|Lady Gaga. File photo
MANILA, Philippines – There was a time when Lady Gaga, despite her eccentricity and thick, colorful facade, bore some semblance of humanity and rawness in her performances.
This isn't that time – not until the encore, at least.
During the Manila stretch of her latest world concert series, the international pop superstar showed that she has perfected the “art” of live performances. She sings, dances, does theatrics, and interacts with props seamlessly on stage.
But this isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Picture this: May 21st, at the SM Mall of Asia Arena. It’s the first of Gaga’s two concerts in the Philippines.
Deafening beats (and thousands of screaming fans) herald a procession of dancers to the center stage, with Lady Gaga riding a "unicorn" -- an actual horse with a presumably artificial horn glued onto its forehead, sans the wings -- emerging from the facade of what the pop star refers to as the “Electric Chapel.”
The unicorn-riding antic is in keeping with the supposed symbolism of the mystical creature -- love and equality -- lyrically embedded into her opening song "Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)."
Her belting out of the lyrics of the anthem -- one of the tracks from her third album -- is an early and strong pronouncement of her message in the "Born This Way Ball."
In part, it confirms protest claims that the New York-born singer is indeed a "propagator" of homosexuality or, more precisely, as she has pronounced in earlier appearances, of the entitlement to love any individual, regardless of sexual orientation.
"We can be strong out on this lonely run on the road to love. We can be strong. Follow that unicorn on the road to love," Gaga sings as she and her horse parade across the stage. "She don't (sic) care if your papers or love is a law. She's a free soul, burning roads with a flag in her bra."
The display is an early preview of the spectacle that is about to unfold – some parts confusing, other parts amusing, a handful that are genuinely moving. Now off her literal high horse, Gaga takes on a persona less known for getting the royal treatment. She spreads her legs up in the air while lying on her back on a table, with one of the dancers ready to devour the "Government Hooker."
The sexual tease has the audience cheering, but the enthused horde shifted to higher gear for "Born This Way" -- a performance of a mega-hit surprisingly early in the concert lineup.
Provocative, but not offensive
Whereas her first appearance had her riding a unicorn, Gaga re-enacts biological birthing for “Born” by being sprouted from between enormous inflatable legs.
Not quite as bloody and obscene as the real thing, Gaga instead pokes through an enormous zipper -- a chuckle-worthy entrance, in lieu of expectations of being grossed out by the sight.
The punctuation segues to Gaga's performances of "Black Jesus † Amen Fashion" and "Bloody Mary," songs that were surprisingly not held foremost in contempt by religious protest groups for their provoking titles.
During the pop star's performance of "Black" -- a song about seeing Jesus in a new perspective -- Gaga momentarily plays background to an African-American dancer whose routine features poses that appear similar to a cross.
Things then turn eerie as lights dim and Gaga is seen seemingly floating across the stage in a white dress as she sings "Bloody Mary." The lyrics are deliberate allusions to the biblical prostitute herself, whose passion, faith and eventful mourning for Jesus' death are made star in the non-single track.
Set in front of the Electric Chapel, the back-to-back showcase seem to be provoking religious reactions, but never quite to the point of desecrating any one figure or imagery. Gaga's antics are purely for entertainment, although at times to the point of a numbing, almost impersonal and mechanical way of performing.
Even the performance of her mega-hit "Bad Romance" suffers from a little too much auto-dancing, -singing, and all-around hip gyrating. While an absolute delight to "Little Monsters" (passionate fans of the pop star) and lesser monsters (casual fans) alike, the blood-pumping beats of the song became an all too familiar affair, only made different by costumes and staging.
This streak of alienating performances, however, takes a turn when Gaga finally speaks, as if to address the apprehension.
"I am not an alien," she says. "I am you."
At this point, she sings "Judas," the heir-apparent to the pulsating sounds of "Bad Romance."
Gaga later acknowledges that the song may get her thrown in jail in Manila.
"Don't worry, if I get thrown in jail in Manila, Beyonce will just bail me out. Sold out night, [two] in the Philippines. I love it here," she tweeted.
