My mom and I weren’t quite sure what to wear. Street clothes? Seashell bikinis? We opted for modest tank tops, black mini-skirts, and sparkly tights I’ve only ever pulled out on Halloween. And a bit more eye shadow than usual—which wasn’t much. When we pulled into the United Center parking lot, however, I panicked, Mom! Everyone’s dressed normally! We waited a few moments, gathering our courage, and then we stepped self-consciously out into the parking lot. When we saw spikey suspenders and sky-high heels, we were reassured: we weren’t alone.
A few weeks ago, my mom and I went to the ARTPOP Ball, our first Lady Gaga concert. As we walked into Gaga’s artRave—advertised as “music – fashion – dance – party”—we found ourselves in the most multi-colored crowd I’d ever seen. From purple hair to glittery shoes to neon fishnet stockings, this sea swarmed with mermaids, monsters, and poker faces, all sparkly, many in various stages of undress. At first glance, so much skin was a bit of a shock—I can wear a skimpy two-piece to the beach, but, even so, it covers a lot more than a G-string and a hula-hoop. Even more surprising than the outfits were the fans who had chosen to flaunt the leather bustiers and spandex: most of the women weren’t model material; most of the guys lacked six-packs. (Much of the time, you couldn’t be 100 percent sure which sex was behind all the glitz and makeup.) And they were fabulous. Their “imperfect” bodies were beautiful. They had rolled their hair, put lipstick on, and knew that they were superstars.
After two openers, the Superstar herself rose up through a hole from under the stage. As Gaga mingled the catchiest songs on her most recent album, ARTPOP (“Venus,” and “G.U.Y.,” for starters), with her biggest hits in general, she went through about six costume changes. She wore wings, sprouted tentacles, and twirled rainbow dreadlocks. At one point, Gaga changed onstage, in front of us all. She herself peeled off her neon green wig, as if allowing us peek behind her aura. But of course, this was all part of the show: we could see her (almost) naked, but only under her conditions. We could only see the “real” Gaga—stripped, de-heeled, and wigless—that Gaga chose to reveal.
So it was all staged. So what? That’s the way shows are.
And yet, there were two moments that just might have been improvised. Before singing “Born this Way,” Gaga looked out into the crowd and spotted one of her fans waving a sign, asking to be invited to sit with her. She granted his wish, and he clambered up on the piano bench next to her, where he—like we all—gazed at her with puppy eyes as she jazzed into her anthem of acceptance and inclusion. Later, when the crowd showered Gaga with flowers and gifts, she cuddled the largest teddy bear, and after discovering a letter attached to its ribbon, read aloud the whole missive about how she had brought together two storm-weathered lovers. She invited the authors backstage after the show.
On my cynical days, I can’t believe Gaga could actually do what she did. The fan sitting next to her at the piano must have been planted, otherwise the security issues would have been insurmountable. He had probably undergone a thorough background check, too. And, that letter: who’s to say there was only a short thank-you note and that she made up the meat of it right there on the spot? If I were she, I would totally have a letter or two up my sequined sleeve just in case I received anything nasty I didn’t want to broadcast to an entire hockey arena.
I don’t think it even matters whether those moments were real or made-up. With Lady Gaga, we always have to look twice, three times. We mustn’t hold too tightly to our first impressions, for she continually blurs the real and the imagined. She shows us that it is possible to be a human squid and to play on a seahorse piano. She dances in impossible shoes and belts out that her ARTPOP could mean anything.
In the end, what really mattered were her fans on whom her effect was very real. Everyone was taking pictures with each other, celebrating each other’s daring and creativity. We were all strangers who didn’t mind approaching other strangers with smiles and laughter and compliments. And, one last proof? As we were filing out, there was more patience and goodwill among the drivers trying to squeeze their cars into the exit lane than I usually encounter in a church parking lot.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.