Concerts are usually about the music, and also about the spectacle, but for Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball show at American Airlines Center on Thursday night — a second show is tonight — it was about the message. And that’s a good thing.
Gaga is only 24, but she has an ability to manipulate an audience like a Southern demagogue. She’s a huge star of the kind you rarely see authentically anymore — she’s not a train wreck or a camp icon or flavor of the month, but a charismatic personality on whom people of all ages, sexes and backgrounds project their better angels. When, before her show began, she appeared in a pre-recorded video message about supporting gay rights, the audience was instantly hushed. Would that opening-act Semi Precious Weapons had that effortless power. More than once in the show, she would stand statue-still for long stretches — 30 seconds, a minute — building anticipation without doing anything. It’s remarkable to watch.
More so, as well, because Gaga isn’t shy about her message. She’s of that generation that doesn’t think about alternative sexual identity as something shocking, so her shout-outs to gay teens — and, repeatedly, her references to touring gay clubs before she hit it big, especially the Round-Up Saloon — meant that a mixed crowd that included some ‘tweens were cheering tolerance in a way that seemed more authentic than, say, when Bono lectures audiences about the International Monetary Fund. He may plant a seed, but Gaga has furrowed acres of lush soil.
That she does so entertainingly is a plus. This concert more resembles a star turn in a Cirque du Soleil show than a pop concert. There’s the continually changing set, a landscape where freaks and outcasts live in glorious freedom. Like Dorothy and her Ozian allies, they head out for the Monster Ball, where even freaks can be whoever they want. It’s an empowering message for gays, but also fat kids, pimply faced dorks, even middle-aged men who’ve put on a few pounds.
The showmanship is impressive. Like a good magician, Gaga does an excellent job of secreting herself off stage for a costume change (I counted 13 throughout the evening) only to arrive more outrageously garbed than before. (Sparks shooting from her boobs and crotch recall Madonna at her peak.) The dancers — mostly muscular, fluidly androgynous and barely-dressed men with padded codpieces — keep the eye candy factor high.
And there is the ear candy. Gaga’s songs are infectiously likable pop, and she trots them all out with a live vocal performance amid all the flurry of activity that remarkably maintains the lyrical fidelity. Her mega-hit, “Poker Face,” got the audience on its feet, but that’s just because she told them to — they also bared their paws during “Teeth” (her most aggressively outre song) and other numbers, and the audience went along with new songs, ballads … whatever she wanted. The show ended with a curtain call after a single-number encore that started immediately. This is theater more than music.
The boyfriend and I had lots to discuss after Gaga’s concert and came to the agreement that this wasn’t just a concert — it was an iconic live music experience. Much like Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour or the Jacksons’ Victory tour, the Monster Ball could go down as one of pop music’s more important tours. A lot of that was because Lady Gaga wasn’t there merely performing — she was giving. As her first major tour, Gaga not only had to impress her fans (easy enough), it felt she needed to impress herself.
Gaga’s funny that way because as big as she is, she’s more relatable than many pop stars. Her admission last night that she wasn’t the prettiest girl and got picked on can be empathized by the masses and so when she demands applause, it’s tongue in cheek but it’s also a victory for all those who felt/feels the way she did. Now, she’s living out her fantasies in front of the world and giving a big middle finger to what she saw as her obstacles in life. Her story is Lifetime Channel, but her life is definitely late-night Cinemax.
I missed the first half of the show because I also snapped some pics, so she was in full swing by the time I returned to my seat to catch “You and I.” After that tune, her spectacular outfit of white and webbing (?) during “So Happy I Could Die” while performing on a rising platform proved she’s up for the spectacle of a show. The audience around me screamed in almost deathly shrills as she rose and for what? She’s just on a platform. But in essence, she’s revered because you really can say, “That could be me” and it doesn’t sound so unbelievable.
The show continued with energetic hits like “Poker Face,” “Paparazzi” and “Alejandro.” Too many breaks in between though broke the energy while she changed costumes. If she has a weakness, it’s her almost mandatory need to keep changing instead of trucking through each song. For the overall picture, that’s a small complaint. In-between videos of Gaga in S&M crazy mode kept eyes glued to the screen or light shows projected onto screens were nonetheless thrilling.
Ending with “Poker Face,” the audience was in dance pop euphoria. They didn’t just want to see Gaga, they needed to. She’s on TV, videos, the radio, but last night, she was real and the audience was appreciating that one-on-one touch, even from the 300 section. Twenty thousand people were giving her every bit of energy they had, and she reciprocated. Proof was in her predictable but satisfying encore of “Bad Romance.” That signature deep vocal run at the beginning of the song played before she and her crew appeared and the crowds roar sounded impossibly louder. The song flooded the AAC and people around me had become crazed.
Openers Semi Precious Weapons was a bit off the mark. They rocked out as best they could but because the audience response was tepid, they soon became the same. Their vibrancy fell victim to an audience trying to figure them out. It’s a shame because they have all the right components to give a heck of a show themselves and Justin Tranter is one of the best frontmen this side of Freddie Mercury. With every mention of Gaga, the crowd went nuts, but their punk rock wasn’t swaying the audience. SPW performed for just about half an hour and they were off. But they were nuts after the show autographing merch and taking pictures. I thought it was cool for them to take the time to do that. It’s not uncommon for an opener to do that but it added to the night’s excitement.
As to be expected, the concert was an energetic circus of theater and music by the biggest pop star right now. At the same time, when she mentions her support for gay folk, it’s surreal. Maybe it was just me. At 37, I straddle a time when people weren’t all that cool with the gay thing and now, where it’s just shy of mainstream status. But when she screamed to the audience to fight for gay rights and 20,000 people in the stadium cheered, I teared up. In that one moment, there was instant and almost unconditional approval by people I will never know. It was a moment to linger on, but a party was going on all around me. I don’t want to give a pop star such power, but she’s proving to be the right artist at the right time.