Nostalgia might be for geeks, as Lady Gaga let us all know in "Applause," yet it's tough not to miss the Gaga of four years ago, when she ruled as the planet's most voracious pop goddess, slaying crowds with the glam-punk sleaze overkill of her Monster Ball Tour. Last night, in a Madison Square Garden homecoming gig, hardly anything in her performance would suggest it was the same girl. "Check yourself — make sure you're being you," she urged the crowd. Same, Gaga. Literal same.
Although it was billed as Artrave: The Artpop Ball, it wasn't much like pop or a rave — more like a run-of-the-mill arena-rock show, the kind where a band has a shoddy new album to flog. She blew off her great songs (no "You & I," no "Edge of Glory," "Telephone" only in a blink-and-you-miss-it snippet at the end of a medley with "Poker Face") to revive almost every track from the already-forgotten Artpop, her weakest album. The production values were so shoddy, it's almost like they were designed to distract you from a set list only her daddy and Nebraska and Jesus Christ could explain.
Gaga came out looking flash in golden wings, a silver-spangled unitard, a Suzanne Somers wig, black fishnets and stiletto ankle boots. Her dancers promptly escorted the wings backstage. (The dancers were often drafted into roadie duty, adding to the general air of confused staging.) Gaga mentioned that she was from New York several hundred times, yelling, "There's no place like home, motherfuckers!" But the show got off to a calamitous start with a barrage of sluggish new tracks that squashed the audience's energy level. It never really recovered. (There was more dancing in the crowd at last week's Slint show.)
Gaga did "Venus" in a clamshell bikini and a wig evoking Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., while her dancers wore sad little white costumes that made them look like Woody Allen and Christopher Guest playing sperm cells in Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). For "Paparazzi," she rocked a polka-dotted tentacle outfit that made it look like she had an inflatable rubber order of fried calamari growing out of her spine. T.I. spruced up "Jewels and Drugs" for a minute or two before disappearing all too soon.
The highlights of the night were Gaga's inspirational pep talks. "Celebrate everything that you love about you tonight," she urged us. "You deserve to be loved and happy!" She interacted sweetly with fans up front, inviting some of them backstage. (Where, presumably, the real party was happening?) Even though her speeches tended to drag on a little long, they were more fun than the musical performances. She did nothing at all from her best album, Born This Way, beyond sandbagging the title song by turning it into a hesitant solo piano ballad. There were thousands of people in the room who felt like singing "You & I" — but Gaga wasn't one of them.
"I have to get all kinds of prepared for how the party ends — all the lovemaking you'll be doing later tonight," Gaga promised early on. The show's actual end was considerably less climactic — after a one-song encore of "Gypsy" (not the same "Gypsy" Stevie Nicks did on this same stage last spring, sadly), the house lights came up, the speakers reprised "Applause," and it was startling to realize the show was already over. She didn't have superstar moves or hits saved up for the big finale — she decided not to do a big finale at all.
If you're a Gaga fan, especially one who witnessed the pop glory of the Monster Ball in 2010, it's no fun to see her fail on her home turf. But truth be told, there's a vast difference between a great Gaga song and a mediocre Gaga song, and for all her glitz and grandeur, great songs are the reason so many of us adore her. She might live for the applause-applause-applause, but it was the songs that got her there — and when she skimps on the songs, it's amazing how fast the applause dies down.
"Cake Like Lady Gaga"
"Do What U Want"
"Born This Way"
"Jewels and Drugs"
"Mary Jane Holland"