Lady Gaga at American Airlines Center, 7/17/14

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Lady Gaga American Airlines Center, Dallas Thursday, July 17, 2014

Who is Lady Gaga? It's a question she may have asked herself in recent months. Certainly the popular narrative would have you think so. In spite of releasing an album,artPOP, that went to No. 1 late last year, the buzz was that she's washed up. An album that was supposed to be a major event somehow didn't feel like one. An album release party that was supposed to be high art just felt like goofy fun. And then there was the R. Kelly video leak.

But when Gaga showed up Thursday night at American Airlines Center for the latest stop of her artRave tour, she seemed to know exactly who she is: Mother Monster. It's a good thing, too, for that's the role she plays best.

See also: How to Dress Like a Little Monster for Lady Gaga Lady Gaga Is Coming To Dallas

Perhaps, if there really has been a problem for Gaga, it's that she distracted herself with trying be an artist with a capital A. The pretense of artPOP, with artwork done by visual artist Jeff Koons, certainly tried to angle itself that way. And yet it was a bit of a misnomer. From "Venus" to "Sexxx Dreams" to "Fashion," artPOP was a more personal record than a glamorous one, a record about identity and personal expression. It was probably better, too, than Born This Way. But that's not how the conversation was framed, even by Gaga herself.

At AAC last night, that pretense largely fell by the wayside. Instead, this show was a rallying cry for her Little Monsters to band together against the haters, to be themselves and to love freely. Given some of the negative publicity in recent months, such a message could've felt reactionary -- and yet, at its heart, it's always been Gaga's message. The art, the celebrity, even the music are secondary.

There were moments along the way -- in particular, when she had her would-be scandalous onstage costume change -- that fell flat in their attempts to shock and awe. There were times too where it seemed the backing tracks were doing most of the singing. But they were rare. Mostly it was Gaga the showman, leading an elaborate production that remained entertaining throughout. Unlike many similar arena shows, it didn't fall back on medleys or phoned-in versions of the hits.

The reason that it all worked was that it all came in good fun. The costumes, rather than being edgy or visionary, were allowed to be silly and outlandish. If high fashion strives for an artifice of perfection, then Mother Monster's sensibilities revel in their imperfections and flights of fancy.

And yet Gaga may have been at her best when she was her most grounded. Her mother and sister were there at the show, with her mother showing up, smiling and waving, on the big screen projections. At one point, she read a letter from two of her fans (which admittedly felt almost too perfect) and laughed as fans tossed clothing and stuffed animals onto stage with her, which she dutifully tried on. In the midst of the carefully scripted show, these moments still felt sincere.

Later, during an extended pep talk with her Little Monsters that followed "Do What U Want," one of the most energetic songs of the night, Gaga made her way to a piano that sat at the end of the catwalk extending from stage. Her dancers had left her there alone, and as she plunked at the piano and sang, her voice came through its clearest -- deep and soulful and rough with emotion around the edges.

For those few minutes, Gaga was something other than a celebrity or self-styled commodity. She was a real live person, someone trying to make a connection with thousands of people at once. It may not be the Lady Gaga that can stay relevant in the long run, but it's the one that will keep her fans the happiest.

Setlist: ARTPOP G.U.Y. Donatella Venus MANiCURE Just Dance Poker Face Telephone Partynaseous Paparazzi Do What U Want Born This Way The Edge of Glory Judas Aura Sexxx Dreams Alejandro Ratchet Bad Romance Applause Swine

Encore: Gypsy

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