About halfway through her show, Lady Gaga rose from the bowels of the stage seated behind a scorched-looking piano, a chauffer’s cap sexily tilted on her head.
She leaned forward into a real microphone – not the headset clamped on her most of the night – and unleashed a stripped, potent version of “Born This Way.”
In its rawest form, steered by Gaga’s monster of a voice, the song bore zero resemblance to the dance classic it is universally compared to – Madonna’s “Express Yourself” – and instead, shuddered through the Gwinnett Arena with searing poignancy.
By following it up with the torchy new “You and I,” a sweeping power ballad straight out of the early Elton John songbook, Gaga proved in four minutes what her entire show strived to accomplish in nearly two hours: She’s nobody’s wannabe.
While there is no denying that the girl formerly known as Stefani Germanotta has spent thousands of hours studying not only Madonna, but David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and possibly even a little Marilyn Manson for extra shock effect, her approach is wholly different.
While her heroes concentrated on pure performance, portraying themselves as untouchable icons in their own Broadway musical, Gaga frequently breaks the fourth wall, addressing her fans with varying levels of appreciation and intimacy.
“I didn’t used to be very brave, but you have made me so brave, little monsters,” she told her loving flock, who instantly forgave her 9:45 p.m. start time upon hearing the first electro-buzzy notes of “Dance in the Dark.”
With her messages of empowerment – “Reject anyone or anything who made you feel you didn’t belong,” “Please leave tonight loving yourself a little bit more than when you walked in,” – and tales of her own supposed high school bullying, Gaga started to sound like an after school special. Sure, the message is important, but it also gets diluted after its sixth rendering.
That type of connection, though, is what motivated hundreds in the sold out crowd of more than 13,000 at Monday’s concert to dress in fishnet stockings, blond wigs, feather boas and the occasional dog chain.
She is their champion, the former misfit now sporting straw-colored hair who boldly snarled “I will NEVER lip-synch. Not. One. Word,” during “Teeth,” which eventually devolved into a lot of Gaga rolling around in dry ice screaming about how Jesus loves everyone.
But even though the melodrama of her performance can be a bit draining, she’s definitely inherited Madonna’s work ethic and fierce creativity.
Whether tossing out “Just Dance” with a cool nonchalance, skipping around in one of her trademark leotards and knee-high black boots with her cadre of dancers, or cruising down the catwalk in a transparent getup with a plastic Flying Nun-type habit for the delightful disco of “Love Game,” Gaga was a tireless showgirl.
It’s apparent she isn’t a natural dancer, yet you could clearly see the effort she put into mastering her moves with a chorus line of shirtless men in spandex underwear during “Boys, Boys, Boys.” Even when she nearly wiped out on a discarded jacket during “Poker Face,” Gaga barely missed a step.
She might have a see-through heart, but she is, first and foremost, a professional.
Though there were plenty of eye-popping production elements in her show, such as a scary-cool forest set and weird piranha-octopus blowup creature that towered behind her as the “monster” in “Paparazzi” – both visual upgrades from her earlier theater run, which brought her to the Fox in late 2009 – Gaga really doesn’t need to rely so much on spectacle.
She loves her performance art, sure. But as she demonstrated with her two piano tunes, there’s no reason to mask that kind of vocal talent.