August 30, 2010

Gaga Quest

Finally, here's my review of Lady Gaga's 2010 Monster Ball show in Dallas. (An abridged version of this review has been published in JAM magazine, which says they're saving the rest of it to use after the show's second visit to Dallas in 2011. {Yes, I WILL write for money, if it's something I'd write anyway.}):

Self-mythologizing: it's not just a matter of gluing on some glitter; it's which glitter, and how you glue it on.

Gaga's concert in Dallas was billed as a musical and told various stories, some of them silly, some spectacular, some implausible, and all of them fun for us, or Gaga, or both.

The main plot was as flimsy as any you'd find in the world of burlesque in which she initially honed her talents, and invoked a grab-bag of tropes from Rent, the Bible, The Wizard of Oz, The Odyssey, Peter Pan, and Finding Nemo, among other sources.

And as she and others have observed, her work is laden with influences from a host of other artists – Queen, Madonna, Bowie, Michael Jackson, Cher, Matthew Barney, and more.

But hey, Shakespeare appropriated left and right. And you have to give a Gaga credit for curating and learning from the masters.

The story opens in Manhattan with a set punctuated with neon signs that might have inspired her lyrics and could serve as sub-headings for her mythic tribulations: "DRUGS," "Implants-Sedation-Dentistry," "What the Fuck Have You Done," "Sexy Ugly," "LIQUOR," "Gold TEETH," "HOTel ThASS." Gaga and her pals have decked themselves out for the evening, but their car breaks down.

Peeling off the first of the night's many fabulous outfits – most of which, like this one, she quickly shed to reveal a more comfortable bikini – Gaga checks under the hood; but even she can't fix it. "We'll never get there now!" one pal wails. "Yes, you will," declares Gaga; and announces our mythic quest: she'll take all of us, her "little monsters," to the Monster Ball, a place where "the freaks are locked outside."

Gaga also proclaims her main message: that you can be whoever you want to be, and offers herself as proof. Her beauty is not perfect by conventional standards; but we can't take our eyes off her, not because of what she's got but because of how she dresses it up and uses it.

But as the show proceeds, the goal of our quest sometimes seems to be not so much to help us be what we want to be as to make us believe that she is what she wants us – or herself? – to believe she is.

Gaga's been quoted as saying, "[m]oney is completely boring to me. It means nothing, except it feeds my art. Every penny I make goes back into the Haus of Gaga . . . my sets, my costumes, my jewelry and the concept of Gaga." (Queerty; see also Wikia, "Gagapedia.") Forbes estimates her annual earnings at $62 million.

That's a lot of Haus. I'm not sure whether I saw all of it in this show, but I did see a great show.

As for how to get to the Monster Ball: "You don't need money or plastic surgery to be a star, Dallas! Just follow the Glitter Way!"

The crowd roared through the first big tune of the night, "Just Dance"; but the show began, of course, long before Gaga's act. Offstage, her little monsters in North Texas had spent considerable time and effort decking themselves out, too.

And the results of their and Gaga's evolution was being televised: as one looked toward the stage from the back of the hall, masses of LCD screens on hand-held phones and cameras glowed and flowed like a phosphor-laced sea.

Gaga performed expertly throughout the show, through frequent costume, prop, and set changes. Video, beautiful or fascinating, helped advance the Gaga-thology, screened at various times on a backdrop behind the stage, a scrim in front of the stage, and also on a cylindrical fixture suspended above the circular platform.

During the change to the next outfit and set, we saw video of Gaga dressed in white approached by a Gaga in black, who vomited turquoise fluid all over the white Gaga. Then the scene shifted to an image of her getting tattooed; a close-up revealed she's had herself inscribed, "dad."

When the scrim next rises, Gaga's led her party posse to better Big Apple transport, i.e., the subway: "the Gaga Express!"

The forbidden thrill of incest hinted at during the tattoo interlude is transformed into the no-no of nun-love: Gaga now sports a largely-transparent rubber nun's habit, with an opening over her bottom in back and "taped" X's over her nipples visible through the front. "Just want to touch you for a minute/ Baby three seconds is enough for my heart to quit/ Let's have some fun; this beat is sick/ I wanna take a ride on your disco stick." She exhorts us always to wrap our packages for protection.

