Photo: Courtesy of Lady Gaga.
How many musicians can you name who have mounted three entirely different stage shows in the past three months? I can think of exactly one: the tireless Lady Gaga. I have now been to all three. The first two each had their own appeal: March’s raw, raucous South By Southwest performance in Austin, famous for Gaga’s entrance on a spit and Millie Brown’s spit of a different sort; and April’s weeklong sendoff to New York’s beloved-but-shabby Roseland Ballroom, on a stage that could barely contain Gaga & Co.
But, the month of May sees pop’s most outré star back to full-born, arena-sized glory. Last night at Madison Square Garden, a venue situated about halfway between the Upper West Side of her youth and the Lower East Side of her musically formative years, Gaga offered a 22-song reminder that, contrary to what the sniping in some quarters might suggest, she’s still got it and then some. And by “it,” I mean the ability to put on an exhilarating show, and to connect with her fans in a way that few others can. Apologies to Mark Twain, but reports of Lady Gaga’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
“There’s no place like home, motherfuckers!” proclaimed the native New Yorker near the top of artRAVE: The Artpop Ball, every bit as lavish a Gaga tour as its predecessors, but somehow brighter and more inclusive. That brightness begins with the set: an all-white igloo of a main stage that gives way to lucite runways and secondary platforms surrounded by icy shards. Think a disco take on Superman’s fortress of solitude. She’s still in a class by herself in the wig-and-costume department as well: A polka-dot leotard with octopus tentacles, a sparkly winged number featuring the blue Jeff Koons gazing ball, and the big hair-and-clamshells Botticelli Venus favorite were among the standouts.
Musically, the show leans heavily on the overly maligned Artpop, an imperfect album, but a far more interesting one than it’s been given credit for. In Austin, Gaga told me she believes the record will be more appreciated over time, as she says her last release, Born This Way, was. In other words, to use a metaphor of which she would no doubt approve, it’s a grower, not a shower. And, in an arena setting, grown these songs have: the glitchy Eurodisco of “Venus,” the sugary pop erotica of “Sexxx Dreams,” the raunchy “Swine,” and her collaboration with T.I. — who joined her in person on this night, “Jewels N’ Drugs.” “Applause” and the can’t-miss “Bad Romance” were crowd-pleasers, of course, but nothing beat the closer. More on that later.
The biggest takeaway on this homecoming night, though, was that Lady Gaga felt she had something extra to prove. And, is that any wonder? Over the past year, she’s been pop’s most embattled star. The year 2013 was a tough one for her, with a broken hip, an aborted tour, months of recovery and frustrating inactivity, a difficult split from longtime manager Troy Carter, and a lawsuit by a former assistant.
But, maybe most inexplicable — as far as I was concerned — was the almost gleeful piling-on that came with the release of Artpop. Reviews of the album took more issue with Gaga herself than with what was on the record; those who enjoy pitting women against one another looked at Gaga’s sales versus the other major distaff fall releases, from Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus, and concluded Gaga the “loser.” The myth of an “Artflop” was born, and vicious attack stories came fast and furious, the most insidious being an outrageous claim that the album had cost Interscope Records $25 million — a claim later proven not only to be patently untrue, but the work of a shadowy Internet troll working under the alias “Angela Cheng.”
So, when Gaga, throughout this celebration of perseverance, declared “Don’t let anyone drag you down,” and “If I had believed everyone who told me I was never gonna make it, I would never be here,” you had to think she was speaking beyond the Little Monsters. When she performed her raison d’être, “Born This Way,” as a stripped-down, acoustic centerpiece to the show, she interjected the song with an ad-libbed “I’m gonna survive!” — a subtext of defiance.
Maybe it was directed in part at The New York Times. That august outlet took its shots at Gaga in recent months as well — calling out her reported $1 million Doritos sponsorship at SXSW in a way it didn’t with other stars flying into Texas for similar big-ticket deals, or using an ostensible review of her Roseland performance to focus skeptically on her bond with her most devoted fans (as though the Monsters are any more zealous than say, Beliebers, Swifties, or the Beyhive). Certainly Gaga’s famous connection with those fans and her status as pop’s patron saint of the misfits was underscored in the night’s most moving segment, when she sat down to read letters that had been tossed on stage. One of them told of how Gaga had inspired a young man to take a chance and move to New York; another told the singer, “You get me and I get you.” Either you believe that connection is real, and it matters, or you don’t. You buy the inspiration Gaga is selling, or you roll your eyes at it.
I’ll put in the latter category Noisey writer Kat George. In perhaps the nadir of recent Gaga-bashing only six weeks ago, Kat hyperbolically proclaimed the “Slow and Bitter End of Lady Gaga’s Career,” forging a nasty point-by-point case of why “no one gives a fuck“ about the singer anymore. Best of all, after poking this rhetorical stick into a hornets’ nest, Kat feigned shock a week later at the threats being leveled at her from the Monsters. Yes, stans can be frightening bullies, and yes, their idols would do well to call them off more often. But, what prompted your eviscerating piece in the first place, Kat? Click-bait, I imagine, but then don’t be surprised when your bait reels in a shark.
So, at the sold-out MSG show last night, was this the scene of no one giving a fuck? Twenty thousand people enraptured start to finish? I know plenty of artists who would take that in a heartbeat. Or, maybe New York is an anomaly, Kat. With Artpop at two million in sales and counting worldwide, that’s a flop I can live with.
Not that Gaga needs my defense, but I’m happy to offer it, and an explanation why: She is real. That’s right, the wigs, the egg, the masks, the warehouse’s worth of costumes, the camp-fest that is the “G.U.Y.” video, the applause, applause notwithstanding — yes. In five minutes with this woman you get much closer to something approaching a human being than with the large majority of the personality-challenged mannequins that pass as pop stars in 2014, whose primary job as best I can tell is to look and appear — to use a word popular among the Beyhive — “flawless.”
Give me flaws. Give me “Swine.” And, throw in an actual emotion from time to time. Gaga is not afraid to show her ass, but she also works it off. I surprised her in Austin when I told her — off-camera — that at the end of the day, I thought she was “kind of a conservative.” She laughed. “You just may be the first person who has ever called me that,” she said. What I meant is that she works hard — very hard — with a profoundly traditional work ethic born of doing it herself, because that’s the only way she could make it happen in those LES days when she was left to sink or swim.
I firmly believe Gaga is in no danger of sinking. But, even if she were to, she could do so knowing she has given us “Gypsy.” I saved the best for last, because that’s what she does in her current show. One day, I would love for her to break down for me how she, Madeon, Red One, and White Shadow came up with this thrilling track that gets me every time. It’s romantic, it’s rousing, it’s about freedom and companionship and where the two come together. It’s open skies and hope and dreams, it’s “Thunder Road” or “Born to Run” re-imagined as pop. And, it brings to mind something Gaga told me the first time I met her, in 2009. “I hope you’re not one of those people,” she said, “who thinks dance music is just cold.” Truth be told, I kinda-sorta was. But, “Gypsy” gives the lie to that idea. This glorious song and the woman who made it are as warm and human as I could possibly hope for. Lady Gaga — long may she rave.