On Friday, March 14, Lady Gaga gave the keynote at SXSW 2014, a long interview conducted by John Norris that covered her career in pop, from her roots in the rock clubs of downtown New York to her decision to partner with a corporate sponsor for the concert she performed at Stubb's the night before. (You can see the complete video of the interview on this page.)
NPR Music's Ann Powers was in Austin for the keynote, and she filed this report.
Enclosed in a garbage-bag bridal ensemble seemingly designed to remind us she's wedded to her art, Lady Gaga sat in conversation with longtime music-television personality John Norris Friday morning, pouring forth a stream of strong statements about stardom, artistic freedom and her number-one value, the truth of the inner self. During an hour-long South by Southwest conference keynote event, the platinum-dreadlocked queen of arena-rock transgression shed a tear or two as she exhorted the crowd with inspirational catchphrases and feisty rejoinders to the corporate forces who took her recording career to the top (and more lately, might be dragging her down). As always with Gaga, the interview offered plenty of warm support for anyone struggling with self-definition, and it occasionally turned daring, though not in unexpected ways. Mostly it proved a poignant illustration of just how difficult it is for even our most innovative mainstream stars to steer clear of the fundamental confinements and contradictions of corporate pop.
"I will retire from the commercial market if I have to be something other than myself," Gaga insisted, after explaining why she agreed to allow the snack-chip corporation Frito-Lay to aggressively brand her Thursday night showcase at Stubb's BBQ, down the street from the Hilton where the keynote took place. That decision was denounced by some and accepted with a raised eyebrow by others. Gaga argued that partnering with Frito-Lay's Doritos brand offered an escape route from corporate slavery, because sponsorships allow freedom, while record labels do not. "Without sponsorships, we won't have any more artists in Austin," she said, clearly meaning Top-40 artists, not the kids who sleep in their vans to play bar shows during SXSW. Continuing to develop her anti-label, pro-brand rhetoric, Gaga ultimately landed on a catchphrase that expressed both her own confusion and the music industry's: "Don't sell out. Sell in."
"Sell in," of course, doesn't mean anything obvious. It does, however, echo the exhortation to "lean in" that serves as a title for Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg's best-selling book, and which has become the mantra for feminism's current full embrace of corporate capitalism. Lady Gaga seems an unlikely figure to take this message to the pop world — Beyonce got there first, for one thing, and for another, Gaga has always stood for the outsiders whose proud queerness or neck tattoos or basic social awkwardness would prevent them from selling or leaning in if they wanted to do so.
Yet it's not a shock, especially given the career dip Gaga has taken since her latest album Artpop failed to sell as well as expected, that Gaga is struggling to figure out how to maintain the influence that allowed her to become the patron saint of outsiders in the first place. She's done powerful things in that role, including working for causes like marriage equality in impressively concrete ways. But perhaps Gaga has not always been aware that, like any beneficiary of music-industry promotion, she was always constantly compromising.
How else to explain Gaga's insistence to Norris that "I don't know what f—- all I have to do with Katy Perry," despite the fact that both chart-toppers are signed to subsidiaries of the Universal Music Group? Or her advice to young artists to "stop taking selfies, because that won't make you a star," when a brilliant and challenging image is so integral to Gaga's own success? Or her conviction that she'd be happy going back to the underground clubs of New York's Lower East Side, when those clubs, like underground culture in Manhattan in general, have been pushed out by the corporate forces of gentrification?
The boldness Lady Gaga displayed in her discussion with Norris was that of a dreamer, not a doer: She seemed like someone testing out challenges that might help her make new moves, rather than realistically pointing herself or anyone else toward new ways of being. It was heartfelt, yet her words felt scripted, recalling nothing so much as the dialogue uttered by Hayden Panettiere as the embattled country music ingénue Juliette Barnes in the nighttime soap Nashville.
Perhaps this critique seems too harsh. Lady Gaga remains one of pop's most fascinating and powerful characters. She's done real, impactful work for the social causes she embraces, especially marriage equality, and as an artist she remains far more interesting than ninety-five per cent of what mainstream pop produces. And her truth-telling can be powerful. Noting that she's won Grammy awards, toured the world multiple times, and succeeded in making albums that represent her own true sensibilities, she told Norris that her corporate handlers still valued her looks over her accomplishments. "We just want you to look beautiful," she said, echoing what she had been told.
"Is it all back to tits and ass?" Gaga wondered. "That's so sad."
It is sad that a major industry player would still be required to put her looks above her creative work. Speaking out against this fact, Gaga exposed how limiting mainstream stardom can be, even for those women whom fans idealize as remarkably subversive or at least independent. Yet the most powerful thing about this keynote conversation wasn't Gaga's insistence on being herself, but her ambivalence about what that self is really made of. Once she was determined to remake the pop machine from within. Now she's allowing us to witness her struggle to dismantle it — or perhaps to simply find a way to take apart the creation it made of her.
"Nobody put me in a weird machine and popped me out: Gaga," she told Norris. The awareness Gaga showed during this conversation intimately illustrated how even major stars are facing a reckoning as the music industry continues to fall apart. Can Gaga reclaim some semblance of the realness she so values through these new assertions of independence? To do so would be a bold mission. Then again, partly because of her, "Bold Mission" is now a well-known Doritos slogan. Between the act and the brand, Lady Gaga — like pop itself — is trying to find her way.