Lady Gaga, live at the House of Blues, March 30, 2009
"My hair may be blond, but my heart is brunette," announced Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta — a/k/a Lady Gaga.
Standing among the enthusiastic throng Monday night at the House of Blues, I couldn't help thinking that, early on in a carefully choreographed performance, Gaga was straying a bit from the script to give us a quick peek behind the curtain. Such curtains and parlor tricks are the tools of her trade, as important to the power of her performance as her carefully manicured alter ego — and making it all the easier for her to deconstruct our celebrity-obsessed culture even as she's capitalizing on it. Still, it's plain that, even with her peroxide hair helmet and oversized glow-in-the-dark sunglasses, Ms. Germanotta wants us to know there's an actual person in there, someone who realizes how ridiculous the whole thing is but also appreciates the power of art to create idealized forms that are at once beautiful and grotesque.
The staging and the design were impeccable and imaginative (as she put it herself between songs, "I put every cent I've made into this tour!"), but for the most part it was in the service of lifting her own physical form onto a pedestal of naked idolatry. Ms. Germanotta revels in using heavy-metal showmanship in the service of glitter-pop kicks, whether she's stealing Rob Halford's trick of cruising out on stage on a motorcycle (only hers is a tiger-print Vespa) or swiping the Napoleonic swagger of fellow not-tall belter Ronnie James Dio — Gaga is one of those shorter people who nonetheless manages to look statuesque on stage. Plus, she spends a large portion of the set carrying some sort of iridescent truncheon.
I came to "The Fame Ball" (as Gaga calls it) expecting to see a complete subcultural freakshow; what I got was a sold-out concert by a performer riding the kind of popularity that only several unlikely #1 hits could create. This meant that the audience went apeshit when Gaga gave them what they wanted (which was absolutely top-notch electro-diva anthems like "Just Dance" and "Love Game"). But it also meant confusion when the show became more than just a dance spectacle.
Mid set, Gaga emerged after an uncomfortably long absence wearing a flesh-toned leotard covered with gigantic bubbles. Looking like Peter Gabriel circaLamb Lies Down on Broadway, she intoned, quite seriously, "This is all a lie. Lady Gaga is a lie. And every day I kill for that lie." A couple thousand revelers waved their glowsticks somewhat less maniacally and went, "Whuh?" Gaga then took center stage at a clear plastic piano and ran through a drastic reworking of her hit single "Poker Face" that traded the radio hit's glossy Euro-synth sheen for a stripped-down stop-and-start old-timy raunch that wouldn't have sounded out of place on the Cabaret soundtrack. It was then that the whole thing became as transparent as her tricked-out upright: all this bluster about fame and art and greed and artifice that we'd been throbbing along to en masse for the past 45 minutes was merely the prelude to her real statement: performers are, like the rest of us, just after a little love and attention.
Gaga re-emerged from her sensitive moment to club us over the head with another triumphant round of disco anthems, demonstrating that she has the goods to take this thing to every next level imaginable, as long as her audience can play along with her sporadic Laurie Anderson moments. As she put it near the end of the show, "There have been a lot of terrible things said about me: that I'm pretentious, I'm ridiculous. All of them are true." Amen to that, Lady.
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