' Cinema Romantico: A Digression: Seeing Lady Gaga Live (Spectacle Versus Song)

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Digression: Seeing Lady Gaga Live (Spectacle Versus Song)

What’s the loudest noise you’ve ever heard? I was at Madison Square Garden July 1, 2000 on the closing night of the Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Reunion Tour when my friend Rory turned to me during the opening song and said (shouted, that is) "Just stand still for a second" and I did and could feel - literally feel - the world's most famous arena shaking beneath my feet as the crowd roared in a moment that was as terrifying as it was thrilling. Loudest noise I'd heard until this past Friday night at the Rosemont Theater. I've spent the last 48 hours attempting to formulate one of my infamous hyperbolic metaphors to describe it but am failing miserably.

A few songs into her so-called "Monster Ball" Lady Gaga was positioned at the front of the stage, souped up in a rather Madonna-esque outfit (we were close enough so that even with my atrocious eyesight I could see her quite clearly and let me stress that if she really is a man than I have absolutely no idea where she's hiding the what-have-you), and asked us if we were having a good time. You know, standard boilerplate. The crowd cheered. This did not impress Lady Gaga for she lifted her hand and feigned yawning. The noise which erupted from the crowd....

It was just something else....it was a sustained scream in the middle of which, when it hit its most frenzied pitch, sounded as if suddenly a 50,000 square foot glass house had just shattered. Your ears never feel right after a concert but this time they felt even more wrong than usual.

But it wasn't just that noise, whatever it was, that reminded me of a Springsteen show. In the wholly accurate words of Cornel Bonca: "There is almost nothing worse in pop discourse than reading about Bruce Springsteen from a Springsteen fanatic." This is the truth and I'm sure everyone who knows me understands it. Springsteen fans are nuts, which is to say, obviously, that I'm nuts. We idolize him to probably an unwarranted degree. We refuse to believe he would ever cheat on Patti (even if we kinda think he did) and would threaten to punch anyone in the face for suggesting otherwise. You trot out the "He isn't really a working man" rhetoric and you'd better hope there isn't a folding chair nearby or else you're getting hit over the head with it. At one of his shows, when Bruce goes into gospel preacher mode and orders you to raise your hands and say whatever it is he wants you to say, well, you don't question it, you just do it. And I'm sure to an outsider this whole scene looks mighty frightening. In fact, Stephen Fried has compared these moments at Springsteen concerts as akin to something from "Triumph of the Will". (Gulp.)

I tell you this because I'm fairly certain Lady Gaga holds even more sway over her audience than Bruce Springsteen does over his. Bruce just wants you to give it up for the power of rock and roll. Lady Gaga is a bit more mischievous. (I will refrain from telling you precisely what act she mimed in the first fifteen minutes as it was rather, shall we say, un-P.C.) If at any point on Friday night she had raised her fist and yelled "Okay, my little monsters, let's make like The Weather Underground and tear this city up!" the audience would have instantly surged up the aisles, out into the streets, and spent the next six hours looting, pillaging and setting cars on fire. I swear to God. No question about it. You had to be there. I was reminded of the moment in Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" when Denzel Washington as the title character is marching stone-faced followers through the streets to the police station and the cop played by Peter Boyle says "That's too much power for one man to have."

This might be too much power for Lady Gaga to have. Not a lot of recording artists garner this sort of power. I didn't realize it until afterwards but I actually saw this show on Elvis Presley's birthday.

Reader: "Oh God, now this jackass is going to compare Lady Gaga to Elvis? When does it end?"
Me: "Hey! Give me a chance! Hear me out!"


We have reached a point in music where popularity and artistry rarely, if ever, collide. When I was growing up Michael Jackson was enormous to a degree that is still somewhat inconceivable, but "Off The Wall" and "Thriller" were also brilliantly made and thorough creative endeavors. Bruce wasn't as big as Jackson but "Born in the U.S.A." was, shall we say, a monster in sales and while some people might whine about its synthesizers it is still an intelligent, perfectly crafted, and occassionally ("Cover Me", anyone?) dark album. Go back further to people like The Beatles and, of course, the dude from Tupelo who started it all and you see the same thing. Extreme popularity coupled with excellent music. This combination is increasingly rare and bordering on extinction. The masses don't side with the snobs and vice versa.

