Lady Gaga Presents The Monster Ball Tour: At Madison Square Garden debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Stick around during the credits of Lady Gaga Presents The Monster Ball Tour: At Madison Square Garden and you’ll witness a moment that’s the antithesis of everything that precedes it: Lady Gaga, wearing a normal-ish outfit, filmed in black and white, standing around a piano with her back-up singers doing an a capella rendition of “Born This Way.” And bitch kills it. Gaga lays down one showy vocal run after another, as if to say, “See, there’s something under those mechanized stage outfits and dance routines and blown-out sense of self-importance.” It’s a moment that could seem obnoxious and presumptuous if we hadn’t just witnessed her bleeding—sometimes literally—all over the stage of Madison Square Garden for two hours straight. Over the course of The Monster Ball Tour, Lady Gaga proves that she is a performer; the epilogue suggests she might be something more than that.
Let’s get this out of the way: If you don’t care for Lady Gaga, you will not care for this special. Because it is Gaga at the height of Gagatude: She’s in her element, center stage with a captive audience that adores her, and so she ratchets up her persona as far as it will go. She stops the show several times to address her audience, and not just calling out people she sees in the front row as music plays behind her; I’m talking a darkened stage, a single spotlight, and Gaga pontificating, sometimes for several minutes, on being FREE and being WHO YOU ARE and being a FREAK and NEW YORK I WANT YOU TO SCREEEEAMMM! Gaga’s talk-talk-talk-SCREAM cadence is silly and maybe even a little annoying, but damn if she doesn’t commit and damn if her followers don’t eat it up. She talks a lot—too much, really, and the show’s momentum occasionally suffers because of it—but there’s something to be said about the way she does it. When she addresses her fans, it has weight and import. She is stopping the show to talk to them, to shine the light back on those who support her—again, sometimes literally. (Apparently a Disco Stick doubles as a portable spotlight.)
Granted, it’s easy to doubt the sincerity of Gaga’s statements from the cynical remove of your couch, especially when you’re watching someone who’s more persona than actual person; but within the pulsating, glittering sphere of The Monster Ball, she’s delivering a homily, a blessing. There’s plenty to debate about Gaga in terms of originality and artistry and personality, but when it comes to charisma and performance, there’s no discussion: When she’s center-stage at The Garden, all eyes are on her, a queen addressing her adoring subjects. It’s a level of performance that not many people manage to pull off these days, and that ability to capture and keep people’s attention is why we keep talking about Gaga.
The Monster Ball Tour was filmed over two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden in February (her fourth and fifth sold-out shows at that venue), continuing the massive stage show Gaga’s been toting around the world pretty much continuously since late 2009. There have been revisions over the months—namely the addition of some new songs off the upcoming Born This Way—but it’s essentially the same spectacle Gaga fans have been seeing for the past year: part concert, part Broadway production, part Vegas revue, with a 10-piece band, 10 dancers, three back-up singers, and roughly 57 kerbajillion costume changes. It’s all tied together by a loose—and again, pretty silly—concept of Gaga and her followers trying to make it to the “Monster Ball,” a giant party where freaks can be freaks and everyone’s free to love who they want to love and buy $10 beers and a $36 glossy program. The “story” is mostly an excuse for costume changes and the deployment of crazy sets and props—including a 20-foot-tall, Cthulhu-esque “fame monster” puppet and a couple of crazy keytar-esque musical apparati that were apparently flown in from another galaxy—but there is some thought given to the songs’ place in the narrative: Gaga entreats the audience to battle the fame monster puppet by taking its picture during “Paparazzi,” she’s consumed by the stage and then hydraulically pops back up, bloodied, during “Monster,” etc. It’s a slight premise, yes, but the show commits to it so completely you kinda have to respect it, you know?
The Monster Ball is perfect fodder for an HBO concert special: a subject many viewers might be curious about but not willing to shell out $80—or much, much more—for, and lots of visual stimuli presented in crisp HD. There’s not much else to the program, save for some perfunctory black-and-white introductory and concluding footage that nods heavily to Madonna’s Truth Or Dare, and a couple of backstage glances during costume changes. (Though it is interesting watching Gaga’s posture and presence chance in the moments when she ducks offstage; you can actually see her turning it off and on, which is sort of fascinating.) But the focus is squarely on Onstage Gaga, where it should be; it’s where she’s most interesting, most at home, and most entertaining. (And also sort of funny from time to time, like when she teases the crowd of “drunk assholes” for ducking out to get beer.) It’s a frenetic, colorful experience that mostly ignores nuance and introspection in favor of balls-out, shameless, over-the-top entertainment. As Gaga herself says, “I hate the truth. I prefer a giant dose of bullshit any day over the truth.” And when she’s trafficking in such entertaining bullshit, it’s hard not to agree.
The unobstructed, close-up view of this spectacle is almost enough to make up for the collective crowd euphoria you’re missing out on by watching the show slumped on the couch instead of dancing in the aisles. And that’s this program's biggest challenge, drawing a removed, at-home audience into an experience that is immediate and visceral. Whether you’re swept away by the show will have a lot to do with your affection for Gaga and her music, but even if you don’t feel that heightened, rush-of-blood-to-the-head sensation—I got it during the one-two punch of the set-closing “Bad Romance” and encore of “Born This Way,” which I like a lot more after seeing it live—there’s plenty to appreciate from a removed, technical perspective as well. Gawp at the sets (“Is there a piano under that truck’s hood?”), puzzle over the outfits (“Is she wearing a latex monster hand?”), ogle the dancers (easier to do if you’re a straight woman or gay man), or marvel at how Gaga is able to dance and sing in 8-inch heels. And yes, she is very clearly singing live (with a backing track during dance sequences, as is standard). Again, say what you will about Gaga, but she puts on a show. If she wants to imbue it with more emotional weight and artistic import than it probably merits, hey, that’s the prerogative of a 24-year-old theater kid who has 50 million kilojoules of adoration beamed at her every night. And she earns every bit of it.
• If you’ve ever been at a concert and thought, “This is pretty good, I guess, but it could use more simulated onstage tentacle rape and fire-spewing crotch plates,” well then this is the show for you my friend!
• Look: Gaga cries and makes big, dramatic statements. A lot. She’s a theater kid playing to an audience of theater kids; just accept it and it’ll make this whole experience much more palatable, okay?
• I loved the personal shout-out to audience member Liza Minnelli, when Gaga reminisces about her theater teachers telling her she’d never be a star because she had dark hair and was too ethnic. “And I’d just say, ‘What about Liza?’” Just ignore the fact that Gaga is now one of the blonde, “skinny bitches” she supposedly hated, and it’s cute.
• Also in the audience: Marisa Tomei and Sir Paul McCartney, who was doing what looked like a Russian dance.
• So You Think You Can Dance fans: Keep an eye out for Mark Kanemura from season four: He’s one of Gaga’s main dancers now, and damn he is looking foyne.
• “The only thing better than a unicorn is a gay unicorn.” And boys kissing, and stuffed, be-spandexed crotches, and something about “the glitter way.” Call me crazy, but methinks Gaga might be trying to cultivate a gay audience...
• Gaga, I know you’re a busy woman, but it’s The Garden—you couldn’t be bothered to touch up your roots?
• New songs from Born This Way: “Marry The Night,” “Born This Way,” and—the standout, in my opinion—“You And I,” a rollicking, Elton John-esque piano number that builds to a very satisfying crescendo.