Friday, July 16, 2010

Review: The Monster Ball

Warning: This is a post about Lady Gaga. If you are sick of hearing about her, as I am told some people are, you are under no obligation to read this post. If you are a hater, please do not comment. Otherwise, enjoy!

Lady Gaga stands onstage, surrounded by her backup dancers, holding a rainbow Canadian flag.
The finale of the Monster Ball
I spent Sunday and Monday evening at the Monster Ball, Lady Gaga's live show. It was spectacular, inspiring, problematic, and thought provoking.  

The Spectacular

The production itself is amazing.  As good as, if not better than, any Broadway show. 

The concert starts with a screen lowered in front of the stage. The audience can't see Lady Gaga, but we can hear her singing "Dance In The Dark", and the screen is backlit so the we can see her motionless silhouette. When she gets to the chorus, she suddenly shifts her pose, so the audience knows that, yes, it really is her! The teasing of the audience continues until the last chorus, when the screen goes up to reveal the first of several sets: a back alley with a broken down car, and neon signs advertising gold teeth, BBQ, plastic surgery, and one that reads, "WHAT THE FUCK HAVE YOU DONE". Lady Gaga is perched on a fire escape. 

After the first song, the storyline around which the concert is organized is introduced. Some friends (Posh, Bang-Bang, and Champagne) are trying to get to the Monster Ball. But they're late! They'll never get there! 

"Yes you will," Gaga's voice floats reassuringly down from the fire escape. "I'll take you there."

The journey begins! 

To the tune of "Glitter and Grease," Lady Gaga saunters down to the car, opens the hood, and starts playing the synthesizer inside. After a few bars, the introduction to "Just Dance" becomes recognizable.

After "Beautiful, Dirty, Rich," (during which Gaga and her dancers cavorted on a jungle gym) "Vanity" (which featured a chorus line) and "The Fame" (during which Gaga, wearing a massive red cape suspended over her shoulders, played a mashed-up bass/keytar/drum macine), the travellers apparently gave up on the car. It is replaced with a subway car, which comes to a screeching halt. Gaga emerges, wearing an opaque plastic dress, flying nun's habit and a single, claw-like glove, and begins to sing "Love Game". The subway car had broken down! So Gaga asks her closest friends - "all my Toronto gay boys" - for help, which involves a crotch-grabbing performance of "Boys, Boys, Boys!"

Afterwards, Gaga again takes up the keytar for "Money Honey", only this time it's a hulking crystaline instrument, and Gaga is wearing a black latex greatcoat and a mask covering her eyes that resembles two inky hands clutching at her head. She throws off the coat to reveal a studded bikini underneath. During the performance of "Telephone" the live band (including a keyboardist, two guitarists, a harpist, and violinists) has a chance to shine, making the song rock during the outro. 

A broken-down-looking grand piano rises out of the stage, and is set aflame as Lady Gaga plays "Speechless" and her new song, "You and I." She is in good voice throughout the night, and a number of songs have changes to their melodies to make them more singable while dancing, which in my opinion improved the songs by making them more melodic. It was during "Speechless" and "You and I" however, that Gaga's vocal talent really shone through the most - not just her technical skill but also her ability to emote. 

Returning to her quest, Gaga and her friends meet an angel playing a black harp, who guides them down the Glitter Way. All seems to be going well, when suddenly a twister appears and descends on the group of friends! (The "twister" being a tubular screen suspended from the ceiling above the catwalk). When the twister leaves, Lady Gaga has become the Good Witch, singing "So Happy I Could Die," even flying into the air by means of a hydraulic lift in the stage.

Lady Gaga wearing a white gown with a headdress and wings
The "living dress", constructed out of 
fans which open and close on their 
own, giving the appearance that the 
dress is breathing.
 Unfortunately, the twister deposited Lady Gaga and her friends in a dark, enchanted corner of Central Park, with angular, claw-like trees and lamp posts lit by what looked like fireflies. For "Monster" Gaga sheds her moving gown for a costume that looks like a hairy disposable coffee cup (but is still pretty cool), which itself is soon tossed off to reveal a more elegant though still hairy outfit. Over the course of the song, dancers dressed as monsters close in on Gaga, until she disappears from view. Suddenly, she springs up from a trap door in the stage, stipped down to a black teddy, chest and hands bloodied, heart eaten out. She holds out her hands, claw-like, and chases the monsters away. 

"Teeth" follows, ending with Gaga sprawled on the stage, "dying of glamour", musing about exclusion, Jesus, and calling for solos from band members with exhortations to, "show me your teeth." It ends when Gaga spies a statue of an angel in the woods. It's actually a fountain, "the only fountain in the world that bleeds for you." It also shoots flames from its wings while Lady Gaga bathes in it, singing "Alejandro."

The curtain comes down for the penultimate scene, and Gaga performs "Poker Face" on the catwalk. She disappears at the end of the song. When the curtain rises, Gaga and her friends are inching arm-in-arm through the dark. Gaga urges her friends to keep going, they're almost at the Monster Ball. But Champagne is doubting whether the Monster Ball even exists anymore. She and Bang-Bang are scared; they decide they've gone too far, and run off. Posh follows. Left alone in the dark, Gaga realizes that they were right to be afraid when she turns around to see a giant angler fish with octopus arms looming over her - The Fame Monster. 

