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Live Review: Lady Gaga at Staples Center

August 12, 2010 |  9:06 am

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When Lady Gaga breathes, it’s an event. That’s not just hyperbole. The pop art star’s gasps, coming fast and frequent as she stopped to pose during her Staples Center concert Wednesday, played an important role in her performance.

The sound of Gaga’s exertion kept things real, on a gut level, despite the many fantastical outfits, elaborate sets and dreamlike films featured in this arena-sized reworking of her Monster Ball show. It reminded the audience that this self-created freak deity is also a woman working hard, testing the limits of her 24-year-old body.  Panting, sweating, even sometimes breaking into a little sob, Gaga continually shattered the fancy frames she puts around her music, stepping through the fantasy to force an encounter with the “very naked girl with a foul mouth” who still lives, she insists, within those intricate costumes.

Lady Gaga's 'monsters' at the Staples Center Since the Monster Ball last came to Los Angeles last December in its Nokia Theatre-sized version, Gaga and her collaborators have grown the sets and expanded the show’s arc. The arena setup allowed the star and her dancers to writhe and shimmy on a ramp in the midst of the crowd, providing up-close views of  her Barbie Fairytopia-on-acid outfit, her sequined biker chick unitard, and her patent leather espionage ensemble, to name a few. As she moved through her many hits -- "Poker Face," "Bad Romance," "Just Dance" and "Alejandro" among them -- the main stage housed props like a steaming yellow taxi and a mini-subway train, as well as Gaga’s lascivious dancers and her cartoonishly hard rocking band.

When it was first mounted in theaters, the Monster Ball was an impressionistic journey into Gaga’s fluorescent subconscious, with a strong moral: Embrace individuality and practice compassion to gain happiness. Standing up for the community of “freaks” -- club kids, drag queens, metalheads, free thinkers in general -- with whom she identifies, Gaga presented herself as the glorious spawn of the cultural underground’s long, daring history, crediting her fans (her “Little Monsters”) for building the bohemias that nurtured her.

The revamped show has a firmer storyline, not unlike the one employed by Rihanna this same summer. The Bajan singer’s show invoked dreams; Gaga’s is more like a fairy tale. Over two hours, she and her dancers journeyed through a neon-lit New York alleyway, onto a subway train, through a spooky forest and into a kind of church, where Gaga sacrificed herself in baptismal fake blood while decrying religious bigotry.  Finally, she faced a toothy giant octopus -- the “Fame Monster” of her second album’s title -- and emerged triumphantly as Cinderella of her own grand fete.

Some elements remained from the older staging of the Monster Ball, notably the films that took over when Gaga disappeared to change her costumes. She’s switched out her costumes, of course -- to not do so would be to fail her fans, who crave her sartorial genius nearly as much as they love her gift for pop hooks. On one level, Gaga is a drag performer, with one silver boot in a half-hidden world of gay and lesbian gender-benders and the others in the more mainstream realms of glam rock and fashion diva-tude. Her explicit identification with the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is a step into the light that shows how things have changed in the course of Gaga's lifetime; what Madonna said less directly in her videos and songs, her inheritor now can scream.

Lady Gaga: By the numbers The Staples Center Monster Ball made clear how much that scream belongs to classic rock, and how in future projects she may begin to redefine that genre. There’s a bit of Courtney Love in Gaga’s rougher rock voice, and singing her power ballads “Speechless” and “You and I” -- in a sequence at a flaming piano that was a high point of the performance -- she occasionally  recalled Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. Gaga writes excellent danceable pop hits, but when her material takes on a rock edge, it seems to open her up. Her piano may spew flames, but that effect isn’t necessary when she’s simply pouring out her heart on one of her more direct power ballads.

Now that she has achieved her goal of staging a visually unforgettable spectacle, it might be wise of Gaga to focus on that less posed, though still flamboyant, aspect of her talent. The problems with the Monster Ball remain ones that afflict giant pop productions: The pacing suffered greatly from too many breaks for costume changes, and too often, the prerecorded music such productions nearly always require during dance-heavy sequences took over and Gaga’s vocals were either obscured or seemingly absent. A talented vocalist, Gaga needs to figure out how to manage to really deliver in concert. If her new material allows, she might become more of a traditional rock-style performer -- and rewrite rock’s rules while she’s at it. We’ll see when she returns to Staples Center in March of 2011.

For this summer, though, the Monster Ball, which will also fill Staples tonight, stands as enough of an achievement. Turning the phrase, “You look fabulous!” into a rallying cry, Gaga spun a wild web around her basic message of love and tolerance, but the essence was surprisingly simple. “I don’t want you to leave loving me more,” she said. “I want you to leave loving yourself more.” In other words, Little Monsters, just breathe.

-- Ann Powers

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Photo credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times / 2009

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