For one month now, Lady Gaga has been hurtling like a fireball through Asia, leaving headlines screaming in her wake. She began on April 27 in Seoul's Olympic Stadium, hopped through Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei, Manila and Bangkok, and arrived a day early last Saturday, May 26 for her final stop in Singapore.
It's been a wild trip. She's entered the Seoul Olympic Stadium on horseback and been thrown into a giant fake meat grinder; she's visited the Tokyo Sky Tree tower in a reflective dress inspired by the monument; she's gone into a drag revue at Bangkok's Calypso Cabaret and handed out free tickets to the kathoeys; she's incurred the wrath of Taipei authorities by setting off unauthorized pyrotechnics and lighting up a cigarette in her show.
All through the drama, she's breathlessly tweeted her love for her Asian fans and the continent where they live. "I can hear you Korea. I'm shaking," she said on April 27. "Pulled HK bad kids out of monster pit. Met them back stage, they broke out Judas choreography & then side-eyed me & said 'were 15.' AMAZING," she said on May 3.
But of course, some folks in Asia haven't loved her back. The diva has faced major protests in three cities: Seoul, Manila and Jakarta – the last of which was contracted to host the tour's biggest planned Asian show on June 3. Due to terror threats, Gaga's producers finally backed down and officially announced yesterday that the sold-out concert at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium was cancelled.
"I will try to put together something special for you. My love for Indonesia has only grown. #GagaSendsLoveToJakarta and all its people," the Mother Monster tweeted as an apology.
A bad romance?
The Asian tour marks the first leg of Gaga's Born This Way Ball, which celebrates the rights of LGBT youth to embrace their sexuality. It's striking that she's chosen to begin her journey here, before proceeding to more well-trodden territory in Oceania and Europe. Idealists would say she's visiting our conservative cities first because this is where youth need her the most; cynics might claim she's supporting an emerging market for her sales, or else that she's drumming up publicity to boost sales in the West.
Still, whatever you believe, you'll have to admit that she hasn't gone out of her way to actually connect with LGBT rights groups. Singapore's Pink Dot, for instance, has appealed in vain for her to record a message of support. In most cities she's kept to herself as much as possible, appeasing reporters only with her Twitter feed and the odd wave to her fans from behind her limousine window.
One could also argue that her reactions to protests have been bad for her LGBT fans – rather than trying to gradually convince folks that queer people aren't to be feared, she's preferred to respond with confrontational shock tactics.
Consider what happened in Seoul, when the Korean Media Rating Board announced a decision to restrict her audience to ticket-holders above the age of 18. Gaga hit back by performing explicit sequences of lesbian sex and group sex. "I was told that your government decided that my shows should be 18 or over... So, I'll make sure it will be!" she triumphantly declared.
During her Manila concert, she spoke up eloquently against homophobia while perched on a motorcycle. "For all those kids all over the world that take their lives when they're so young because they feel bullied or they're afraid because they're gay and they don't want to tell anybody, don't you think that some of us should stand up and say the goddamn truth?" she said.
It was a great speech, but it missed the point somewhat. The Philippines is actually a rather queer-tolerant country. Most protesters were outraged about her song Judas, which they felt was blasphemous.
Meanwhile, in Jakarta, the controversy centred on her appearance as much as her message of freedom – Islamic Defenders Front spokespersons called her "an American porn star" and claimed "her sexual and indecent clothes will destroy our children's sense of morality." However, she consistently refused to water down her costumes or choreography, even when the Indonesian police made it a condition for her protection during the show.
The Born This Way Ball was supposed to signal a more liberal Asia, but instead it's met with a tide of conservatism, and perhaps even fed it. Protests have spilled over from places of worship to the streets to the government, with politicians in Indonesia and the Philippines arguing for and against the performance. In spite of Gaga's fabulousness, her legacy in certain cities is that she's drawn the most virulent voices of sexual conservatism out of the woodwork.
When Gaga's name is mentioned, images will now arise that haunt us: the Korean protesters dressed up as angels and praying; the Indonesian man wearing sunglasses and a turban, holding up a concert ticket, promising to enter the stadium to bring the performance to a stop. Perhaps – dare I say it – it might have been better for LGBT people in these countries if the star had simply decided not to come.
An edge of glory
Nonetheless, as a person who quite likes dancing to Pokerface, I'd rather concentrate on the good that's come out of the tour.
For starters, I grew up in a time before gay issues were openly discussed in the news. And I'd say it's incredibly valuable for LGBT rights to be brought into mainstream conversation, even if they're being raised in a negative light. It at least marks the beginning of a real discussion. Gaga's message of sexual freedom is being inadvertently broadcast by the very people who condemn it.
There's also something quite special about Gaga's ideology. Celebrities like Ellen Degeneres and TV shows like Glee are valuable because they're non-threatening and friendly; they seduce straight people into accepting gay people because they paint us as fun, good-looking, wholesome people who don't cause trouble.
For Gaga, however, being queer is an opportunity for liberation, rebellion and revolution. That's an incredibly empowering message for LGBT youth – and also for anyone who lives under a non-democratic government. Sometimes, direct action and refusal to compromise is the best tactic for causing change.
She's also rather less interested in the idea of conventional good looks, stressed so much in gay culture: in her worldview, it is far less important to look sexy than to exercise one's creativity and look interesting. In short, it doesn't matter that us Asian LGBTs don't look like Euro-American underwear models: we can forge our own identities, and those are fabulous too.
One last thing that Gaga has done with her tour is that she's linked us – all of us fans, all of us queers and queer-friendly folks – across the eight Asian cities of her original tour schedule. We've followed the news of her ups and downs in each metropolis, and we've felt pleasure and dismay together with each photo and soundbite. When we heard the news of the Jakarta cancellation, we were all Jakartans.
The Born This Way Ball marks a common experience that brings us closer together as an Asian queer community: one that cuts across boundaries of nationality, race, language, religion and sexual preference. That, if anything, is worth dancing for.
Tickets for Lady Gaga's performance in Singapore on May 28, 29 and 31 are sold out. For the dates of the Born This Way Ball in Oceania and Europe, go to http://www.ladygaga.com/bornthiswayball/ . To read Lady Gaga's Twitter, go to https://twitter.com/#!/ladygaga . PinkDot's open letter to Lady Gaga is at http://pinkdot.sg/an-open-letter-to-lady-gaga/ .