Lady Gaga’s Artrave concert Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena was like a stalled engine that just wouldn’t turn over. It barely even coughed or sputtered, and after an hour and 50 minutes, it flat out died, junk for the scrap heap.
It’s hard to even say what went wrong, but what went right would be a much shorter conversation. The show simply had no spark, and it never got off the ground. It was Gaga’s “Artpop” alright — the kind of pop that occurs when you poke a hole in a balloon.
Gaga’s previous Metro Detroit tour stops told a much different story. At those shows, including a pair of Joe Louis Arena concerts in January 2010 and a Palace of Auburn Hills show later that year, the energy was crackling and people hung on Gaga’s every word. She was on top of the world then, a cutting edge pop phenomenon in full control of the audience and her vision. She was wild, voracious and vital.
She has since cooled considerably. Part of it is timing, and she’s simply not moving the needle the way she once was. (It’s difficult sitting inside pop culture’s control tower; just ask Miley Cyrus in a few years.) But a lot of it is her music, and last year’s “Artpop” simply lacks the sizzle of her previous works. Lady Gaga didn’t get gigantic because of her crazy performances and wild public appearances, her music was so good that it allowed her to do those things. But without a solid foundation of killer tunes, the artifice is exposed and you get what you had Saturday night at the Joe.
Gaga, backed by her five-piece band and joined by up to 14 dancers, emerged onto her truly dazzling stage that took up most of the floor at Joe Louis Arena to the booming thump of “Artpop’s” title track. It was the first of an audacious six songs off the album she opened with, a deadly stretch that forced fans to sit through stinkers like “Donatella,” “Fashion!” and “Manicure.” It wasn’t until a half hour into the show that she got to “Just Dance,” her first smash, which segued into a series of familiar tunes (including “Poker Face,” “Paparazzi” and a snippet of “Telephone”), but that first portion of the show became such an endurance test that it was difficult afterward to mount a recovery.
Gaga’s stage, which used a series of bridges to connect pod-like stages scattered across the arena floor, allowed her to move freely about the room. She had a keyboard at one end where she stopped to play “Born This Way,” with just her voice and her piano, a reminder of how talented a singer-songwriter she is underneath all the costumes. Just moments before that, she was outfitted in a series of inflatable tentacles that made her look like a cross between an extra in “The Fifth Element” and a child’s pool toy.
Fans threw articles of clothing, stuffed animals and notes on stage throughout the show, and Gaga stopped and read one of them aloud at one point. It was a heartfelt letter written by a fan in the front row (it flew onto stage attached to a stuffed Pegasus), and in it the fan described how much Gaga had inspired him and others. It was a touching moment in a show that needed those sort of personal connections, but it awkwardly transitioned into Gaga performing “Sexxx Dreams.”
It was that kind of night. The energy was never right, things were amiss. By the time Gaga was on her knees and snorting like a pig during set-closer “Swine” — which came at the expense of songs like “Marry the Night,” “You and I,” “The Edge of Glory,” “LoveGame” and “Dance in the Dark,” to name just a few songs left off the set list — it was unsure if the pig was a metaphor for the show, or the audience, or what, and it was all too boring to even try and sort out. (suddenly the koons is the pig)
An encore of “Gypsy” — which began with Gaga belting out the song while sitting at her piano, before the band kicked in in a big way — was electrifying in a way like no other song before it, full bodied and charged up, but by then it was the end of the show and time to go home. Had she opened with “Gypsy” and reconfigured the setlist, it might have been a different night. But like the song says, Gaga’s Artpop can mean anything, and it just so happened that on this night it meant nothing.
Was the dragging warranted?