"C'mon, San Diego, let's go to church."
Thus spoke the performer at Viejas Arena on Tuesday night. The crowd that packed the venue wasn't your typical congregation, and the woman at the center of their attention -- born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta just 25 years ago -- wasn't your typical evangelist. Decked out in varying combinations of leather, fishnets and bare skin, the scandalously attired audience was there to worship at the Church of Gaga, presided over by the Lady herself.
It's hard to believe that, before 2008, nobody knew who Lady Gaga was. But, thanks to the runaway success of her debut album, The Fame, the provocative singer triumphantly emerged from obscurity as both icon and iconoclast. And though she initially piqued the public's interest with her arty, obtuse persona, in recent months Gaga has refined her vague message into something much easier to understand: tolerance.
That message was on full display on Tuesday, as Gaga gushed over the 10,000-plus attendees, proclaiming them all to be beautiful superstars, regardless of income, race, appearance or sexual preference. The sentiment could seem hokey at best or pandering at worst, but the crowd ate it up. For her part, Gaga sold the message with surprising sincerity, frequently halting the show to interact with and compliment her fans. It probably didn't hurt that those asides allowed her tireless road crew to transform the stage into an endless parade of increasingly lavish sets.
As for the show itself, Lady Gaga poured everything she had into her performance. Backed by a dozen dancers, she twirled, strutted and kicked her way across the stage in an inexhaustible spree of choreography, stopping only to change costumes every few songs. The outfits were predictably Gaga: colorful, cubist designs one moment, twisted collisions of capes and leather inspired by the Star Wars' Imperial Royal Guard the next.
With concerts of this magnitude, the music can feel like an afterthought, but Gaga refused to let her songs fade into the background.
"You'll never pay money to see me lip-sync," she promised, belting out each song from her impressive arsenal of hits with astonishing power.
She slowed things down for tender versions of two new songs, "Born This Way" and "You and I," which she played by herself on piano. The quiet moment served as an effective reminder of Gaga's immense talent -- she writes all of her songs -- as her voice floated delicately over the keys. Of course, no Lady Gaga moment can ever be entirely understated, so the piano was lit on fire for the songs' duration.
Throughout the two-hour set, she commanded the rapt attention of her crowd of "little monsters." Whether backed by a rainbow of phallic gun projections on "Boys Boys Boys" or shooting sparks from her crotch on "Paparazzi," Gaga served up a performance every bit as outrageous as fans have come to expect. But it was the moments between songs, such as her affecting tale of growing up a bullied outcast, that gave the evening its weight. Thanks to her refreshing combination of talent and humility, Lady Gaga managed to seem both larger than life and down to earth, reaffirming the faith of her followers and winning over more than a few converts.