Live Review: Lady Gaga, Yokohama Arena, 17th April, 2010

Lady Gaga is having a sweet, intimate moment.

Perched on a piano stool tinkling the ivories in her underwear, she expresses her emotion, except that she's having this tender heart-to-heart with approximately 17,000 people a few yards behind her leather bikini.

"I'm gonna miss you guys when I leave here," she tells the sell-out crowd at the Yokohama Arena, during an extended and embellished version of Brown Eyes, a heartfelt piece of piano balladry that counterpoints some of the more Hi-NRG dance numbers on The Fame album.

"It's so amazing here, so beautiful and everyone dresses so well," she continues, channeling the love.

While the cynical might think buttering up the crowd like this might add a few hundred more album sales to the millions already sold, the great, collective 17,000-headed beast instinctively knows that Gaga is being sincere. High-pitched screams of "Gaga kawaiiiiii!!!" (Gaga is cute) cascade down in appreciation.

We are now halfway through the almost two-hour-long show, which kicked off with the euphoric Europop of Dance in the Dark, quickly followed by the synth-hookery of Just Dance and Beautiful Dirty Rich. This led to the first "talky bit," where we learned that all this lush, sex-tinged, beat-driven melody-sugared, visually-enhanced entertainment had a message – and a moral one at that:

"The best part about the Monster Ball is that I created it so that my fans will have a place to go," Gaga explained. "It's OK whoever you are or wherever you come from because tonight and every night after, you can be whoever it is that you wanna be, Tokyo, and to get to the Monster Ball all you gotta do is follow the glitter way."

As I've already spent a few decades happily being myself, this message of self-definition and inner acceptance has limited appeal for me, but for the large number of teenage girls here tonight–no doubt undergoing issues of identity, like how much mascara to wear or how much thigh to show, this is practically the start of new religion. "Gaga Kawaiiii!!!!" the one immediately behind me screams in frantic adoration.

A rocked-up version of The Fame takes us to the first interlude. Cue weird video: Gaga apparently vomiting blue liquid on herself while the curtain is down. She reappears wearing a pervy plastic dress and takes us through The Love Game and the delightful Eurovision tackiness of Boys Boys Boys. Having a great, twisted sense of humor and a campy sense of irony enables Gaga to indulge all our guilty pleasures.

Another costume change–black cape and gothic sunglasses–is soon stripped off to reveal the black leather bikini and Gaga goes into latest hit Telephone. Despite the harp notes that introduce it, the song comes over a bit murky, but is enlivened by Gaga's most rigorous dance performance. This takes us to the piano section, the heart of any Gaga show.

It's when she sits down at a keyboard that she is most herself, without switching back to being plain old Stefani Germanotta. Here she is at her ease and able to open up to her audience, who cherish every moment. After saying how much she's going to miss everyone, her instincts tell her that things might be getting just a tad too maudlin. She deftly changes gear, mentioning that she received a "book of Japanese cuss words."

As more high pitched–and obviously uncomprehending–squeals of "Gaga Kawaiiii!!!" rain down, she asks, "What did you say? Are you cussing at me? Shame on you. I’m a good girl. I just like bad things." She then plunges into a strong, resonant version of Speechless, similar musical territory to Brown Eyes, but given a pumped-up rock ending that leaves Lady G stretched out on her piano stool like a dying swan.

But a Gaga show is not just about one song followed by another. She has a real grasp of concert dynamics and–despite the language barrier–is clearly reading and responding to the mood of the audience. She also knows that songs are enhanced if they can be slotted into a greater picture, and with the idea of The Monster Ball she has given the entire performance an almost coherent narrative, loosely based on The Wizard of Oz, with Gaga, of course, in the roll of Dorothy. Now, we even get a tornado as a large part of the arena superstructure is lowered to conceal her for what must be another costume change.

When we see her again she is resplendent in an absurd fairy-princess dress singing Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say), the kind of song that makes you think of the ebullient optimism of 12-year-old Venezuelan girls. Then, while you’re still taking this in, the ludicrous happens: the part of the stage that Gaga is standing on detaches itself and takes her soaring up into the arena sky, surrounded by clouds of dry ice or steam. Both artistically and at least in this case physically–she is perched on very dangerous-looking high heels–Lady Gaga takes risks, and this is another reason she is so loved by this audience. We all love a gambler especially one who does it solely to entertain us, and the more we love her, the more poignant the sense of danger becomes.

Surviving this ordeal, she reappears quickly in an entirely new costume that beggars belief, something that looks like a giant hairy mushroom. She then strips this off to appear as Lady Godiva–long blonde wig with hair extensions sprouting from the most unusual places, including her groin. This is for Monster, a song that obliquely refers to a sense of physical inadequacy that has driven Gaga to become–as far as willpower and a crack team of gay stylists are able–an iconic femme fatale. As she ends, she asks, "Do you think I'm sexy," eliciting yet more screams of "Gaga kawaii!!!" supplemented by shrieks of "Gaga Daisuki!!!!" (We love Gaga).

"Fuck you–I don't believe you," she says bluntly, yet somehow still managing to sound endearing.

For the skanky gospel of Teeth, she is in a leather basque and torn fishnet stockings with blood (fake or real) smeared on her chest, giving out a aggressive bitch attitude to go with the sadomasochistic lyrics. This incongruously segues into the cheesy, Eurovision-Song-Contest-pop-saccharine nonsense of Alejandro.

A somewhat speeded-up version of Poker Face, the song that made her into a household name, leads to the show’s visual highlight Paparazzi, with Lady G in a green "Cubist" dress being attacked by the Fame Monster. This is a giant piece of visually arresting stagecraft, as the massive beast–half-angler fish, half octopus–is finally killed by fire from her breasts. This is total entertainment – music, drama, comedy, surrealism, and a heroine we can all root for. A stomping encore performance of Bad Romance, an irresistible combination of anthemic hooks and sonic silliness, sends us all home, moved but also amused.

What makes Lady Gaga truly astounding is her complex aesthetic sense. Musically or visually, she knows that beauty and ugliness feed off each other, and that glitter and blood go together as much as sweet melody and dirty rhythms.

Colin Liddell
23rd April, 2010
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