For those keeping score at home, here’s what $250,000 buys you: the chassis of one neon-green Hyundai, big enough to hold two dancers; a miniature replica of a New York City subway car that’s capable of motion; a silver prop torch the size of a giant’s forearm, the flame of which glows cold white; a series of neon bar signs that spell out a series of messages, some provocative – “Sexy Ugly” – some mundane – “Gold Teeth”; a steel jungle gym capable of supporting the weight of one tiny pop star and a trio of backup singers; an enormous purple hat. These were just a handful of the props used to animate Lady Gaga’s sprawling opening night set at Lollapalooza, a performance that played out like a combination of Broadway and pop music — with a bit of motivational speaking thrown in for good measure.
For a show that would gradually advance to the level of spectacle, its opening was impressively minimal: Gaga, behind an enormous white scrim, just a silhouette against pale purple light, executing a series of precise movements — jerking forward, back, doubled-over — to “Dance in the Dark.” From there, the show followed a loose, narrative structure, one that ended with all the participants — Gaga, her band, her dancers — en route to “The Monster’s Ball.” The songs worked in service to that theme, and Gaga had a different outfit for each of them. For “Glitter & Grease,” a song that implies a collision of beauty and ugliness, Gaga donned a purple leather jacket with oversized shoulder pads and enormous, glitter-covered sunglasses. “Fame” found Gaga dwarfed in a red robe with gargantuan shoulder pads. And for “Lovegame,” the song that employed the aforementioned subway car, Gaga paired a Flying Nun headdress with a see-through bodysuit.
The spectacle wasn’t just on stage: the performance was periodically interrupted by a series of short films, ranging from the mundane — a black and white Gaga contorting herself into various positions — to the provocative — Gaga taking a bite out of a heart and letting the blood run down her chin. As the evening went on, Gaga began spending as much time talking as she did singing. She explained the evening’s theme: “The Monster’s Ball is a place I created so that my fans would have a place to go. A place where all the freaks are outside, and we locked the fucking doors. To get to the Monster’s Ball, all you’ve got to do is take Glitter Way.” She repeatedly referenced her past, saying, “I didn’t used to be brave. In fact, I wasn’t very brave at all. But now, I’m going to be brave for all of you.” At times, there seemed to be an undercurrent of anger. Recalling a failed Lollapalooza performance at a side stage three years ago, she tartly noted that her setlist was comprised of “a lot of the same songs you all are enjoying right now.” But later, she turned that bitterness into motivation: “Remember that you are a superstar,” she told the audience. “Remember that you were born that way.”
At the opposite end of the field, the Strokes — reunited for a handful of shows in advance of a new record — were cramming a similar level of showmanship into a decidedly smaller package. Their performance was hardly austere: an enormous digital screen occupied the rear of the stage, which projected, alternately, rows of diagonal red lines, exploding diamonds, and the video game Space Invaders. But where Gaga’s songs were big and proud and ostentatious, the Strokes were tight and coiled. Julian Casablancas, bundled in a black leather jacket, sunglasses over his eyes, hair in his face, howled and slurred his lyrics, running roughshod over some passages and belting others out with primal force. He tore up the center of “Reptilia,” his hoarse holler punching big holes in Albert Hammond, Jr.’s clean riffing. “Last Nite” was all lean, hurtling force, Casablancas playfully tripping his way across the lyrics as the band charged full-on behind him. Since the band’s inception nearly a decade ago, Casablancas’s voice has aged into a sleek, soulful croon. “Under Control” was transformed into a smoky R&B number, Casablancas filling out the center while Hammond and Nick Valensi offered light dashes of guitar. “Someday” was as potent and forceful as an exclamation point, all sharp notes and bounding percussion. And then, just as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone — in just over an hour, as Lady Gaga continued from the far end of the park.
That polarity seemed to run over the course of the afternoon. The Black Keys — who briefly expanded to a four-piece for the center portion of their afternoon set — played stark, minimalist blues, based around little other than greasy guitars and eerie, funereal organs. Frontman Dan Auerbach is a full-bodied performer — he howls and pants his notes, dropping to his knees during “Long Gone” to wrench a long, snarling solo from his guitar. “Tighten Up” was terrifically swampy, Auerbach heaving himself across the stage as the band kicked up black clouds behind him. They seemed like a band out of time, an old Thirties blues duo somehow transported 80 years into the future, still vital, still bracing.
Chromeo, who were playing at the other end of the field, also seemed like a band out of time — except their time was the 1980s. Their songs were as big and propulsive as the Black Keys were lean and hungry. They even looked the part: for the slippery surge of “Tenderoni,” they employed a trio of backing dancers dressed to recall Robert Palmer’s video for “Simply Irresistible.” “Call Me Up” played like a canny update of Eighties electropop, a cascade of synthesizers raining down across a rubbery rhythm. They were a knowing revival of the decade of excess.
And somewhere in the middle of the two extremes was Devo, a band that uses tight, tiny tunes to write about big ideas. The band, revived after a 20-year dormancy, felt fast and frantic, hurtling through songs like “Uncontrollable Urge” with astonishing force. Taking the stage in grey jumpsuits and grey plastic wraparound masks, they whipped from a smattering of songs from the just released Something for Everybody to a breathtaking run of herky-jerk classics from their debut. Mark Mothersbaugh was the frontman as drill sergeant, pacing across the stage giving sharp, precise salutes. “Do you remember when we told you about de-evolution?” Mothersbaugh asked, to a wave of cheers. “It’s here!” Never have so many people sounded so thrilled to be so primitive.