Night our middle-aged critic went totally Gaga... at the most outrageously OTT concert of the year


By Christopher Stevens

Pigs in boiler suits, ninjas and a mermaid in a fur thong on stage. In the audience, unicorns, transvestites and Pierrots . . . and a greying, middle-aged bloke in a shirt from George at Asda. Among all the Little Monsters at Lady Gaga’s comeback gig, I looked and felt like a dinosaur. After two sweaty hours, the crowd was bouncing, and I was bobbing up and down with them . . . to stop my knees from locking up. The opening night of the iTunes Festival, a concert dubbed ‘SwineFest’ by Stefani Germanotta, alias Lady Gaga, alias Mother Monster, was intended as a celebration for those Little Monsters, as her hardcore fans call themselves. So what on earth was I, a Fleet Street critic decades past his sell-by date, doing there?

Quite simply, paying homage. Forget the outrageous fashion statements — Lady Gaga’s music is the ultimate evolution of glam pop. If you grew up with David Bowie, Queen, Marc Bolan and Abba, these are songs to sweep you away.

I was determined to be there, to hear her preview seven new tracks from an album that won’t be released until November. Ever since her first collection of songs, The Fame, was released in 2007, Gaga’s music has never been off my iPod — the perfect gym soundtrack for a fan of pre-punk pop. These days I’m more flab than fab, more glum than glam. But a workout with Lady Gaga in my earbuds can almost make me feel young. Younger, at any rate. So what is the with-it middle-aged male sporting at a Gaga gig these days? The question only got trickier when my wife banned me from raiding the fridge for inspiration.

Would I look out of place if I wasn’t partially clad in slices of cold meat? Nothing would help me blend into a crowd of madly-bopping Little Monsters like a bacon waistcoat and a couple of chipolatas worn as a fascinator (a la Gaga’s appearance in a dress fashioned out of raw beef at the 2010 MTV awards).

Luckily, a list of acceptable clothing was emailed to ticket-holders a day before the show at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, North London We were requested to wear seashells, sea horses and starfish, echoing the style Gaga flaunted last week when she caused a sensation by dropping in for battered haddock at the Sea Shell Of Lisson Grove, near Regent’s Park.

Queueing at the aluminium counter for her fish supper, the singer was dressed as a mermaid with a pink lace bra, latex waders for her tail and the contents of a rock pool in her hair. For those who didn’t want to turn up smelling like a Brixham trawler, alternative attire was listed: ‘paint-coloured dreadlocks’, a ‘bedazzled pig nose’ and ‘Bowie magician garb’.

Pop music is all about individual expression, so in the end I decided to set my own unique trend — and dress like a confused dad who had muddled the Roundhouse with a Berni Steakhouse. The Little Monsters barely glanced sideways at me. I  suspect most of them thought I was an overprotective parent, keeping an eye on a teenage child.

Things looked hopeful when the support act came on. DJ White Shadow, Gaga’s producer, had a ZZ Top-style grey beard and a pair of Eric Morecambe specs that he kept pushing up his nose. Unfortunately the music he played sounded like furniture falling down stairs. It wasn’t loud. But it was monotonous.

After that, we waited 45 minutes for Lady Gaga. The crowd pressed tighter, people who had fainted were lifted over the barriers, the security men handed out plastic cups of water, and everybody’s make-up — women and men — started to melt. When Gaga finally stalked on stage, she was all in black and brandishing a kitchen knife with the word ‘Hollywood’ scrawled on the blade.

The crowd surged again, the tallest pushed to the front, and I realised how much bigger teenagers have grown, boys and girls, in the past couple of generations. To make visibility worse, they all started doing the Phone Dance — punching the air with their phones.It turned out that the one bit of glam fashion wear I really needed was platform boots.

It didn’t matter, because within moments, Lady Gaga was strapped into a hybrid of a deep fat frier and an instrument of medieval torture, and hoisted over the crowd. The opening track had a pounding dance beat, the singer was all in black with a silk mask and a wig that hid half her face and, though I was light years outside my comfort zone, it had all been worth it.

The best Gaga tracks are like travelling through time into the swirling, stomping excesses of  Seventies rock ’n’ roll. Her breakthrough single, Poker Face, features the raunchiest lyrics since the Stones’ Brown Sugar. Hits like Bad Romance, Telephone and Paparazzi are perfect pop constructs worthy of Abba’s Benny and Bjorn at their height. If Freddie Mercury were alive, he’d be pleading to record a duet with her — she doesn’t quite have his spectacular vocal range, but she can match him for swagger.

At the Roundhouse she showed she had learned from glam superstar David Bowie by switching her music styles. New tracks were more aggressive, harsher and faster. Eighties-style rappers burst out of the wings for a song called  Jewels And Drugs, hefty men in nylon jackets, medallions and baseball caps.

The showstopper came near the end, when Gaga stripped away her wig and then her hairnet, and shook out her real hair. She had been wearing almost nothing, just a pair of seashells and a loincloth, but now she suddenly looked much more naked. She talked about how she had been trapped in an abusive relationship before she was famous — and hadn’t discovered how wrong it was until years later. There was a strong, though unspoken, hint that the abuse had included rape — not just in the words she carefully chose but in the sheer anger of the song, Swine. She sang 16 bars at the piano: ‘I know, I know, I know you really want me. You’re just a pig inside a human body.’ Then she seized a luminous drumstick and started thrashing a drum kit to death, one-handed. Meantime, six dancers in pigs’ heads masks and white overalls were hauled into the air on chains, with paint and smoke spuming from their snouts.

The show climaxed with current hit single Applause, with Gaga wearing a crocodile skin jacket and top hat. Then she vanished — only to reappear for the cameras outside in her most outlandish costume of the night, a toga that concealed a pair of bubble-blowers.

We didn’t see that on stage, though we did see everything else: when she stripped off her ninja gear to perform the title track from the forthcoming album, Artpop, she did the costume change on stage, covering her modesty with her hands. The mermaid outfit, with a wig the size of a hot air balloon, won the biggest applause of the night. One fan threw a Disney doll onstage, a Little Mermaid. Gaga took it in two hands and ripped its head off.

We talk about her as if pop stars have never worn anything outlandish before now. In truth, none of her designer creations quite equals the bizarre costumes Peter Gabriel wore with Genesis, when he donned a red ballgown and a fox’s head. But Gabriel always looked like an art school drop-out, and Gaga looks like an empress. She has the charisma that makes her fans believe in her completely. And just as we loved to think that Michael Jackson slept in an oxygen chamber, and Keith Richards needed a total blood transfusion to sober him up, we want to imagine Gaga sits down to breakfast in 18 yards of satin and latex.

She belongs in that exalted  company. Whatever you think of her rants and her antics, there is no denying — Lady Gaga is an old-fashioned pop megastar.