I can be both, as we all know, and it's why I'm unashamed to say how much I love Lady Gaga and a certain Australian named Kylie and it's also why I'm unashamed to get pissed off that artists like, say, Matthew Ryan and Tift Merritt wallow in relative obscurity while another season of that god-forsaken piece of East River sewage (I said it) "American Idol" gears up. (Apparently Lady Gaga is now talking about a duet with Susan Boyle. Oy ve. Lady Gaga! There's an artist based out of Britain named Eileen Rose! Her voice would mesh perfectly with yours! Do a duet with her instead!)

If there is anyone that can act as a bridge between both parties and re-ignite those long gone days of the charts actually mirroring our world's best tunes I believe with all my heart that person to be Ms. Stefani Germanotta. I am still struggling with how good her version of "Paparazzi" was on Saturday Night Live and with the immensity of the achievement that is the first 5 songs off "The Fame Monster" and with each passing day the more convinced I am "Bad Romance" is the best song I've encountered since "California Stars". (It's pop, it's dance, it's punk, it's rock and roll, it's EVERYTHING!!! It's there, it's calling out to you, give yourself over to its awesome power!) Fine. Go ahead. Roll your eyes. But I have bought, like, eight CDs in the last week and a half just to fill my Ipod with other music in an attempt to stop listening to "Bad Romance" over and over and over and over and then I get all that new music on there and what do I do? Cue up "Bad Romance" again.

(Speaking of which, I am 85% sure that if I had one wish right now it would be to have a bad romance with Lady Gaga. And I'm talkin' about a baaaaaaaad romance. I want to have the kind of romance with Lady Gaga where we get into an epic fight and both chug entire bottles of wine which we then wield like clubs, threatening to bash them over the other's head, before taking to the streets and trading obscenities so grotesque and at such volume the National Guard is called in to suppress us. On second thought, I'm now 93% sure that would be my one wish.)

There are others who feel this way, right? Not just people who were at the Rosemont Theater with me, either, but others hiding in the wilderness frightened of admitting their fondness of Her Gaganess because of how they might be perceived? Right? Someone? Can I get an amen? And that, loyal readers, is what concerns me about the show on Friday night.

Look, I'm an idiot but I'm not entirely thick. I understand why just about everyone had bought a ticket. They want the spectacular production (her stage was a lot cooler than Kylie's, and that's not easy for me to admit - oh, and I really, really dug the "Dance in the Dark" opening where she was out there by herself grooving in and out of a giant electronic grid and how she re-invented "Poker Face") and the costume changes and the smoke and Lady Gaga comparing herself to Tinkerbell and so on and so forth and that's perfectly fine....to a point. Ever since I first heard "Paparazzi" on SNL and my life changed (mostly for better but probably for a little worse, too) I have craved hearing it live with the backing band. It's like Ra Ra Riot's "Manner To Act" on the EP versus live. Oh, it's all well and good on the EP but until you hear it in the contained space of Schuba's and the bass is about to tear the roof off the place and Rebecca and Alexandra are sawing the hell off their violin and cello, respectively, well, sorry, but you haven't heard it. The live version is just mind blowing. That's what I was expecting with "Paparazzi" and instead....it was a let down. It really was. To me, anyway. Maybe not to anyone else. It was all drowned out by the bass with far too much focus on the theatrics. You couldn't hear the song itself. I just wanted the song.

Now this could all be both rotten apples and for naught. Clearly, Lady Gaga is smart. More than I think we will ever know. (For instance, I'm curious as to how she talks in real life. No way is it like how she talked at the show or in her interviews. I just don't believe it. It's all crafted. Got to be. Her show and interview voice comes across as a commentary on Madonna's pseudo-British accent. And her singing voice on "The Fame" so often veers into Gwen Stefani territory and then you hear her in person play "Speechless" all by herself on the piano and hear that voice and, yeah, Lady Gaga can sing. And not like Gwen Stefani. She has a legitimate voice, even if she only wants to show it off where she sees fit since she's cagey like that.) She's placating to the majority that coughed up the cash for a ticket. That's cool. It's just that a person capable of creating that SNL version of "Paparazzi" and the first five songs on "The Fame Monster" is a person, as far as I'm concerned, working on a plateau most musicians don't even know exist. She has a real chance to be radical both commercially and artistically. She possesses honest-to-God potential to go places we haven't seen in decades.

I respect the spectacle. I do. I just hope and pray she never chooses to completely sacrifice the songs for it.

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