When Lady Gaga dove headfirst into the neon-smeared, glitter-spewing spectacle of her ARTPOP Ball at Madison Square Garden last night, it was, on the surface, a typical Gaga affair. She rocked a keytar at one point. She took to the piano for a solo or two. She cooed at her Little Monsters and invited a few rocking "Applause"-inspired face paint backstage.
Her voice was flawless—a trained, broad belt that demonstrated she'd never need to lip sync. And she danced. She went through a handful of costume changes that involved latex suits and multiple wigs. And at the end of every song, she panted a tired, rhythmic gasp for air to let us know that she was, in fact, the real deal.
That pant wasn't subtle in the least. Her mic was left on because, despite ARTPOP's poor reception, her puke-soaked SXSW set and an avalanche of negative press recalling her former glory, Gaga is still on top of her game. And Gaga's game tops her peers on the pop charts based on sheer talent alone, no matter how many stunts and off-the-mark albums she builds up and stumbles upon in her own path.
Gaga's become a victim of standards as opposed to a victor, and unfortunately, her songwriting chops, stamina and perpetual penchant for reinvention are all cast aside when the conversation about "good Gaga" vs. "bad Gaga" comes about.
Good Gaga? Old Gaga. Bad Gaga? Now Gaga. At least that's what the critics will have you believe.
Even when Lady Gaga's delivering a perfectly respectable (if not totally killer) performance, she's still "Bad Gaga" based on the fact that the new songs don't live up to the hype of the old ones. She's not permitted an off day, an experiment gone wrong, nor a wayward instinct.
But Gaga has never been the kind of pop star who fakes it to make it, and when she's not exceptional—and a singing, dancing pop star can't be perfect every minute of a two-hour set—the verdict is deadlier then "lame." Bad Gaga isn't bad because the music is bad. Bad Gaga is bad because it's boring, and that's a unique—and unfair—problem that's now shackled to ARTPOP until she can pick herself up by the galactic leotard and upstage herself once again.
Everyone's got the song that converted them into a Lady Gaga fan. The mid-aughts dance floor glory of "Just Dance" was a bit too sugary for some, but the cinematic epic that was 2009's VMA performance of "Paparazzi" shocked and seduced plenty. The gnarled claws of "Bad Romance" continue to creep their way into party soundtrack rotation, and the products of Gaga's alien phase throughout "Born This Way" are copped as feel-good anthems by her adoring fans to date.
Not a single track from ARTPOP, even the hyper-meta "Applause," has reached the fever pitch of her greatest hits, and maybe this is why the ARTPOP Ball is disappointing to numerous reviewers. The fact that a handful of these tried-and-true favorites—including Beyoncé duet "Telephone"—were smushed together into a single medley while "Venus" and "G.U.Y." got her full-on attention is hardly surprising. She's in the midst of a reputation rescue mission, and even "Yoü and I" doesn't need a life-jacket when she's pushing her lung capacity to give the trickier parts of "Applause" the equivalent of performance CPR.
It's easy to write off a Lady Gaga defense as making excuses for a great musician whose recent work doesn't live up to their own expectations. It's easier to accept ARTPOP as a final flub instead of Gaga's current incarnation. Despite the changing wardrobes, the stylistic detours and collaborations, Lady Gaga's songwriting, vocal chops and voice are still there. Like the phoenix in the "G.U.Y." video, she's set to rise again—even if the ashes she's crawling out of came from a match she lit herself in the name of ARTPOP.