Four years ago, Stefani Germanotta was doing 1am PAs at G-A-Y. Tonight, as Lady Gaga, she’s playing the first of two sold-out gigs at a 55,000-capacity stadium which earlier this afternoon was hosting a rugby league match.
The downloading public’s love for Lady Gaga, and fascination for the woman behind her (when we get to see her), can reasonably be seen as a reaction against the continuing Bieberfication of Pop 2012 – a mind-liberating left turn away from Rihanna’s increasingly tiresome domestic abuse apologism and Beyoncé’s diet Oprah-tics.
The wig-clad mums’n’daughters, posing drag queens, reluctant boyfriends and legions of party-craving disco denizens of countless stripes are treated to Twickenham’s standard advertising hoardings hawking power tools, 4x4s and barbecues whilst awaiting the megastar’s arrival. Two hours and a rudely truncated set later, it transpires there’s something for everyone in Gaga Land – and out of place is where she fits right in.
Later she’ll tell us of her record label’s unenthused response when she first played them ‘Born This Way’, the Madonna-ripping anthem for Little Monsters everywhere. “It’s too niche,” the label said. Stefani surveys the day-glo masses in front of her, offers a triumphant “Big fuckin’ niche!” and it’s hard not to cheer what feels like petulant bloody-mindedness (and no small degree of artistic chutzpah) come good.
But we’re ahead of ourselves. Back at the start, Edvard Grieg’s ‘In The Hall of the Mountain King’ drifts across the stadium, and the playful, mock-dramatic template for Danny Elfman’s entire career seems cannily appropriate for this gathering.
And what an engagingly preposterous show Gaga puts on. We may not see much of Stefani this evening – save a beyond-all-mawkishness late-set aberration, more on which later – but Gaga’s here and determined not to be forgotten. Intro ‘Highway Unicorn’ is pure Jim Steinman bombast and effective for it, Gaga arriving on a horse, dressed in a glistening black giant slinky like a an HR Giger disco alien.
On a stage resembling nothing so much as a giant toy Castle Grayskull (complete with moving parts), she surrounds herself with countless dancers, confidently resting the show on a spurious sci-fi plot so paper-thin it’d collapse under a sweat drop. As ‘Government Hooker’’s amateur theatrics give way to the straight-up club thud of ‘Born This Way’, the scene resembles Starlight Express without the roller-skates: “Tonight, London is a place of unity, acceptance, equality,” she intones, as the nearby residents of Middlesex shake their fists at the sky and plead for more rugby.
Like an especially bizarre episode of Doctor Who, a giant 3D rendition of Gaga’s head – apparently called “Mother Monster” – appears, encased in a purple diamond cage, to nudge the “plot” along. Does anybody really care? No, they just want to dance, and bounce, and scream when Gaga tells them to, and chant her name on demand. If this is an attempt to entertain the less rabid fans who don’t know much beyond the singles, it ain’t up to much. This is the most exclusive 55,000-strong party since the Moonies’ last mass wedding.
Mother Monster shows up to sing ‘Pararazzi’ near the end of tonight’s jamboree, the only time we feel a little short-changed in what otherwise feels like a concerted effort to give the throng their money’s worth. In fact, Stefani takes time out to thank us all for spending our sponds on her, when we could have blown the cash on any number of other frivolous entertainment, and it feels like she means it.
Every second offers something to watch. Even if you don’t care for the music – which, as you’ll know by now, generally falls into not exactly genre-busting but undoubtedly effective europop/stadium rock camps – you can revel in the costume changes: a cosmic beekeeper for ‘Bloody Mary’’s absurdly bouncable beats; the anthropomorphised Gaga-cycle off the front of the last album for the otherwise forgettable ‘Heavy Metal Lover’. And so it goes on.
Where Gaga comes unhinged, however, is when Stefani takes over and tries to get serious. Having warned the audience that non-partyers will not be tolerated – and proving without doubt that she can own a stadium like it’s a sweaty club basement with a glorious one-two of ‘Judas’ and ‘Bad Romance’ – the singer brings the carnival mood skidding to a halt afterBorn This Way filler track ‘Bad Kids’.
What follows is an initially cockle-warming monologue (astride the Gaga-cycle, which has been transformed into a keyboard “while you weren’t looking”) about her rise to monstrous fame, and how grateful she is to the fans who camp outside her hotels. She even drags a wee purple-wigged fangirl onto the stage to sit with her during ‘Hair’, which is well intentioned but ultimately as embarrassing for all concerned when a little moment later the stage-side megascreens focus on a moist-eyed teenage boy, earnestly mouthing along.
But then comes an sincere speech about “the People’s Princess” – with whom Stefani feels some affinity – a list of dead artists including “Amy, Whitney, Sylvia, Issy Blow, McQueen”, and a jaw-droppingly naff song called ‘Princess Die’ which sucks the air from the stadium and sends the incredulometer off the chart. And then Stefani covers ‘Imagine’, because “John Lennon was about possibilities, right?”, and because what else would you do at that point? But since nobody’s ever done a decent cover of ‘Imagine’, she’s just about forgiven, as long as it never happens again.
And finally, thank the gods, Gaga’s back! ‘Yoü and I’ is ridiculous ‘80s pomp-rock, Gaga invoking Freddie Mercury’s performance on Twickenham’s hallowed turf 25 years ago (we think she may mean Wembley) while half-stealing the beat from ‘We Will Rock You’. You can’t fault her ambition – and nobody in their right mind would try – but the result sounds like 4 Non Blondes.
“I’m everything you love about this world and everything you hate. I exist because you created me,” says Gaga and she’s right. We made this pop star: this tiny, influential woman who promises a stadium largely populated by pre-teen girls that “I’m gonna sing LIVE all night for you and dance my fucking PUSSY off till they throw me off the stage!”; who calmly dismembers a Barbie doll thrown on stage because “I’ve never been a fan of this little bitch”. We made her, and now she’s made us.
The Born This Way Ball is an uneasy mix of Broadway excess, post-Weimar sleaze, thudding techno and cloying self-help affirmation techniques. Lady Gaga is Britney Spears by way of Sin With Sebastian, and by the time we reach the full-on Capella-esque ‘90s rave-pop antics of ‘Scheisse’, it’s clear the system’s working. And right now it’s unstoppable. “Looking around, I can see what a flop the last album was,” Stefani says wryly before a mid-set annihilation of ‘Telephone.’ Who needs that Knowles woman anyway?! If she carries on flopping like this, we’ll never hear the end of Lady Gaga.
Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)
Born This Way
Black Jesus † Amen Fashion
Fashion of His Love
Heavy Metal Lover
Yoü and I
The Edge of Glory
Marry the Night
Illustration by Anika Mottershaw.