Andrew Myers dressed to the nines -- OK, the tens or elevens -- for Monday night's Lady Gaga concert, and as a result he experienced the fame monster firsthand.
"I can't go 10 feet without someone taking my picture!" said the 23-year-old from Batavia. It was part complaint, part thrill. Myers wore a hand-sequined, black thrift-store jacket, the back of which he covered in bright yellow caution tape. On his head, he wore a chef's hat. He'd plastered it stiff, wrapped phone cord around it and topped it with an old princess telephone. His makeup included a lightning bolt over his right eye. His friend, Andrea Glass, wore thigh-high, bejeweled boots she'd made out of red duct tape.
"We bought our tickets in September and started working right away," Myers said, gushing in the corridor of the United Center several minutes before the show began. "I didn't finish until today."
He started to say more, but a woman with an eastern European accent approached him, asking, "You OK, please? I take your picture?"
Michelle Wheaton had the same problem. She flew in from South Carolina for the show, to see her twentysomething daughter, and gotten into the spirit by cobbling together a costume of sorts featuring tall boots and white pancake makeup, topped by a towering, bleached wig she'd ordered from a drag store. She looked like the froth on Buckingham Fountain.
Everyone wanted a picture with her. She'd finish with one fan, turn around, and there was another one brandishing an iPhone. Daughters, sons, young, old -- they all lined up to take a photo with Wheaton.
"Whew, I wasn't expecting so much of this," she said between smiles and flashes. "But, hey, how often do you get to dress up like this and have some fun?"
There were hundreds of Lady Gaga wigs. There were lots of men in drag, including several who really rocked some skirts. There was at least one woman in drag, complete with prosthetics. Dozens of feathered headdresses on both sexes. There were two nuns, and one Wonder Woman.
Throughout her show -- the Monster Ball Tour that's been meandering the country for a year, including one previous Chicago stop as part of Lollapalooza in August -- Lady Gaga relentlessly informs her audience that the venue is a safe place for "freaks" to be themselves, no matter their race, creed, color, sexual orientation, etc. It's an aggressive, easily marketable stance that her fans take very seriously, letting their freak flags fly even if they didn't necessarily know they had a freak flagpole.
It's also a message that's not easy to find in her actual music or lyrics, most of which is tuneful but garden-variety dance-pop -- that is, not until her new No. 1 single, "Born This Way," from her next album due in May. She saved the song for her encore, at the end of a two-hour show, cavorting with her dancers in the same latex kaftans (but no knobby shoulders, and no egg) worn during the song's live premiere a month ago on the Grammys. "I'm beautiful in my way / 'cause God makes no mistakes / I'm on the right track, baby / I was born this way," she sang, and that was after assuring the crowd seven times during the concert that we were all born whatever way we are.
"Born This Way" has generated many comparisons to Madonna's "Express Yourself," since the melody of the chorus is identical. But Lady Gaga doesn't just steal from Madonna -- she steals from everyone. Her first look Monday night was pure "Barb Wire." A dialogue she has with one of her dancers, exposition about the mysterious Monster Ball, apes Wendy and Lisa in Prince's "Computer Blue." The outfits during "LoveGame," as well as the show's overall theme of beautiful violence (all that smeared blood, mock fighting and punch-packed choreography), is right out of "A Clockwork Orange." This show's got bits of Elton John and Peaches, a lot of Queen and a little Tim Burton.
It's got distraction after distraction, too, steering our attention from that whole garden-variety aspect. If your song lacks substance, just strap on a bra that shoots sparks, as Lady Gaga did during "Paparazzi." Half a dozen costume changes, flashy props, an immense and evolving stage set that eventually includes an angelic statue towering over a fountain of blood -- the spectacle of a Lady Gaga show dazzles without actually entertaining.
Only during one song, "You and I," do we get a hint of who Stefani Germanotta might be underneath her Lady Gaga costume and persona. For this she actually sits down at the piano and belts out what is a powerful, well-written and anthemic ballad showcasing her too-often hidden talent: her strong voice. Madonna's a better dancer, but Gaga can out-sing her. However, Our Lady is young and passionate and in too much of a hurry to let that freak flag flutter and fray, so rather than develop the song she merely starts pounding the piano mercilessly, then stepping on it with her seven-inch heels, then rearing back to run the other boot along the neck of the guitarist's instrument, and the whole thing devolves from music into madness. Astonishing and bewitching on the surface, but though she claims to want our souls she hasn't yet mastered how to move them.
She continues to be nothing short of hilarious, too, each time she assures us that she "hates money" and "doesn't want your money." Tickets were still taken at the doors, and "Born This Way" hoodies go for $75.
A shout-out must go to one member of Lady Gaga's hard-working band. In addition to keyboard players, a bassist, guitarist and drummer, one player never got the spotlight yet rocked her instrument harder than it designed to be rocked: the harpist. Only once do we catch a whiff of actual strings being plucked, but she's on the stage's set throughout the show dancing and working that large and cumbersome harp like it's a Gibson Explorer.
Lady Gaga's set list Monday night:
"Dance in the Dark"
"Glitter and Grease"
"Beautiful, Dirty, Rich"
"Boys Boys Boys"
"You and I"
"Born This Way"