It’s strange how Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way Ball” can be both a celebration of oneness and a paean to the perils of individuality. As an outspoken advocate of the LGBT community (“I cannot respect homophobia and intolerance of the gay community!” she bellows during the Manila leg of her tour), Gaga has embraced the rainbow connection like a currency, something she has conflated in Born This Way and its title track. “The Born This Way Ball” is a celebration of this virtue, a spectacle of pomp, grace and aggressiveness that has earned her the adulation of her “little monsters,” and the ire of conservatives around the world. But it’s this kind of pelting that makes her even stronger.
By now, Gaga’s spiels from the concert have circulated around Twitter and Facebook like an infectious chain of text messages, punctuated by the proclamation of “I am certainly not a creature of your government!” People are quick to jump on this as her way of wagging her middle finger to the protests that surrounded her arrival but it’s, more or less, her elaboration of the manifesto that she blabbers on all throughout the show. She mixes ‘80s kitsch with goth/medieval sensibilities and Golden Age science fiction to catapult the rise of a “new race”: a population distilling her advocacy that ultimately stems from the Bible, no matter how hard the fundies crucify her as devil incarnate. Gaga, after all, was schooled in a convent.
When armed with her love-yourself ammunition, Gaga becomes a strikingly commandeering presence; a high priestess of pop music. She is the honey badger of the music industry: she really doesn’t give a sh*t. She preaches what she wants and she does it like no other prefabricated starlet. The “Born This Way Ball,” she says, isn’t just a big-ass promotional platform, it’s a venue for her beloved fans to celebrate their true selves under the banner of empathy and togetherness; a prayer rally for those inflicted with low self-esteem. And with anthems like Born This Way, Bad Kids, and Hair, she can make anyone feel like they’re up there with her, living their childhood dreams. If you’ve been cheated on, duped or cast off, Gaga’s songs can be her way of braiding your hair and giving you a pat on the back. “It’s okay,” she’ll say. “They’re all replaceable anyway. Look at my couch, it’s all man meat. They’re more useful this way.” And for that moment, while you sing along to her ridiculous turns of phrase, you believe her.
Without the cultivated persona, Gaga is at her strongest. The Fame era songs remind us how once she was obsessed with boys, blinding lights, and proving her detractors wrong, how her glitter-guzzling former self has given the world turbo-powered fusions of Eurotrash and electronica without the baggage of empowerment. Syllables turn into tics; gummy earworms that lounge in your head for days. Songs like Poker Face, Just Dance and Love Game are proof of how her old pop star image has helped catapult her into a larger-than-life performer. And when she hit the Born This Way era, she threw off the sequined gloves and put on a Versace-designed habit and launched into a mission to preach her gospel to whoever wants to listen and be enlightened.
But at her most vulnerable, Gaga is most believable. As she performs the stripped-down version of Hair, she turns it into a powerful weapon; a highlighted passage in a John Green book that morphs into a moment of self-actualization. Your hair may be a ridiculous metaphor for self-expression and freedom but it does make sense.
In the end, when all the bass lines and camp have all been blown into the spotlight, she’ll turn off the lights, stow away her costume and close her book. You’ll walk out, into the antiseptic lights of the arena, humming the chorus line of Marry the Night, assimilating the last two hours in your head. It’s an intense experience, hammered with pop’s greatest transgressions; something that bears a close resemblance to a religious experience. Now go forth and spread the word.