Lady Gaga is a post-pop musician with a serious oral fixation. Her artRAVE: The ARTPOP Ball, which opened earlier this week in Fort Lauderdale before stopping at Atlanta’s Philips Arena on Tuesday night (May 6), is all spirit and tinsel and DayGlo plastic — and blow-up appendages and bedazzled pacifiers and pig masks. A dozen pig masks. Talking about her performances is more fun than listening to them, but don’t take that as an insult. There’s just a lot to talk about.
The tour shares a name with Gaga’s latest album, “ARTPOP,” as well as 13 of its songs, and both creative pieces suffer in similar ways. The collection of songs (“Do What U Want,” “Venus,” “Mary Jane Holland,” and “Sexxx Dreams,” among others) is the weakest that Gaga has ever written — but disliking The ARTPOP Ball because of its songs is missing the point. “Tonight is about one thing: being 1000 percent you,” Gaga told Phillips Arena’s 15,000-plus attendees, as close to equal parts teen, tween, queen and suburbanite as I have ever seen in a crowd. “Atlanta, how weird can you make us?”
The ARTPOP Ball set turns each spectacle into a surprise. It’s made up of a few domed buildings backed by a white roll of “sand” sitting in front of a zig-zagging, see-through catwalk that lights up. Both the catwalk and temple sit on top of walls, cracks and edges that throb pink, like obliterated gumball. Instead of bursting through one of those domes, however, Gaga rose from the floor, winged and wigged like ’70s-era Elton with Versace bangs. “ARTPOP” led into “G.U.Y.” led into “Donatella” led into “Fashion!”
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It’s easiest to count everything off by costumes. The night was broken into distinct sections, separated by dance breaks. I counted five different wigs, but that’s conservative. For “Venus,” the night’s fifth song, Gaga rose up again in a sparkling bra, flowered thong, and massive hair. “Manicure,” song number six, was one of the night’s highlights, the production so big it swallowed its individual instruments and wrestled them into a whole. With Gaga having come out of hip surgery last year, the show’s the choreography traded on carnal gestures turned exhibitionistic: thrusting and swooning, with many fingers pointed at crotches. Gaga’s dancers coordinated with each costume, too, often in ways that stretched the referential boundaries of the English language. Were they flare-bright American Gladiators reincarnated, all bared torsos and swelled shoulders — or, with swirls and spikes on their heads, did they look more like Whoville characters broken out of a storybook?
It was a night for Gaga’s newest work, save for short swerves to the mega-hits. Donning a bob and knee-length white dress and heels, Gaga ran through “Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” and “Telephone” while, on a massive video screen behind her, another Gaga (and then five Gagas!) writhed wrapped in tinsel, like mummies made mostly of Spanish moss.
The bob-dress combo was one of her shortest-lived: next were the tentacles (around her waist, down her back, and sprouting from her head); and, like a seasick Ursula, Gaga performed “Paparazzi” as her dancers stalked her. Gaga tried smoking one of the tentacles, but nothing came out. Then she laid down in a giant, clear claw. The tentacles fell away, or disappeared, like a vision in reverse. (Thanks to the magic of stagecraft, the claw chair sat where giant flowers had previously sprouted.) Next in a green wig and leather hot pants, Gaga did “Aura,” (much more fun when you can shout along to it in a stadium), the interminable “Sexxx Dreams” and “Mary Jane Holland,” and then, as a respite, “Alejandro.”
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“I like a room full of people who aren’t afraid to have a good time,” Gaga said as she stripped again, this time in full view of her audience (had you been in the arena’s corner seats, you’d probably have gotten full side-boob.) For her second-to-last costume, Gaga became a full-raving magical girl — a spin on the anime schoolgirl trope, but Gaga’s skirt was colored like nightmare vomit and her socks looked hairy. Like the album that shares its name, the ARTPOP Ball finishes very strong, musically: “Bad Romance,” “Applause,” “Swine,” and (for the encore) “Gypsy,” performed last in a long white wig and a dress with a long white train.
The only constant was the audience, whose love for Gaga is like a mirror. “I wanted to create a show that is a celebration, an album that is a celebration, of all the beautiful things you’ve created over the last six years — almost seven years,” Gaga said. Near the end of the show, she lay down on a long red bed that had risen from the floor and a stuffed unicorn almost smacked her in the face. A fan’s note was attached to it, addressed to “mama monster.” Gaga read it aloud. “I love you soooooooo much,” it said (with a lot of “o”s).
Doubt Gaga’s sincerity at your own risk. Toward the middle of the show, as she settled in at the catwalk’s piano over the floor, Gaga spotted a fan’s sign: “Can I sit with you?” So she invited a kid in a neon yellow hat from southeast Atlanta onstage, and took multiple selfies with him before singing about superstardom as liberation. They hugged a lot. When the kid stopped staring at Gaga, he looked out into the crowd and he smiled as they screamed for him — and for her, holding court between chords. “Just remember that it’s never wrong to fight for love,” she said. “You’ve done a beautiful job, you have. Keep going.”