But the subway has stranded them, and Gaga doesn't know where they are.

She then tells us she hates money. She says she's written much of her music for the drunk assholes in her life, her favorite being her dad (per the UK Guardian, she's remarked that her dad "loved Johnny Walker just a little bit more than [her]"). She tells us about Prohibition: a time when alcohol was illegal in the U.S. – the crowd rumbles, seemingly never having heard of Prohibition before – "Don't worry, it's legal now," she reassures us. She tells how young people used to go to speakeasies to drink with their friends, and one of them would get up to declare: "I choose death – and company!" She reflects that if it weren't for the drunk assholes in her life, she might not have written her music; this leads into "Speechless," which she performs at a grand piano that's spouting flames like a demonic barbecue.

She tells us, over and over, how much she loves us. As the subway rolls away behind her, "If it wasn't for you guys, I would be shit fuck broke in my apartment in New York City. . . . I so genuinely love you so much! YEAH!!!"

She tells us that one of her favorite parts of the show is that every night, Virgin Mobile donates $20,000 to her favorite charity, The Regeneration, which she says provides money, food. and shelter to homeless youth in the LGBT community. She then proceeds to phone an apparently randomly selected girl in the audience, whom she invites to watch the rest of the show nearer the stage – only she warns the girl that she's probably better off staying where she is – and she tells the girl, "I love you." Then Gaga takes a call – "Hello? BeyoncĂ©?" – launching into a rousing "Telephone" in which she sang BeyoncĂ©'s part as well as her own.

Next, echoes of Oz: "There's a tornado coming!" The cylinder hanging above descends to hide Gaga, while upward-boiling clouds are projected on its side. When the cylinder rises, we find Gaga in her most magnificent outfit of the night: a gleaming white, crystalline, seemingly living version of the outfit worn by Glinda, the Good Witch of the East. Her large hat and collar, initially contracted into a cross-like shape, slowly unfold like fans. As she stands, they expand and contract in slow waves, and diaphanous wings unfold. She tells us, then sings to us, "You make me 'So Happy I Could Die.'" The platform on which she stands rises high above the crowd, while a giant version of her is projected on the scrim behind.

But after the next transition, during which some great black and white images are projected behind the stage, she finds herself in "a strange place": "the darkest part of Central Park." She and her friends are led by a black angel with a black harp. The posse breaks into "OUR song," "Monster."

After this, it's time to turn the love table. Gaga demands that we tell her – louder! – if we think she's sexy. Then, Peter Pan redux: she collapses to the stage floor and declares she's like Tinkerbell: she'll die if we don't believe.

This is followed by an intriguing interlude in which she tells us that what she hates "even more than money is the truth" – she'd "prefer a pile of lies any day."

While this confession strategically ensconces her within important artistic traditions, it's doubly interesting insofar as her remarks don't always seem to square with one another or with others' reports. E.g., she wants us to believe that her family was not particularly well-off and didn't help her financially once she left home; but in 1999 her dad became CEO of an internet company that sold for $600 million in 2009 (see The Free Library and Fortune). Tuition for the private high school she attended is currently over $33,000 a year (per Wikipedia), and New York Magazine reports that her father paid the rent on her Lower East Side apartment for the first year after she dropped out of college. Maybe Gaga just felt hard-up in comparison to her schoolmate, Paris Hilton.

Per The Independent, Gaga's elaborated, "I don't ever want to be grounded in reality. . . . In my show I announce, 'People say Lady Gaga is a lie, and they are right. I am a lie. And every day I kill to make it true.' It's the dream of my vision, it's the lie that I tell, whether it's an umbrella or it's a hat or it's the way that I shape my lipstick. And then eventually it becomes a reality. My hair bow was a lie and now it's true. . . . The outlet for my work is not just the music and the videos, it's every breathing moment of my life."

