It's not often that the world's biggest pop star comes to St. Louis while at the height of her fame. But the stars aligned Thursday night with the arrival of Lady Gaga, who presented her arena-sized Monster Ball Tour in the cozy Fabulous Fox Theatre. The mood at the venue was appropriately festive and electric. In honor of Gaga's outrageous fashion, attendees donned elaborate masks, stars painted over an eye, glittery outfits and ostentatious hats or plumage, which made the Fox feel like the site of a bacchanal.
The pursuit of pleasure drives Gaga's music, but this hedonism also brings complications. She explores such matters on 2009's The Fame Monster, which functions as a response to the monied fantasies and skewered debauchery of 2008's The Fame. The trap is easy to fall into - fame's glamour becomes tarnished but simultaneously more seductive the more famous you become - but Gaga both embraces and disparages the paradox, with gusto. This elevates her above ironic poses, above cheap ploys for attention - and above every vapid pop star crooning over techno beats.
The friction between glamour, decadence and consequence drove last night's 100-minute Monster Ball. Wearing sunglasses and a sleek black outfit, she was strung up by her hair and manipulated like a marionette by two dancers during "Paparazzi," as computerized light flashes exploded behind her. (These mirrored the constant audience-created photo flashes during the show; everybody had a camera.) At the end of the goth-trance gem "Monster" - the stage bathed in red lights and stark forest shots, an Edgar Allan Poe short story come to life - her troupe of plume-wearing backing dancers attacked her.
Such spectacle was a given. The show opened with the chilly Europop tune "Dance in the Dark," while Gaga, sporting a leotard with lights on it, writhed behind a curtain segmented into a grid of squares. For "Just Dance," she was encased in a moving cube while clutching a keytar, and then elevated above it. Her "LoveGame" outfit was a geometric silver dress and a papal-like skyscraper hat. And she began the encore in a gyroscope, singing the watered-down-J-pop tune "Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)." Her silver bustier expanded into a sturdy, jetpack-like square on her back; it looked like she was trying to smuggle Spongebob SquarePants into Studio 54.
Sex as performance was a recurring theme. (Amusingly, she compared the show to a first date - "which means we can have sex and I won't have to see you in the morning.") Gaga was a confident performer, comfortable showing off her body - "Boys Boys Boys," "Paper Gangsta" and "Poker Face" featured her in a skimpy red bikini, while a She-Ra-esque gold outfit left little to the imagination several songs before that. "Do you think I'm sexy?" she drawled at one point, as the audience screamed. "I think you're sexy," she obliged back. Gaga simulated jerking off at the end of "LoveGame" and later, after casually commenting that she disliked "money," she placed her hand over the crotch of a dancer, a sledgehammer nod to the connection between commodity and sexuality.
But Gaga can sing - and sing well. In fact, she seemed most comfortable during her brief time at the piano, belting out Monster's Bowie-esque ballad, "Speechless" and a stripped-down version of "LoveGame." Despite wearing heels, she crouched on the bench like a child curled in a ball, and belted her heart out. Simplicity also marked other show highlights. "Alejandro" featured muscled, sinewy bodies moving precisely and ornately while bathed in red light, a display of Adonis-like behavior fitting the song's steamy music. "Teeth" was also fantastic, a fierce Broadway strut full of vamps, vigor and choreographed dancing which recalled Chicago.
The strength of this authentic interlude highlighted the Monster Ball's weak spots. The backing vocal tracks evident on other songs -- heavier on numbers where she had to dance quite a bit and on hits such as "LoveGame" and "Poker Face" -- were often distracting. (Sure, tracks are a necessary evil for her brand of pop, but they still felt sterile, and detracted from her voice.) And at times when she had to be a pop-star puppet and perform choreographed dance moves, she seemed awkward and unnatural.
