You have to see the faultiness of Lady Gaga's rhetoric to believe it. Sure, I knew about it in theory, but the extent of her philosophical ridiculousness was never more clear to me than on Friday night at New York's Madison Square Garden when she ordered a sold out-crowd to, "Jump for your freedom! Jump for your soul! And be who you want, goddamn it!" At that point, I was torn because who I wanted to be was a person who wasn't jumping. Now what? How to obey the reigning Queen of Pop in her court? The answer isn't so clear when you're an actual independent thinker, not just a theoretical one.
Gaga talks a lot about freedom -- if not after every song, then let's say after every other song of her 20-or-so-song set. "Tonight and every night after, you can be whatever you want to be, little monsters," she told us, as if we needed validation. It's nice that she is positive, and I'm sure when you're young and confused, this message might be helpful. But as Gaga continued to drill it in for the next two hours ("May tonight be your liberation!" "No dream is too big!"), her show started to resemble propaganda. Propaganda, of course, inherently encourages groupthink. This effect may go against her cause, but it fell right in line with the nature of the festivity -- after all, the thousands of us in that room had elected to concentrate on one thing that evening. Still, as she rhapsodized individuality to a room full of people dressed like her (hair bows, light-up jackets, shoulder pads, lightening bolts painted over eyes), it felt less like preaching to the choir and more like a straight-up failure. During the charity portion of the show, when Gaga pats herself on the back for raising $20,000 every performance for homeless GLBT youth (a noble endeavor, to be sure), she called an audience member (Virgin Mobile sponsors the donation, hence the tie-in). As this young girl with "Telephone"-esque soda cans in her hair gushed over the sound system, she actually said, "Thank you for letting me be what I want to be!" My stomach turned. I felt like finding that girl, shaking her and commanding her to conform.
It's bizarre that Gaga is so invested in this laissez faire idea of personal freedom when, as alluded to above, she spends much of her time barking orders at the audience. We were told to sing. We were told to get up. We were told to get our hands up. We were told to get our paws up. We were told to put our hands up for full equality (a hollow pledge if ever there were!). We were told, perhaps most bizarrely, to take a picture of a giant monster prop onstage to "kill it" during "Paparazzi." She compared herself to Tinkerbell in the stage production of Peter Pan -- her livelihood depends on applause. "Do you want me to die?" she demanded. "Scream for me!"
Because, populism, schmopulism, let's never forget that we were attending her show. Gaga acknowledges her fans often, sometimes it's disingenuous shock ("Let me get a good look at you. You look wonderful...there's so many of you, what's happening?"). Sometimes it's for the sake of self-flattery ("I can't believe I played this song ['You and I'] a week ago [for the first time] and you know all the words and everybody knows it!"). Sometimes it's to explain the mise-en-scène ("I had to build my stage like this so I could be up here with all of you," she said from a hydraulic lift during "So Happy I Could Die"). But it's always deliberate. Who knows, maybe she really is that appreciative ("Best fans ever!" "My life is not difficult because I have you!"), but any way you slice it, a woman who named her first album The Fame is fully aware of the game she's playing. Trust a pop star at your own peril.
That game, by the way, she does play well. As big stage productions go, we've seen shows like The Monster Ball for decades, it's just that this person is mounting it instead of that one (and by "that one," I mostly mean Madonna). She was flanked by dancers and had plenty of things to climb on. Gaga's outfits are, of course, ridiculous, but they're at least wittier than her perpetually earnest banter (a cylindrical hair suit she wore during some of "Monster" suggested Sid and Marty Krofft as couture, and her dramatic, sweeping nun habit combined with a dress that looked like it was made out of Band-Aid material was pure comedy). The choreography did not strike me as demanding (it probably couldn't be, given her bulky wardrobe) and Gaga is an imprecise dancer, at any rate. But even if her range of motion is limited, it's constant and, most impressively, her vocals never didn't sound live and they never didn't sound fantastic. The tracks, too, were great, albeit very similar in sound to their recorded source. Since Gaga's music often sounds like it was crafted to fill stadiums, this venue couldn't have been more perfect for it.
Between songs, as she and her set changed their outfits, giant projections of Gaga looking fabulous danced on the 100+ foot screen that came down to sheath the stage. That's understandable -- we paid to see her (she thanked us for that, too, which was very nice of her). But it also made her babble seem that much more disingenuous. She actually had the nerve to tell us, "You remember that you're a superstar and you were born that way." What a lie! Who's stupid enough to believe that? The handful of audience members that finally popped up on the screen two hours into the show, between the main set and the encore? Even they must have known that there was nothing democratic about what we experienced that night -- it was entirely a monarchy fit for a Lady.