Lady Gaga at Xcel Energy Center, 5/20/14

Lady Gaga at Xcel Energy Center, 5/20/14
Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Lady Gaga
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Something awful happened to Lady Gaga last year: It was decided she was no longer famous. Or at least no longer as famous -- her latest album, Artpop, went to number one but was somehow not number one-y enough, and it received, in Wikipedia-speak, generally mixed reviews from critics. The mysterious consensus that Gaga's star had dimmed was potentially fatal to her art (not to mention her pop), decelebrification as crippling an affliction to a performer who chooses fame and notoriety for her medium as arthritis would be to a flash guitarist or laryngitis to a diva.

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Tuesday night's show at the Xcel (dubbed, with tweet-ready typographical excess, "The artRAVE: The ARTPOP Ball") was less a counterattack on this public perception of Gaga-in-crisis than a canny refocusing of her energies. Rather than attempting to seduce or steamroll the sort of snarkers who've rechristened her latest effort "Artflop," Gaga accentuated her peculiar relationship with her fans, her "Little Monsters," through effusive shows of affection and curious displays of artifice.

The set design embodied this paradox of the intimate and the ersatz. The stage was dominated by what resembled an unpainted ceramic model of some otherworldly village, with the default lighting bath of violet neon, as well as the evening's predominant pink and blue color scheme, highlighting its unnaturalness. Yet only a fraction of Gaga's performance occurred on the stage proper -- instead she stalked and strutted and sashayed along multiple catwalks that extended out into the arena, bringing her nearly within arms reach of her fans.

Lady Gaga at Xcel Energy Center, 5/20/14
Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Depending on your perspective, the concept behind the show was either unfocused or malleable. "Welcome to our planet. Feel free to sample the locals," Gaga declared by way of introducing "Venus," which quotes Sun Ra's "Rocket Number Nine." (Is Gaga from Saturn?) But she seemed to have abandoned the extraterrestrial theme just a song later, leading into "Manicure" by announcing that she and her dancers had traveled in time from 1974, apparently to instruct us in the pleasurable ways of the Watergate Era.

Of course, the more artificial her fashion choice, the more Gaga looks like herself. There are so many ways to look like Lady Gaga, and we saw at least a half dozen. The skimpiest was the spangly "seashell bikini" referenced in "Venus," topped with an impossibly full blonde mane. The most elaborate was a Medusa crown with matching tentacled bustle. But maybe the most flattering was a simple PVC outfit with a green wig, which she sported with a casual around-the-house feel. The much-discussed onstage costume change, with a cabana providing strategic obstruction, was less lewd than demystifying.


The showstopper was "Born This Way," performed alone at a piano designed to suggest that the Phantom of the Opera had relocated from the Parisian sewers to the Fortress of Solitude. Gaga dedicated the number to Emma, a wheelchair-bound local fan she said she'd met and formed a friendship with the last time she toured St. Paul. A short while later, Gaga read a letter from another fan, José, about how her music had helped his sister admit that her boyfriend was abusing her. Both moments recalled the old campaigning politician trick of inserting a particular local person's problems into your stump speech, but they also came across as genuine and moving. There's an art to projecting concern, after all.

Nobody's gonna pretend that the oldies section, following six Artpop numbers, kicking off with "Just Dance," and taking in "Poker Face," "Paparazzi," and an abbreviated "Telephone," didn't generate a different kind of energy, especially in the stands, whose residents took a little more convincing than the faithful on the floor. And yet, Gaga was committed to Artpop, dedicating about two-thirds of the set to new material, omitting only one of the album's songs.

Lady Gaga at Xcel Energy Center, 5/20/14
Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage

With its mix of self-aggrandizement and humility, "Applause," which doubles as a love letter to her fans and to herself, proved a conceptually fitting climax. And then, after the suitably grotesque "Swine" proved a smart wink of an anti-climax, Gaga's encore, "Gypsy," proved a suitably overblown re-climax.

Artpop tried to flout Gaga's place in the rarified world of Jeff Koons and Donatella Versace. But with her aura since tarnished, Gaga's performed a kind of celebrity jiu-jitsu, telling her fans that recent setbacks just underscore the fact that their misunderstood idol remains a misfit just like them. Or, as she told the Xcel crowd, "We will always understand each other." If, as apparently preordained, Gaga is to mean less to the world, she's determined to mean more to her fans.

Critic's bias: I like the ungainly weirdness of Artpop. For all her deliberate visual excesses, Gaga can be a fairly conventional songwriter, all too willing to connect the dots in just the order you'd anticipate and rely on her personality to put the material over. These tendencies particularly marred Born This Way -- as someone who owned the Vision Quest soundtrack on cassette, I am here to tell today's youth that anthems of heroic striving are not the greatest legacy of the '80s.

The crowd: They did not disappoint. Men were dressed as gladiators. Women were dressed as fruit. There were inner tubes, tutus, wedding dresses. The apparent question each attendee asked before dressing was "Skimpy or tight?" Imagine Halloween without having to answer "And
what are you supposed to be?" Fabulousness and ridiculousness were both celebrated and accepted.

Overheard in the crowd: "It's so hot in here and I'm hardly wearing any clothes" was a truth told by a man in sleeveless t-shirt and tight gold hot pants.

Just Dance
Poker Face
Do What U Want
Born This Way
Jewels N' Drugs
The Queen (a capella)
Sexxx Dreams
Mary Jane Holland
Bad Romance

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