A man walked by me in a bikini. This was nothing out of the ordinary -it’s Midtown Manhattan, after all- but it was 35 degrees and raining. This swimwear required commitment. “I’m not even cold,” he said to no one in particular before linking arms with a wand-wielding mermaid. They were heading to the back of the line, which snaked from the entrance of the Roseland Ballroom across three whole blocks. In a sport coat and slacks, I was very much the one who stuck out. All around me were wigs of ever conceivable (and inconceivable) shade, leather dominatrix gloves, tutus, ninja masks, neon spandex, enough eye glitter to choke a unicorn, and (unforgivably) crushed velvet jackets. Many wore hats, sold in the Ballroom lobby, emblazoned with the three-word reason why 3,500 of us all braved the wind and rain and Monday morning hangover: Lady F-cking Gaga.
It was the second night of Mother Monster’s seven-show residency at the iconic Roseland, touted as the final performances “before the venue closes forever.” The dingy chipped-stucco walls were lined with electric votive candles, burning bright next to rose effigies. It was a touching tribute to the hall, shuttering its doors after housing music-lovers for 95 years. In a decade (or less) we’re going to wonder how we let it happen, but tonight it’s a joyous funeral. Roseland was always a gaudy, funky, trashy, and singularly unique space that did weird things to sound. In that sense, Lady Gaga HAD to be the one to close it out.
The concert series began the previous Friday on March 28th, Gaga’s 28th birthday. In many ways, the shows were a present to herself -or rather a present from Lady Gaga to the young Stefani Germanotta. After nine years of playing everywhere from clubs to stadiums, Roseland had been the final mountain left to climb in her hometown. And this week she was proud to plant her disco stick at the summit. The legacy of the venue loomed large, ever since she was a young fan and couldn’t afford the ticket price. When she finally won a pair see a Franz Ferdinand show as a high school senior, she broke her nose in the mosh pit and her parents forbade her from ever setting foot in Roseland again. But tonight her mother Cynthia sits in the upper mezzanine, proudly watching her daughter commune with faithful Little Monsters.
A massive white sheet shrouded the stage like a child’s homemade curtain, shielding the wondrous sets that awaited us. Thousands of bodies doused in body glitter packed onto the same ballroom floor where hep cats ‘n’ kittens danced the foxtrot half a century ago. I wonder what they’d think of the man next to me, dressed as a sumo-sized orange blob with a sash proclaiming “The Littlest Monster.” He loses his mind as the lights dim and the sheet falls away, revealing a large fire-escape scaffold, not unlike the video for “The Edge Of Glory.” The roses added for the occasion transform the cityscape into a Grateful Dead album cover.
And THERE SHE IS. Resplendent in a Dusty Springfield-on-steroids bouffant wig, studded leather one-piece and torn fishnets, looking like a wet dream from Hot Topic. Her entrance is understated, creeping out onto the high platform through a small window. From there she wordlessly struts like Jagger, practically posing for pictures before sitting down at the keyboard. Her voice booms strong and clear over rich Elton John chords, wig perched precariously, jackboot resting up on the piano oh-so-casually. What do you expect? She was born this way.
In the wake of her recent vomit-filled set at SXSW, the crowd were bracing themselves for anything (I seriously considered bringing a poncho), but this night Gaga decided to play the pop princess rather than the performance artist. She opened with “Born This Way”, re-imagined as a nostalgic late nite piano ballad. “New York, baby, you were born this way,” she sang, setting the tone for her one-hour set that served as a love note to the city that made her. “It’s the way the concrete feels good on your shoes, and your hair can’t hold a curl when it rains,” she told the crowd in a strange, strangulated Betty Boop-like voice that she employed throughout the show. “But there’s something about this city that makes you feel like you can be somebody.”
It was one hell of a triumphant homecoming. That much was clear even from the concert posters, which depict a young pre-Fame Monster Gaga, brimming with confidence on the cobblestoned streets of the Meat Packing district. “I’m Lady Gaga. A singer/songwriter,” she told the photographer, a stranger who stopped her back in 2008 simply because she looked fascinating. “You’re going to know me one day.” Destiny manifested
Traces of her roots were all around us. The “Artpop Zone” side-stage featured a replica of the F line subway car that would bring her to 176 Stanton St., the tiny Lower East Side apartment she called home back in the early days. The address shone larger than life amid a collage of neon signs. It’s unclear whether her old tenement inspired the fire escape main-stage, but I like to think that it did. Even Lady Starlight, her old partner in crime since her first club dates, opened the show with a 40-minute techno drum-and-bass explosion that put the “rave” into artRAVE.
