Her performance at SXSW in Austin, Texas last Thursday has put her back in the centre of attention. Though most of the attention she has received has been negative. Overwhelmingly negative.
Not a surprise.
Lady Gaga performs Aura at South-by-Southwest in Austin, Texas (photo from music-mix.ew.com)
During the performance of her song Swine, performance artist Millie Brown chugs a bottle of green liquid and forces herself to vomit on Lady Gaga as she bangs on the drums.
While Gaga’s performance started with her rotating on a pig roast, it was being on the receiving end of a vomited green liquid that got everybody talking.
“She’s getting so desperate for attention.” “She’s disgusting.” “That isn’t art.”
The common error behind comments like this is the belief that the performance was meant to be positive.
People usually attribute any sort of presentation or performance art to be likable, pleasant or beautiful. Yet, in her SXSW keynote speech the next day, Gaga responded to ongoing criticism: “I’ve won Grammys now. I’ve written albums. I’ve toured the world four times. You’re telling me to be beautiful?”
Ever since emerging on the music scene in late 2008, Lady Gaga has always side-stepped the conventional path that most pop stars follow, never venturing too far from it but not staying on it either.
Between her outfits, music videos and outlandish public appearances, people always respond the same way: “She dresses ridiculously!”, “She’s so desperate!” and my favourite “Why can’t she be normal?”
Yet, despite essentially being a ‘pop star’, Gaga has constantly aimed to extend herself beyond the limitations most people place on pop singers. It is something she has acknowledged over the years.
During her Born This Way era, she constantly reiterated to her audiences to never let anyone bring them down for being who they are. She has constantly tried to defy the definition of ‘beautiful’ as being something other than what conventional thought tells us.
Lady Gaga wearing one of her several outfits at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards
While Gaga is an extreme example in most cases and, because of how she’s packaged – as a pop star – and who she is, not to mention the ongoing backlash against her, the message she has delivered time and time again has gone over the heads of her harshest critics.
If there’s anything she’s been criticized more for, it’s her looks. Yet, she has never dressed ‘normal’ and has always acknowledged that. Still, the criticism continues.
I’ve argued that Lady Gaga has always been a performance artist in addition to being a pop star. She sets the example for what she speaks about and for the most part doesn’t sweat the brunt of the criticism, even if at times she wears her heart on her sleeve and doesn’t respond well to it (re: her Twitter outbursts).
Admittedly, it is probably frustrating to have a message that never gets received because people never fail to look past the person delivering the message.
What does this all have to do with her appalling SXSW performance?
There was a message in there.
I’m a self-professed Gaga fan and the performance initially confused me and made me uncomfortable. But at the same time, knowing that she knows she’s a magnet for criticism, I commend her for it.
She has said Swine is about some of the worst people she has ever known who have been responsible for some of the worst periods in her life. Before her performance of it on Thursday, she reiterated it again, this time saying “this is a song about rape.”
One interpretation of the performance I read attributed the vomit to that of rape and the stains left behind as being representative of the emotional scars left behind. Gaga finished the performance stains and all.
Of course nobody is going to like the vomit. That’s kind of the point.
Yet, while people accuse her of being shallowly desperate for attention, they shallowly refuse to believe that there could be something more to the performance.
A year ago I wrote about how the definition of art doesn’t have to be something that is nice or likable. It can be ugly and disgusting, as long as it provokes some thought. For most people, this performance has failed to do that. I wouldn’t say it’s because of the artist but instead because of what labels people put on her, refusing to see past the flaws they hold her accountable to and the fact that she’s a ‘pop star’.
Art can also provoke emotion, and this performance has done plenty of that. The emotion is the right kind but targeted the wrong way.
The performance was disgusting, and likely it was meant to be judging by what it represented. Looking past the person performing, regardless of what one thinks of her, there was a point to it all.
If people can be this riled up over a Lady Gaga performance because it’s an outrageous Lady Gaga performance, surely this anger can be turned toward something more constructive, such as what the performance was meant to portray. Maybe this isn’t something that should be diminished as just another cheap and desperate attempt for attention.