Here’s the most important thing you have to know about Lady Gaga’s performance at SXSW on Thursday night: At one point, while performing the ARTPOP track “Swine,” Gaga climbed aboard a mechanical bull that had a pig’s head. A second woman, a performance artists from London who Gaga introduced as Millie, climbed onto the bull with her and proceeded to vomit directly onto the bright white apron that gaga was wearing.
It was certainly a new brand of visual, and one that Gaga designed specifically for this special show that was originally supposed to be staged inside the giant Doritos vending machine but was later moved to the faux-amphitheater at Stubb’s. That smaller stage was converted into “Lady Gaga’s Haus of Swine,” according to a light up sign on stage right. The mechanical pig wasn’t the only attraction; she opened the show by singing “Aura” while rotating on a barbecue spit (this was after six solid minutes of her eating ribs on stage in silence). You can’t accuse her of not knowing how to work a crowd, as she also re-arranged “Bad Romance” into a country-blues hybrid that featured some pretty mean fiddling.
It was hard to imagine what Lady Gaga would do on such a small stage, but she made it work. Over the course of her relatively intimate hour-long set, she stuck mostly to material from ARTPOP, with the piano ballad “Dope” and the jittery “MANiCURE” doing their best to stand out from the pack. The only swerves were the remixed variation of “Bad Romance” and an a cappella rendition of a song called “Monster For Life” that she dedicated to regular opening acts Lady Starlight and the Semi-Precious Weapons, who had joined Gaga on stage. (Her only other on-stage guest? Twista, who dropped in for his verse on “Jewels N’ Drugs.”
The vomiting was, of course, the centerpiece. Gaga announced she would be wearing the apron and introduced the mysterious Millie before the opening notes of “Swine.” Millie made a big deal out of chugging down a bottle of green-tinted liquid, the bulk of which ended up on Gaga after a brief sojourn through Millie’s alimentary canal. It was gross, to be sure, but it also felt new.
The horrendous accident that killed two and wounded another two dozen occurred just a block away from where Gaga was standing, so she dedicated her brief set’s encore to the victims of that tragedy. Before playing an extra-emotional version of “Gypsy” (whose refrain “I don’t wanna be alone forever” held extra resonance), she reminded the audience to be present and available and to make art whenever possible, because life is short and fleeting.
“When you die,” she told the crowd, urging them to remain engaged, “nobody is going to give a f— what you tweeted.” It was the ideal tone to strike in dealing with the senseless violence of the previous night. That’s why Gaga is a pro.