Lady Gaga: an insubstantial lie made of pure marketing technique, or the agent responsible for the greatest rebirth that entertainment pop has undergone in recent years? There’s no answer yet for the million-dollar question, so we’ll have to keep looking for it. That’s why we went to Paris, in our Sunday best, to see the most controversial, highly-publicised artist of the moment in person, without intermediaries. Place: the Bercy Pavilion, “The Monster Ball Tour,” where Lady Gaga’s spectacular world tour landed on 21stand 22nd May. From two years ago starting off as an unknown beginning to get played on the radio, the attendance at the concerts might surprise us, but it shouldn’t—an undeniable double sell-out, 17,000-18,000 people in the audience each night. Is that logical? Why is that the case? What is happening here? There are many questions rolling around in my head when it comes to analysing the reasons for this incredible success. We need to see her live, as the real test—the subject pending that we need to pass in order to tie up all of the loose ends of the most major X-File in pop on the planet this millennium.
Monsters and Tears
“In 2006, when we performed with her in a little bar in New York, only twelve people came to see us. But in spite of that, we felt like we were superstars up there on the stage.” This is what Justin Tranter, the vocalist of Semi Precious Weapons said, just a few minutes before Lady Gaga showed her face and appeared before a packed Paris-Bercy Palais Omnisport. Nobody was missing. I saw Dita Von Teese and the designer Jean Paul Gaultier (possibly on the lookout for new females to hire and put in one of his outfits), two celebrities among many that didn’t want to miss out on what was going to be the social event of the weekend. The best of the Parisian “in” crowd was there waiting: famous people, gays, social climbers, fashion victims, and casual radio listeners.
A countdown starts and Lady Gaga appears like a Chinese shadow behind some curtains, in profile. “Dance in the Dark” opens a show that will last more than two hours, and which will leave an unexpected image of the star: without arrogance, far from seeming challenging, like other divas of her class, she is surprisingly close and thankful to her “little monsters”, as she calls her fans. After a little while comes the most anxiously-awaited highlight of the evening, “Just Dance”, her first hit, which many –myself included, I admit– believed would be no more than a throwaway one-hit wonder. Lady Gaga stands still for more than a minute without blinking—if Jacko had witnessed this moment, his hair would have curled—and the public started to scream. Something big is happening.Lady Gaga was backed by a generous band, including even a violinist and a girl who plays the harp. She handles herself with ease, dancing and singing at the same time, in spite of the difficulty of having to follow the choreography she has rehearsed exactingly, without a single mistake. She has taken some hard dance classes, and you can tell. If there was any pre-recorded sound in this show—a far too common practice at this type of event, not to mention the obvious playback that was witnessed at Britney Spears’ “Circus Tour”– there was nothing to make you think so, thank God. But there are video projections that she uses to change her clothing according to the number; the mannequin moment stands out, with a white background, when someone throws up on her, or to recover the underground car that she used in the staging of her performance of “Lovegame” at the Much Music Awards. Then there’s “Telephone”, surrounded by six dancers showing off their muscles (does anybody remember Madonna’s “The Girlie Show”?). And then she sits down at the piano and shows that she has real talent to go with it.This is one of Gaga’s greatest virtues: her ability to take a piano and fuck it. In songs like “Brown Eyes” or her cover of de Ben E. King’s “ Stand by Me”, she shows that she has some vocal chords that can only be matched in the world of mainstream pop by those of Christina Aguilera. And in “Speechless” she turns tender, letting out the melodramatic bitch she has inside, and starts to really sob, doing it so well that she even has to stop the performance for a few seconds. I want to believe—my mind is evil this way—that these tears form a part of the show and that this weakness isn’t real. But can we really be sure? Could she have imagined, barely two years ago, that the whole world would be eating out of her hand right now?Lady Gaga has a weak spot, in any case. We’re talking about music, not style: if we leave out her singles, the New Yorker’s repertoire ends up standing out most of the time for its vulgarity. This is why her live show had to use so many impossible sets like the robot living dress –designed by Hussein Chalayan, and which appears in “So Happy I Could Die”– or the disgusting thing that she used at the last Video Music Awards , when it was time for “Monster”, consisting of squirting blood out of her nipples and making a mess of the floor. This bad taste, this gore, holds up all of those pieces in which the musical quality descends, without the rhythm of the show slowing down. Does this tour have anything to envy in Madonna’s last tour? I will put myself out and say no. And there’s more: the end section bets on the winning horse and links “Poker Face”, “Paparazzi” –here there is a puppet that isn’t very credible, with the cash that has been spent on the stage, this part could have been better— and, of course, “Bad Romance”, the final topping on a show that should position Lady Gaga as the only female artist able to fill the coffers of show business with money and new ideas, at least until well into 2011, which is how long the tour has been extended. Gaga Phenomenology
