TAMPA — Like prom night for the adorably demented, the Little Monsters arrived en masse and en fuego, dressed to impress their preferred pop star in DayGlo wigs, mommy-frazzling thigh highs and police-tape sashes.
And why not? With Lady Gaga, singer of ubiquitous hits Poker Face and Bad Romance, it's not about who you should be, but who you long to be — even if who you long to be might get you arrested in Utah.
In the buzziest concert of the year, Gaga, Top 40's reigning queen of question marks, brought her "Monster Ball" to the St. Pete Times Forum on Saturday, throwing an expectedly eye-bugging party that commenced (at 9:55 p.m., no less) with a massive throbbing wraparound screen revealing a silhouetted purple Gaga cooing Dance in the Dark.
Soon enough, the star, prone to frozen poses and purple body suits and lemon hair and rump flashes (eeeeee!), frolicked on a multitiered neon-lit stage made to look like a trashy metropolis, complete with a beater car with crucifixes on the windshield and a piano under the hood, a slick touch in a night full of 'em.
Oh yeah, it was fun and goofy and sexy and loud. And when Gaga cued the bass thump for Just Dance, the packed crowd of 16,373 screamed for Mother Monster as loud as they could, as if sheer volume would finalize that last bit of their own Gaganian transformation and self-realization.
In a rather smirky coincidence, Jimmy Buffett performed at the same time across town, at the 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre, where fans also dressed up. But with all due respect to followers of the revered beach bum, who usually owns this town when he shows up, Gaga's sartorially gonzo Little Monsters could devour those Tommy Bahama'd Parrotheads like a bucket of old chicken.
Just ask monster-in-training Evan Lacasse. The 33-year-old from Clearwater, striking in thick eyeliner and stick-on jewels highlighting his cheekbones, originally had tickets to Buffett. But in the end he just couldn't miss Gaga, her fleet of backup dancers and her insistence of letting that freak flag fly.
"I like her message and what she promotes," Lacasse said. "Be yourself."
Or, for that matter, be a topless nun grinding on a subway car. Or a dominatrix playing a piano with one boot. (Yeah, she went there.)
As well as trumpeting individuality — "You can be whoever you want to be!" she promised repeatedly — Gaga also celebrated aiming high. In fact, not since Babe Ruth has someone called their shot so defiantly and successfully: Her 2008 debut album The Fame was a braggadelicious stab at overnight fame. And it worked.
Since then, the 25-year-old New Yorker born Stefani Germanotta has been pop culture's most captivating force, not just in sales but style as well. When her new album, Born This Way, comes out May 23, that too will almost certainly go No. 1.
Her formula is both otherworldly and familiar, and these days, that's apparently just what we want. Imagine if Gloria Gaynor had performed I Will Survive in a bear suit. (Just go with me on that one, okay?) That's a good idea of Gaga, who mixes deliriously "huh?" outerwear with fiendishly catchy club bangers and earnest crowd love. "My religion is you," she said.
Gaga's skintastic shenanigans went well beyond this newspaper's deadline, but the coolest stuff we caught included Gaga praising Jesus while wearing a high-priestess frock and thunking a guitar contraption that would freak out Prince.
She bit the head off a Barbie that was hurled onstage, ripping into any "idea of beauty" that's strictly exterior. To punctuate that point, she performed a touching piano version of the song Born This Way. It was quite moving — even though she wore a leather bra and panties while she did it.
The most shocking thing about the show might have been Gaga's myriad moments of breaking with her space-girl persona and connecting on a no-guff, regular-gal level. She was charming, sweet and funny, at one point even chatting with a fan via cell phone. She dedicated new song You and I to her fans; her affection for us was so hot, it even set the piano on fire.
Say what you will about Gaga, but she's a tireless entertainer. A runway stretched far into the crowd, and Gaga worked her tuchus off on that sparkly sucker, wailing aplenty on hits like Telephone and imploring her Little Monsters to join her saucy calisthenics, the adoration of Gaga being a full-contact sport.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.