Monday, October 27, 2014

'Lady Gaga's artRAVE' at the o2, 26th October 2014

Prior to Lady Gaga I was a musically boring fuck.  The kind of chump who quivered at the announcement of a new Radiohead album or swooned over linen-shirted, bearded middle-aged men who clutch acoustic guitars like drowning men clutch liferafts.  Then I chanced across her 2009 VMA performance of Paparazzi.  Four minutes later, lost in a blizzard of glitter, flashbulbs, crutches, lots fake blood and demented piano playing, I was smitten.  

From that point on, as far as I was concerned this was it.  A perfect storm of performance art, theatre, pop and fashion - all encapsulated in a smart as hell, beautiful and risk-taking New Yorker.  Everything else in music seemed suddenly desaturated; as far as I'm concerned there's more honesty, truth and beauty in lyrics like "Let's have some fun / This beat is sick / I wanna take a ride on your disco stick" than there are in a thousand albums by noodly, string-backed acoustic warblers.

For a couple of years it was good, and we enjoyed Lady Gaga's imperial phase.  The triple combo of videos for Bad Romance, Telephone and Alejandro cemented her as the pop vision of the future; suddenly everyone started to look a little cooler.  Then came the colossally hyped Born This Way, which despite a tonne of great songs felt slightly bloated.  Then out came ARTPOP, which is actually pretty good, but the knives were pre-sharpened.  The pop music mill hungers for new flesh; and even Gaga, a popstar who shuffles personalities like a cardshark shuffles a deck, couldn't ride it forever.

And so we come to the artRAVE.  Is this Gaga's Waterloo?  One last big budget, stadium-sized splurge of extravagance before she slips into a comfortable place in the pop firmament; beloved by her fanbase, fondly remembered but never again truly on top?  If it is she certainly isn't going quietly; from start to finish we're dragged into a shimmering slice of pop nirvana.  Perspex walkways snake in organic shapes around the arena floor, allowing Gaga and her dancers to move around and over the audience.

This 'Little Monsters' friendly staging gives this night a unique sparkle.  With the heavenly scenery, the arena takes the aura of a religious revival with Gaga as high priestess leading us to sartorially adventurous promised land of sexual tolerance and unlimited self expression. I imagine that if you're not a fan, Gaga's messianic streak might seem a touch egotistical. But she's among her die-hard fans, and to them she's divinity made flesh.  You can taste their rapture it in the way they stretch their glitter-polished fingers towards her, hoping her touch will cure them of some modern scrofula.

This builds to an emotional pinnacle when a note is thrown on stage.  Gaga picks it up and reads out a message from a cervical cancer sufferer who explains that Lady Gaga's poptimistic message has helped her fight it.  Gaga summons her up to the stage and in a flurry of hugs and kisses grants her personal blessing, then she parks her on a piano stool and devotes an acoustic reworking of Born This Way to her. There's not a dry eye in the house.  Oh well, if you're going to have a pop messiah you could do far worse than Lady Gaga.

What surrounds this particularly special little moment is a totally competent pop show that's only slightly hobbled by being  based around a slightly below-par album.  Of the new songs the perverted mud fuck stomp of Swine is an easy stand out, bleepy/bloopy aerodynamic mission statement of Artpop and the sincere loveliness of Dope and Gypsy.  In a 'fuck you' move to her detractors she opens with five songs from her newest album and delivers a slightly out of character broadside against people who are "just here for the hits".

After that it's a relief to hear the still-futuristic ultraparty beat of Just Dance kick in. Cheekily she mashes Poker Face and Telephone into a mini-medley, before launching into a top class Paparazzi.  All these are stone-cold poptimistic stunners, and with bass thudding throughout the arena, lasers blasting to the rafters and bewigged, joyful punters bopping around with dopey grins on their faces.  

I was one of them.  The simple sight of her dancing around on a stage in increasingly sillier outfits (cow patterned octopus girl, furrily-winged Koons-balled angel, what appear to be some folding chairs) flicks some innate joy-switch in my head, sending me spiralling into a blissy paroxysms of joy.

That said, as ace as this was, it wasn't as good as The Monster Ball.  That was a Gaga resplendent, confidently perched at the top of the pops.  artRAVE finds Lady Gaga ever so slightly on the back foot, obviously stinging from the critical and commercial reception of Artpop and taking solace in the unconditional love of her hardcore Little Monsters. This makes artRAVE more of a transitory show, one eye in the triumphant past and one looking towards an uncertain future.

I'm still deeply smitten.  I'll always be.  But I'm hungry to see where she's going next.

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