Although usually on the cutting edge of art, music and fashion, Lady Gaga gave herself permission to take a look back, both at her own life and also at the historic walls around her. “It’s nice to feel nostalgic sometimes. Can you believe she’s 95 years old? What an old bitch!” she spoke of Roseland. “We’ll be sad to see you go. I’ve done a lot of drugs in the bathroom.” She offered a quick amends to her mother, seated nearby. “Sorry, Mom.” This would not be the last over-share of the night.
Once the gentle piano intro concluded, she launched into full fabulous flight with “Black Jesus + Amen Fashion.” Backed with a crew of lithe and limber dancers and a VERY live five-person band (all gorgeous, by the way), she out-Madonna’d Madonna with unrelenting runway-friendly dance moves and commands to “put your f-cking hands up.” All obeyed. This was the first of five cuts from artPOP, her latest album which many viewed as a commercial and creative disappointment. Judging from the crowd’s response, none of those people were in attendance. Even so, she made sure to throw in a healthy mix of her older songs, already “classics” at five years old.
Somehow Gaga managed an unnoticed costume change before our eyes, donning a crimson leather body suit and clutching a keytar festooned with roses for “Monster.” She used it to tear off a killer solo for her follow up, “Bad Romance,” before setting it down to perform choreographed moves that deliciously mixed sass with the sign of the cross. Clearly dissatisfied by the distance between herself and the fans, she climbed a ladder up to the balcony (where her mother happened to be sitting) for some up-close-and-personal adoration.
She upped the energy with “Sexxx Dreams,” before returning to the piano to cool things down with “Dope,” her Lana Del Rey diva moment of the night. The slow-burning “You and I” was a definite highlight of the show, rising from country gallop to soaring Queen-worthy guitar shredding. Her passionately unhinged vocal crescendos raged through the chorus with all the restraint of a Nebraska tornado. Odes to lost love rarely rock this hard. “It’s OK if a guy breaks your heart, as long as you write a hit song,” she told us, striking a chord with anyone who’s ever been dumped (i.e., everyone).
“Just Dance” brought with it another kickass keytar solo and the third costume change of the night -this time a metallic chest plate and yellow hot pants. And just dance, we did. The chatty Gaga told us about the first time she heard the tune, her first hit, on the radio. Spoiler alert: It was N.B.D. “Great….*yawn* When’s the next show?” was apparently the reaction. Clearly, this lady was built for the stage. She stretched an acoustic version of “Poker Face” out into an oversized cabaret bit, complete with jokes between lyrics. “I don’t have a big penis, but I do have a teeny tiny one.” Noted.
“Applause” provided the official finale, featuring confetti volcanoes that erupted all over the dance floor and also a FOURTH costume change of the evening. This one was a purple studded bikini, which she used to moon the crowd at the earliest opportunity. But Gags couldn’t send us home without an encore, another costume change, and some good ol’ fashioned simulated sex! She went full Marilyn in a sequined white jumpsuit for “G.U.Y.” (FYI: that’s “Girl Under You”), which recently replaced “Do What U Want” as the grind anthem in her live act. Ever the pro, she somehow managed to sing while straddling a large backing dancer, tying up the evening with unabashedly raunchy and glittering bow.
And with that, she was gone. The house lights flickered on and we stood there like Munchkins after Glinda the Good Witch floated away. Bye-bye, Roseland. For this writer, at least. Lady Gaga still had five more breakneck nights cramming two hours of dazzling artistry into a one hour set. But her energy had left the room and I found myself feeling oddly deflated. She so openly cared about her fans, and in doing so she made us care right back. And now, dare I say it, I missed her. Perhaps that’s silly. Or perhaps that’s what separates a star from a force of nature. Stars sparkle, but forces move.
In case we’d forgotten, the abundance of movie cameras reminded us that this was a special moment, one that will go down in history. And not just because these are the last performances at this storied venue. It’s something more. At this moment, Lady Gaga stands on the edge…and it’s not of glory. There are those who argue that these shows mark the end of Gaga’s relevance as a consistently evolving recording artist, and her first foray into the Britney Spears-like nostalgia pasture. The perceived decline from her 2010 heyday through the middling Born This Way and apparent nadir of artPOP had lead many to speculate that Lady Gaga is down for the count, and that her best work is behind her.
Seeing her perform, all those fears are laid to rest. The energy that radiates out of her has not diminished in the least. It will be put towards something new, something crazy, something awesome, something unexpected, and something fun. Seeing her perform, you just know that it can’t be helped. Hell, she was born that way.
Next stop, artRAVE: the ARTPOP ball!
1. “Born This Way” (acoustic version)
2. “Black Jesus † Amen Fashion”
4. “Bad Romance”
5. “Sexxx Dreams”
6. “Dope” (acoustic version)
7. “Yoü and I”
8. “Poker Face” (acoustic version)
9. “Just Dance”
[Photo: Getty Images/Splash News Online]