“I am a student of Bowie and Bolan and Freddie Mercury,” Lady Gaga announced as she jetted into London to open the month-long iTunes festival at the Roundhouse. Her eyes are fixed on the big prize: a place in the pantheon.
Will she make it? Sunday’s show, held before roughly 3,000 iTunes competition winners, a tiny audience by her standards, confirmed her as the boldest female performer since Madonna, her true guru. But it also found her at a turning point in her career. Sales are trending downwards, from her 15m-selling debut The Fame to the 6m-selling follow-up Born This Way. Her latest single “Applause”, from her forthcoming album Artpop, hasn’t set the charts on fire. The Gaga brand is in need of refreshment.
Her Roundhouse gig consisted of eight new songs from Artpop. It opened with a Theatre of Cruelty routine, a Bowie-esque conceit executed with Gaga-sian gusto. Kneeling at the front of the stage with a ninja’s black mask covering her face, she was manhandled into a metal gibbet. A mad fusillade of beats rang out. The singer sang “Do you want to see the girl behind the aura?” and ripped the mask from her face.
Tonight was all about the revelation of the “real” Gaga: “the human underneath the wigs” in her words, spoken during a gap between songs as assistants cantilevered a vast wig off her head. In an inspired coup de théâtre the costume changes took place on stage, Gaga morphing before our eyes between different personae: a stripper in teetering heels, a 1980s aerobics dancer, a mermaid in a scallop-shell bikini, a Victorian gent in top hat and pipe.
The process reached its apogee on “Swine” when she appeared as herself (“This is my real hair”) and delivered in a theatrically trembling voice a long speech alluding to an unspecified childhood trauma. Cue an assault of angry force-10 vocals and frenzied beats, an incoherent barrage akin to witnessing Alanis Morissette suffer an emotional meltdown in a techno club at 5am.
Here lies Gaga’s problem: her songs don’t match her stage presence. Those debuted tonight included a messy pop-rap hybrid featuring several guest rappers (“Jewels & Drugs”), a weak Madonna pastiche (“Sex Dreams”), a much better Ray of Light-era Madonna pastiche (“Artpop”) and a big piano ballad (“I Wanna Be With You”). The shifts in tone were extreme, held together more or less by force of personality. The place in the pantheon is not assured. Lady Gaga is a great performer in need of better songs.