Lady Gaga arrived for her SXSW keynote in Austin, Texas dressed like a plastic bag princess, no doubt a visual reference to her infamously vomitous performance the previous night at Stubbs BBQ, and proceeded to push against the system that made her a pop star.
Alas, she did so in a disappointing, self-serving way that defended what she was railing against – so long as she was the one doing it.
Gaga began by discussing her show – which was designed specifically for SXSW right down to the Lady Gaga's BBQ Haus of Swine neon sign – which involved performance Millie Brown, a so-called “vomit painter" who drank a bottle of green liquid and then threw it up on Gaga.
"It was just exciting to see people discussing performance art on the Internet and debating if it's art or not," Gaga said of the online uproar that ensued. "We did it because we believed in the performance and we believed what it meant to the song."
You never know where a crazy idea might lead you. Martin Luther King Jr. thought he could start a revolution without violence, and Andy Warhol thought he could make a soup can into art. Sometimes things that are really, really strange and seem really wrong can change the world.
"I'm not saying vomit is going to change the world," she added, to laughs.
The conversation soon shifted to Doritos' sponsorship of the performance. Attendees had to tweet in support of the chip company's social media marketing campaign – something the New York Times took a stand against doing, though I took a loophole and filled out an index card by claiming I had no Twitter account – and certainly Gaga's art felt less, well, bold with all the Doritos signs onsite.
She immediately went on the attack over criticism of the sponsorship. "Whoever is writing or saying all those things, you don't know fuck about the state of the music industry. It's also about how the artist chooses to engage in these types of relationships. What's type of relationship, what's the philosophy behind the collaboration? Do you have things in common, do you not? When you come to do the performance how much time do you put into it? Do you really care about the show or are you just taking the cheque?"
Gaga then said that the best thing that happened was that the CEO of Frito-Lay came backstage afterwards with her kids: she said 'it was good,' and she was crying. Clearly Doritos' company didn't dictate – no food company wants to associated with vomit headlines – though it's amusing Rachel Ray is throwing a SXSW party headlined by a band called Diarrhea Planet. But their presence was very much felt at the outdoor show.
Gaga then went after "sensationalized headlines" and critical articles, dismissing them as just a way "to inspire clicks to their website."
"Without sponsorships, without these companies coming to help us, we won’t have any artists coming to Austin, we won’t have any festivals because record labels don’t have any fucking money."
Certainly she has a point with the state of the record business, but one might easily argue that Gaga, who reminded us she's sold 27 million records, could have done that show without Doritos. This kind of huge corporate sponsored gig is relatively new to SXSW, though this year it also included Jay-Z and Kanye playing for Samsung and Coldplay performing for iTunes. (Though at least the former plays music and the latter sells it, unlike snack chips, which have no music connection.)
Thing is, Gaga also went after corporate influence on music while defending her relatively low sales figures for new album "ARTPOP" and the pressure to chase charts instead of focusing on songwriting.
"I make music and the second I put out into the world it gets eaten by a computer and there's all these numbers systems and ranking, and its terrifying," she says. "The way we talk about the process is the problem, placing the importance on the charts, placing importance on that system. What happens is you start trying to influence the artist to channel their art towards being successful in that system, when you do that you take the power out of the hands of the artist and put it in the hands of the corporation. That means you need someone in a corporate tower somewhere to tell you, 'nope, this how you do it.' I don't think anyone wants that to be dictating the music you listen to."
This self-contradiction also continued into her other attacks on the industry and it's increasing focus on things other than music. "Everyone in this room needs to do everything we can as a unit to continue to inspire passion in young people so they don't feel the only way to success now is making a crazy YouTube video or doing something psycho on Instagram. The way to make it in this business is to write songs."
Which, yes, but also let's not forget that Gaga rose to fame on shock factor as much as her music. She has had some great pop songs, but from the meat dress to getting vomited on, Gaga's own business model is about much more than songwriting.
"Stop shaking hands with people and taking selfies, it's not going to make you a star. Nobody cares about that. What makes a sustainable career is somebody who has a true heart and the ability to feel the pain of this business because you're willing to suffer and do anything for music, because you love it and believe it in your core. That's who you should be promoting, people who write songs, not people who have a bunch of followers on Twitter."
Then, of course, she remembered her own millions-strong Twitter followers, and reassured them, "I have a real relationship with my fans, a real true one, a friendship, I really understand them and I know they understand me."
Clearly the criticism of her sales have hit home for Gaga – "I'm sorry I didn't sell a million in a week," she snarked, "I’m held to such an insane standard, it's almost like everybody forgets where the music business is now" – and the pop star made a strong effort to re-position herself as a legacy artist.
"I don't know what fuck-all I have to do with Katy Perry, I really don’t fit in pop music in a way, but I came in through it and I hope that I changed it in some way," she said, before mentioning she has a second volume of "ARTPOP" completed that she may or may not release, and sending out a warning to the industry.
"If I allow my talents to be monetized to the point that I don't even want to be here anymore, I will stop. I will quit. I will retire from the commercial market if I have to be something other than myself. If I can't be myself, then everything I've said to my fans since the beginning will be a total lie. I won't be myself in order to make money? Sustain a luxurious lifestyle?
"No, I'll be myself until they fucking close the coffin, so that you can all be yourselves."