by Elke Mermis
Between fans' sweaty fat rolls doused in glitter, outlandish cardboard headpieces, chains, leather, and legions of ripped fishnets, it wasn't hard to tell who was appearing inside the Sprint Center last night in Kansas City. While the one and only Lady Gaga prepared in the eye of the storm inside the venue, outside, the energy was tangible.
Pissed-off high school kids with pink hairspray flipped the bird to the Phelps family, who held "God Hates Gaga" signs across the street. Soccer moms adjusted glitter bras. Gay boys smoothed each other's lightning-bolt makeup. Creeped-out fathers surveyed the crowd and feigned indifference while their preteen daughters, decked out in taffeta, held each other's hands and giggled. Mayhem was about to begin, and everyone could feel it.
As show time grew close, Sprint's blue curtain rose to reveal a veil surrounding the stage, which showed slow, high-fashion projections of the pop star dancing, jumping and revolving in the air. Suddenly, the veil went transparent to reveal a silhouette with alien, angular shoulders and Marilyn Monroe hair. Cue hysteria.
Fittingly, Lady Gaga didn't open with pyrotechnics, cartwheels or cables launching her through the air. She made the audience rabid by striking sinewy poses behind the veil while warbling pristine vocals over the gothic electro-ballad "Dance in the Dark."
Dropping the curtain revealed a spectacular blond Gaga in sparkles with Madonna roots; and it also revealed a stage set that resembled Rent, with glowing neon signs reading, "Implants, Sedation, Dentistry" and "What the fuck have you done." In some perversion of Broadway, Gaga didn't only have beautiful gay-boy backup dancers and ridiculous on-set musicians (one of her three guitarists had Slash hair, and the drummer proved his chops in a fiery drum solo while Gaga nearly scat sang over him); she also had a horror-movie cheesy storyline. Spoken words narrated Gaga's quest to get to the "Monster Ball," which was, apparently, the most amazing party on Earth.
Frankly, I'm not going to challenge that statement.
It's exhilarating to experience the boob sparklers, the teeny leather bikinis, and the Monster Ball claw in person; but Gaga's show is about more than just seeing the iconic first-hand. It's also about realizing that there's much, much more to Gaga's persona than appears on her platinum radio hits. She isn't all metal, glitter, fire and ice. She's also a whirling enigma of influences, and she's a smart, funny woman with a fucking amazing voice.
Example: when most arena-size musicians sit down, the audience takes it as a cue to pee, grab a beer, snooze, text, and wait for the next chart-topper to hit. Naturally, as soon as Gaga sat down at her piano to pound out "Speechless" - a song that yielded one of the better anecdotes of the night, in which she referred to her father, lovingly, as a "drunk asshole" - she set the instrument aflame. It was the visual equivalent of the series of torch songs that Gaga was about to unleash. "You and I," a song about a Nebraska guy, according to Gaga, showcased the lighter-waving qualities that the star can channel. Gaga is well-schooled in the art of the '70s and '80s power-chord slow-dance song, and her gruff, blues-y wail was hair-raisingly powerful. If anyone was skeptical about this self-admitted attention whore's talent, this number was for you, bro.
For an artist whose focus lies so heavily with distortion, distraction and artifice, there was a striking stroke of the personal in Gaga's performance that didn't exist in her show in St. Louis in December. Gaga seemed more at ease this time around, chattering with the crowd about her parents and ad-libbing quips to the crowd in the midst of songs. "Do you think I'm sexy?" she asked. "I think you're sexy." After pausing, soaking in the glow of the crowd's ecstatic cheers, Gaga said, "I wasn't very popular in high school. In fact, I got made fun of, like, every day. So I tend to abuse this part of the show."
Of course, Gaga's sacrificial motifs endured the revision of the Monster Ball tour. (Vomiting and blood were invoked multiple times throughout the set.) It was queasy, in a sexy, arty way; but then again, so is Gaga.
She also wasn't afraid to imbue Monster Ball with a heavy dose of her own experience, too, via the Wizard of Oz narrative. The Dorothy parallel was a metaphor for Gaga's quest for fame, of course; but, Gaga's trip to Oz had a different type of anonymity that isn't present in Dorothy's straightforward tale. A girl following the yellow brick road in red ruby slippers has a very different perception of life than a girl -- like pre-fame Gaga -- wading through the jungle of New York City, envisioning her stardom in spite of the dirty anonymity of the F train (which was a subway line that Gaga featured in her set. One can hear the announcement now: "This is a Monster Ball-bound F Train. Next stop: Glitter Way.")
It was an interesting (albeit convoluted) glimpse into the more intimate psyche of a star that is notoriously, purposefully guarded. (Well, as intimate as an arena-sized spectacle can be.)
Lady Gaga's Monster Ball, interestingly, was also quite political. T-shirts like "I Love Lady Gay-Gay" make no secret of the star's pro-Queer stance; but, Gaga spent quite a bit of stage time seductively cooing about her backup dancers' sex lives ("Also, like Jesus, Michael loves everybody," she said, rubbing her dancer's thighs). This, of course, was awesome. But it was also fascinating, given how many Republican dads there seemed to be clapping and bopping along in the sold-out crowd.
In between numbers, later in the show, Gaga gave a short speech about the LGBT charity for homeless youth that she donated $20,000 to for each date of the tour. What Gaga didn't know (or perhaps she did, and didn't care) was that she was speaking to an arena full of people who largely thought that LGBT was an abbreviation for some sort of sandwich.
Kansas City made its intentions clear, though: anything for Gaga. As Gaga fought a gigantic undersea monster (from the depths of her subconscious, perhaps?) she called the Fame Monster, the fans cheered rabidly. When the Monster ate her (which she wanted: "Just eat me, motherfucker!") the fans cheered rabidly. When the veil dropped around the stage, and motor-revving bass rocked the Sprint Center, and Gaga's ethereal projection graced the screen, the fans cheered rabidly. Lady Gaga had Kansas City in the palm of her hand.
"This is the real truth about Lady Gaga," intoned the star's voice, as images of medieval torture gadgets slashed across the screen. "In the kingdom of Gaga, the fans are the kings. They are the queens, and I am simply a devoted jester...An image is nothing without its projection."
In that case, it's a love-fest of mass hysteria. Kansas City was gaga for Gaga, and Gaga was willing to bleed to death in front of 20,000 people in the name of fame -- or, perhaps, something more complex than that. But, give an audience exactly what they want - beauty, sex, choruses, fire, glitter, bass, dancing and high heels - and there's only one way that a killer stage show can turn out.
Lady Gaga's Monster Ball tour is the best: it was designed that way.
In a way, Semi Precious Weapons were the perfect opener: the band's rip-off rock and roll wasn't as good as the headliner, but whetted the crowd's appetite for costume changes, ridiculous showmanship, and Gaga herself: frontman Justin Tranter -- looking like a cross between Dr. Frank N Furter and a gay Lux Interior -- chanted Lady Gaga's name at least three times to the crowd. "Our job is to get all of you beautiful, beautiful bitches wet and excited for Lady Gaga," said Tranter. Mission accomplished. (Spitting champagne at the crowd helped, too.)
Dance In the Dark
New Number? ("Rub that grease around?")
Beautiful Dirty Rich
Boys Boys Boys
You and I