If the second straight Summer of Gaga proves anything, it's that pop stars really are the new rock stars. Lady Gaga is spending the summer doing all the things you expect rock stars to do — make a scene in airports, deliver controversial public statements, make Jerry Seinfeld cry, give church people gallstone attacks, curate a riot on the Today show, star in arty videos designed to get banned from channels that don't even play videos. Nobody but La Gagz provides us with day-to-day outrage and fury, as she drives her ever-expanding Monster Ball Tour through the heartland, sounding even weirder now that she's graduated to arenas. Nobody else ends a totally genius explosion of spectacu-gasmic excess by standing center stage at Madison Square Garden in a Forties bustier, in front of fans waving "SPANK US GAGA" signs, proclaiming, "May you dream of rock & roll and the future!" as her nipple dart-guns shoot sparks.
Stefani Germanotta might have only an album and a half's worth of material, but that's enough to give her an arena show that runs well over two hours, full of skits and speeches about what it all means. (Spoiler: It all means Freedom!) (And rock & roll!) (And the future!) It's a clash of rock & roll paradoxes: she celebrates the cheap pleasures of dance-floor hedonism, but she also makes it clear she stands for something, even if that's merely (merely?) the transformational power of pop glitter. She might be proud of her piano skills, but her best songs are Eighties-style electro sleaze, with a low-budget New York leer. Her music isn't so different from Avenue D, W.I.T., Chicks On Speed, or any number of arty disco chancers you could have heard at Williamsburg's Club Luxx 8 years ago. Except she's the world's biggest pop star, and she got there by playing up her subcultural weirdness instead of acting coy about it. (I lost track of how many times she shouted out to "the LGBT community." A lot.)
The show I caught was July 9th at the Garden, and the most amazing part was the audience, which had swarms of high school kids in Gaga makeup, Bon Jovi moms, nuclear families, and jaded club queens, all screaming constantly through the entire show. There were plenty of girls-night-out foursomes, including four Golden Girls I swear I saw last summer at the Neil Diamond show, except tonight they were wearing feather boas. The gender split was maybe 70/30 female, with most of the dudes either Glamberts or Pauly Ds. How young was this crowd? As the pre-show music boomed on the speakers, the girl in front of me asked her friend, "What's this song called?" The song currently playing was called "Beat It," by a somewhat famous singer named Michael Jackson, who recently died. Like, wow. But that's the new breed of Gaga fan — and if she weren't bringing in those kids, she'd merely be the world's coolest disco singer, instead of the pop visionary she is.
As expected, Gaga ran through a buttload of costume changes — the best came when she did "LoveGame" as a burlesque Statue of Liberty whose torch was a "disco stick." "New York you have freed me!" Gaga cried, while urging us to follow the Glitter Way to the Monster Ball, where all the Little Monsters can be Free! Free! Free To Be, You and Me! There was also a lot of sex, as Gaga said things like "I hear they have some pretty big cock in Manhattan," while on her back, grinding her spiked heels into the pert nipples of her German backup dancer Michael. "Michael likes American girls," Gaga told us. "And he also likes American boys!" Michael did not comment, but he did seem to be totally into the spiked-heels thing.
Gaga's speeches were incredibly touching, especially since they were surprisingly unscripted. Sometimes she'd rant on one topic for a minute, forget what she was saying, then switch topics. But it was all off the dome, which was one reason every word she uttered provoked ear-splitting screams from the crowd. (She apparently hasn't used the "dream of rock & roll and the future" line at any of her other gigs, even though it brought down the house that night.) But the constant theme was her love for her Little Monsters, and her desire to give us all freedom. No wonder it brought in so many families — with all the self-esteem pep talks, it was like Sesame Street, except with more duct-taped breasts.
She did her usual piano interlude, shouting out to Papa Gaga ("There's a lot of drunk assholes in my life — but my dad is my favorite") and accurately appraising her own piano ballads, saying, "That is some 1974 shit." But the most touching moment came during her nightly segment where she dials a random fan's cellphone, to talk about her charitable donations on behalf of homeless LGBT youth. Tonight the lucky fan was Katy, a girl in the balcony with Diet Coke can curlers in her hair, who the cameras immediately put up on the big video screens. "I love you, Lady Gaga!" she sobbed. "You've taught me so much about believing in myself and being freee!" After a minute or so of this, Gaga told her, "Hold on, I'm getting another call. Hello?... Beyoncé?"
That was the cue for "Telephone" (with a taped Beyoncé rap), and also the cue for Gaga to shed her robe, revealing a black leather bikini, which got about one-third as many cheers as Diet Coke Can Katy did — yet that was the whole point. Gaga's gotten so huge so fast because she knows the fan is the star. That's the emotional core of the show, and of the whole Gaga phenomenon. And that's why, through all the costume changes, one thing that never changes is Gaga's blonde mop, meticulously bleached so that even the nosebleed seats can see her dark roots showing. It takes a lot of money, and even more artistic courage, to hit the stage with a dye job that cheap. If you're one of the people who has trouble getting what Gaga has to say about rock & roll and the future, it's all there in that hair.