once dangled from a chandelier on MTV.

But over the past three years, she has shown her face and let her voice ring out in ways that have reframed and redefined her as a vocalist.

A year before her Super Bowl halftime show, a relatively unadorned Gaga sang the game's national anthem — a role traditionally assigned to the most pedestal-worthy of voices — and she knocked it out of the park. In 2015 she led a tribute to Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music at the Academy Awards, another daunting vocal challenge that she once again handled with ease. She returned to the next year's Oscars a nominee for the song Til It Happens to You, in a tear-jerking performance surrounded by survivors of sexual assault. And how's this for range: She both released a Grammy-winning album with Tony Bennett, and sang lead for Metallica at the Grammys, an unlikely but seamless pairing that inspired calls for a joint tour.

Forget Gaga's fashion, her public persona, her status as an LGBTQ icon. Can you name another vocalist who's tackled such disparate challenges, on such enormous stages, over an entire career — and leveled the room at each turn?

Gaga did it all in two years.

In Five Foot Two, Gaga talks about how her latest album, Joanne, helped push her beyond the expectations of radical high fashion and performance art, to become more of a pure singer than she'd been at the time of her breakthrough.

"I can always bring my past with me. But I can never go back," she said. And: "We've just seen me f- - -ing glamorous for almost 10 years. It's boring. It really is boring." And again: "I never felt comfortable enough to sing and just be this way now, to just sing or wear my hair back. I never felt pretty enough or smart enough or a good enough musician. ... I do now. I know of all the things I deserve, I know I'm worth something. So I have to stay there."

This side of Gaga has always been there, albeit too often buried beneath layers of McQueen or Gaultier.

• • •

It was not a dress or a soundbite or a stunt, but a live performance that turned Cam Parker into one of her Little Monsters for life.

Gaga was singing Paparazzi at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards — bleeding, writhing, twirling from a chandelier, heel kicked up on her keyboard like a boss — in a performance that's still considered one of her best.

"I was like, OHMIGOD," Parker gasped. "I was done. There's no other word. I was done."

Eight years later, Parker has spent weeks finessing his own Gaga-esque masterpiece, a detailed mural of her mug at 1701 N Franklin St. in Tampa. He hopes she'll stop by Friday and snap a selfie, or at least say hello. As he told the Tampa Bay Times in a video earlier this month: "I just want to really kind of make her cry a little bit, and show her that somebody has spent 100-plus hours doing this thing because she's awesome."

On Nov. 11, Gaga watched the video and tweeted it out to her 74 million followers.

"You certainly did make me cry," she wrote.

Parker's mentions exploded. He was overwhelmed with calls and texts, even people recognizing him in public. He was offered consultation gigs on a couple of new projects, and has been in contact with people who know people on the tour, "a few degrees of separation" from her circle.

"It changed my life," he said. "I'm just going to keep sprinkling that whole Gaga thing until the show comes and we're best friends."

After he spends all Friday camping out by his mural, just in case she stops by — "I have a really, really good feeling," he said — he'll go to the concert, where he knows he'll lose it the moment she sings Poker Face and Bad Romance.

"I've never met her yet — and I want to highlight the word 'yet,' because that's my hope — but I can just tell the commitment and the dedication to her art and to the art in general that she just wants to make it this kind of all-encompassing event," he said. "It's not just a show. It's a moment. It's an era."

If she does stop by, it'll be yet another indelible Lady Gaga moment. No one will see it coming. Yet it's exactly the thing we should expect.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Lady Gaga

7:30 p.m. Friday. Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. Sold out. (813) 301-2500. amaliearena.com.

Lady Gaga is more than a provocateur. She's the best live performer in pop 11/28/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 28, 2017 11:38am]
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