Lady Gaga cowers before the giant angler fish, which is about to eat her alive
Lady Gaga faces the Fame Monster
"I can't kill it on my own, Little Monsters!" she says. "Help me! Take it's picture!" She begins singing "Paparazzi." Despite the flashing lights, the monster manages to remove Gaga's green party dress, and devour her. As with the monsters she faced in Central Park, though, Gaga re-emerges, this time with her bra and panties shooting sparks, and by the end of the song the monster lies motionless.

"We did it! We killed the monster! When they ask you what happened at the Monster Ball, tell them we burned that mother-fucker to the ground!" 

Lady Gaga says goodnight. But that's not the end of the show. 

After several minutes of cheering from the audience, the jumbo screens turn back on, showing excited fans. A drum beat starts, building momentum. The curtain goes up one more time to reveal Lady Gaga, dressed in a metalic, geometric costume, standing inside a spinning gyroscope. Before starting "Bad Romance" she tells the crowd, "We made it to the Monster Ball!"

The Inspiring

In my admittedly highly limited knowledge of pop music, I do not know of another tour that is so heavily grounded in an explicitly positive message to the fans. "The Monster Ball WILL SET YOU FREE!" At various points throughout the show, Lady Gaga talks about creating a place where her fans are free to be themselves, celebrating your shame, not letting anyone tell you that you're not good enough, and being a star no matter how much money you have. Pride was the theme - both gay pride, and generally being proud of who you are, no matter what. 

I was struck by Lady Gaga's sincerity when she said that the love of her fans set her free, and she wanted to do the same thing for them, that without her fans she would not exist; her sincerity when she said, "I love you all," adding in a gutteral yell, "SO DEEPLY!"

The Problematic

Lady Gaga's sincerity saved her message from being overpowered by the problematic aspects of what she was saying, in my opinion. But, I'm a fan, I identify with her. I suspect that an uninvested outsider would feel quite differently.

"Don't let anyone tell you that you're not thin enough, or pretty enough, or can't sing well enough, or write a song well enough," says the thin, pretty, musically talented young woman. First, the fact that she is not comfortably within the range of what is considered conventionally attractive illustrates what a ridiculous standard it is. 

Lady Gaga the year she graduated from highschool.Her make-up is natural looking and her hair is bleached but also natural looking. She's pretty and fresh-faced.
Stefani Germanotta's highschool yearbook photo. Not 
skinny enough, not pretty enough
But more to the point: she presents herself as someone who had to overcome obstacles, and succeeded, by believing in herself, and thanks to her fans. She did face obstacles, and people trying to put her down. Obstacles which someone dealing with intersectional discrimination might justifiably roll their eyes at. She has had a number of advantages that get ignored in the narrative she presents: being white, able-bodied, coming from a comfortably-off and supportive family, living in New York. That she was preaching to a mostly white crowd of people who could afford concert tickets was also ironic. (But perhaps assumptions about the socio-economic status of the audience are misplaced; going to the concert might be a fan's one major expenditure that they saved up for).

"I don't know why some people insist on excluding certain denominations, or races, or sexual orientations... I went to a Catholic school and I'm pretty sure that Jesus loves everybody," Gaga muses at one point. Embarrassingly trite, what people who, thanks to their privilege, have not been exposed to systemic inequality say. The Christian privilege exhibited in the statement is somewhat forgivable, as she then demands from Jesus, "Show me your teeth!" Which is kinda cool.

It also seems to me that in her support of LGBT rights, Lady Gaga has a tendency to erase the LBT part, "Poker Face" and her open bisexuality notwithstanding. Part of this has to do with the fact that a significant segment of her supporters have been gay men, so it's understandable that she would shout-out to them. She does seem to use "gay people" interchangeably with "gay men", though, and that's something she needs to work on. 

At the start of her rise to fame, Lady Gaga was asked if she was a feminist, and she denied it. These days, she identifies as a feminist without being prompted. She has demonstrated an ability to learn about social justice issues and change her position accordingly. I hope that Lady Gaga's understanding of inequality continues to develop, along with an awareness of the privileged position that she enjoys.

The Thought-Provoking

The Meaning of "Monster"

As is apparent from the name of Lady Gaga's second album, and her tour, monsters are a theme for her. The meaning of "monster" however, is varible and negotiable. 

Each song on The Fame Monster is about a "monster", things that Lady Gaga has been afraid of: love, sex, loneliness, death, addiction, etc. Simply, what are often referred to as someone's "demons". 

The song "Monster" is about the fear of sex, and tells about meeting a guy in a club, "that boy is a monster." I can no longer find the reference, but I had read that the song was also about "loving the bad boy and being afraid of commitment," which I found to be disturbing.  Gaga may have intended to merely depict a "bad boy;" but her lyrics describe the behaviour of date rapist. (I hope the reason that I can't find the comment anymore is that it was included in the entry for "Monster" on gagapedia by mistake.) Gaga, just because you don't want a relationship with a creepazoid you met at a club does not mean you have a fear of commitment! The presentation of the song during the concert was less problematic, as it did not include the line, "could I love him?"; and through dance, the monsters are depicted as clearly bad things that are to be overcome, not loved.

