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The Calvert Report

This Megalith Reality: Lady Gaga Live
John Calvert , September 11th, 2012 06:35

In the second Calvert Report, we send John down to Twickenham to experience the Lady Gaga Born This Way Ball, a lurid pop Nuremburg Rally with 90s Athena poster aesthetics. Main photo Yoshika Horita, all others Picture Group

I know it's coming, but when it finally does it's different to how I expected. It's far worse. Less than real. About where the half way line of the rugby pitch would normally be, I stand looking up and around as 60,000 warm bodies rise up through four tiers, and up again into the darkening skies. And it's there they wait - drunk, testy, occasionally super-fabulous - for the show to start in Twickenham stadium. The air is heavy with portent, like the first half hour of Airport '77, or like in Casualty when they do that close-up shot of the old lady's gas stove, and from that point on you're playing the waiting game.

A mobile beer merchant eyes my burgeoning pot belly like a smug cat. He knows I'm his man. He knows I'm buying what he's selling. I pay my money and look back over my shoulder at the shimmering masses in the far distance. I can't stop, because there's 60,000 of them, and because I'm used to covering shit heritage-rock at the pokey 100 Club, and the last time I went to a pop concert was Bryan Adams in Newcastle, 1999. No one talks about my Bryan stage anymore. All we know is that it happened. This pop thing, this megalith reality, it's a far cry from 1999. Next level-ism, Doc. The outlying machinery alone is terrifying. It gathers from miles away, in Bethnal Green, where I spot my first 'Little Monsters' up a little from me on the tube. It ends here, with this Lene Riefenstahl film with glow sticks, this static space battle in south-west London, this vast bruise-coloured suction-dent in an otherwise quiet neighbourhood miles from Bethnal Green.

Imagine peering out from the centre of a shadowed galaxy. If you walk towards the stars - these vertiginous cliffs of human faces - they never get any closer against the foreground of the standing-area folk, a wily populace made up of lesbian couples, one-child families, Asia Argento-looking Italian woman with husky voices, roughly 10,000 gay men and small clusters of admin-Janes; the type of middle-aged women who say things like "There they are, Tweedledum and Tweedledee" if you happen to be talking with a male colleague. An 800-pound leviathan passes close by. His only clothing below the waist is a nappy made entirely from yellow police tape. Across his back chassis are the words "Crime scene – do not enter."

It's getting faster now, harder, more insane. The pitch is breathless. People are running forward. I go back out for a rushed smoke. A trendy policeman shepherds revellers through the bottlenecking Gate C "Lets go people... go go go" he says, and does a skipping jig, winding his arm. Everyone laughs. Probably because I have no one to laugh with, instead I wonder exactly when it was that young policemen stopped being avuncular scolders and became children's TV presenters. In Northern Ireland the police carry carbine-powered killing machines the size of bassoons; physical comedy is in short supply. I wonder what would happen if I gave this guy a dig in the corner of his jaw. He'd probably noogie me then after we'd talk about the film Gladiator.

The stentorian build-up music snaps to a halt and the 10-metre high Gagas go black on the twin screens. With a gunshot sound the lights go out. And the next thing you hear is the sound of death, in multiples of tens of thousands. It starts as a low roar, sure, for maybe about the first micro-second. After that it's a near ultrasonic note, then the sound of ten Titanics going stern over bow, a massacre at an airport, then Catholic guilt on Jericho trumpet, then the children's soft play area in hell, the Hindenburg disaster, and finally The Rapture. This is what a pop concert sounds like. It's in-fucking-sane. So begins the unstoppable first acts of Gaga: The Musical, and a half hour of fanfare on a scale I've never encountered before. This is The Born This Way Ball; the most expensive roadshow on planet earth.

Gaga Costume #1: Hard to explain. It's Gaga's most fucked up. Think of her headpiece as a necrotic wire mesh of criss-crossing leather belts, the shape of an alien pod and studded with diamonds. Below the neck she's an S&M cenobite. The only thing missing is the strap-on from Se7en.

In the darkness I can just about make out a muslin curtain, which then falls away to reveal the show's big stage attraction, a monumental stone castle. We're talking about a seven-storey, three quarter scale keep on a stage in the middle of suburban London, with innumerable staircases, with protruding turrets, adjoining rooms and laser machines that rake the audience like a Cylon eye, and with a front section able to be opened up like a doll's house, out of which emerges Lady Gaga. She's riding a giant mechanical horse and singing over a cod-operatic, electro-trance banger called 'Highway Unicorn (Road To Love)'; a song about how even gay people deserve love (the show is full of these transparent, cynical clumsy efforts to cement the gay dollar, but that's another story). This is what £87.00 a pop buys you in 2012; utterly inspired idiocy.

