Lady Gaga needed to get Staples Center to start dancing on Monday night. "For all of you who don't know about 'Artpop'," she said, alluding to her most recent album and its lumbering tour title, "ArtRave: The Artpop Ball," "grab a glowstick or get the … out."
Glowsticks? Sure, just pick some up by the giant inflatable mushrooms onstage, or the dancers with neon triceratops hoodies, or the LED-sprinkled hair extensions for sale in the lobby, or the loudly branded Absolut Vodka bar set up in the middle of the crowd on the arena floor. Because Gaga, once a Joan of Arc remaking pop culture into something stranger, smarter and sexier, has decided that the future of music is a cheaper version of dance festival Electric Daisy Carnival.
That was the great disappointment of Monday's show (which also featured daffy, well-meaning sets from the K-Pop act Crayon Pop and the techno producer Lady Starlight). Gaga, once at the vanguard of high fashion, feminism and deliciously lowbrow electro-pop, seems to have thrown her lot in with a contemporary EDM culture that was already kind of a cliche on arrival.
Other pop stars could fight through questionable fashions and staging decisions (Gaga, a powerhouse vocalist, certainly could). But for her, more than any other pop artist today, image is the message. To go from body-bending Alexander McQueen heels to an inflatable squid suit and fairy wings worn by seemingly every high schooler these days was sadder than Gaga's pop-ancestor Madonna titling an album "MDNA."
As flailing grasps for relevance in dance music subcultures go, at least Madge had reasons for hers.
Gaga can, and has, done much better. Part of the problem is a perception that her two most recent albums, 2011's "Born This Way" and last year's "Artpop," were critical and commercial bricks without hits to match pop staples such as "Poker Face" and "Paparazzi."
The Gaga musical backlash was a little unfair -- "Applause" and "Do What You Want" were both zesty singles, sexy and self-aware in equal measure. They were smart about being dumb, and sounded great on Monday.
But as early as 2011, there was a sense that Gaga was losing control of her narrative, and sadly this tour seems to have cemented it. Even if you could forgive the staging, very average tracks like "Venus" and "G.U.Y." didn't lift off despite endless, joyless confetti blasts.
“Sexxx Dreams” had a welcome tawdry streak, but even should-be-slam-dunks like “Paparazzi” didn’t get close to the cheeseball transcendence of a good rave. One pacifier-sucking girl on the floor made rounds trying to take people’s clothes off and dance with her. That no one took her up on it should keep Gaga up at night.
Where does Gaga go from here? Toward the end of her set, she ripped off one of her many '90s-cyberpunky wigs to reveal a pasted matte of black hair, and played "Born This Way" as a stark and lonely solo number. It was a reminder of the (now very lost) fact that Gaga is one of the few musicians at the top tiers of pop who has the performing chops to anchor a set by herself.
Maybe a reset is in order. Imagine three nights at Disney Hall, with just Gaga, a black dress and a baby grand.
That would be better art, and such a better night out, than whatever that mess of a rave was on Monday.