Lady Gaga was not, in fact, born that way, which may be her most pointed similarity to Madonna: Her celebrity is entirely self-fashioned. A relative unknown, a buxom Italian-American girl from the Upper West Side, she made us love her with "Just Dance," albeit in a drunk hipster sexbot kind of way, before she bared her teeth and freaked us out, along the way losing any semblance of breasts or a body and prompting questions about what, exactly, her music means, if anything: Is she good for feminism, or does her weight loss (and accompanying nakedness) propagate unhealthy ideas about female body image? When she advocates on behalf of gays, is she helping the cause or pandering to her fanbase? Does she mean any of the crazy shit she says? Does anyone care?
Unsurprisingly, HBO's Lady Gaga Presents the Monster Ball Tour: At Madison Square Garden raises more questions about Stefani Germanotta than it answers, which is probably as it should be. Pop stars need creation myths, and Gaga's is a particularly well-oiled one. The special starts with shots of streets in New York City's Lower East Side (Orchard, Rivington, Stanton), where Germanotta did time performing in bars before she became famous, and they're meant to establish her downtown, I'm-still-a-freak-at-heart credibility. Dressed in Alexander McQueen heels and a "Born This Way" leather jacket, she orders a cup of coffee at a local bodega and is quickly whisked uptown to Madison Square Garden, where she stares at the marquee incredulously (this was recorded on the last night of a five-night stint last February). "Do you know how many times I came to this arena?" she says to no one in particular. "And now they're opening these gates for us."
Yes, the freak has arrived. As she readies for the concert in her dressing room, she tells her makeup person through tears, "I still feel like a loser kid in high school," a story that has been more or less debunked. "I just want to be a queen for them." Gaga returns to this idea throughout the concert, shouting out to her "little monsters" ad nauseam and insisting that she's just one of them. The costumes are appropriately outrageous (a monster finger steals the show), and her performances can even be occasionally fierce, as when she dances in front of a giant anglerfish (the "fame monster"), but this is less a visual translation of her music than a form of self-boosterism, and a talky one at that.
In fact, for someone who prides herself on her singer-songwriter talents, she's a surprisingly chatty performer. At one point, she breaks up an otherwise poignant performance of "Speechless" to tell the audience an interminable story about her struggles as a student at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she was deemed too "ethnic" to ever become a star. "I wasn't always brave," she tells us, "but you made me brave, little monsters."
It's hard to know how to feel about Gaga's embrace-your-true-beauty pep talk. Maybe she did feel like a loser in high school, in the way that most of us feel at some point. But she's certainly capitalized on her fringe image, if not staked an entire career on it. In her newer music, she's moved from catchy riffs on fame to more complicated questions about identity. Musically and lyrically, "Born This Way" is her most ambitious, and possibly her bravest, work to date, asking us to embrace that disco catechism to love yourself for who you are in a very big way. (Any single that can keep "You're black, white, beige, chola descent" on the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks must be doing something right.) But it's left open questions about who Gaga is and what she's getting out of all this. "I hate the truth," she says at one point, before moving on to one of her umpteenth inspirational monster messages. But with all the self-love in the air, a little biting honesty might be exactly what she and her devotional fans could use.