Though her accoutrements were well-populated with crosses, Gaga explained she doesn't believe in organized religion because she believes Jesus loves everybody. He doesn't love just some people and hate others – lesbians gays bisexuals or the transgendered – because they were born that way. She tells us, "My religion is you, little monsters."

Then, while a gigantic Gaga was projected on the scrim, her face partly or fully obscured by a series of S&M-style masks and gags, we hear her speak one of the most intriguing passages of the evening:

"There's something heroic about the way my fans operate their cameras. So precisely, so intricately, and so proudly. Like Kings writing the history of their people. It's their prolific nature that both creates and procures what will later be perceived as the "kingdom." So, the real truth about Lady Gaga fans, my little monsters, lies in this sentiment: They are the kings. They are the queens. They write the history of the kingdom, and I am something of a devoted Jester. It is in the theory of perception that we have established our bond. Or, the lie, I should say, for which we kill. We are nothing without our image. Without our projection. Without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be, or rather to become, in the future.

"When you're lonely, I'll be lonely too. And this is The Fame." ("Gagapedia") (she adds, "12/18/1974, Lady Gaga." That date was nearly 36 years ago.)

While this passage is in several ways profound, it also brought to mind the phrase, "the consumer is king"; and I couldn't help but think of Adam Curtis's brilliant documentary, Century of the Self, in which he observed that, as a result of decades of immersion in increasingly sophisticated p.r., we've been at least partially transformed from citizens capable of effective action to improve our and others' civic lot, into largely passive, atomized consumers who look to the marketplace for support of our skin-deep identities, wasting our lives in pursuit of products that promise a wealth of choices but never satisfy for long.

The space fell into a long darkness, then exploded into – appropriately – "Poker Face."

Through the series of video interludes, the projected Gaga seemed to grow larger and larger. In the next, we see her straddling the tops of tall buildings; in the next, her face has grown so gigantic that it fills the scrim.

Next we find Gaga and her posse creeping through the dark while a huge monster lurks behind them – the thing looks like an oversized, land-borne version of Finding Nemo's angler fish (see image at yesbutnobutyes), with octopus tentacles added. Though Gaga and friends haven't seen the monster yet, her friends peel off, leaving her to continue the quest alone in the dark. She turns and screams, "Nooo!! It's the Fame Monster!" and launches into "Paparazzi."

Throughout the show, the music was great, although so loud that I heard it perfectly well through the super-duper earplugs jammed into my ears; and the audience was clearly loving it, though they spent as much time pointing phones and cameras at Gaga as they did dancing. But then, she looked marvellous.

Gaga's music is consummately danceable. And her lyrics tell truths about the subjects she chooses, though often through irony – mostly, so far, the concerns of youth: identity, love, success – especially identity. The melodies of most of her tunes don't sound like much when you hum them, but the beats are "sick," as she puts it, she's got a great voice and uses it well, and the instrumentation and audio textures are brilliant – I think they help make her music hard to get out of your head, whether or not you like it.

Is Gaga all she and we wish she were? I was reminded of a line from David Mamet's script for Hoffa: "They'd rather some people die for your mistake, than that they lived, but that they lacked a leader."

Gaga emphasized again and again and again how much she loves Dallas and all her "little monsters." Overall, the tone did feel more or less sincerely warm, but to me, a bit pushy, and sometimes even patronizing. She seemed to want us to enjoy being uninhibited kids, with her as the pretty, convention-defying young teacher with whom we're hopelessly in love.

But like, um, is it really that she loves us so much, or rather that she wants us to love her? And what will she do with the love she's won from us?

After a final costume/set change, the show ended with "Bad Romance" – seemingly daring us to ask whether ours with her is one.

Bad or not, Gaga glues glitter on good.
More visuals here (shot by moi). There's another interesting analysis of Gaga's work at VigilantCitizen.

UPDATE: JAM magazine's site's now up, and you can see an abridged version of this review at "Lady Gaga - July 23, 2010," together with some great photos by Ben Britt. (I've been told JAM plans to use the rest of my article during the run-up to Gaga's 2011 show in Dallas.)

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