By Devin O’Neill
(A companion piece to Peter Kline's "Things Fall Apart." In honor of the Born This Way Ball.)
I wasn’t expecting much from The Ball, to be honest.
I don’t mean that the way it sounds. I was expecting to have a blast, but I’d been so immersed in Gaga’s visual and aural catalogue that I felt nothing could compete with that kind of hypersensory flow. The digital mirrors and semiotic smoke she blows out through her online content channels can be edited into wholly self-contained worlds. No mistakes, just her perfect vision. That’s the glory of twenty takes.
I’ve always felt Gaga’s primary vehicle were her videos, really. She’s an audiovisual package, and so are they. They can frame her narrative in rapidly shifting formats, now living a mythology, now breaking the fourth wall, now surrounded by special effects. I was deeply skeptical that a show constructed in clumsy material reality could match that frame-rate, could pummel me with the same razor precision. So I was looking forward to some really solid live music and some great costumes and choreography, and I wanted to dance a lot and have a good time. I was psychologically prepared for that.
The part I forgot was that Gaga would actually BE there.
Let me explain what I mean by that. I had deluded myself into believing that the point of going would be to see the SHOW. In other words, to see Gaga’s work. I was making the mistake of looking at all this as a traditional “art project”, where a creative person builds a product external to themselves and shows it off. Since she and her work and the production of her work were all rolled into one multimedia package in her videos, I had taken for granted that interacting with external product was, as in most cases of mediation, the core of the Gaga experience. I was to View The Works. I was to Sample The Dish.
What I discovered that night is that that is not the point of Gaga.
The only experience I could effectively compare the show with was a massive evangelical rally at a megachurch. The people crammed into the pit with me weren’t there to listen to music; nothing quite so simple or banal. They were there to participate in a movement, to experience an ideology. “I hope she talks to us.” “I love her so much.” “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.” “I’m going to cry.” That was the kind of language I was hearing. I didn’t hear a single hint of speculation about what the show was going to contain or what songs were going to be played. I’ve been to many, many concerts, but this was an alien environment for me.
No, it wasn’t about a movement or an ideology. That’s not quite right.
The pounding military march of “Highway Unicorn” started, the portcullis of the castle (yes, the castle) clanked open, and a glossy black cyberpunk regiment of gorgeous girls, glinting halberds held high, led her on a stomping plod around the catwalk on horseback (yes, a real horse) like an advancing beast from the Book of Revelations.
She was crusted in wires and cages vomited up from the antediluvian bowels of H.R. Giger’s subconscious but it was still her. She was bound and blindfolded and subjugated by an army of dancers but it was still her. She could barely move but she commanded the attention of every human being in the jam-packed Staples Center.
It was starting to become clear to me. But I needed to see more.
After the electric demons dragged her into the dungeon, the operatic strains of “Government Hooker” started echoing across the ceiling. The wall slammed open, and here she crouched, skeletal armor still in place, screaming HOOKER into the microphone implanted on her face. She crawled out like an animal, gyrating, sweating, screaming. At some point during all this, her helmet was ripped off, or she ripped it off. She threw back her head and roared, and I stared into her face across the open air for the first time, and I finally got it.
I was discussing Gaga with a friend once. This friend has a television show and has worked in the technology and culture industries in various capacities for a very long time. I mentioned that I was interested in her and he was momentarily quiet. Then he said, “you know, I didn’t take her that seriously at first. I thought she was just another Madonna, or Christina Aguilera, or whatever. But then I watched her performance on Howard Stern. Have you seen it?” I had, just her alone with her piano, singing “The Edge of Glory.” He paused for a moment, then said “…there’s a dragon in there.”
I watched the veins in her throat as she screamed HOOKER at the sky again and I thought, yeah, there really is.
It’s HER. That’s why we make the pilgrimage to this massive stadium and camp out in line for an entire day. It’s not the sets or the pyrotechnics or the confetti cannons or the costumes or even the movement or the ideology. We want to be close to her, to touch the hem of her garment. We live in the economy of personality, where produced media experiences are just loss-leaders for the real sale – the sale of the self, uninterrupted by the compression of digital bandwidth.
The thing is, not everybody can place themselves at the center of that vast entertainment infrastructure and act as its reactor core. Most people would be buried. You need somebody with fire in their belly. You need a dragon. And that’s what I started to realize, as I watched her – no matter how insane the spectacle that surrounds Gaga, she has our eyes, our love. There could be an ACTUAL fifty-foot dragon on the stage and everyone’s gaze would be locked on her small, human body, pounding on the stage and roaring and pouring sweat. So many people would be lost up there, among the trained, costumed dancers and massive set-pieces. But she burns so brightly, and so fiercely, that we barely see them.
She knows it, too, and she knows how the system works. She built it. Right before the chanting bridge in “Bloody Mary,” she dropped to her knees in the center of the stage, stretched her slick arms out toward the audience with hands twisted into claws, and shrieked, begged, “SAY MY NAME! I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT THE FAME!” We obliged her, intoning GAGA…GAGA…along with the song, while she convulsed, absorbing the energy we fed her. This was a transactional relationship.
It goes both ways, though. That was the real message she was there to preach. Because between every song, she preached to us. She said things like “listen – sometimes you’re afraid. You stop yourself because of your fear. You’re afraid of what will happen if you pull out all the stops. Well, I’m here to show you what happens. THIS…” …she gestures at the surrounding spectacle, sweeping her hands back in to gesture at her own body… “…is what happens.”
This kind of rhetoric was repeated between every song. Sometimes she pleaded through her quiet, sibilant Italian nose, sometimes she crouched on the catwalk and yelled it directly into our faces. DON’T GIVE UP. DON’T BE AFRAID. DON’T LISTEN TO THEM WHEN THEY TELL YOU YOU CAN’T DO IT.
She’s an evangelist for believing in yourself. After all, Stefani believed in herself, and that’s where Lady Gaga came from.
Now, however, Gaga’s body is temporarily broken, the engine’s piston overheated; it can’t channel the fire right now. This is evidence, if we needed it: she really is the point. Without her, everyone on that tour is out of work. The entire massive multimillion-dollar machine must grind to a halt because one person injured her hip.
This is evidence too, though, of the truth of her message. We are bodies too, and we have such a small, limited idea of what those bodies can do, of the energy that can come from them, and of where that energy can take us.
Perhaps Joanna Newsom put it best:
“The meteorite is the source of the light,
And the meteor’s just what we see –
And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee,
And the meteorite’s just what causes the light,
And the meteor’s how it’s perceived –
And the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee.”
Devin O’Neill is a performance artist, branding practitioner, and storyteller. He enjoys things he shouldn't, on purpose, and tries to convince other people to enjoy them too.