Gaga: Pop Maverick or Art Pretender?

In 2010, I shelled out on eBay tickets for a Lady Gaga show in May when I’d seen her perform mere months before in the same city. Post-‘Bad Romance’, she had the pop world in her pocket and her bonkers but brilliant Monster Ball justified the hype: trashy, flashy, eccentric and exhausting, it was nevertheless a tour de force showcase of a premier pop talent. I couldn’t wait to see what she’d do next.

For me, this stretch in 2010 was Gaga’s defining pop moment; she may very well outdo herself and deliver on her promise in coming years, but nothing that has followed has topped Stefani’s ‘Fame Monster’ era. Unsurprisingly, for an artist who changes tack on a daily basis, there have been flashes of that brilliance in everything since – but just as many face-palm faux pas. The meat dress, the Madge ‘Born This Way’ controversy, the pretentious pre-hype waffle surrounding ‘Artpop’ – all of this and more has detracted from someone I still believe is (or at least has the potential to be) the great fucking pop juggernaut who threatened to dominate Planet Pop four/five years ago.

lady gaga artrave

Having skipped the ‘Born This Way’ ball in 2012, only a brief hesitation preceded my purchase of tickets to Gaga’s ‘Artrave’ tour in support of her least successful album to date, ‘Artpop’. Gaga’s pop pursuits have always had a touch of genius about them, with frequent clever references in debt to our pop culture DNA; however, my issue with ‘Artpop’ is that, while two-thirds of it (if not more) stands up as a solid pop album, the hyperbole would have had you thinking it was going to change the world. Gaga is great and her lofty ambitions are admirable, but a song like Bjork’s ‘Hyperballad’ has previously blended pop sensibilities with artistic intentions a lot more skilfully than, say, an ‘Applause’ or R. Kelly duet. Therefore, the album couldn’t fail to disappoint.

That said, catching Gaga in a live environment was an exciting proposition after four years. Could the spectacle live up to the Monster Ball, or would the arty-farty pretensions get in the way?

Thankfully (and I’m sure the free-flowing, overpriced Birmingham NIA beer helped), Gaga’s ‘Artrave’ was a blast. Sure, there’s the semi-dressed dancers, multiple costume changes (everything from seashell bikinis to fishnets-and-bra combos) and all the other OTT frills one would expect, but it’s a blast of a pop concert and ‘Artpop’s overlooked coulda-been-singles sound better live than they do on record. ‘G.U.Y’ is an early highlight, as is the vintage triple-whammy of ‘Just Dance’, ‘Telephone’ and ‘Poker Face’ which is confidently dispensed with just a quarter of the way in.

artpop lady gaga

As ever though, she truly shines – and surprises – when the crazy pop façade is stripped and she sits at the piano. ‘Dope’ and ‘You & I’ display her strengths as a vocalist, and she does her gay pride thang during a piano-and-vox rendition of ‘Born This Way’ when she invites a young fan and his boyfriend to sit either side of her as she pounds the keys. She came in for criticism after ‘Born This Way’, with some of her gay fanbase not taking the song as a compliment and rather voicing their dislike that she’d ‘volunteered’ herself as their defender; her constant references to gay rights and other causes in interviews may come off as annoying, but it’s hard to question her sincerity as she reads the fan’s heartfelt letter then hugs him to her as she belts out her anthem to her little monsters.

The midsection shows off her musicianship, but pop thrill seekers get their money’s worth before the show wraps up. Things get dark and sexy with ‘Judas’, ‘Aura’ and ‘Alejandro’ before she gets all jazzy and pimps out her new Tony Bennett collaboration with her cover of ‘Bang Bang’. Then it’s time for the big finale, when she appears as a dayglo K-Pop raver and brings the house down with ‘Bad Romance’ (surely still one of the best pop singles of the millennium so far) and the off-the-wall ‘Swine’.

So, the consensus? Faith is restored. While the music isn’t exactly breaking boundaries but doing its perfectly fine job of making pop fans dance, the Lady’s formidable presence, charisma and talent (yep, believe it) means her future is still exciting to me. Who knows what she’ll come up with next?

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