“At the Monster’s Ball, pop music will never be lowbrow!” Lady Gaga announced in her exhortative performance at the Xcel Energy Center on Monday, the ball referring to her current tour and most recent album, The Fame Monster. She said this while playing the piano in a leather bikini in front of a wall of giant dildos. Never mind, either, that her voice is harsh and pushy, like a mean Madonna, and her maudlin piano playing wouldn’t impress the judges at a middle school band contest. Like everything with Ms. Gaga, what’s good and bad depends on your standards, and no one at the moment is more determined to blow them up than the 24-year-old Gaga herself.
The show really began a couple hours beforehand, as her fans—her little monsters, as she refers to them (affectionately or patronizingly is just one more riddle to unravel)—began gathering outside the Xcel: hordes of flamboyantly gay young men and chubby suburban 20-somethings in neon-colored, highly gelled hair and leather club-wear that would look kinky had the wearers not spilled out of a Ford Explorer. Inside, a dozen satyrs, well-greased and well-hung, awaited under an enormous scaffolding of the sort favored by middle-brow Broadway shows, the better to scamper around for visual stimulation in lieu of drama. When Stefani Germanotta finally emerged to a pounding electronic dance beat circa 1993, declaring, “I. Am. Lady Gaga,” the glow of neon neck bracelets—the sign of the faithful—bounced in the stands and never settled back down.
Throughout the show, without smiling and often hidden beneath layers of wacky costuming, Gaga would incite her acolytes with the tritest of empowerment speeches: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you,” she told her followers, “that you can’t sing, or you can’t play the piano,” as some well-meaning teachers probably informed her. “Be yourself” and “don’t ever change for anyone.” And then, in the next breath, she’d order them around like sheep, to “clap like this,” “stand up,” “sing,” or “dance, motherfuckers!” like a motivational speaker-cum-dominatrix.
To some Gaga fans, such seeming contradictions are part of a vast, cartoony joke at the heart of her act, which is essentially a concept album of 1980s and ’90s electronic dance music enacted via various vignettes and many, many costume changes. This, in fact, is the favorite pose of her hipper, more cultured fans who would accuse anyone unmoved by Gaga to be missing the point. Like KISS, all the crotch-grabbing, fake blood, and cheesy dialogue—“It’s a monster!” “I’m scared!”—is a joke. Right?
No doubt there are many thousands of fans who find her transgressive act hilarious. Yet nothing about Gaga herself would actually lead you to believe she’s joking. When she name-checked “St. Paul” a dozen times in the course of the show, was she lampooning concert traditions? Was she kidding when she unexpectedly declared that “Jesus loves everybody!” then, for the final act, emerged with sparklers shooting from her crotch and breasts? There’s a terrific joke on convention here, to be subversive or silly, but it’s almost impossible to tell if Gaga is actually in on it.
Recently, she may have given us a clue. Critics have suggested that, far from a master prankster, she is that most conventional of things in mass entertainment—cynical. That offering a shallow spectacle in the name of self-empowerment, as she laps up the proceeds, amounts to exploitation. And on Monday she felt the need to defend herself, explaining that she writes every song and sings every song, live, for the benefit of her audience. To buttress the point, she then premiered a brand-new song, much to the audience’s delight. The Gaga doth protest too much.
That she can write a catchy dance song—bucketfuls, in fact—is beyond doubt; Gaga didn’t really need to order her fans to shake their butts. Yet this apparently wasn’t enough for Gaga, who in her already long quest for fame has hit upon one of the oldest tricks in the book: assure the majority that they are somehow being oppressed, then set yourself up as their savior. (“Do you want me to die?” she asked the audience in one martyr-like moment, while covered in fake blood.) She imbues her act with anti-establishment symbolism, yet at this point, as the most popular performer today, she could not be more establishment. She’s the Sarah Palin of entertainment, fighting for the right you’d never lost to get your freak on. “I’ll never let you down,” she said Monday with apparent seriousness, as if she hadn’t created our need for her in the first place.