It’s not Lady Gaga’s fault that her brand of outlandish, highly-theatrical weirdness has become the lingua franca of contemporary pop, but as she goes forward, it does mean that her projects have a wearyingly high bar to clear. Arriving at Staples for the first of two sold-out engagements Sunday night, Gaga performed within a three-story castle that unfolded like a Barbie dream house, changed into a bizarre new outfit for nearly every song, and ran doggedly through a Springsteen-sized setlist. It was exhaustively effective and entertaining, but one can’t help but wonder where the singer’s tumescent aesthetic can possibly develop from here.
Ever a maximalist, Gaga is only now returning to the United States after taking her Born This Way Ball tour to every other inhabited continent. And during the first 15 minutes of her two-and-a-half hour set, there were warnings it might be a long slog.
The show got underway as a floating holographic face descended from the rafters to establish the show’s recurring plotline, describing some sort of vague extraterrestrial jailbreak with a flurry of superfluous adjectives. From there, a veiled Gaga emerged amid a horse-lead procession, and abruptly switched gears to seduce a desk-bound bureaucrat while wearing a bedazzled, H.R. Giger-inspired headdress. She then give birth to herself via a giant inflatable vagina that resembled AC/DC’s famous “Whole Lotta Rosie” prop taken to anatomical extremes, followed by yet another dramatic emergence from an egg for “Bad Romance,” for which the singer dressed as an Imperial Stormtrooper waylaid in Mordor.
These were all undeniably elaborate, eye-catching setpieces; they were also extraordinarily silly, and obscured what little musical sense the early numbers made, already strained as they were through a scattered mix of live instrumentation and backing tracks. (It didn’t help that drummer George “Spanky” McCurdy’s constant, needlessly virtuosic tom fills kept turning simple disco beats into oddly-syncopated mush.) Things improved immeasurably once the staging settled down and the music came into sharper focus, but the disorientation of this initial stretch lingered.
Of course, few come to a Lady Gaga show expecting studious displays of songcraft, yet the show nonetheless hit its high points during the more sedately staged elements. Despite working within a genre where live singing competence is seen as something of an odd quirk, Gaga has a wonderfully big, nuanced voice, and her segues to piano for the country-flavored “You and I” and a reprise of “Born This Way” were impressive.
Likewise, even the flashier setpieces worked best when Gaga’s free-associative concepts were grounded in solid old-school theater. Breakthrough single “Just Dance,” for example, had the singer gradually make her way to the top of the castle set, where she strapped on a pink keytar for a brief solo. “Edge of Glory” climaxed in an endearingly cheesy pas de deux straight out of “Dirty Dancing,” and one had to admire the audacity of staging one of Gaga’s biggest hits (“Poker Face”) amid a tableau of dancers being run through sausage-grinders, with Gaga suspended by her wrists in a meat locker alongside slabs of beef.
Despite their external flash, all the abovementioned songs are built on solid melodic foundations, combining the alluring sleaze of ’80s Italo disco with Bon Jovi-style anthems and Andrew Lloyd Webberish bravado. It takes real skill to marry such incongruous elements, let alone to make the result fashionable for contemporary auds. But much of Gaga’s newer material feels strangely unfinished – with strong verses piddling out into half-written choruses, or vice-versa – and the melodic anemia of tracks like “Black Jesus/Amen Fashion,” “Bad Kids” and “Electric Chapel” was only exacerbated by the live setting.
While flamboyance and camp have long been the provenance of pop and disco, it’s hard to recall a mainstream pop star who has made gay liberation her primary subject quite the way Gaga has. This theme was exhibited in Gaga’s numerous long pauses for expletive-filled-yet-earnest paeans to tolerance and acceptance, reflected in the makeup of the crowd, and arose time and time again in the matter-of-fact homoeroticism of the male dancers onstage. (Even the set’s most overtly sexual routine, which saw Gaga and a bikini-clad female dancer cavorting atop a motorcycle during “Heavy Metal Lover,” seemed choreographed to evoke gay male sex more than its Sapphic equivalent.)
Regardless if she occasionally seemed a bit desperate to make herself an LGBT spokeswoman through sheer effort, there was little room to doubt her sincerity. And that sentiment applied to the rest of her production as well: For someone famous for crafting monstrously unsubtle music couched in glittery dazzle, Gaga’s creations are remarkably personal and idiosyncratic, and it will be interesting to see what happens when her fetish for megalomaniacal expansion subsides, and she’s forced to look inward for inspiration instead.
Lady Gaga performs at New York’s Madison Square Garden on February 22.