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The past year or so has not been kind to Lady Gaga. Broken bones, cancelled tours, major management fall outs and furiously scrutinised falling music sales.
Most crucially though has been the apparent slacking going on at the quality control department within the Haus of Gaga. Her daily fashion statements remain outlandish but lack the originality and awe-inspiring edge circa The Fame Monster. Many of her recent career choices have been related only by their haphazardness — from promoting a "flying dress" (TechHaus Volantis), to making bit-part appearances in underwhelming films, shooting music videos too controversial to ever release (watch stolen snippets of the Terry Richardson-directed 'Do What U Want' at your own discretion), agreeing to be the first artist to perform in space and making Tony Bennett her constant companion.
So, really, however frustrating the erratic Artpop is, it is actually the perfect record to encapsulate Lady Gaga's current state of play. Whilst the message of Artpop as a whole got rather lost in translation on record, when fully realised as performance piece, Gaga's manifesto of creative freedom and artistic expression as a uniting force is communicated and made real through her ArtRave live show.
Honestly, the EDM pop current she has been swept up by means her latest output has not been her most dynamic, and perhaps she knows it. Whilst the majority of Artpop's track list gets a look in on tonight's set, most songs are shortened with a chorus missing here, a verse cut out there and others simply used as interval tunes whilst Gaga changes outfit. She brings the hits too but tells anyone who has come solely to hear her past glories to, in no uncertain terms, GTFO.
The delicate digital tones of 'Artpop' make for a knowingly understated but sublime opener. 'Venus' is the standout live moment of the night. Gaga roars in tribute to her inspirational goddess of love, embodies her spirit and threatens to devour her object of desire whole. 'Mary Jane Holland' goes down as the most absurd performance piece of the night which sees Gaga dancing around with a chair balanced on her head for no reason in particular.
What the electro pomp of her newest material easily achieves is encouraging a party atmosphere amongst the audience. Dancing is the only available option. The frantic likes of 'Aura' and 'G.U.Y.' work splendidly to make it feel as though you're at the best party of your life, and Lady Gaga just so happens to be there too. Yet as much work and energy as Gaga puts into fostering a mass spirit of abandon, she too frequently slackens the pace and sacrifices her Club Kids-inspired ambience for sentimental pauses.
Anyone who says that the moments when Gaga sits down at the piano alone, stabs out some chords and belts out a couple of songs a capella is, frankly, a bore. If you need theatrics stripping back to hear that Gaga can sing and write a decent song, then you are, perhaps, a little bit simple. Yes, it is moving that ahead of 'Born This Way' Gaga reads an eloquent fan-penned letter about their mental health struggles and the solace they found in her music. Yes, it is lovely that said fan is then invited to sit beside Gaga at the piano. But did 'Born This Way' really need to be reduced to a thread-bare rendition that erases any semblance of it's 'Express Yourself'-esque empowered thrust? Similarly, Gaga's cover of 'Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)' is unquestionably strong, but unfitting for the occasion.
Whilst the set list may not have been perfect, the overall set up for ArtRave is pure genius. Many a popstar talks a big game about loving their fans and sharing a close connection, but Gaga has acted on her word by making herself more accessible than ever to the fans attending her shows. The big innovation of this tour is the stage design. Two catwalks made of Lucite plastic and a connecting bridge loom over the standing audience which allows everyone to be part of the front row. If you so wish, the option of standing beneath the see-through stage to watch Gaga hump the floor is available to you. She gets close enough to her fans that the details of her tattoos can be seen by the naked eye. She spends the night covering the vast expanse of the stage which renders elongated dance routines obsolete, but it seems like a worthwhile sacrifice for the sake of facetime with the crowd. The feel-good factor this interaction brings cannot be underestimated in the soulless game of arena pop.
Gaga in herself seems like a different person to the one of her previous tours. Everything about her now seems more natural and comfortable. Her focus is on enjoying her performance rather than making it and herself fit pop's archetypal clean-cut mould. I mean, how many pop stars would sacrifice their calorie counting ways to brazenly demand a bottle of beer be delivered to the stage before taking an almighty chug? How many other image-obsessives would execute an onstage outfit change in full view of their audience? Or tear the wig from their head and swing it through the air?
The fact that Gaga has reached this new level of honesty as a performer without sacrificing any of her alluring artifice is quite astonishing. The costumes for this tour are Gaga's de rigueur level of surreal couture; a Versace-designed crystyal body suit embellished with a Jeff Koons reflective sphere upon the chest and a weighty pair of wings, a bejewelled seashell bra and floral thong, a latex leotard with sprawling tentacles, wigs of gravity defying height and another of such silken length it trails behind her like the train of a wedding dress (all the while, the backing dancers looking like they've had to make do with digging through the sale racks of Ann Summers and American Apparel). Yes, the outfits are still out of this world but Gaga has come to both accept and exploit the fact that she and all her accoutrements are just a part of experience that now surrounds her.
Finishing the night with a rousing and celebratory 'Gyspy' is just as fitting as the restrained opening of the night. But the fact that Gaga only rewards herself with a single song encore is far too modest for a star of her stature and the scale of the show. Gaga has every right to milk her much-loved applause after pulling off the most innovative pop concert of the year.
Written for Rock's Backpages