Saturday, January 23, 2010

For Lady Gaga, Every Concert Is a Drama


The New York Times
January 23, 2010

Adam Roth

At Radio City Music Hall, Lady Gaga urged her audience to “Take my picture!,” and here are some results.

In her stunningly gruesome extravaganza at Radio City Music Hall, Lady Gaga scowls more than she smiles, muses about dying and appears on vast video screens vomiting, being slapped and generally being abused. “Fame is killing me,” she says. Death becomes her.

The difference between big-budget musicals and blockbuster pop concerts has shrunk over the years, since shows like “Mamma Mia!” can seem like a loosely connected collection of songs, while music tours regularly package carefully constructed star personas inside elaborate stagecraft and a narrative frame. In her slick and seamlessly executed concert, Lady Gaga blurs the line even more, turning the conventions of pop stardom into a fully realized gothic musical that aims for the commercial sweet spot at the intersection of horror and romance. When done well, that mashup can produce blockbusters like “Twilight,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Thriller.”

Melding multimedia images with old-fashioned razzle-dazzle, Lady Gaga’s show (which runs through Sunday) manages to integrate theme, image and even some narrative seamlessly into one of the most engrossing dramatic spectacles in town. As a theater critic who has suffered through too many stale, pop-infused musicals, I suggest that Broadway would be smart to follow her lead.

Lady Gaga, a New York native who attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University before dropping out to pursue music full time, calls her fans her “little monsters.” At first it seems to be a term of affection, especially when she contorts her hand into a claw in a show of solidarity with her army of devotees, decked out in mirror-ball earrings and wielding glowing disco sticks. But when she flirts with her fans, expressing her love for them, the standard pop star clich├ęs clash with the macabre story of the show, which acts out more of a dysfunctional relationship.

Her visual vocabulary marries high fashion to a fantasy fan’s aesthetic: Lady Gaga walking like a zombie, wearing scissorhands and even a suit of hair that looks as if it were stolen from the closet of Cousin Itt. In pairing spunky dance music with spooky images, Lady Gaga hints at pop music’s greatest exploitation of scary movies: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” But while the monsters in that classic video are symbols of liberation, Lady Gaga projects something darker than girl power.

Janaki Purushe

A fan picture of Lady Gaga.

She casts fame (and her audience) as the looming threat in this story and herself as the scream queen, the perpetual victim. Her elaborate set pieces make a show of helplessness and vulnerability, boxing her slight, blond figure inside a glass cube in her propulsive hit “Just Dance”; encasing it in a rotating series of orbs during the brooding “Bad Romance”; and in her most twisted image, chaining her hair to a black pole controlled by two men in “Paparazzi.”

Despite a large cast of goth dancers, whose stiff legs and pale visages evoke a flailing army of the undead, Lady Gaga is frequently alone onstage, surrounded by ominous videos of giant red trees or wild animals. Wearing a suit of Christmas lights, her feet jammed into teetering heels, she first appears moving mechanically behind a pulsating green video grid that blankets the front of the stage.

It’s an unusual entrance for a pop star, since Lady Gaga doesn’t show up in a blinding spotlight, but indistinctly and lost in an electric maze. The effect extravagantly juxtaposes the flights of fancy of a wandering mind with the physical limits of the body.

Midway through the show, the emotional narrative shifts when this flamboyant star, alone onstage, pauses to deliver a short monologue. Skillfully transforming into an insecure teenager racked with angst, she bashfully flops on the ground and, in the plaintive voice of a performer hooked on applause, asks the audience if she looks sexy. Quickly shifting back to her superstar persona, she underlines the artifice of this plea, adding self-consciously, “I hate the truth.”

In her next few songs Lady Gaga becomes increasingly aggressive and defiant, illustrating something of a love-hate relationship with her little monsters. Hunched over in an animalistic crouch, surrounded by a predatory-looking pack of dancers, she performs an angry version of her pounding song “Teeth,” as images of a ferocious wolf loom behind her. This driving song leads to a more downbeat, soulful spin on “Poker Face,” while she plays what could be described as a post-apocalyptic piano, a rusty jumble of seemingly collapsing parts that emits a purple fog.

Only a few songs after begging for approval, her mood darkens. The moment has come, as it does at the end of most slasher movies, when the scantily clad victim stops running and takes on the monster, fighting for survival.

Lady Gaga hoists a tommy gun out of the piano and swings it toward the crowd. Smiling maniacally, she sprays her fans with “bullets,” the weapon flashing like a strobe light.


Music Review Lady Gaga: Lavish Worlds, and the Headwear to Match (January 22, 2010)
ArtsBeat: Send Us Your Lady Gaga Photos
Slide Show: The Year in Style Lady Gaga

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