Not long ago, if your esteem needed boosting, Lady Gaga was your go-to pop star. Her best songs were danceable affirmations designed to remind us that we’re all weirdo snowflakes — and that perhaps we should try harder to dress the part.
But when her third album, “Artpop,” thudded last fall, it was suddenly evident that this was a two-way street. “Love me, love me, please retweet,” she sang at a low point, sounding drained of ideas and in need of a hug.
So on Monday night, Gaga’s loyal flock assembled at Verizon Center to show the 28-year-old some love. They wore striped Speedos, and splotched body paint, and sequined carnival masks, and homemade wigs, and metallic hot pants, and clam-shell bikini tops rigged with flashing lights. (There were plenty of polos and sundresses, too — this is Washington, after all.)
“But are you feeling fine on the inside?” Gaga asked her costumed admirers early in the night. “That’s what’s most important . . . The real fashion is on the inside.”
She was walking up to “Fashion!” — a song that embodies all the failures of “Artpop,” an album that promised to storm the castles of high art and luxury fashion but settled for giving vague reports from those exclusive cultural corridors. “My art-pop could mean anything,” she sang while prancing through the album’s title track, which only made her art-pop feel like it might not mean anything at all.
But that didn’t mean it wasn’t really fun. In three dimensions, even the flimsiest Lady Gaga songs benefit exponentially from the fact that the woman is sweating it out in a series of Halloween costumes from the future.
She embellished her sweetest ear candy with the most far-out eye candy, tapping out a portion of her evergreen breakout hit “Just Dance” on a keytar shaped like a sea horse. She wagged a cartoonish tail of latex tentacles during the blissy refrain of “Paparazzi” and roared “Bad Romance” while dressed like an anime rave Muppet. And she managed to change outfits — and heap gobs of praise on her audience — without losing much musical momentum.
And while Monday night’s engagement was originally scheduled for Thursday until a potential Washington Wizards playoff game jumbled the calendar, Gaga didn’t mention it. Chances are, she loves Wizards fans, too.
“You have to believe in yourself from the inside,” she said during “Born This Way,” transforming her signature equality anthem into an affectionate piano ballad. “Every day I get on this stage, you do that for me.”
For a pop concert in an arena, it felt good. As a public exercise in reciprocal, unconditional love, it felt unique.