It's Saturday night in Las Vegas, and Lady Gaga is doing that cataleptic-in-victory thing - an applause-bathing pose in which the singer's freeze-tagged frame sponges up the hot rumble of 10,000 clapping hands while her cold eyes shoot death beams into the middle distance.
Who's she staring at? For starters: Elvis Presley, Wayne Newton, Cher, Celine Dion, Barry Manilow, Lola Falana, Tom Jones, Charo and the entire Rat Pack. Britney Spears and Mariah Carey. Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani. Abbott and Costello (Bugsy Siegel booked them at the Flamingo in 1946). Donny and Marie (still playing the Flamingo in 2019). Siegfried and Roy, and that tiger who suddenly wanted to eat Roy in 2003.
Every chorus girl who ever kicked her toes in the direction of heaven. Every bendable homunculus who ever signed up with Cirque du Soleil. Every stripper, crooner, magician, dancer and jazzbo who ever came to this glowing wonderland, dreaming that beautiful American dream of turning smiles into money. Even the city's patron saint and haunting spirit, Wladziu Valentino Liberace.
The only way for Lady Gaga to honour them is to waste them all.
So it goes when you're trying reclaim your spot as the biggest entertainer drawing breath. At 32, she's just a kid out here, but Gaga knows how to be more famous in more ways than anyone in the lot.
Despite her radical posture, she remains pop's ace student, a virtuoso competitor and a relentless pleaser who recently spent the first decade of her career seeking head pats from the music industry, high fashion, the art world, Hollywood, Bud Light, Netflix, Tony Bennett and the NFL.
Now she's planting her flag in the Nevada dirt with two separate concert residencies: a future-kitsch pop show called Enigma, performed in sci-fi riot gear; and a standards revue called Jazz and Piano. It's all going pretty great. So much so, that in the middle of last Saturday's pop gig, she roared out to the neon city and all its ghosts: "This is our town now!"
Maybe you came here to play, but Lady Gaga did not. Instead of treating Las Vegas as a retirement bunker where fading talents go to half-sing to the least-sceptical audiences on the planet, she's out here at the peak of her stardom, hitting all the big notes with every atom of her being. For a control-freaky overachiever, it must feel something like paradise. The only person in town she can disappoint is herself.
"Give her the Oscar!"
That's what some rando shouted near the big finish of an Enigma show last month as she was easing her way into Shallow - the ballad her character sings in the latest Hollywood remake of A Star Is Born. But when that errant Oscar-holler caught Gaga's ear, her fingers jumped up off the piano as if the keys had become hot to the touch.
"It's not about the award, it's about the process of creating," she said, pivoting toward the shouter. "If you want to be a star, it better be because you want to change people's lives, not change yours."
But was this the real Gaga talking? Or the fake one? And is there a difference now? There didn't used to be, back when she presented herself as a sentient, 24-7 artwork, singing about fame as if it were the most priceless metaphysical currency our civilisation will ever know. In the process, she earned a devout listenership, and Gaga got so good at making them happy, she eventually had to sniff out new worlds to conquer. Hence, the album of jazz duets, the uptick in acting roles, the Super Bowl halftime show.
Through it all, the Lady's feelings on fame began to change. "It ain't all champagne and roses," she declared recently. "You pay a price."
Okay, so was that the real Gaga? To hear Lady Gaga sing Shallow in Vegas is to feel all of her iterations go swoosh in one happy blur.
That's how Saturday's show ended. It started with Gaga dangling from the ceiling on a metallic thread, her bodysuit shimmering.
The first song was Just Dance - a hit single about losing control - and when she finally touched down she led by example, violently stomping around on one-and-three as though life were just too short to wait around for two-and-four.
Gaga's music has always been in that kind of hurry. It's the restlessness of her vocal phrasing that makes the songs go zoom. It's hard to imagine it sounding any better than it does in Las Vegas.
As for the bigger anxieties coursing through our republic, Gaga spoke on them slowly, loudly, clearly. She chastened President Donald Trump for his government shutdown, and then eviscerated Vice-President Mike Pence for defending his wife's decision to work at a school that openly discriminates against the LGBTQ community. "You are the worst representation of what it means to be a Christian," Gaga said. "What I do know about Christianity is that we bear no prejudice, and everybody is welcome."
This was the realest Lady Gaga. The one who believes in equality, justice, free speech, truth to power, God, you, and above all, pop music's grand utopian impulse.
Everybody is welcome.
Sunday night. Jazz and Piano.
With an entire orchestra at her back, Gaga comes out to Luck Be a Lady, singing and swinging, snap-snap-snapping her fingers like a stressed parent trying to hustle a feral pack of kiddos through the sliding side-door of a Honda Odyssey. Her voice sounds so bright, it's almost scalding, and when she welcomes everyone to the party with her New Yawk accent turned up a few clicks, she quotes Cole Porter as if she's dying to put his maxim to the test: "Anything goes!"
She simmers down a few joules when her 92-year-old jazz tutor Tony Bennett materialises for a duet, but otherwise, instead of sinking into these songs - Lush Life, Fly Me to the Moon, New York, New York - Gaga can only blast out of them. And when she does, the flames are preposterously beautiful.
During the costume changes, interstitial videos are projected into the concert hall during which our gracious hostess explains how she grew up besotted with the voice of Billie Holiday, and how she still marvels over the fact that certain pages in the Great American Songbook could "last a century".
This would be the evening's clearest peek into Gaga's unmappable brain space. She cares about durability. These tunes have value because they've survived.
And that's interesting, for sure, but it doesn't make it any less impossible to figure out why Lady Gaga thinks this is a cool thing to do. "And in case you forgot," she announces at the close of the show, in a burst of mock-gusto and genuine pride, "my name is Lady Gaga, and I'm here to stay!"
Here would be a very fine place for Lady Gaga to stay. She clearly wants to live forever and this is a city that stops time. Las Vegas will improve her vision and her vision is already improving Las Vegas.
It's a match. Her ideas won't rust beneath the pleasure dome. She can keep singing her Warholian ditties about fame's divine magnetism while the outside world rots on social media. She can keep tsk-ing those paparazzi baddies while the rest of us figure out how to live in a digital surveillance state. She won't have to keep switching up personas, either, (just the costumes), and her too-fast singing will always prevent the songs from feeling musty.
Most importantly, Las Vegas is the only place in this sprawling vale of tears where a stage performer can take a legitimate shot at being everything to everyone without turning their life's work into a prolonged act of self-annihilation.
Did Gaga come to Las Vegas at the zenith of her popularity to protect herself from oblivion? Sure feels like it. And now that she's here, she's made a pivot. Her music used to be a riddle about what's fake and what's real. But here and now it feels more like a negotiation between the past and the future.
If she truly wants to speak to the collective human condition, that's the only way in.
She's locked in for two years with MGM - or, as she bragged from the stage, "Three, if I want." Wink-wink. She wants. This is her town now.