Gaga Costume #2: All costumes designed by Versace, Moschino and Armani, we're told. Costume change #2 is made from gold PVC rubber and packs a 'space-nun' aftertaste.

Within the first ten minutes she's given birth, to herself mind, through a veiny balloon-like vagina, and spread her legs on a revolving mock-stone table so that a leather-clad minotaur can 'eat' her wot-nots. She's fired a machine gun at the castle's drawbridge and stalked the circular catwalk runway that ring-fences the VIP 'Monster pit'. The Madonna-esque 'Born This Way' explodes into life. Electric guitarists appear in windows on the top floor of the castle, synth players writhe inside the turrets and a drummer goes hard from the purple-lit bottom floor. Dancers fill every walkway and staircase, captured by the meticulously choreographed live editing on the gigantic TV screens. Next comes the even more Madonna-like 'Black Jesus†Amen Fashion' and the pumping electro house 'Judas'. The house beat is the modern popstar's greatest weapon in a live situation. But add an electro sequencer and 'Judas' is a wrecking ball, flattening the stadium in concentric circles.

Gaga Costume #5: An all-white number, equal parts corpse bride and the faun from Pan's Labyrinth. The dress part makes like Victoria-era Bedlam chic - strait jacket padding forming rivulets past spiked shoulder pads. Her mask curls into coiled ram horns. This represents 'M.O.T.H.E.R-G.O.A.T' – Gaga's alter-ego on Born This Way. Naturally.

What you have to appreciate here is Gaga's voice and what happens when she gets going. The woman is drilling every vocal node right the fuck through Boeing-scale reverb (and she can sing, like you wouldn’t believe), while her every animalistic retch and gothic holler is repeated through a delay effect. At the same time her words are being sung back to her by tens of thousands of women in the surrounding stands, which from where I'm standing, dead centre of the stadium, reaches me as a distance lag. The combined effect is a mega-decibel, poly-rhythmic, quadrophonic fucking ambush; the world's largest hen party playing in an arrhythmic loop, over the decaying-Tannoy pre-echo of a nightmare that was once the Nuremberg Rally. I simply don't know how to react. I don't know what emotion to feel or what emotion I'm feeling. In the end I turn on my heel and say 'fuck me', accidentally directing my wheezy bleat towards the face of the girl behind me. She looked friendly before. Now she thinks I'm a weirdo, because I'm talking to her and I'm on my own and writing on a mini notepad that by rights should have a picture of a kitten on the cover. So I just walk back to my perching position at a nearby steel balustrade and blow through my adrenal-stiffened lips, in total awe.

Gaga Costume #7: Googie sci-fi meets 'white picket housewife', via 'gardening-ware colonialist'. Her headpiece is the type of white plastic dome we'll all be wearing once the ozone layer goes. Last seen in Logan's Run.

Gaga Costume #8: Gaga goes Palm Springs pink. All polyester foam, sharp angles and plastic fantastic.

The night continues in much the same fashion. The "ra ra" i.d. peeks teasingly above the surface of 'Government Hooker's breakdown, driving the crowd wild with the thought of seeing 'Bad Romance' in larger-than-life form. Made cavernous and pitched-down to a bestial grind, the hook seems suddenly like the defining pop moment of the 00's. You mightn’t have ever sat down and listened to a Lady Gaga album, but it's in that 10 second-cut of subliminal radio signal, in your head for the next decade and the one after that. Gaga gives them what they want, with the wolf-ie dance and everything, and dancers in blood red costumes. But not before one of her speeches about equality, and gay people, and something about being a "free bitch."

"Im not a man!!!"

"I'm not a woman!!!"

"I... am... an... alien!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

"OHHHHHHHhhhhhh... hh..hh..hh..h...h.....h........h.........................Huh?"

The lady beside me scratches the inside of her arm.

Gaga Costume #11: Think The Emperor in Star Wars, but in the place of manky black wool are luxurious folds of smooth white linen.

Though what comes next is deeply impressive, and maybe beautiful, and certainly the finest bit of production of the night. The circular catwalk transforms into a fully functioning conveyor belt for 'Bloody Mary', a slow-winding song with a steady pulse. Gaga stands with her eyes hidden below her monkish shroud, to the back-right of the oval. Doppelgänger Gagas, with their faces hidden, join the motorcade, until gradually it's the star's turn to step in line. By the end they revolve together, dead still and sorrowful, and a song that before was kitsch becomes strangely poignant. That's entertainment.

