BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
If Stefani Germanotta could only get Lady Gaga out of the way of her career.
The two competed for stage time Friday, but it soon became obvious that Gaga had more mettle. Which, six years ago, served Germanotta well. The persona she created felt brash, sexy, and even playfully threatening when she debuted with “The Fame” in 2008. But by now, Gaga just feels ripe. As a stadium headliner, she was neither brash, nor sexy, and it would have been a godsend if she felt even a small bit dangerous. Instead, at the United Center, she screamed a lot at the audience, rotated through numerous costumes and wigs, talked baby talk, walked through a mess of choreography, and didn’t appear interested in playing the full hits that made her a star.
Indeed, much of the show was burdened by her responsibility to the empowerment guru role she created that groomed her impressive legion of devoted fans and helped sell nearly 20 million albums. In the 90-minute show, much time was spent delivering stock platitudes about chasing down dreams that, no matter how well intentioned, prevented the show from ever hitting the gas. She read an entire handwritten fan letter, picked up enough chucked-to-the-stage stuffed animals to fill a barnyard, and invited one lucky concertgoer to sit beside her at a white piano while she sang an abbreviated gospel-inflected version of “Born This Way.”
“I know this is the first time we’re sitting here. When I look at you, I see myself … which means that we’re one, you know,” she told him using such vocal goo that made Fred Rogers sound like Johnny Rotten.
Musically, the show was comprised of the harder-sounding, leaner songs mainly from “Artpop,” her third full-length album which happens to be her most underwhelming. “This ain’t no lightweight pop music,” she said near the end, and most of the darker new material fit that declaration. The chilly disco of “Donatella” and “G.U.Y.,” and even the rock chords of “Manicure” had big hooks, but they ultimately felt like just a soundtrack to the show’s continual churn of costume changes, confetti dumps, and props. “Venus” promised some kind of tribute to sensual pleasures, but it was really a hamstrung futuristic set piece in which she sang while wearing a clamshell bikini, brown lioness wig, and with her dancers wearing inflatables.
Gaga gave a shout-out to Paul “DJ White Shadow” Blair, a long-time fixture on Chicago’s current house music scene and one of the producer/writers of “Artpop.” This was his night as well, with so much of the music existing without the need of an actual live singer. In fact on “Partynauseus,” Gaga never made it to the stage, but was presumably prepping for her next costume change as the song rolled on in her absence.
The set design featured a five-member band positioned against an all-white set that resembled Krypton, while a spiraling series of catwalks extended to the opposite end of the arena where Gaga and her crew of 14 dancers spent most of their time. That’s a total of 15 people navigating narrow walkways, which often resembled hustling terminal traffic at O’Hare.
Her monster hits of her not-so-distant past were relegated to short takes. “The Edge of Glory” was performed, chorus only, as a shortened vocal solo, while “Telephone” and “Poker Face” were crammed together as a melody. Gaga may worship at the altar of obvious influences David Bowie and Madonna, but she does not yet have the breadth of their songbook to ignore older material, nor is there cohesiveness to her overall visual design or choreography. Instead, Friday’s show became a junkpile of discordant ideas waiting for a director.
When Germanotta returned to showcase her impressive vocal power, the show gelled, whether it was delivering growling defiance on the gritty “Do What You U Want,” or the beginning piano interlude of “Gypsy.” Moving away from the self-help theater that created Gaga into a direction that is squared with her fundamental talent would be a good thing if she wants to keep developing past her reliable brand. And news that a duets album with Tony Bennett is in the works later this year suggests that may happen. But until it does, Gaga is in full control and it’s a wild, uneven ride.
Do What U Want
Born This Way
The Edge of Glory
Lady Gaga “G.U.Y.” video: