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Lady Gaga talks individuality, passion and vomit at SXSW keynote

Deborah Sengupta

Editor’s note: This article was originally published March 14, 2014

At 11 a.m. Friday, South by Southwest co-founder Roland Swenson took the stage at the Hilton Ballroom to deliver opening remarks for 2014 keynote speaker Lady Gaga. The room, smaller than the Austin Convention Center ballrooms traditionally used for the SXSW keynote speaker, was at roughly 70 percent capacity.

A motif of this year’s festival, Swenson said, was iconic women of pop music. He listed Melissa Etheridge and Debbie Harry as examples alongside the much younger Gaga. Then he described watching one of his own female icons Exene Cervenka right before the terrible crash Wednesday night on Red River Street.

Subdued and clearly still shaken, Swenson announced that SXSWCares, the fund set up to aid victims of the crash had raised more than $33,000 in less than 24 hours, a significant amount on the surface until you consider the huge amount of corporate money poured into promotion for SXSW parties. For comparison, Perez Hilton’s title sponsors pay $75,000, and Jimmy Kimmel paid $125,000 to wrap the Capital Metro trains.

Swenson introduced FuseTV’s John Norris, who in turn introduced Gaga clad in an extravagant white gown that defies classification but included elements of Elizabethan court wear and ’80s prom dress. An occasionally fawning Norris led Gaga through a conversation that covered her Austin performance, her thoughts about artistic freedom and creativity and LGBT rights.

Gaga, known for wild visual spectacles, said that she spent four days before her Stubb’s show going out and trying to take in the SXSW experience in order to develop a set specifically for Austin. During that time she was sighted everywhere from big corporate parties to tiny rock ‘n’ roll club Beerland. The show she developed included Gaga on a roasting spit, a mechanical bull-like contraption and most strikingly, vomit. Gaga said she collaborated with performance artist and self-described vomit painter Millie Brown to create the Austin show.

In the aftermath, Gaga said it was exciting to see people talking about performance art.

“Sometimes things that are strange can change the world,” Gaga said, referencing other thinkers who held true to their passionate beliefs in the face of opposition, like Andy Warhol and, more tangentially, Martin Luther King.

The theme of staying true to yourself was a recurring motif throughout the conversation. Gaga explained that at different points in her career she was encouraged to make her performances less dramatic and also less gay. Clearly on both points she refused, building her own unique place in the pop music pantheon, but it’s something that she still struggles with.

“There’s no formula behind what we’ve done. I’m not from a factory,” she said describing her struggles with the marketing teams who try to monetize her art, striving for consistent Soundscan numbers, while Gaga prefers to keep the focus on her music.

“I will quit if I have to be something other than myself. I’ll be myself until they close the coffin,” she said, explaining that she would rather give up fame than compromise herself.

The talk touched on criticisms of her collaboration with Doritos on the SXSW performance. She credibly explained that artists have to work with corporate sponsors these days because record labels have no money. She less credibly argued that Doritos’ “Bold Bravery” campaign was sending a positive message to her young fans. Without naming a number she said that the majority of the proceeds from her SXSW performance went to her Born This Way Foundation.

The most touching moments in the keynote were her descriptions of the magic of the creative process. Tearing up, she explained how writing the songs on her latest record, the relative commercial flop “Art Pop,” got her through a very difficult emotional patch in her life.

“Those moments in music, that’s what it’s all about,” she said. “That thing that changed your life, that made you go for it. I’d give it all up tomorrow if I had to sell my soul to this music.”

“Don’t do it,” she said.