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.