SXSW 2014: Lady Gaga’s keynote: ‘I wanted to look ugly all the time’

Lady Gaga speaks at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.
(Michael Buckner / Getty Images for SXSW)

AUSTIN, Texas -- Twelve hours after she came offstage at Stubb’s -- covered in sweat, paint and who knows what else -- Lady Gaga sat down in a ballroom at the Hilton Austin as the keynote speaker for this year’s South by Southwest music festival.

Actually, the singer was more of a keynote conversationalist: Although the last few years have seen classic-rock types such as Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl do the stand-behind-a-podium-and-opine thing, Lady Gaga instead engaged in a rather deferential Q&A with John Norris of the television network Fuse.

She did dress formally for the occasion, though, in a billowy number made from what she described as “tailored plastic.” (Following Thursday’s hog-roast spectacular, perhaps her signature meat dress was too much to ask.)

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But if you had to admire SXSW for venturing beyond its usual dad-favorite core for this year’s address, Gaga, 27, didn’t exactly take advantage of the opportunity to blow anyone’s mind with what she had to say. Indeed, she spent much of her hour onstage dispensing the same kind of “real music” platitudes we got last year from Grohl.

“I’m not from a factory,” she said, before enumerating all the grim New York City spots she’d played during her climb from Lower East Side club-rat anonymity to worldwide superstardom. She got where she is, she kept stressing, as the result of talent and hard work, not record-industry manipulation.

Which is fine, and probably also true, as anyone who saw her sing the stuffing out of “Dope” at Stubb’s on Thursday knows. But there may be no more boring subject of discussion than talent. I mean, what, really, is there to say?

Lady Gaga was far more interesting when the talk turned -- ever so gently, in Norris’ hands -- to the perception that last year’s “Artpop” was a bomb.

“I’m sorry I didn’t sell a million records the first week,” she said with a little laugh. “I have before.” The singer went on to insist that she’s held “to such an insane standard” in terms of her commercial performance at a moment of overall collapse in the record business. “When it comes to me, everyone forgets where the music industry is now,” she said. “You come see me and it’s like you’re time-warped to the ‘70s.”

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On that subject, she defended her controversial decision to team with Doritos for Thursday’s performance, saying that anyone who criticized her alliance with a corporation doesn’t know jack -- she used a more colorful word -- about the state of the business. Record labels, she said, can no longer afford to fund the kind of lavish productions she’s interested in, so she simply found help where she could.

Yet Norris declined to push the singer on the specifics of her relationship with Doritos -- that the company required people who wanted to come to the Stubb’s concert to complete tasks (such as getting a haircut from one of its stylists) that seemed only to glorify Doritos, rather than the artistic spirit she suggested was being preserved by this corporate collaboration.

Do Lady Gaga’s fans care about this pernicious matter the way I (and the folks Norris described as “skeptics”) do? It’s anyone’s guess: Though Gaga spoke at length about her fans, her comments mostly had to do with the depth of her connection to them and vice versa. As with her talent, though, that’s a concept more useful than it is compelling.

She captured my attention again near the end of the talk when she acknowledged how hard it’s been to retain her drive to innovate even as her success encourages a kind of creative stasis.

“Once you have so many people’s attention, they think that as a female, it’s better for me to make inconsequential music ... and just look beautiful,” she said, referring to her handlers. Being told to look beautiful, she added, “poisoned” her in 2013 and led her in part to devise the intentionally rough-edged show she played Thursday night.

“I wanted to look ugly all the time,” she said. That’s an idea worth its own keynote address.


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Twitter: @mikaelwood