Ever since she was a young provocateur hatched from an egg, Lady Gaga has known how to make an entrance. Last night, for her showcase at SXSW, she was carried onto the stage trussed to a horizontal pole in black underwear, looking like she was a pig roasting on a spit. She then proceeded to sing Artpop opener “Aura,” gyrating and spinning all the while.
The setting was Stubb’s BBQ in Austin, Texas, a courtyard holding about 2,000 people, most of whom were there courtesy of show sponsor Doritos, who had induced them to make embarrassing confessions on social media and then handed out free bags of chips at the show. (Overheard in the crowd: “I guess this is what it smells like when a thousand people have Doritos breath.”) Gaga was preceded by her hand-picked opening acts: the appealingly scruffy rock band the Dirty Pearls (working a Kinks vibe), one-woman groovebox operator Lady Starlight (looking like Wednesday Addams, if she had just discovered dance music), and a brunette who spent several minutes eating barbecued ribs and sausage to the general confusion of the crowd.
Unstrapped from the pole, Gaga unfurled her fake blond dreadlocks, and assured the crowd that she had been having such a good time at SXSW, she had forgone showering in favor of drinking and eating. She then launched into the electro-rocker “Manicure,” during which she spun the microphone cord over her head while inserting a sausage into her mouth. This was the general mode of the show: songs from Artpop coupled with staging that was often memorable, bold and mildly incoherent.
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Rapper Twista joined her for “Jewels N’ Drugs,” during which the audience was doused with many cans of beer. In a sign of solidarity, Gaga finished the song by pouring beer on herself. She then exhorted the crowd to put their phones away: “Do me a favor, don’t take my fucking picture. Put your fucking phone down and have a good time. Be in the moment,” she instructed the crowd. “Fuck your cell phone. Fuck your friends instead.” (The show was being streamed live; Gaga was silent on the question of what she wanted people to do if they were watching that stream on their phones.)
As she delivered these words of wisdom, she put on a white apron and then introduced “Swine” as a song about rape and rage. As she sang and drummed, Gaga was joined by the fetching British performance artist Millie Brown, who was wearing a sparkly black skirt and electrical tape over her nipples: Brown proceeded to vomit bright green goo all over Gaga. They then climbed onto what appeared to be a large mechanical bull (à la Urban Cowboy) but was actually a mechanical pig with a ball gag in its mouth. A neon sign came to life advertising “Lady Gaga’s Haus of Swine BBQ.”
While Gaga lay on her back, writhing on the rotating pig, Brown straddled her and humped her. It would have been a burlesque version of overheated sexuality — except that Brown was sticking her fingers down her throat, regurgitating black goo that splattered all over Gaga. The result was memorable and genuinely unsettling: even with the apron, unwanted body fluids were all over Gaga, in her skin and her dreadlocks. For the rest of the show, Gaga would have this black sheen, marking her as a metaphorical survivor of rape and an actual survivor of performance art.
Gaga then sat at a piano to sing “Dope,” which she preceded with a testament to her fans: “I love my fans because they let me be myself.” It seemed patently insincere — isn’t the essence of Gaga’s ongoing career that she can render the actual self of Stefani Germanotta irrelevant with sufficiently outrageous staging? Alone with a keyboard, Gaga once again proved the foundation of her career is actually her songwriting, singing the powerful plea of an addict in love.
Austin local Ruby Jane came onstage to play fiddle on “Bad Romance,” and received extra praise from Gaga for doing so on a floor made slippery with Brown’s effluvia. She was then joined onstage by her opening acts and other Lower East Side friends who had played SXSW this week; she sang an a cappella song with lyrics about them, followed by the set-ending “Applause.” Her friends hugged and drank beer.
Gaga’s onstage speeches can devolve into show-business bromides, but it’s hard to argue with her values: love your friends, live in the moment, be yourself, make kick-ass art. And the monologue that preceded her encore (“Gypsy”) was genuinely moving, as she dedicated it to the victims of the hit-and-run killing that had marred SXSW the night before, just down the street. “We’re all wandering the earth, trying to find each other,” Gaga said. At that moment, the crowd felt like a community, not just a couple of thousand contest winners gathered at a BBQ stand.