03/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lady Gaga Live: the Queer Pop Ghost in the Machine


For the tense half hour before Lady Gaga appeared on stage amidst the highest-tech pop fireworks show, "Gotta Be Starting Something," "Billie Jean" and other _Thriller_ singles blasted over the Radio City public address system. It wasn't a tribute or an appreciation (though Gaga knows her debts). Having Michael Jackson as an opener says a lot about Lady Gaga's boldness and her attitude toward pop music: she loves it, and she also wants to erase what we know of it. And anyway, Jackson's songs provided a helpful counterpoint. Next to her super circus, the King of Pop sounded like Musak.

Lady Gaga Concert at Radio City

See a video and slideshow of Gaga's budget-busting high-tech spectacle.

That's because Gaga, and what she represents, isn't really about the music. No, she's about the music -- she's a piano virtuoso and writes tunes for other pop starlets. But the corporate branders, the stylists, the puppet masters, Gaga herself, all know that the music hasn't been about music for a while now. Forget pop hits; what count are web hits. It's hard to listen to music anymore without some blast of multimedia, a video, a link, contest, youtube videos, rumors of tucked-in penises, a big concert tour sponsored by a mobile phone company where fans are encouraged -- ironically, given the star's iconoclastic profile -- to look just like her.

What's fascinating to me about the Gaga phenomenon is the way it pushes the bar past our cynical expectations for a super-glossy, multi-media, over-hyped 21st century pop star. She may be a brilliant business woman and stellar brand, but she's not just corporate bait: she's upping the ante, proving the music executives more right (and richer) than they could have ever imagined. The music is an afterthought to the sensational, trans-sexual, trans-humanist performance she keeps up on every front. There's Madonna and Princess Diana and Jon Benet, but Gaga reminds me most of that alien prima donna in the Fifth Element swathed in Jean Paul Gauthier and close to a dramatic space-ship death, killed by forces that would control the universe, a moment approaching the sublime in the middle of a stupid action movie.

Her logic isn't intergalactic though; it's the campy burlesque of the Lower East Side drag queen. As fascinated by the semblance of reality as by the cracks in the makeup, we're transfixed. The architectural clothing and the sculptured hair and the put-on accent, the monster obsession: keeping up appearances that are all but impossible, Gaga blurs the lines between genetic engineering and pop star manufacturing, and irresistibly so. It's hard to stop watching Gaga once you click that first link.

One lesson to draw is how freakish and fucked-up we and the pop world are willing to be, above even our sickest tabloid, sexist fantasies. Who's making whom? When she laid down on stage and did her Tinkerbell act, dying for the audience's applause while striking a Betty Page pose, the puppet strings, everyone, was curled around her fingers. She wasn't a fairy tale character. She was everyone's -- the fans', the music industry's -- Frankenstein monster.

Or Terminator. Gaga's macabre spectacle was the Flash version of a concert, a trip through her cybernetic brain, through her closet of hologram fashions and apocalypse fantasies. But amidst the technology and bombast and posturing, it was easy to miss the fragility in that very first number. Writhing in an LED light suit behind a green laser web evocative of Tron and the Matrix, Lady sang the blues. "Baby loves to dance in the dark, 'cause when he's looking she falls apart," she cried, before offering a spoken message of inspiration (think Madonna in "Vogue") to a list of abused ladies, Diana, Judy and Sylvia among them (the video's above). Here was Gaga, singing in to her mirror, tears streaking her make-up, trapped beneath the targeting systems of the male gaze. (Insert pun here about the male gays.)

But she's also a reflection of that gaze, and maybe some kind of a weapon against it. So she's also the computer virus, infectious as pop, taken to the extreme, taking the whole system down. They all cheered as the show grew steadily more nihilistic, intense, sexual, violent, cannibalistic, expensive, explosive. The lamest part was when she pulled out a machine gun and shot at us.

It was the James Cameron 3D approach, the only solution to a tour already plastered all over Youtube. Gaga knows good performance art, good marketing, but her tour economics aren't very good. Rumors that the tour is millions over budget, despite every concert selling out, aren't surprising. "The gigs are losing money hand over fist because they've spent a fortune on pricey costumes, technical equipment and elaborate set designs," someone told The Sun. "She spent 500,000 pounds ($800,000) on one stage alone. But Lady GaGa gets what Lady GaGa wants. Her wardrobe is huge and she wants to shock - and that costs serious money." At one point near the start she said she was talking about the budget for her big new tour backstage, she said. And they said, "but Gaga why?" And she purred, "because my fans are sexy."

Beneath the performance, her sincerity is apparent (she demanded ticket prices be kept relatively low for all of her shows). Her love for her fans may be the only real thing about her, and not by accident. She must know her effect is much more than musical. That's why Gaga has become an icon, a strong symbolic figure for gays, for little girls, for the openly and secretly flamboyant of all genders and sexualities: to a nation of adoring followers she calls "my little monsters," Gaga is the potty-mouthed pop equivalent of campaign-era Obama. At times her brief, heartfelt interludes about believing in ourselves and protecting gay rights and raising money for Haiti underscored that. Her performance art showed, not told, the rest. The message wasn't just something hackneyed about individual expression and following your dreams, but about a world of manipulative illusion (and over the top pop concerts) where expression and fantasy is the best defense.

In the show's dark middle, she said the only thing she hated more than money was the truth, that she would prefer a giant dose of bullshit any day. There was something nauseating and exhilarating about that dubious provocation, and for a moment you could hear the entire theater hold its breath, perplexed and awed. Then the audience went wild.

This article originally appeared at Visit Motherboard for a video and slideshow of Gaga's budget-busting high-tech spectacle