Grace Jones and David Bowie are obvious influences, but it’s impossible—impossible!—to discuss Lady Gaga and not talk about Madonna. It’s not just that Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta and Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone are both Italian-Americans who got their start at dingy New York City clubs and have a fondness for bleached-out Marilyn hairdos and disco beats. There have been plenty of those over the years. But they were largely false disciples, starlets eager to follow in the Queen of Pop’s dance steps but, with the possible exception of Christina Aguilera (who’s yet to fully deliver on the promise of her Stripped-era post-feminism), lacking the interest or savvy necessary to actually use their platforms to affect social change—or, at the very least, simply say something of importance. And huge late-’90s CD sales aside, these so-called descendants, from the Spice Girls to Britney, failed to inspire the kind of fanatical allegiance that Madonna did circa “Material Girl.”
But 2010, it seems, is Gaga’s 1985. The first of the singer’s four nights at Radio City Music Hall (since this was the “first date,” she refused to “go all the way,” but said that, according to the rules, blowjobs were okay) was filled with lots of hair bows (literally, bows made out of hair), mirror-tiled masks, and leotards. And those were just the boys. Gaga has made her devotion to her fans well known (she calls them her “little monsters”), but her shows aren’t just for them, they’re part of the performances, with close-ups of audience members projected onto giant screens throughout the night.
At one point, Gaga recounted a story about driving to a show and passing a car filled with her fans singing and dancing along to her music; she rolled down the window and tried to get their attention, but, she said with a shrug, they didn’t notice her. It’s hard to tell if the tale was true (she told the audience at another point in the night that she hates “the truth”), but Gaga’s story, which ended with the car of fans being noticed by a second car of fans, struck me as a metaphor for the fame that artists like she, Madonna, and others have pursued so relentlessly. At some point, one’s persona becomes bigger than the artist herself, and the music transcends its creator, uniting and bringing pleasure to the public, but leaving the artist isolated by her massive celebrity. The cost of fame, or the price of its pursuit, has become the running theme of Gaga’s music.
But what Madonna represents by her sheer existence and determination, Gaga tackles often too literally. During her performance of “Paparazzi,” she was handcuffed by her hair to a steel ladder held horizontally by two male dancers who toyed with her like a marionette. For Gaga, fame is something to be shackled to, and bondage was a recurring theme in both her costumes and the multimedia projections. From a purely presentational and technical standpoint, Madonna’s influence is all over the Monsters Ball, but Gaga’s set pieces feel like actual art installations. On the other hand, everything from the costumes to her makeup is less refined and sophisticated. And while Madge has flirted with the macabre over the years, she took the time to make us fall in love with her before trying to freak us out.
Along with the truth, Gaga claims to hate money and presumably the fame with which it can be produced. Or maybe she hates that she wants those things. Either way, seemingly hollow songs like “The Fame,” “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” and “Money Honey” were given new contexts. But songs like “Boys Boys Boys” and “Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)” now seem trivial and out of place, and it’s hard to imagine that she doesn’t feel the same way. Gaga’s music itself, of course, isn’t very groundbreaking. The art installation-style interludes, largely composed of progressive house and electronic remixes, were far edgier, and it’s a shame that not even some of her album tracks emulate that style. Still, songs like “Teeth” and opener “Dance in the Dark,” the entirety of which she performed masked by darkness, dry ice, and a giant grid that evoked a cross between Tron and Resident Evil, were nothing short of bone-rattling.
Earlier in the night, the androgynous lead singer of Semi Precious Weapons, the six-foot Justin Tanter, pranced around the stage like a bedazzled ostrich on a fashion runway to a sparse but enthusiastic audience. The scope of the glam-rock band’s performance—and the band’s size, despite Tanter’s height—seemed dwarfed by the theater, making them look a lot like little kids playing dress up in Mommy’s high heels. Not so for Gaga, who, while she’ll need to evolve if she wants to have any kind of longevity, owned Radio City with the sheer scope of her ambition. It didn’t necessarily coalesce into a coherent narrative, but you got the sense that this might be one of the last times she’d be playing such a small venue. Ambition that size requires a stadium.