A pyrotechnic bikini? Lady Gaga gives D.C.’s ‘little monsters’ what they want.

February 25, 2011

“I feel like I know you all so well,” Lady Gaga purred as she sat in a black bullet bra at her piano — its lid rimmed in flames — at Verizon Center on Thursday night. She might as well have been playing in a dive bar, hustling tips by soothing the battered egos of a bunch of drunks.

But in view of her career and the unslakable curiosity it has generated — more than 15,000 attended this second pass of her “Monster Ball” tour, which previously came through in September — Gaga’s sentiment is absolutely true.

Lady Gaga knows us all too well. She knows about our lust for an outrageous blonde, for someone to fill out Madonna’s lingerie and push her lyrics into a no-man’s land of sexual provocations. She knows we’re always up for costumes. And she knows we’ll overlook middle-of-the-road music if the hook is catchy and the theme’s a little subversive.

Most of all, Lady Gaga knows we’re all broken inside, and that we crave hearing how we’re just as big a star as the divine hot dog onstage with the sparks shooting out of her bikini — the one bellowing into her headset that we must never give up on our dreams.

Her pyrotechnic two-piece — yes, fireworks detonated from her crotch, too — was one of the more spectacular of Gaga’s dozen or so costume changes throughout her two-hour set. Others included a translucent rubber dress topped off with a nun’s wimple (and tape over her breasts, an oddly Victorian touch for a woman who regularly shouted expletives and mimed the Kama Sutra with her dancers). But the one disguise the 24-year-old never shed was Mother.

Gaga is your hell-raiser-with-a-heart-of-gold mom. For you, she would stomp on bullies with her go-go boots (because, as she confides while stretched out onstage like a wet cat, she was once bullied, too). She’s Oprah without pants, bucking up her fans — her “little monsters,” as she calls us, affectionately — between every song. She knows we don’t only go to a Gaga show for the music but also — maybe mostly — for the messianic, revival-tent message.

“We’re gonna be super free, little monsters!” she shouts, in a throaty evangelistic roar. “This is a place where all the freaks are outside!”

With the arena thus sanctified, we embarked on a roller-coaster ride through a Gaga theme park, with her ubiquitous hits “Telephone” and “Poker Face” along with songs from her upcoming “Born This Way” album, including the title tune and a ruminative piano interlude, “Speechless.” The songs were strung along a hokey and unnecessary narrative about her car breaking down on the way to the Monster Ball.

Surprisingly, for a young woman with such a fit, willing and eager body — she was more outside than inside most of those outfits — she didn’t dance much. Her backup dancers were an energetic bunch, doing their best work in the “Born This Way” finale in pale yellow plastic dresses — even the men — dancing barefoot like a troupe of modern dancers, slipping in a swift parody of the strictness of ballet, then reverting to pounding, muscular rhythms that are at once heavy yet exhilarating.

What does it mean that Gaga knows us so well? Is it delightful or sad that this extravagant pop star seems to feel our pain? In our splintered society, with its network of niche groups in which everyone is a victim of something, Gaga does a masterful job of stroking egos.

“Don’t be a drag, just be a queen,” she urges with Madison Avenue wit in “Born This Way.” At one point, the spotlight shines on two of her male dancers in a lip lock. At another, she toasts the homeless and sends her love to soldiers “for being so brave.” (Perhaps she’s remembering an Army sendup of “Telephone” that went viral on YouTube.) Even lacrosse players get a tribute — though maybe not the one they’d wish — through her dancers’ stylized, vaguely threatening uniforms in “Boys Boys Boys.”

She knows us too well, knows we love this fantasy of understanding. That’s why she’s up there in her vinyl bra, smeared in fake blood, bellowing over the cheers: “I hate the truth! I prefer a giant dose of [expletive] any day over the truth!” To go along with Gaga is to feel a surge of righteousness, however vague, undirected and ephemeral it may be.

At the end of the night, Gaga exhorts her followers to put their paws up, which equates being a “monster” with miming a kitten, but everyone complies and the arena looks like it is filled with extras from “Cats” and Gaga, peering out from under her false eyelashes, sees the adoration and undoubtedly feels the love and . . . lights up. Show’s over.

In their worshipful stilettos and spandex, Gaga’s little children trip precariously into the rain, singing that indelible, upbeat, sally-forth refrain from “Born This Way”: “I’m on the right track, baby . . . ” Gaga knew we’d do that, too.

kaufmans@washpost.com

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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