Exalting imperfection at Wells Fargo

Study in gray and Day-Glo: Lady Gaga in L.A. Her "Monster Ball" tour landed here this week.
Study in gray and Day-Glo: Lady Gaga in L.A. Her "Monster Ball" tour landed here this week.

Quick-change Gaga, meatless and manic

Posted: September 16, 2010

Pity the poor giant animatronic anglerfish/octopus that tangled with Lady Gaga during "Paparazzi," the penultimate production number during her two-hour "Monster Ball" show at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday.

It never stood a chance.

Not against Gaga, the ever-ascending, fashion-forward, fast-learning graduate of the Madonna school of media manipulation who came to town for the first of two sold-out shows. The demure diva born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, who won eight Moonman trophies at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday, also was scheduled to perform in South Philadelphia again on Wednesday night.

At the Wells Fargo Center, Gaga costumed herself as a nun in a see-through dress in "Love Game." She was outfitted to appear as a cross between a lampshade and Cousin Itt in "Monster." She writhed on the ground covered in fake blood and screamed, "Jesus loves everybody!"

She stripped down to her skivvies on multiple occasions, including the gay-pride celebration "Boys Boys Boys," in which she marched down the runway accompanied by a phalanx of similarly scantily clad male dancers. On "You and I," a power ballad from her forthcoming album Born This Way, she contorted herself to tickle the ivories quite impressively while standing atop her piano bench, if you can picture that.

The Monster Ball tour is structured as a four-part journey - through the City, the Subway, the Forest, and finally, to the Monster Ball. That's where "all the freaks and outsiders" don't have to worry about "where you come from or who you are. You can be whoever it is you want to be," because "the Monster Ball will set you free." It's the place where Gaga slays that many-tentacled undersea creature, and where she announces, "I want your ugly, I want your disease" while closing the show covered in tinfoil triangles and belting out her biggest (and best) song, "Bad Romance."

As mega-pop stars go, Gaga stands out because she's savvy enough to understand the appeal of imperfection. Sure, her show is a sexed-up, overorchestrated Busby Berkeley bonanza for the no-attention-span times. Isn't everybody's? And like so many extravaganzas too crammed with titillation, it's poorly paced, dull in stretches, and filled with too many recorded film bits inserted to make time for multiple costume and set changes.

But Gaga also strives to remind her fans that the human element is at work. Her headset microphone and a high- volume muddy sound mix sometimes made it hard to tell, but she made a point of assuring the audience that she doesn't lip-sync: "I, Lady Gaga . . . do promise to sing every note live at every single show," she vowed before "Speechless," which she sang in a rich, throaty voice.

In defending her recent use of raw meat as a dress material - sorry, folks, there was no filet mignon thong on display at the Wells Fargo - Gaga described herself with typical understatement as "the most judgment-free human being on the Earth." On Tuesday, she spoke out vociferously against the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and most endearingly added, "If someday I don't stand for something, just shoot me."

Gaga has built her impassioned following by issuing an invitation to anybody and everybody who, like her, feels they were "never one of the cool kids at the party," while crediting the followers she calls her "little monsters" with "making me brave." Part of her appeal, too, is that she embraces the grotesque. The 24-year-old's music is rarely as intriguing as its visual presentation - though with only an album and a half under her belt, she has produced a notable number of catchy dance-pop hits.

But Gaga rarely coos sweetly. Instead, she puts forth a Gaga gestalt that's "SexyUgly," as one neon sign brightly put it during the opening City segment. Many of the film clips between songs make her appear deformed or unpretty in the extreme, which could also be said for the big-shouldered, futuristic ensembles she dons, before she discards them to reveal a hard body ready for battle.

The Monster Ball tour means to explore the dark side of fame, but its star nakedly craves adoration while pointing out its perils. Toward the end of the show, Gaga compared herself to Tinker Bell, and demanded applause to be brought back to life. And in a bellicose roar, she asked her "little monsters" a crucial question: "Do you think I'm sexy?"

Rest assured, she got the answer she wanted.

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com.

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