27 April 2011: Quicken Loans Area, Cleveland, Ohio
If you know me, you know I have a soft spot for pop music. Girl pop, in particular, since the late ’90s. There was something about the Spice Girls and the pop confection they were putting out that I can trace this girl pop love directly back to those five ladies. From there it was Kylie and Britney and Rihanna and on and on, straight up through Adele. I love it.
Falling somewhere between my beloved girl pop and the serious artistry of Madonna is Lady Gaga. I disregarded Gaga as long as I could, but “Bad Romance” couldn’t be ignored. More than an earwig, the song is everything I could possibly want from a pop song: attitude, sex, hooks, a driving beat under a melodic wave. Impossibly fun. That was all it took, and I was in.
Somehow, the first time Gaga brought the Monster Ball through town (July 2010), the ticket sale got by us, and we didn’t get to the table until the show was already sold out. I was genuinely disappointed. Fast forward a few months and it’s announced that the tour that started in 2009 was finally coming to a close after a third North American leg. The third to last show – and the last North American performance – was scheduled for Northeast Ohio. I was buried in work when the announcement came out and had no idea, but when I turned 40 last October, Tracy surprised me with a pair of tickets to the encore Cleveland performance!
The entire event – from the moment we arrived downtown to the walk back to the car four and a half hours later – was encased in fun surreality. Just driving to the parking deck provided plenty of visual cues that this was no ordinary night in front of us. It was like Halloween had arrived six months early. Say what you will about them, Gaga’s fans are devoted. And they put it on display in every way imaginable. Regardless of gender, there was plenty of bubble and Saran Wrap, hot pants, fishnets, leather, caution tape, beer can rollers, face paint, wigs, and the pelts of a thousand dead Muppets. It was a glorious spectacle.
While hanging out in the main concourse of The Q before the show, I told Tracy that as much as anything else I was struck by the sense of community among the fans Gaga has dubbed her “Little Monsters.” It reminded me of the punk scene we belonged to back in the day. There was a freedom to look how you wanted to look; be who you wanted to be. I didn’t see a single person hassled at the show for how they looked or what they chose to flaunt.
Announcing around 9pm that “We are Semi Precious Weapons from New York mother fucking City, and we hope you all get laid!” the supporting act took the stage. It has been a long time since an opening act I was completely unfamiliar with moved me, but SPW did it. With the ferocity of vintage PiL Johnny Rotten and all the theatricality of Freddie Mercury, Justin Tranter was the consummate front man. While they are the “filthy party band” they claim to be, that description falls short in defining who they are. Songs like “Semi Precious Weapons” (with the unforgettable opening line: “I can’t pay my rent, but I’m fucking gorgeous!”), and “Put a Diamond In It” were catchy as hell and hard-edged as any alternative rocker. Tranter played the crowd masterfully, telling them “You know why we love Cleveland? Two reasons: 1) You bitches love rock and roll, and 2) you like to drink!” before launching into “Sticky with Champagne”. The playful 30+ minute set was the most fun I’ve had with an unknown opening act in years, and I was left wanting more. And about an hour later, I got the “more” I needed in the form of Gaga.
After much delay, Gaga took the stage at 10:30pm and moved through four set changes, 18 songs, and innumerable costume alterations over the following two hours. While calling the Little Monsters a “spectacle” may seem like an overstatement, the word doesn’t even come close to describing the show itself. The woman is a showman first and foremost, clearly determined to give her fans their money’s worth. The idea of a storyline doesn’t exactly hold up in execution, but on paper Gaga and her dancers are trying to get from the seediest side of NYC to the Monster Ball by way of subway and some sort of fucked-up Narnia.
Each set change was preceded by movie shorts projected on a giant stage-covering scrim that showed things like Gaga gnawing on a heart, and Gaga being covered by a green paint spewing girl. All the clichéd arena rock trappings were present... repeated name checks of the city, high theatrics, pointing out a song she wrote in Cleveland, and pyrotechnics.
The second quarter of the show (the subway sequence) included an explicit shout-out to her “Cleveland gays” in the intro to “Boys Boys Boys” before ripping through a great version of the song. Shortly thereafter, Gaga called one of her fans in the arena from the stage. It played out in the exact mix of sincerity and mawkishness you’d expect: the fan’s adoration getting a little uncomfortable and Gaga’s reciprocation equally offbeat, but extricating herself from the call was clever genius. Gaga told the fan she had another call coming in from Beyonce and launched into “Telephone”.
This was followed by an extended piano version of “Born This Way” (complete with a rambling monologue about her never being able to ever prove to the fans how much she loves them and how much she’s been through and how being there is just a dream come true and that fans should remember her story if they ever feel down and on and on and you get the picture). She stayed at the piano for another new song, “You and I”, that she said she wrote last summer in Cleveland and that Brian May of Queen played guitar on for the new album.
The second half of the show (the fucked-up forest and the finale) was packed with hits and undeniably catchy songs. Beginning with “Teeth” and barreling through “Alejandro”, “Poker Face”, “Paparazzi”, “Bad Romance”, and “Born This Way”, Gaga delivered on every level.
"Born This Way" is more than the name of her current single and forthcoming album. I'm not sure if Gaga is a marketing shill or genuinely believes in her own words, but the way she wove the idea of being "born this way" into the entire show, it was clearly the theme of the night. She couldn't go more than a few minutes between reminding her Little Monsters that either she was or they were born this way. She even played two versions of the song: the midpoint piano version and the single-song encore full-blown version.
While it's easy to question her musical originality – one listen to the new single or "Dance In the Dark" and it's clear Gaga’s no stranger to Madonna's songbook – the uniqueness of her character is undeniable. Gaga is as much an icon today for both her persona and music as Madonna was at the peak of her relevancy. But, thinking back on the ’80s, Madge’s shock value seemed to be derived from shock for marketing’s sake, whereas Gaga’s meat dresses and general exhibition seem to come from a somewhat less contrived place – feeling like a more natural extension of the act. By the same token, Gaga is as much a part of Bono’s legacy in her fearlessness of using her status for socially active promotion as she is Madonna’s. Between the opening act and the main set a video was played of the performer urging fans to text donations to charities that help GLBT kids who’ve been forced out of their homes because they were (yes, here it comes again) born this way, and a donation was made in the name of the fan she called during the show to a charity that offers support to gay kids.
Last year, I saw bits of Gaga's Oprah interview online and was struck by what appeared to be a cross between genuine appreciation for her fans and radical insecurity. In concert, Gaga is prone to bouts of over-emotion that manifest themselves unexpectedly in the middle of songs or while half-naked on a piano bench. These eruptions were uncomfortably raw, often rambling monologues about never being able to repay the fans for believing in her and how far she has come and to, basically, don't let the bastards bring you down.
It certainly appears Gaga takes her position as inspiration and role model for the gays and freaks and misfits of the world seriously, and that seems to be where these emotional outbursts originate. The result is an R rated old-time gospel tent revival, an Up With People-positive production slathered in sex for the 21-and-over crowd.
(All photos by Tracy Besenyodi.)