Not sure exactly why I keep attending Lady Gaga shows. Maybe it's the lure of spectacle. Maybe I'm tired of the musical disconnect I suffer with the guys I chat with at gay bars. Maybe I imagine that one night, she'll live up to the hype built up by both a music industry desperate for a superstar and a cultural cognoscenti that see her as some sort of pop performance artist. Or maybe I just want in on the good time her many enraptured fans seem to have whenever they hear her dance anthems.
I'm probably not much closer to any of those hypothetical goals after catching the first of two shows at MGM Grand Garden Arena last night. But when I caught my feet moving to the beats of "Telephone" and my jaw dropping at the sight of her emergence from a giant inflatible vagina before "Born This Way," I'd lost my critic poker face. For her 150-minute, 26-song arena extravaganza is an entertaining, high-energy, and highly escapist one — sometimes embarrassingly silly and sometimes endearingly silly (and, in the case of her Castle Grayskull-meets-Barbie Dream House stage set, both).
Which is what you need when the music lacks consistent magnetism and the singer's persona is so conveniently shifty. Or maybe she's taking risks where her peers aren't. For all its celebratory purpose, diva pop is a crashing bore, mostly because of the personality-less divas themselves. This, to say nothing of the musical craft (or lack thereof); the genre has yet to find its next Giorgio Moroder. Granted, any modern dance-floor diva wishing to be more like Bjork than Beyonce would ostensibly risk confusion, pressure and possible dismissal from either the conservative top 40 audience or the conservative record companies most responsible for pushing the performers (or both). Sweden's Robyn is still struggling to find a foothold in the U.S.
Gaga more or less straddles the commercialism/art fence like she does the motorcycle she both "rides" and plays keyboard from. She can get away with whatever gonzo visual or outfit she has dreamt up largely because everyone encourages that, even her critics. Her subversion may sometimes lack subtext, but that's part of her shtick and it's not without its charm. She's clearly still a kid in a toy store, albeit a bad kid (per one of her songs). Her ham-fisted pro-gay/pro-misfit preaching clearly strikes a chord with her fans, making her concert reminiscent of an arena-sized Rent production.
She's not without her winking moments, though. During "Poker Face," she reappropriated the infamous meat-grinder Hustler cover, and it's one of the best visual accompaniments of the show, even if the reference and context likely lost on most of her little monsters.
As you can imagine, subtlety is about as welcome at a Gaga concert as Focus on the Family. But there are some welcome hushed moments, like when it's just her and a keyboard, belting out one of her less insipid tracks. Part of what made me reconsider Gaga after catching her Monster Ball tour was her engrossing interview with Howard Stern — partly for her candor, but mostly due to her goosepimpling performance at the piano. During last night's show, she reprised some of that radio show's "Edge of Glory" (before it went electric, a la the album version), and also applied the same treatment to a second go at "Born This Way" and closer "Marry the Night." She's still giving those songs a full-throated go, but the stripped-down musical effect suits her well, and serves as necessary breathers for an otherwise unrelenting — if refreshingly fast-paced — concert.
In fact, time flew much like it did during Madonna's October concert at the same venue — and that wasn't the only observation I made that linked aspects of the Gaga show to the former Material Girl. The general shock value, the dance numbers with the hunky gay dudes, the ass-baring, the crotch-rubbing, the outfit that recalled the same one her de-facto mentor wore during the famous "Express Yourself" MTV Video Music Award performance, the diva-as-assassin skit from "Government Hooker" not unlike the one early in Madonna's fall concert — and lest we not forget where "Born This Way" derived from — made it clear the influence the elder pop star has had on the former, to put it charitably. Gaga would be wise to be more conscious of those similarities for future tours, and really set to differentiate herself (beyond the Thunderdome-like couture only she could sport on stage).
One quality that definitely separates her from Madge, and most of the rest of the diva pop ilk, is the warmth and deference she shows her audience. When she recounts her years of struggling as a waitress and a stripper, citing how those job stints left her unable to leave her hometown, and then thanks her crowd for ponying up the cash for her ticket, she becomes more relatable to the fans that when she tries to impart a shared freakdom. Some may find her constant pandering to the audience irritating, but I ate up her anecdotes; it made her more human. "I've heard the word 'no' a lot more than I've heard 'yes,'" she said during chatter about her pre-fame monster days, and that's something Britney Mousketeer Spears could never claim.
Gaga, you're wearing me down. Keep at it.