Yet this made Gaga relatable and human. Her frequent banter about how much her fans (her "monsters") meant to her -- and how the Monster Ball is an inclusive, welcoming place for freaks -- didn't seem like canned patter. Despite the scope of the performance and her superstar status, her message was rather warm and human: "Here at the Monster Ball, we preach love, truth, unity and togetherness." She has unconditional love for her supporters, and their quirks and foibles, and backs this up with words and actions. And so from a fan's perspective, the Monster Ball was a satisfying, thrilling experience.
But with a throwaway comment to the audience-- "I did not create myself; you created me" -- Gaga appropriated a theme from Frankenstein, and underscored the darker side of her symbiotic appeal. She hasn't been in the mainstream eye for two years yet, but in today's accelerated media culture, she might as well be a career artist. She's thrived because of attention and overexposure, and despite setbacks and vitriol, needs it to feed her art - both the negative and positive experiences.
It's too easy to say that this resembles another blond megastar of yore, especially since Gaga lifts moves left and right from the Madonna playbook. But it's undeniable that her attitude, brashness and cone bras are a nod to the Material Girl. And from a critical standpoint, that's perhaps why the Monster Ball didn't quite always reach pop nirvana: It's been done before. However, Gaga's not yet a fully-formed monster. She's still a work in progress, an artist with quite a lot to say - and for once, someone with the talent to realize her ambitions.
Let it never be said that Lady Gaga forgets her friends: Fellow NYC performers Semi Precious Weapons - who said they first played with her in 2006, in front of twelve people - opened the night in fabulous fashion. Frontman Justin Tranter, a towering, fierce force in sparkly taupe ankle-boot stilettos and matching tights and a shirt, dominated the stage with his antics and enthusiasm.
During opening song "Semi Precious Weapons," he grabbed a fan and simulated her fellating him. His dance moves on "Put a Diamond In It" ranged from hand-wagging to wobbly, stork-like windmills and high-stepped marches. And during "Sticky With Champagne," he jumped into the audience with champagne to hand out to clamoring fans - and then hopped back onstage, stripped off his clothes and changed his outfit.
A Technicolor Sisters of Mercy, SPW balanced the right amounts of trashy glam, theatrical rock and downtown punk. Drummer Dan Crean, who bashed out his beats like a deranged animal, especially impressed; so did guitarist Stevy Pyne, who threw himself on the ground and into the audience. Tranter clearly understood his band's role last night. Or as he put it: "Our goal on this tour is to get you wet and excited for Lady Gaga." Mission accomplished.
Jason Derülo, while obviously a talented, smooth R&B crooner in the vein of Usher and Ne-Yo, seemed completely out of place in the middle of the bill. His mellow tones, subtle electro grooves and ladies-first lyrics drained the venue of the energy generated by Semi Precious Weapons. (He also spawned the best audience-text of the night on a pre-show screen: "Scream for the unnecessary umlaut dude.") Fans reacted to the Imogen Heap-sampling hit "Whatcha Say" and new single "In My Head," but even a tune which appeared to sample Daft Punk's "Around the World" was forgettable.
Lady Gaga setlist: "Dance in the Dark" "Just Dance" "LoveGame" "Alejandro" "Monster" "So Happy I Could Die" "Teeth" "Speechless" "Poker Face" (piano) (was anything else played?) "The Fame" "Money Honey" "Beautiful, Dirty Rich" "Boys Boys Boys" "Paper Gangsta" "Poker Face" "Paparazzi"
Encore: "Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say" "Bad Romance"
Critic's Notebook: Gaga didn't mention the potential protesters, but did say that the Monster Ball "preach[es] love, truth, unity and togetherness." She also encouraged "hands up for love, unity and gay fucking pride."
Disappointment of the night: No "Telephone," my favorite song on Fame Monster.
Personal Bias: I saw Kylie Minogue in October, which I kept coming back to last night as I watched the show.
Daring fashion of the night: A girl wearing decorative tights and underwear with a leopard-print band. No pants! Close runner-up: The many Gentleman Gagas I saw in drag.
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