How have we come to this? In the pop world there are two kinds of artists: those who make a distinction between the person and the persona—the fictional part only appears when they get on stage—and the ones who, in a display of double personality, mix real life with the fictional mask. Lady Gaga is always Lady Gaga, so she enters into this second category on her own merits. Only those closest to her know what she is really like in private. Very little is even known of her past: she was a nerd at the exclusive Sacré-Coeur school on the Upper East Side, and she worked as a waitress for a few months to be able to buy herself a Gucci bag that her parents refused to buy her. Up to here, she was just Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, another Big Apple rich girl with a histrionic sense of aesthetics and a clear vision of where she wanted to go and how to get there. Then she invented Lady Gaga, and with her she has attracted the hatred of millions of people for her omnipresent media coverage, while attracting at the same time the same number or more of fans; she has also started to set out the guidelines for what mass pop is at the beginnings of the 21st century. Let’s see. Lady Gaga has once again brought to the fore the value of the fictitious, the fake pose, and on-stage craziness, all of which had been largely forgotten for the last ten years. What she does is neither real nor genuine: her idea of pop is based on parody and the reformulation of what already exists. Call it a copy or an homage, but Lady Gaga is a caricature taken to the extreme, which is not lacking in sense of humour, and therefore can reach a varied public that is concerned—entirely understandably—with getting away from the weariness of everyday life. Pure spectacle. Lady Gaga has tried to become a walking mannequin and she has done it. She wanted all of us to know who she is, and has also achieved that—there are few people in music today who are talked about more. The bombardment that we have been subjected to by the media is largely the fault of this amazing success, evidently. As with Madonna –it is impossible not to mention her in this context– the fox strutting around on stage and the intelligent business woman have the same weight on the scale in Lady Gaga’s persona. And the best thing is that this has only just begun.She wants her life to be like a reality show: since she introduced herself to the world singing “Just Dance” at the Miss Universo gala in 2008, we have seen in real time how a star is born. Those references to the Warhol Factory that she always took care to mention proudly in her first interviews have become history. Gaga has given popcorn pop –spectacular pop for a majority public seeking entertainment, not the keys to solving the world’s problems- the scenic extravagance that in bygone years was the distinguishing feature of divas like Grace Jones. Probably worst hit by this invasion of plastic is Róisín Murphy, who has become the buffoon of haute couture made in Victor & Rolf, but much more underground and, therefore, with much less impact than our star. Few people paid attention to Lady Gaga when “The Fame” reached the shelves of record stores. Comparisons with Christina Aguilera –then missing without a trace– were instant, although nobody could imagine that thanks to the video clip of “Paparazzi” -directed by Jonas Akerlund- Lady Gaga would become a visual point of reference for a love of kitsch and the bizarre. This is another of her main achievements: the rebirth of the video clip as a work of art. “Bad Romance” has gone down in history as the most frequently visited video on Youtube, which is saying a lot, and “Telephone”, a few weeks after it came out, raised expectations that you’d have to go back to the chameleonic metamorphoses of Blond Ambition to find. The sacred cows of pop, read Madonna or Kylie, although the latter is only queen in Australia and Europe– haven’t taken an iota of risk in five years. They have dedicated themselves to keeping up the fame that they already had, and they haven’t mussed up their hair trying to break the pre-established moulds. And as if that were not enough, they don’t have any sense of humour. Would they have dared to suggest that they are hermaphrodites, with a small, fictitious, and malicious phallus, and get half of the world up in arms about it? Like good queens, they are afraid of being ridiculous. Gaga is just the opposite: she has made controversy and vulgarity her way of life, for good and for bad. Stars like Rihanna, Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus, however much money they invest in their record labels, could never achieve the status of superstar that Gaga carries around with her wherever she goes these days. Attitude is a primordial element in this case. Gaga believes that she is a superstar, but instead of bordering on shameless arrogance, she has chosen to be a cordial odd bird who thanks her followers for all of the support they have given her. A good part of the blame for this success goes to the gay public, always on the lookout for any diva with character who goes by, to make her theirs and put her on the throne. The gay community of New York was the first to pay attention to her, while she was making the rounds of the city’s clubs, then accompanied by the nocturnal agitator Lady Starlight. The mainstream labels didn’t even realise what they had on their hands: nobody wanted to pay her the least bit of attention in the beginning, not even Vincent Herbert, capo of Interscope, because she didn’t fit the physical mould required for a female pop star. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Gaga dedicated her imminent new single “Alejandro” to the gay community. “T o all of those who tell me that I should take a rest or that I am exhausted, I can only tell them that I prefer to die on stage”, she dared to say in Paris-Bercy. She knows that her time is now, and that she has to take advantage of it, so the promotional machinery—tour, singles, interviews, covers, videos—can’t stop. There are doubts in the air about her future: she is known to have already prepared a new album, but until “The Monster Ball Tour” comes to an end, Interscope doesn’t even want to think about bringing it out. Sooner or later, Lady Gaga’s frenetic rhythm of work these last two years might catch up with her, doubts that started to become visible in New Zealand, and jet lag is not a satisfactory excuse. But she still insists that we will continue to talk about her for a long time to come, even risking her health. She has already achieved the most difficult thing, which was to get media attention and be recognised all over the world, and in record time. So the fun part will be to see how the Gaga phenomenon will surprise us in the days to come. Various things might happen: her next album might be a fiasco, or she might decide to (finally) take it all off to get attention, or she might reinvent herself and renew her status as a universal pop icon. What she has done so far, whether anybody likes it or not, matters. And nobody can take that merit away from her.