Why Lady Gaga Belongs at South by Southwest

Her vomit-soaked performance's message: Pop stars work hard, too.
AP/Jay Janner

Even before it could inspire barf-related headlines, Lady Gaga's Thursday-night performance at South by Southwest had been grossing people out.

For the past few years, superstars and corporate brands have invaded Austin's annual showcase of supposedly under-the-radar musical talent, but the particulars of Gaga’s set seemed like they’d been designed to strike a final blow to the festival’s indie cred: This was the self-proclaimed Fame Monster, avatar of the mainstream, taking over Austin’s legendary Stubbs BBQ for a concert sponsored by Doritos. More than one friend gave me a look of disgust when I told them I’d be attending.

But the next morning, at her keynote talk with Fuse’s John Norris, Stefani Germanotta had some words for anyone objecting to her presence in Austin: “You don’t know fuck about the state of the music industry.” Which isn’t necessarily wrong. In this era where record sales have been replaced by teensy residual payments for streaming, corporately branded events with mega-famous headliners help keep this whole thing going. “Without sponsorships,” said Gaga, wearing a wedding dress made of trash bags, “we won’t have any more artists in Austin. We won’t have any more festivals, because record labels don’t have any fucking money.”

That’s the financial rationale for letting Gaga perform. But there’s a more qualitative reason to be OK with—even charmed by—South by Southwest in its current, crass, brands-and-celebs-infested form. The festival has become an annual state of the union for the entire popular music industry, a buffet with more options for fans than ever: You can catch a no-name act busking on Sixth Street, and then (if you have the credentials or are willing to stand in a really long line) can see the biggest names in the world in an intimate venue. With on-demand streaming and downloads, music listeners have more choices than ever; for five days, South by Southwest dramatizes that fact in real life.

Besides, the line between aboveground and underground has never been blurrier. For example, this year in Austin one of the most exciting indie trends on display has been the rise of bedroom producers—the likes of Sophie, Obey City, Lunice, and Keys N Krates—building followings on Soundcloud by putting innovative spins on super-popular music. One highlight came when Cashmere Cat pitch-shifted Kanye West’s infamous “hurry up with my damn croissants” into a joyful squeak punctuating the bass groans emanating from his rig at Empire Garage. Another came at the Parish Underground Thursday night, when the newbie artist Saint Pepsi slowed down Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend” into a lush slow jam as he flashed a goofy grin at the cheering room of hipsters.

The one musician I haven’t heard in any of these producers’ sets, though, is Lady Gaga, and that speaks to the real tension underlying her SXSW performance: It comes at a time when her relevance is in question. Last year’s Artpop received mixed reviews and undersold compared to expectations. Austin would be her first live show for the public since the album’s release, presumably previewing the world tour she’s embarking upon in May. So in front of a crowd of music execs, journalists, and diehard, contest-winning fans, her task wasn’t necessarily that far removed from that of the least-known bands in Austin this week. Like them, she had something to prove.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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