She arrived just before 9:30 p.m. After greeting fans who couldn't make it inside, she ran through the crowd and onto the dive bar stage. "My name is Lady Gaga," she started. "I'm a singer-songwriter from New York and I'm coming through Nashville." In that moment, that's exactly who she was and who she's always been. After winning Grammys, touring the world, and becoming a global phenomenon—Gaga was finally returning to her roots just before the release of Joanne.
Rewind to Greenwich Village in early 2006. The StefaniGermanottaBand was performing at The Bitter End. The lead singer interrupted their cover of Led Zeppelin's "D'yer Mak'er" to announce, "You guys f--king rock." The 19-year-old was confident, authentic, and talented. More than 10 years separate these performances, but watch them back-to-back and you'll fail to see much difference.
When Stefani became Gaga, she was working with Rob Fusari—a man who would produce, "name," and ultimately sue her. (His $30.5 million suit claimed he was owed up to 20 percent of the profits off her first four albums, and her countersuit called that arrangement unlawful. They ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount). This music was electronic, dance-heavy, some tracks landing on what would become The Fame. Since-leaked demos include "Sexy Ugly" and "Ribbons"—the latter featuring a chorus about condoms ("wrap it up with a ribbon") and a bridge Samantha Jones would enthusiastically endorse ("Only difference between downtown and uptown is therapy and Valium").
The artist formerly known as Stefani Germanotta snowballed quickly into a global phenomenon with The Fame. She satirized pop culture and the modern pop star, most memorably in her 2009 VMA performance of "Paparazzi," where the fame "took her life" on-stage.
Her follow up, The Fame Monster, was tonally darker. The eight-track EP featured pop culture references, ballads and Beyoncé. Her life became a performance art piece, and who she was wearing—Alexander McQueen or a butcher—made more headlines than her music. "The Manifesto of Little Monsters" gave a direct identity to her fans, and was signed with a date, 12/18/1974. The day her aunt Joanne passed away—nearly 12 years before Gaga's birth.
For every bit campy The Fame Monster was, Born This Way was edgy. "Bloody Mary" brought haunting melodrama, while "Heavy Metal Lover" and "Highway Unicorn" brought grit. Little Monsters were loyal, but her fame reached its peak. Some of it was timing. "Born This Way," came in a wave of love-yourself anthems: Katy Perry's "Firework," Pink's "Raise Your Glass," and Kesha's "We R Who We R." The remaining singles enjoyed moderate success (and "Yoü and I" introduced her to future beau Taylor Kinney), but nothing clicked like her previous hits.
ARTPOP was next, led by its first single "Applause." There were deep-cuts ("Gypsy" and "Dope") and dance anthems ("Manicure and "Venus"), but the album didn't meet the expectations set for it. Not helping was the second single, "Do What U Want" with R. Kelly, which included racy live performances and a delayed—and ultimately unreleased—music video. The final single, "G.U.Y." didn't fare much better (save for a Lisa Vanderpump-assisted luxe video).
When "Perfect Illusion" was released, the world didn't stop and the single didn't shoot to No. 1. But to her fans, it felt right. The song felt genuine, stripped down, and like something Stefani would be proud of. There was The Fame Monster attitude, Born This Way grit and The Fame production.
When Lady Gaga took the stage at a dive bar in Nashville in early October, it was somebody so familiar, so comfortable, and so raw. She wasn't topping herself or impressing her fans—she was a singer-songwriter from New York looking for a good time. So far, it's unclear if Joanne will meet its expectations. What is clear, however, is that the while she may be headlining the Super Bowl next year, Lady Gaga hasn't strayed too far from her gritty Big Apple roots.