Concert review: Lady Gaga’s ‘ArtRave’ is a surprisingly straightforward affair

Lady Gaga, performing in Chicago on July 11.
Photo: Barry Brecheisen/WireImage

Three stars

Lady Gaga July 19, MGM Grand Garden Arena.

For a pop icon whose entire career has been predicated on being unabashedly true to herself, Lady Gaga left some fans scratching their heads during the confusing pop production of Saturday’s “ArtRave” concert at MGM Grand.

It’s been a rough year for Gaga, with her ill-received new Artpop record and an uncouth collaboration with R. Kelly and Terry Richardson on the now-scrapped “Do What U Want” video not helping matters. Surely, though, the consummate entertainer’s return to her natural habitat—the stage—would quash all rumors of her fading star power, right?

Kind of. Let’s be clear: As a pop performer, Lady Gaga proved she’s still a cut above the rest, barring perhaps only Beyoncé. And if “ArtRave” starred anyone else, it might be heralded as a top-notch arena pop show. But the most dangerous thing a self-proclaimed “freak” like Gaga can do is come across like just anyone else, and the over-processed EDM and directionless setup of “ArtRave” veers dangerously close.

Gaga at her best has always been more over-the-top than top-notch. That’s what made last year’s “Born This Way Ball” so compelling—a pop bacchanal of striking choreography, outrageous costumes, knockout vocals and a theatrical narrative tying together two-plus hours of sensory overload.

It’s an admittedly tough act to follow, and while no one can blame a changeling like Gaga for getting restless after three years of Born This Way material, Artpop—both the album and its tour—feel conceptually half-baked. Billed as “ArtRave: The Artpop Ball,” the show felt like neither ball nor rave, save for some fierce voguing and neon EDC-style garb. Where past tours were anchored by clever and campy metaphorical story lines about quests for identity and self-acceptance, “ArtRave” was a more straightforward affair lacking a cohesive vision. Despite the high production value -- three-foot wigs, neon lights and gyrating dancers abounded -- something more intangible was missing. Even the crowd felt restrained, as if holding out for a moment to really let loose. For some, it never came.

Still, the show redeemed certain Artpop tracks that fell flat on the album. Bland cuts like “Aura” and “Swine” took on a new life behind a little live synth and the rawness of Gaga’s vocals—when she opted to turn down the backing tracks. “Do What U Want,” meanwhile, was delivered with such carnal conviction it was easy to forget R. Kelly ever tainted it. And penultimate tune “Applause” landed with such confetti-addled energy, it felt like the show was ready to begin rather than wrap up.

Even for a new-album tour stop, Gaga’s career-making hits were oddly sparse; “Just Dance,” “Poker Face” and “Telephone” were smashed into a medley, while “Edge of Glory” appeared only as an a cappella tease before “Judas.” “Born This Way,” meanwhile, received the same acoustic treatment from the last tour (it might have been more interesting to see her bring it back in its full anthemic glory). Perhaps most baffling was the single-song encore of “Gypsy,” which left many fans—expecting Gaga’s typical encore hit block—blinking in confusion as the house lights came on.

But if Ms. Germanotta is struggling with her direction as an artist, her commitment to her fans remains as solid as ever. The show’s most engaging moments came perhaps not when she was performing, but when she stopped to connect with the crowd—cajoling them to dance, making cracks about Las Vegas gays, reading a fan letter thrown onstage or exhorting fans to embrace their identities. It’s a call that’s given rise to one of pop’s most passionate fanbases, and as Gaga’s own direction as an artist continues to evolve, it’s advice we hope she remembers to heed herself.

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Andrea Domanick

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