By Paul de Revere
Let it never be said that Lady Gaga loses any of her artistic vision in subtlety.
Gaga’s performance at South by Southwest on Thursday night at local barbecue landmark Stubb’s BBQ was a study in broad, hokey kitsch. Her stage set was full of neon signs and featured prominent use of a mechanical bull. The provocative performer’s grand entrance involved her dangling from a barbecue spit amid smoke in the dramatized throes of S&M bondage, performing “Aura,” her first song of the night. Also there was vomit painting. And real vomiting.
If you think that’s crazy, all that wasn’t even her first choice, which would’ve been still more grandiose. Before a denial of permit by the City of Austin, Gaga planned to emerge from a large vending machine-like stage, the Doritos-sponsored #BoldStage a few blocks south of where she ended up performing Thursday. Instead, Gaga got her own #BoldStage — because she’s fabulous — full of triangular framing screens and entrances, meant to mimic the shape of the iconic snack chip.
The ARTPOP pop artist was cheeky and fearless, her typical form. Her short setlist pulled mostly from Artpop, her latest: the snap-and-click “Manicure,” the EDM trap of “Jewels and Drugs” (with a surprise appearance by Twista, rapping his featured verse), a perfunctory performance of hit single “Applause” and encore finale “Gypsy,” a strong torch-song finish.
Gaga’s wit and prankishness started even before the show did. She defied every attendee from All Access and VIP on down to complete “a series of challenges,” according to the SXSW web page for Gaga’s performance, “known as Bold Missions” to gain access to the exclusive concert Thursday night. It was easily one the most talked-about of SXSW Music, a multi-day festival and conference already full of show-stopping performances.
Perhaps one of the “Bold Missions” for Lady Gaga’s cast of friends, musicians, dancers, actors and performance artists to gain access to its own show was gorging on the native barbecue. That’s what one anonymous cast member did at the top of Gaga set. In an intentionally anti-climactic intro, the performance artist sat in a spotlight for six minutes and ate meat, then delicately wiped her mouth clean. More bizarrely, renowned vomit artist Millie Brown (yes, you read that right) vomited several times, at least once on Gaga, during and after a ride on a mechanical bull with her.
They weren’t the only artistic confrontations or tests of patience for Gaga’s audience. At least twice, at length, Gaga denounced audience distractions like smartphones and social media— omnipresent at SXSW, which is in part a technology conference— being used at her show Thursday night.
“Do me a favor and don’t take my f–king picture, put your phone down,” she said.
It was an exercise in futility, though, much like Gaga’s pandering to her Texas crowd (most SXSW attendees are from out of state). Aside from her Texas-referencing set pieces, she brought in talented fiddle player and Austin local Ruby Jane to sit in. With Jane, Gaga and her band re-arranged “Bad Romance” into something like a pop-country version, which didn’t cohere particularly well. Perhaps sensing as much, Gaga yelled, “C’mon this is your music!” to egg on her audience, indicating that Gaga was likely working from a country-music stereotype of Austin’s and/or Texas’ music.
“If you slip, it’s okay, just tell them it’s performance art,” she cautioned her fiddle player of the vomit left on stage. It was Gaga unintentionally summing up not just her performance that night, but arguably her career to date. Everything’s a show and the world’s a stage — especially at South by Southwest, where every performer seems to be in a constant cutthroat competition for an audience’s attention— and here comes megastar Lady Gaga, performer for all seasons and places. Until she isn’t. It’s okay, though, it’s just performance art.