View more photos in Timothy Norris' slideshow, "Lady Gaga (and Little Monsters) @ Staples Center."
"I've actually been in the studio for about 72 hours straight," Lady Gaga told the crowd about halfway through her show at the Staples Center last night. "So if I seem a little crazy, that's because I am a little crazy right now."
Perhaps the Lady protests too much: in the end there was precious little craziness on display in Gaga's two hour set (although even its worst moments were more interesting than anything offered up by openers Semi Precious Weapons, old school Gaga cohorts who played more like warm-up comedians than a band). The great paradox of Gaga is that, while the success of a pseudo-transsexual Madonna/Bowie/Marilyn Manson hybrid might seem unlikely, in practice, Gaga is never as weird as she seems to want us to believe.
Selling herself as the pied piper of freaks, Gaga hooks queer teens and fat girls and fashion school undergrads--the true arbiters of street-to-mall popular culture--but her actual product for sale is only freakish in its perfection. Lady Gaga is a skinny, blonde, white, 24 year-old girl who writes and sings absolutely undeniable club anthems about The Way We Live Now --or, at least, stalking and cell phones and Hitchcock-esque unquenchable desire, and stuff. I don't think Gaga could be anything less than hyper-mainstream if she tried.
If anything, last night's show may prove she tries too hard--to preach non-conformity to her Little Monsters conformist cult, to proclaim her outsider street cred while rarely stepping outside of politically correct bounds (a long setpiece devoted to the notion that "Jesus loves everybody," including gays and trannies, is as ideologically incendiary as Monster's Ball gets). Sometimes this means burying her actual talent in a spectacle that's often incoherent. Rarely as visually interesting or vicerally powerful as Gaga's usually brilliant music videos, the overdetermined stage show has a tendency to sap Gaga's songs of the sense of abandon that makes them so addictive in the club or on a car radio. But it's not all bad. The highlights and lowlights:
Storytelling -- Monster's Ball has a narrative of sorts--Gaga has compared the tour an opera--but fewer than half a dozen of the songs are tied into the larger story (think club kid Dorothy goes to Oz, where she must defeat a giant fish with a sparkler bra) in even the flimsiest of ways. The few scraps of spoken exposition only made me long for the implied, ambiguous narratives of Gaga's videos, which have a kind of clarity through framing and editing that the live show sorely lacks.
Unintended irony: "Just Dance" is a song about drunken recklessness and the loss of inhibitions on the dancefloor. Gaga's stage show is choreographed within an inch of its life; not only is it never reckless but, despite Gaga's insistence that she's a "free bitch baby" and that "the Monster's Ball will SET...YOU...FREEEEEE!" the show never comes close to approximating the feeling of letting loose on the dance floor. At no point does Gaga ever "just" dance.
Nonsequitur stage banter: Though never seeming spontaneous, Gaga's "casual" chatter didn't make a whole lot of sense, either. See: "You know what I hate more than money? I hate the truth." Gaga does not have enough of a palpable sense of humor to pull that shit off.
Video interludes: Bits of video shown during the show, often to mask a costume and/or set change, reinstate the body horror that much of the live show is missing. Best part: when a girl dressed in black hops on Gaga's lap, repeatedly puts her finger down her throat, and sprays neon green vomit all over Gaga's ridiculous white dress.
Actual, like, singing. Gaga's raw vocal talent was put to its best use in two segments of the show: the new rock ballad You and I, which betrays Stefani Germanotta's Fiona Apple-esque roots; and a diva coda to "Teeth," accapella but for the occasional counterpoint of a blistering single guitar.
Giant fish, sparkler bra: The Monster's Ball story may be silly, but the final few production numbers run thrillingly off the rails into the B-movie territory in which Gaga's whole persona seems to best belong. By the Bad Romance encore, Gaga, dressed in a 1930s film's idea of space couture, is leading her dancers in antiquated dance moves like the twist and the mashed potato. Now THAT'S crazy.