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Review: Lady Gaga at Van Andel Arena

With the help of a sold-out Van Andel Arena, Lady Gaga took fans on an empowered journey to find fame and little-monster comradery.
Lady Gaga invited Van Andel Arena along on a journey filled with dance, music, and theatrics

Lady Gaga invited Van Andel Arena along on a journey filled with dance, music, and theatrics /tamtam7638

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Gaga paused during the show to call a random fan in the audience and thank them for attending

Gaga paused during the show to call a random fan in the audience and thank them for attending /tamtam7683

Little monsters put their paws up as Gaga performed

Little monsters put their paws up as Gaga performed /Trenton Bulat

Lady Gaga arrived at Van Andel Arena on Tuesday, March 1st to perform at the final Michigan venue of her Monster Ball Tour. Her first time performing in Grand Rapids, Gaga was met by a sold-out arena of spectators eager to experience a show different from any other performance Grand Rapids has known.

Known by the nickname of “little monsters,” super-fans of Lady Gaga were easy to single out, wearing complex garments inspired by the pop star’s well-recognized, fashion-forward outfits. The arena was filled with an array of red lace, leather jackets, and pantsuits paired with platform shoes upwards of four inches high. This wasn’t your standard “jeans and a t-shirt” event; fans were dressed for a spectacle, and Lady Gaga more than provided one.

Reflected in the dress of the show’s attendees was a crucial element of Lady Gaga’s persona: theatricality. Lady Gaga goes out of her way to make each of her performances as nontraditional as possible. In the case of the Monster Ball, the show took the form of a grunge-musical-opera turned concert. The stage came complete with a floor to ceiling curtain onto which dramatic videos were projected featuring Gaga in a variety of landscapes and outfits. As the audience waited for the show to begin, remixes of her music slowly built up alongside the crowd's anticipation.

A countdown on the curtain led to the opening number “Dance in the Dark,” the bass and synth-heavy anthem sung by a shadowy outline of the backlit Gaga. The concert’s story began in the smoggy streets of New York City with a group of friends, led by Lady Gaga, attempting to make it to the Monster Ball but meeting trouble in the form of overheated car engines, faulty subways, and losing their way through a twisted black forest.

These scene changes were accompanied throughout the night by a dozen costumes, ranging from a provocative floor-length leather gown to a translucent vinyl dress accompanied by her trademark glowing “disco stick.” The story provided a backdrop for an otherwise eclectic setlist of pop-dance numbers, laying a foundation that gave the concert needed structure.

Progression from the familiarity of downtown New York to a strange, dream-like setting was reflected in the show’s setlist, moving slowly out of lighter songs from her 2008 release The Fame and into darker, bass-filled tracks from her 2009 EP The Fame Monster. Standard pop-hits including “Just Dance,” “Lovegame,” and “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” eventually gave way into the more sinister, complex songs “Monster,” “Teeth,” and “Alejandro.”

This juxtaposition of sound and scenery exemplified how much Gaga’s musical style has changed in the course of a year, shifting from catchy dance tracks to the deeper tones reminiscent of the rich bass and rhythmic hooks of Eurodance. With each song, the tone of the concert became more forceful and frantic, the theme of doubt in each of The Fame Monster’s melodies reflected in the dense scenery and dramatic lighting.

While the storyline itself provided an engaging backdrop for the performed pieces, the show’s dedication to theatrics wasn’t without sacrifice. As the performance continued, the curtain’s constant rise and fall to allow for the scenery changes became awkward. Two such instances surrounded the performance of “Poker Face,” a catchy, popular single that seemed downplayed by the static curtain shifts. While each curtain fall was accompanied by another avant-garde video to offset the breaks in the show, the three-minute pauses became more and more apparent.

Each time the show started up again, however, Gaga’s vocal ability made it easy to forget the interruptions. This was most apparent during the show’s lone piano ballad, “You And I.” Backup dancers left aside and wearing a simple leather bra and fishnets, Gaga showed off her vocal range, challenging the constraints of the Pop genre with a song akin to a 70’s rock throwback in a performance that was, for the most part, toned down (to be fair, the piano was on fire).

Other moments which broke away from the unfolding story line centered on Gaga’s involvement with her audience. It was clear that audience members were expected to be active participants in the show as Gaga frequently paused to share stories and comments with the crowd. The layout of the stage itself reflected this intentional sense of inclusion; a catwalk extended from the main stage into the sea of attendees standing on the arena’s floor, placing Gaga in the middle during select numbers. As the show began, Gaga welcomed everyone in between songs, explaining that the point of the show was to “reject anyone or anything that’s ever made you feel like you don’t belong” and create a sense of comradery.

“When you leave, don’t leave loving me more,” she instructed, “cause’ I’ll be back. So leave loving yourself more tonight. I’m going to give you your standing ovation right now,” she concluded with a bow and a smile to a surge of united cheers.

With a faithful audience by her side, Gaga then proceeded through the plot to the show’s final scene of confronting the Fame Monster—an enormous, multi-tentacled angler fish puppet. Abandoned by her friends and left singing the deceptively bubbly single “Paparazzi,” which took on a bitter contextual twist, Gaga called on the audience to help her kill the monster with a rallying cry of “Get out your cameras, take its picture!” before briefly exiting the stage and reemerging, sporting a bra firing pyrotechnics and congratulating the audience on the night’s combined efforts.

This empowerment led up to the strongest song of the show during the encore performance of “Born This Way.” A recent inclusion to the Monster Ball’s setlist after its release, this song was clearly intended to be the reward for the audience’s ability to have finally reached the Monster Ball with its affirming lyrics and carefree choreography. The acoustics of the arena played to the tracks favor and did more justice to the layered rhythms and confident vocals than any radio play could. The song is intended to be blared with authority—Van Andel Arena gave it room to breathe.

“Born This Way” was the culminating experience of the night, featuring not only the strongest elements of Gaga’s other songs but also truly emphasizing togetherness through the two-hour journey the audience and Gaga had taken, developing their own microcosm centered around Gaga’s central theme: be yourself.

Gaga’s dedication to spectacle, encouraged by fans that have come to expect nothing less, made her performance on Tuesday one that left audience members musically buzzed and emotionally connected. Many newborn little monsters left excited that night, wondering how they could make their own latex ensembles for the next time Mother Monster comes to town.

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