AUSTIN, Texas -- First, the bad news.
To get into Lady Gaga’s much-hyped concert Thursday night at the South by Southwest music festival here, fans were required to jump through humiliating hoops devised by Doritos, the show’s sponsor, then debase themselves further by posting evidence of their actions online.
Is this what it means now to be a fan? Demonstrating your devotion not to an idea or even a persona but to a corporation whose interest in that persona extends no further than its ability to generate more work to be exploited again?
Speaking of which, though, that brings me to the good news about Lady Gaga’s performance, just one of many corporate gigs at SXSW this year, along with Samsung’s Jay Z and Kanye West show Wednesday and a five-night iTunes series with Coldplay, Pitbull and Willie Nelson, among others.
Inviting a female friend onstage who was gulping colored liquid from a bottle, Lady Gaga sat down behind a drum kit not long into her hour-long set to play her song “Swine” -- and was soon showered in a regurgitated version of that liquid as her pal leaned over the star and vomited on her.
It was disturbing. It was hilarious. And it wasn’t at all what the putative appetite-builders at Frito-Lay were probably hoping for (unless, of course, what they were hoping for was precisely an admiring reaction like mine).
Held in the backyard of the barbecue restaurant Stubb’s, Lady Gaga’s show opened with the singer tied to a roasting spit as she sang “Aura,” from last year’s “Artpop” album. That’s the disc, don’t forget, widely perceived as a flop because it didn’t do the gangbusters business of her earlier records.
So beyond proving that she wasn’t in Doritos’ nacho-cheese-filled pocket, Gaga had incentive Thursday to demonstrate that she still matters -- that she’s still capable of moving pop’s needle. (The Stubb’s show was just one part of her SXSW edge-reclamation project; she’s also scheduled to deliver the festival’s keynote address on Friday.)
A bit of a snooze on “Artpop,” “Aura” was genuinely intense here, the song’s industrial-funk beat banging away at top volume as several of the singer’s accomplices poked her with metal rods and slapped her thighs in a deeply unsexy fashion.
Was this an allegory for the way female stars are feasted on by a ravenous celebrity culture, especially at moments decided by others to represent crisis? Yeah, sure.
But if the message was inelegant, that seemed to be Lady Gaga’s point: “Manicure” and “Jewels N’ Drugs,” both among the least effective songs on “Artpop,” were deliriously rowdy on Thursday, shiny dance-pop tracks remade as squealing digital-punk jams that might’ve been appreciated by Al Jourgensen of Ministry (whose dreadlocked cyber-warrior look Gaga appeared to have borrowed).
Later she did “Bad Romance” with snarling blues-rock guitar and some down-home fiddle runs by a young Austin local; “Dope” was quieter but similarly designed to emphasize the notion that Gaga is just an artist living in the moment, finding inspiration wherever it lies and not worrying herself with the bigger picture.
That’s nonsense, clearly. Even more than her huge voice, Lady Gaga’s strategic flair -- her sense of a story and how it should progress -- is what distinguishes her in a crowded pop marketplace; it’s what makes her music, at its best, feel like a world unto itself.
But narratives need pivot points, and Gaga’s turn away from the polish of 2013 -- just in time, naturally, for a world tour set to launch in May -- provides all kinds of entertaining possibilities.
Less happily, it also led Wednesday to a lengthy speech at the end of the show that began with a seemingly heartfelt acknowledgment of the deadly incident that struck SXSW late Wednesday night but soon bogged down in pop-star doublespeak regarding the nature of existence.
But then she played “Gypsy,” which packed those same ideas into a completely triumphant rush of wide-eyed arena-rock emotion. It was good enough that it might’ve made her fans forget what they had to do to hear it.