Quirky and rebellious
Proving she isn't all about the controversy -- which has been hounding her during the Asian leg of her tour -- Gaga harkens back to that which made her famous: her quirky and often confusing sense of fashion.
Kicking off with "Fashion of His Love" -- a musical tribute to late fashion designer and Gaga favorite Alexander McQueen -- the pop star does a turnaround from the feel-heavy and often dimly lit staging of her Act I performances.
One after the other, Gaga, in her signature thigh-baring outfits, performed dance hits "Just Dance," "LoveGame," and "Telephone," transforming the arena into a club scene.
Hitting a denouement of sorts, Gaga then summons the slower but denser beats of "Heavy Metal Lover," at which point she appears as a motorcycle, channeling the cover image of her "Born This Way" album.
Her arms form part of the vehicle's machinery, with her head the literal headlight of the rock star-inspired contraption. And as is the case with the actual thing, Gaga the motorcycle accommodated a passenger -- an enthusiastic one at that. One of her female dancers takes the driver's seat -- cushioned by no less than Gaga's behind -- and stars gyrate her hips as if it fuels the thing to a jumpstart.
Such images, protest groups have argued, are basis for Gaga's possible jailing, but the pop star, through "Bad Kids," shows she cannot possibly care less.
"I’m a twit, degenerate, young rebel and I’m proud of it," she sings. "I’m so bad and I don’t give a damn, I love it when you’re mad."
‘I’m slightly irresponsible’
Only moments after putting on her rebel facade, Gaga reaches out to the audience -- a moment that offers stark contrast to what she has been doing during the earlier parts of the show.
Gearing up to sing an acoustic version of "Hair," Gaga speaks on the protests which, turned out, are matters she has not been oblivious to.
"Some people think that I stand for really inappropriate things that are really bad. I am slightly irresponsible, let's be honest. It's OK," she says, while fingering piano keys cradled in a motorcycle dashboard.
"But they're not completely right," she continues. "And the truth is, I want the (expletive) best for you. I want the best for every single one of you. I love you with all my heart and all my soul, I really do. And all the things that I sing about, in a way that I am, my lifestyle, is just part of this one big giant life performance art statement of liberation.
"I am also a little bit jet-lagged, so if I start crying or anything, it's only because I've been traveling lot. But I just feel like, you know, so many people have been protesting and it doesn't really bother me, truly because I know that there has to be change."
Energetic and playful
After an impassioned performance of "Hair," Gaga makes a seamless transition to a more popularly known song, one of her latest, "You and I."
What follows is a string of energetic performances of her biggest hits "Poker Face," "Alejandro" and "Paparazzi," eased in by a back-to-back number of "Born This Way" tracks "Electric Chapel" and "Americano," where she dons her infamous meat dress.
This joint highlights Gaga's support for gay rights, with no less than the overt yet somehow robotic display of intimacy between two of her male dancers. This is reinforced by tying her statement songs "Alejandro" and "Americano" (a song about "unjust" laws on immigration and same-sex marriage) with the more traditional and playful lyrics on love and sex of "Poker Face" and "Paparazzi."
The solid dance beats of "Scheiße" kick in only moments after – yet another number where Lady Gaga asserts her being "strong without the **** (English translation of the German word 'scheiße')."
The song's final beat prompts total lights-out in the arena.
Just minutes later, Gaga re-appears, doing a jazz dance duet with a male dancer. They end up at the pinnacle of the Electric Chapel, where they engage in rhythmic embraces and leg extensions quite literally at the "Edge of Glory” – a song about her grandfather's last moments with his wife.
During the acoustic start-up to her performance of the surprise hit, Gaga bares more -- this time figuratively -- as she starts singing mellow tunes accompanied by melodic ringing of bells.
No big statements, no political or religious allusions, "Marry the Night" is the culminating performance that brings home Gaga's point that she is "not an alien," but a human, much like her audience -- a dreamer, a loser, and eventually a winner at different as well as overlapping points in her life.
While her rehearsed theatrics are impressive, it is where she chokes up at the verge of crying, screams coarsely out of fervor, and sings almost to a whisper in silent passion that she becomes recognizably human once more.
And she does this while donning puffed sleeves made of the same stuff condoms are made of.