In the music video for "Bad Romance", Lady Gaga emerges from a car roof luggage box/futuristic coffin labeled "MONSTER". Throughout the video she holds her fingers as though they were claws; she is shown with a protruding spine and bat-shaped hair; she wears a green, scaly outfit and 12-inch Alexander McQueen shoes, as well as a bear-skin bridal train. I interpret the video as a comment on how women's bodies are commodified while at the same time constructed as deficient and abhorrent, monstrous. According to Gaga, the "monster" is also a symbol of women's inner strength.

During the concert, between "Monster" and "Teeth", Lady Gaga asks her fans, "Do you think I'm sexy? ... I wasn't very cool in high school so I abuse this part of the show.  Do you think I'm sexy?" She collapses on stage, and explains  that she suffers from a Tinkerbell-like condition. On Monday night, as her fans screamed to keep her alive, she declared, "I AM NOT A MONSTER!"

This is despite the fact that Gaga refers to herself as the Mother Monster of her fans, the Little Monsters, so called because of their rabid enthusiasm. Many fans identify with Lady Gaga's embrace of those considered freakish, those socially coded as monsters. The Monster Ball is for them, to celebrate their shame, their demons, their monsters. 

Fears, burdens, strengths, the self.

During a scene change, "The Monster Film" is shown, showing Lady Gaga wearing masks which hide and distort her face. She recites "The Manifesto of Little Monsters," part of which is,
It is in the theory of perception that we have established our bond. ... We are nothing without our image. Without our projection. Without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be, or rather, to become, in the future.

"Monster" is a label, it exists in one's perception. Lady Gaga is not the monster that others claim she is, she is the monster that she identifies herself to be.  

Lady Gaga's costume is a shaggy canopy hanging over her, with a hole cut in it for her face.
The Lady Gaga Monster

The Religion of Lady Gaga

Those who insist that Lady Gaga is a flash-in-the-pan have no idea what they are talking about. Besides ignoring her obvious talent, such people also don't know what kind of relationship she is building with her fans. 

From Lady Gaga's lips at various points over the course of the concert:
"The Monster Ball will set you free!"
"Jump! For your liberation!"
"Without you, I wouldn't be here."
"I wrote "You and I" about a guy, but lyrics change. The song is about You and I, Little Monsters. This is forever."
"I read all your notes and your tweets."
"When you're lonely, I'll be lonely too."
"Do you want me to die? Scream for me!"

Another excerpt from the Manifesto of Little Monsters:
So, the real truth about Lady Gaga fans, my little monsters, lies in this sentiment: They are the kings. They are the queens. They write the history of the kingdom, and I am something of a devoted Jester.  
She is not the Jester, however. She is the Mother Monster. The Monster Ball was designed to be a spiritual experience. "This night, and every night after, you are free to be whoever you want to be." Lady Gaga is the patron saint and the mother confessor. The Manifesto is the first attempt at defining a theology. The sign of the cross - put your paws up.

This may seem trite and silly. But as I mentioned before, her sincerity key. Gaga opens herself up and put herself out there emotionally for her fans. Her claim that she reads notes her fans send her, and that she will always look after her fans is backed up by her actions: she does respond on Twitter to things her fans write, she sends her fans pizza, she got in touch with the high schooler who was sent home for wearing a "Lady GayGay" t-shirt to offer her support. The sense that someone so huge will listen to you, cares about you, even when everyone else seems to reject you, is very powerful. 

Maybe it's an exaggeration to say that Lady Gaga is becoming something of a spiritual leader. It will be interesting to see how her fan base, and her relationship with her fans, develops. 


The Monster Ball was an awesome experience. At several points I was close to tears. Hands down, the best concert I have ever been to - at least until Lady Gaga's next tour.

Lady Gaga, holding a rainbow Canadian flag

Photos from LadyGaga NetFuck Yeah Lady Gaga, and Lady GaGa Source


  1. It was a pretty awesome concert.

    "Alejandro" was really heavy on the religious imagery. Something you didn't mention was Lady Gaga being carried by a centurion. Also, I thought the trees in "Central Park" looked very thorny; reminiscent of the crown of thorns.

    I don't really agree that Lady Gaga "erases" the LBT part of LBGT. Is she obliged to mention each category in turn? And she did talk about Michael the German dancer being bi.

    Otherwise, I loved your review.

  2. I'd have to look at her statements more closely, but I was left with the impression that Lady Gaga would say something that seems to be about sexual orientation generally, and then she'll say something that makes it seem like she's only referring to gay men. The erasure comes in because those two groups are thereby presented as interchangeable, not because she doesn't mention each group in turn.

    Like I said, I'd have to double-check her statements to make sure that that's actually what she does.

  3. Oh, and good call with the thorn-like trees, I hadn't thought about that.


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