Image Credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage.comNot only was she born this way, she was born right here. Lady Gaga flaunted her New York roots at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night, marking her final hometown concert before her Monster Ball tour wraps in May. And with heartfelt reflections on her early career struggles and shout-outs to the in-attendance Liza Minnelli and Marisa Tomei, she saved the best for last. For someone who says she doesn’t want to be thought of as human while on stage, Gaga seems to be one of the rare artists who can turn a stadium concert into a personal event, even when—or especially when—HBO’s cameras are rolling for a special to air May 7.
Like Gaga herself, the Monster Ball exists in flux, evolving and shape-shifting from city to city and month to month. Sure, the Day-Glo Pop-art-inspired sets have mostly stayed the same, roughly etching the bare outlines of the Monster Ball’s loopy, Wizard of Oz-style plot. There’s still the fluorescent-lit alley with hilariously pithy neon signs like “Drugs,” “BBQ,” and “Gold Teeth.” (Will Gaga next embrace dental fashion, a la Kanye?) The subway set for “LoveGame.” The twisted fairy tale forest—or Central Park, for the New York crowd. But there are a few tweaks here and there, mostly with the addition of pseudo-religious imagery, like the deranged nun’s habit she now sports during “LoveGame” (something Luis Buñuel would have loved), or the weeping angel statue that presides over “Alejandro.” She’s also upped the gay content, closing out “Alejandro” by having two of her male backup dancers share a long, lingering kiss. As far as the songs, former mainstays like “Brown Eyes” have had to make way for new additions “You and I” and “Born This Way.”
But the most significant change lies in Gaga’s attitude. Her career has always been a kind of visual essay about the power of self-creation: that the overlooked, insecure Stefani Germanotta could remake herself into the force of nature that is Lady Gaga. Her costumes have never been self-promotion gimmicks so much as tools for facilitating the flowering of her fragile ego. The fact that she opened up as much about her personal history and insecurities as she did last night—more than I’ve ever heard her talk about them, anyway—shows how comfortable she now is in her own glittery skin.
As in her previous New York City engagements, Gaga reiterated that she grew up “just 20 blocks away.” But unlike those other concerts, she also described the bullying she received at the hands of girls who “weighed thirty pounds” less than her. And the discouragement she faced at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She recalled drama professors telling her, “You’ll never be the heroine, the blonde, the star. Your hair’s too dark. You look too ethnic.” To which she claims she replied, “What about Liza?” And behold, who should be in the crowd but Liza “With a Z” Minnelli herself! (The hearts of gay men everywhere collectively skipped a beat.) Also on hand in the audience? Marisa Tomei, whom Gaga recently said she’d like to see play her in a movie about her life. And now we know why! Because when her acting classes staged dramatic readings of screenplays, she was often assigned Marisa Tomei’s parts. (If Gaga had been in My Cousin Vinny, would she have received an Oscar too?)
She also raged against lip-synching. “Never have, never will,” she said during an interlude in the middle of “Teeth.” “I won’t be the bitch to lip-synch her way through an HBO special…especially not in front of Liza!”
That was abundantly clear during her performance of “Born This Way,” which opened with a terrific-in-theory, poor-in-execution, gospel-style intro. She was supported by three backup singers who had apparently forgotten they were to be just, you know, backup. Their vocal acrobatics somewhat drowned out Gaga and proved the florid counterpoint to her own, more refined abilities.
There’s an immense emotional intelligence behind the way she uses her voice. Almost never does she overwhelm a song with her vocal ability, recognizing instead that artistry is to be found in nuance rather than lung power—something many of our other songstresses in the age of American Idol have yet to grasp.
Perhaps the most symbolic moment indicating that Lady Gaga is no longer merely Stefani Germanotta’s mask, but who she really is, came during the by-now traditional interlude when she asks the audience, “Do you think I’m sexy?” In the past, she’d demurely reply to the audience’s cheers with “I don’t believe you!” Yes, it’s a silly moment of trumped-up theater between Gaga and her adoring audience, and so it deserves to be taken with a grain of glitter. But I can’t help but think the fact that she didn’t express her disbelief at that moment last night means on some level, however superficial, she’s fully merged her art and her life, Gaga and Stefani. Time will tell if her art will retain its teeth without the fuel of her insecurity; as much of an earworm as “Born This Way” has proven to be, let’s face it, it’s pretty toothless.
Maybe the rebellion is over and the celebration has begun.
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