Lady Gaga and her Little Monsters take Long Island

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  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

  • Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

    Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga

Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga, if the conspiracy is not by now obvious, is the highly evolved master's thesis of Tisch performance-art scholar Stefani Germanotta, who is currently completing her studies on the transformative nature of a pop, fashion and media phenomenon in the age of social media. Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum, Germanotta came one step closer to obtaining her degree, appearing before thousands of young participants dubbed her "Little Monsters" for the duration of the project. The performer's professors were no doubt impressed—but exactly what a young American can do with such a degree, especially given the fragile economy, remains subject to debate. (The lovely photographs above, by Lizz Kuehl, were taken at Friday's concert at Newark's Prudential Center. As is so often the case with New Jersey and Long Island, it takes an educated eye to distinguish between the two.) 

This weekend's shows marked the outer-NYC stops along Lady Gaga's Monster Ball tour, which, earlier this year, was taped for an HBO special currently being advertised on every crevice of public space in lower Manhattan. The singer plugged her special from the stage—tucking the plug, with the grace of an old-time Mississippi preacher, into a Sam Kinisonian rant denying apparent charges of lip-syncing. But really, what kind of nudnik is bothered by the fact that a pop star might, on occasion, sing along to a backing track—say, as she is garbed in an Austin Powers brassiere that spurts flames from its tips, or attempts to keep pace with a crew of very professional, very muscular dancers? In particular, why would a Lady Gaga fan care? Music is not this woman's strong suit, but rather her vehicle. Her best songs ("Alejandro," "Telephone") are serviceable, catchy, derivative fun; they lack the bracing transcendence of iconic pop. Lady Gaga's imagery, on the other hand, remains nonpareil. In her prime, Madonna had a pair of lacy gloves and a bad dye job; Gaga is bedecked in the wildest attire Nicola Formichetti can construe. To watch her is to observe a revolutionary in fetish wear and a red-carpet egg; to hear her is akin to listening to Kiss for the first time: "Wait—this is the music?"

The Monster Ball tour rotates around a dopey theatrical premise in which Gaga and her dancers are depicted traveling to a disco: It involves a car that breaks down in Brooklyn, an F train that strands them in the woods and perhaps 100 words of dialogue. Like the romantic side plot of an action movie, the narrative gets dropped somewhere in the middle of the show, then returns toward the end, when much of the audience has likely forgotten about it. One suspects that the structure was added for the benefit of the star's youngest fans: the tots whose parents deem Gaga's ostensibly aggressive sexualization suitable for young eyes and ears. These parents understand the essence of Lady Gaga as many may not: For all the lip service she pays to sex, the star is remarkably unsexy, even virginal. Listening to Lady Gaga shout about "big cocks" and "fucking" is like hearing a callow teen who has learned the lexicon, but doesn't necessarily know what all the dirty words mean. She is frequently seminaked and verbally vulgar, but always chaste.

The Monster Ball show is well plotted and, with its costume changes, dance routines and parade of hits, endlessly entertaining. Gaga still cannot command the stage like an experienced diva—Prince would blow her away with his pinkie—and she has a generational tendency to overshare, spoiling a performer's mystique while, say, boasting of Billboard statistics. (Why do so few pop stars realize that when you are No. 1, the charts are, by design, beneath you?) Yet for a big-tent act, Gaga exhibits a remarkable looseness, particularly when bantering with her fans. At Nassau Coliseum, the best moment came not through her flaming-underwear finale or the many sleek dance routines, but an extended segment in which Gaga stalked the stage, picking up presents that fans tossed to her, reading notes aloud like a teacher. Throughout the night, much of her talk revolved around self-empowerment: Love who you are, release your inner star, blah blah blah. Lady Gaga is less Madonna than she is Dr. Phil in bra and panties, or Oprah in the wake of a particularly triumphant diet.

Stefani Germanotta's thesis is that anyone can be Lady Gaga. It is the kind of white lie that Americans have told their children for generations—anyone can grow up to be President—while borrowing from the ethos of punk rock, in which lines separating performer and audience erode. The magical aspect to Lady Gaga is that her fans, the mythical Little Monsters, play their role to the hilt. At Nassau Coliseum, as at all shows by the artist, there was the Lady Gaga onstage, ablaze in a variety of looks made famous from her media appearances. And more impressively, peppered throughout the crowd, stood an army of makeshift Lady Gagas: yellow police tape wrapped around their bodies, Coca-Cola cans woven into their hair, silly sunglasses covering their eyes. As Germanotta surely hoped, the night featured one performer and thousands of stars.

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