Lady Gaga "The Monster Ball"

by David Foucher

EDGE Publisher

Wednesday December 2, 2009

Lady Gaga sings at her piano on "The Moster Ball" Tour
Lady Gaga sings at her piano on "The Moster Ball" Tour  

Given the pervasive domination of Lady Gaga on the pop/dance charts this year, it's hard to remember that two years ago the 23-year-old singer was still playing bars on the Lower East Side of New York, living check to check from her day job at Interscope Records. That rise to prominence, along with the exuberant talent and off-kilt mannerisms that paved the way for her first album last year, is prevalent on stage in her current Monster Ball Tour, now making its way across the nation. It's a raw, emotional show that will appeal to her growing fan base both in ticket price and in showmanship; and even though its lack of polish betrays the quick change from co-headlining with Kanye West to taking the pole position in an arena tour - an unheard-of attempt, it's hugely entertaining. In fact, she's selling out venues. And for gays and other Gaga aficionados, that means get your tickets quick.

The show has two opening acts - Semi Precious Weapons and Kid Cudi. The effect is a disjointed experience waiting for Gaga to go on. Semi Precious Weapons is a glam rock band headlined by Berklee alum Justin Tranter and friends that seems to be hell-bent on riling up the crowd at all costs. That includes extraordinarily suggestive antics and tremendous amounts of screaming. While they're clearly friends with the headlining act, the talent on display is meager at best; I recommend you arrive at least a half hour after showtime. At that point, you'll catch Kid Cudi, whose electronica rapping is both engaging and moody.

Gaga finally appears approximately 90 minutes into the event, on a raked, enclosed stage that betrays no evidence of musicians whatsoever; it also has the unfortunate effect of separating her performance from its audience with a double proscenium. That wasn't a particularly good choice; most of her opening number is performed behind a scrim, which then reappears occasionally during the show to provide video entertainment during transitional moments in the show. The effect is distancing, lending the show a sense of aloofness that's in direct contrast to her repetitively stated desire to be one with her fans. The raked stage also hinders the production's confidence; Lady Gaga is backed by a group of dancers who, along with Gaga, dance on high heels. There were three falls during the Boston premiere of the show, and the nervousness of the dancers is evident in the hesitant way they approach their choreography. The entire set is constructed of video screens, allowing the blank canvas to provide a diverse cacophony of backdrops for the music, and they partially curtain up about midway through the concert to finally show the musicians. The effect is a somewhat strange mix of music video and concert styling.

No such impairments exist on the musical side of this concert. It's loud, glorified pop that's partially tracked but intensely amplified via the addition of live keybords, drums and guitars. Gaga's vocals soar impeccably, particularly during the highlight of the show: a beautifully executed rendition of "Speechless" featuring just piano and vocals, which evolves into a flirtatious intro to "Poker Face." And while you'll leave the concert with ringing ears, the music is craftily mixed despite its volume. Inspired, too, is the concert lighting, which maximizes the availability of a limited number of instruments to create a variety of moods - some quite complex, and many blazingly simple in their almost total use of backlight.

But it's the raw, unafraid attitude of Lady Gaga's show that makes this concert such a treat. Growing up in the arms of post-modern glam rock and lifted to success by so many fringe elements (quite beyond, but completely inclusive of, the LGBT community), Gaga is adamant both in her adoration of her fans and her determination to provoke them into being themselves and, particularly in this setting, acting out against injustice and ideals she feels to be counterproductive or downright evil. The theme here is "monsters" - and if in her songs "Monster" and "Teeth" she wrote allegorical lyrics, in concert she firmly specifies that she's speaking about her fans; during refrains of "show me your teeth" she urges the audience to bare their molars, and over the course of the show she encourages them to lift their arms and dance with hands extended into claws. Once can argue that in her rapidly evolving fan base she has in fact created a monster; now she's seeking to focus its attention.

Her targets? Money and the man. She targets both as evils during a run from "Money Honey" into "Beautiful, Dirty, Rich" and seals the deal in a scathing visual display during "Pararazzi." And when she isn't railing against the oppressors out there, she's introvertedly sexing up her immediately surroundings. After belting out "The Fame," she asks shyly, "Do you love me? Do you want to fuck me?" to the screams of the crowd... and during her quiet rendition of "Speechless," as she sits wearing a sultry black glorified unitard, she asks her audience to sing with her, and when they do, she coquettishly turns to them with a coy look and whispers, "I can't believe you know all the words!"

This is where Gaga is greatest; despite the physical separations of staging and diffusion, she's able to connect with her fans on a deeply personal level. This is partly because she's uninhibited in both her physicality and her stage patter, but also in the sexually aggressive choreography of her performance; the dancing on stage is unrefined, hardly slick - but it's appropriate as backup for an artist who, despite her astounding success, is still 23, and still finding her own voice.

David Foucher is the CEO of the EDGE Media Network and Pride Labs LLC, is a member of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalist Association, and is accredited with the Online Society of Film Critics. David lives with his daughter in Dedham MA.