If you scrolled through your Facebook or Twitter feed this morning, you probably saw the words "Lady," "Gaga," and "puke" repeated. Last night at Austin's SXSW music festival, Lady Gaga performed a Doritos-sponsored set of songs from her latest album ARTPOP, as well as a country-fried (yes, fried) version of her pop masterpiece "Bad Romance."
The performance incorporating the words above and the one that will have us talking into next week was for the song "Swine." On the album, "Swine" is an onslaught of buzz saw synths and squeals from Gaga. In its SXSW incarnation, it was a cathartic release of rage, and a response to rape. As usual with Lady Gaga, there's much to dissect.
First, there's the vomit. The neon expulsion came courtesy of Millie Brown, an acclaimed performance artist known for expulsion as art. Fans who attended 2010's Monster Ball Tour may remember her from an interlude very similar to last night's performance. Now, Millie's back and spewing more than ever. As Gaga thrashed at a drum set, Millie chugged what looked like gallons of colored soy milk. At the song's climax, Gaga thrusted herself forward as Millie forcefully gagged herself to the point of puking what looked like toxic waste all over the singer's chest. (See below, but be warned if you aren't a fan of puking)
If that wasn't enough, the twosome moved to a mechanical bull, except that it wasn't a bull; it was a pig with an apple in its mouth, appearing ready for a feast. The pig ebbed and jerked furiously, all while Gaga and Millie straddled its back and continued the performance. As Gaga sang, Millie drank. They repeated the act from the first verse, only this time the neon green vomit was replaced with black vomit. Gaga relished in the bodily fluid as her heels slammed the keyboard attached to the gyrating pig.
So yes. Obviously, Lady Gaga has a history of so-called "attention whoring." We've been talking about her antics ever since she emerged in 2008 with a diamond encrusted scepter she called a "disco stick." Eventually there was the MTV VMA meat dress, along with too many outlandish fashion choices to count. You'd be remissed not to mention her more sociopolitical acts like her Don't Ask, Don't Tell speech and frequent acknowledgement of her LGBT fanbase.
Recently, the media attention Gaga receives is mostly on the negative side. Rather than laugh with her at tongue-in-cheek song references and insane hats, a collective eye-roll reverberates throughout social spheres and the publications that once revered her daring approach to pop. Why is this? Tough to say. Chalk it up to overexposure during her invincible reign from 2009-2011. Maybe it's the Internet and its ridiculously short attention span, and people were simply ready for the next thing?
Whatever the case, last night's performance was a clear rebellion of industry confines and public praise. Instead of submitting to pressure to dial down her eccentricities and tame her flair for the dramatic, she literally vomited at those critiques and those who leveraged them. The performance harkened back to the days where Lady Gaga and Lady Starlight (a longtime collaborator and friend who, along with Semi-Precious Weapons, opened last night's show) used to light hairspray on fire while wearing lingerie and playing heavy metal songs. By returning to her roots as what she's proclaimed to be from the start, a "performance artist," Lady Gaga actually evolved past an international pop star into her next incarnation.
It's easy to be reactionary while watching a woman puke on another woman. No, it's not glorifying bulimia so just don't. Yes, it was absolutely to get attention and Lady Gaga plays that game better than any of her peers. Did you catch that she's releasing a new music video next weekend? Exactly.
Art and all of its subjectiveness is why there's a place at the music table for Lady Gaga and her puke pop, Jay-Z and his King of NYC flows, and Antony Hegarty with his gender-bending, alien voice. There are zero rules about having to like anything these artists create, but there's power in acknowledging the importance of self expression, both in music and beyond. If Lady Gaga wants to eat sausages and come on stage like a roasted pig on a spit, let her. Restricting her and refusing to consider artistic motivation behind such an act is stifling creativity, resulting in every song sounding the same and the same books being written a thousand times over.
As it pertains to Lady Gaga specifically, the SXSW rendition of "Swine" was the most concrete example of "ARTPOP," the phrase she's championed from the beginning of her career and the name of her newest album, that she's ever made. By merging the world of "art" in the form of Millie's puke piece with her pop song about rape-fueled rage, Lady Gaga made good on her promise to put the art into pop music. She did it in a way that starts the discussion rather than squashes it. "My ARTPOP could mean anything," she sings on the album's title track. Subjective meaning is the beauty of art at its core.