Gaga Costume #13: 80s gay/Judas Priest

And all that class goes straight out the window the moment a vaguely shit-scared Gaga drives on stage on a rail-lined but juddering Trimo-cycle, the one from her album cover with the bio-mechanical marriage of bone and flesh, an effect that is quite nicely recreated with a little handy design work. Still though, she looks like a dick. Especially when, in a laughably shameless display of franchised lesbianism, a girl-dancer jumps on the back of the machine for a couple of circuits, and proceeds to dry hump Gaga's nearly-bare ass, using her own nearly bare ass. Only, Gaga can do nothing about this because a) she's shit scared, and a) she's strapped in from sternum to shins and half submerged in the sunken innards of a Trimo-cycle. So instead she just sits there, on this death trap, as girl-dancer fanny-bones her lower back region.

Beside us a teenaged girl has collapsed. The doctor they found in the crowd is holding her hand. He is wearing blinking rabbit ears.

To my right a little girl in a white fleece watches the woman lying on the ground. She's about 10.

Gaga Costume #14: Consists mainly of a long white 'Art Pop' t-shirt (the title of her upcoming 'interactive multimedia' album). She has no bottoms on, though. Just the usual eye-watering knicks. If you want guys to like you, tween demographic, always remember to both aerobicize suicidally and get as much expensive lingerie up your butthole as possible.

OK, bring back the bare bums and the trike, this is awful. What we have here is 'the bit with the piano' in which some insane prankster thought it'd be hilarious if they actually let the Italo nutbar go off script; allotting her 20 minutes or so in which to talk about whatever weird shit that comes into her head. In between butchering 'Imagine' and duetting with a girl from the audience who, we're told, sleeps outside Gaga's hotel room every night, and who frankly doesn't look altogether sane either, Gaga dedicates a song to Princess Diana entitled 'Princess Die', which I'm sure Diana would find heartwarming if circumstances were different. Whether she's conscious of it or not, while introducing the song Gaga speaks with an English accent, pronouncing her 'T's with cut-glass fragility, while her stalker stares inanely into middle-distance. Occasionally the piano appears to be playing of its own accord.

Gaga Costume #15: Black headband, black hot pants and Bryan Ferry-style leather trench coat (also worn by the Nazis in 'Allo 'Allo. And the Americans in Starship Troopers).

The pre-encore finale and a rock extravaganza featuring the sky-scraping 'Electric Chapel', we're back in the bosom of mechazilla stage production. Thank fuck, because the awkward silences were killing us. Some minutes later, and I'm ready to duet my temples with an ice-pick. It's like the spaceship from Close Encounters crashed on take off and out spilled the cast of Rock Of Ages.

Gaga Costume #17 The Statue of Liberty meets Studio 54. Lady Liberty's headdress is exaggerated, with every elongated spike festooned with small square mirror-tiles.

Of course, it wouldn't be GaGa without the usual style-less, paradoxical mess of signifiers. The content of the songs shares very little in common with the activity on stage, just as within the songs themselves the queen-bitch verses nearly always cede to earnest, mid-western choruses. From an aesthetic perspective it's painfully incongruous, basically. Granted there's a fair bit of totalitarian iconography peppering tonight's show, literalizing the future dystopian setting that cradles Born This Way. But the problem is, the sci-fi stuff is bolted to a Phantom Of The Opera spine, or occasional lip service nods to some sub-Lydia Lunch art-skeeze persona, or spare parts flinched from A Star Is Born (augmented by the singer's reoccurring and vaguely cuckoo 'I showed them all' speeches, addressed to industry naysayers from her early days). Overall, there isn't one single original idea in evidence. And have no illusions, Stef, what you do is not art-pop. Most damning, however, is the now mandatory popstar-as-alien/automaton shtick. For a white artist to re-appropriate Afro-futurism exposes the New Yorker as the dilettante I've always suspected she was. She either doesn't get that the alien in Afro-futurism represents 'the other', as in people of colour, or she doesn't care. Just another voguish reference point to throw in the pot. Folk will call on the example of spaceman David Bowie, but Gaga is baldly taking her cues from Janelle Monae, just as Minaj did with this year's bunkum Pink Friday.

Gaga Costume #19 (or thereabouts): Madonna circa Blonde Ambition tour, complete with black industrial jumpsuit, headset mic and blonde sweepback. Or maybe is that Jam'n'Lewis-era Janet Jackson? Well just pick one or the other.

In the end, the only unifying strand here is the shock stuff, and in those stakes Gaga's knocking both Rihanna and Beyonce clean out of the park. Making this tour theoretically the filthiest mainstream pop show in the history of the world. If Madonna once mounted her stage bed and coitally thrashed her way to orgasm and infamy, 20 years hence and Gaga's screens are giving us a pointed close up of her hand, as she knuckle-shuffles at an invisible dick. And no one bats an eyelid. Look how far we've come.