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Inside Lady Gaga’s SXSW Doritos Show, a Flawed Marketing Experiment

AUSTIN, TX: Before rushing out the door to catch my flight to Austin for SXSW, I made my roommate put on pants so he could film me in our kitchen doing the robot. I posted it to the social network I use the least, Vine, and sent the link to the apologetic Ketchum rep who’d told me that in order to gain press access to Lady Gaga’s Doritos show at SXSW on Thursday, I’d need to give them some free social marketing masquerading as a #bold challenge. I tried to think of a caption that would somehow redeem the moment, a task made all the more difficult by having to sandwich in not one but two Doritos hashtags. At first I felt as queasy as if I’d devoured a bag of Cool Ranch-flavored corn chips on my own, and my plan was to delete the post as soon as the flack told me I was listed. Instead I thought I’d share the embarrassing clip as an opportunity to discuss, once again, what SXSW has become: music’s biggest marketing opportunity. So yeah, enjoy my terrible dance moves. All I got was an hour-long Gaga show and a stomachache from the Doritos.

Earlier this week, New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles announced that he would not be covering Lady Gaga’s performance, due to the requirement I just detailed. I respect that and would expect nothing less from the Times, but just a reminder: critiquing pop stars is neither Hard Journalism nor God’s work. I was curious enough about the spectacle of this specific performance to go through with the bullshit requirement, which does not mean I’m a journalist without ethics. Maybe I was embarrassed to be jumping through hoops, but in doing so I found that even Gaga seemed embarrassed to be shilling Doritos.

I sort of figured she wouldn’t perform in a Doritos vending machine when I found out the show was set for Stubb’s, with its partial band shell, although the Doritos rep I encountered while picking up my credential said they had built another in Stubb’s, in addition to the massive one on erected on Red River and 5th St. In the event, there was only subtle Doritos branding on the stage itself: just one of several neon signs hung around the stage.

Gaga never once said the sponsor’s name, let alone a hashtag. In fact, she spent a couple minutes passionately chiding big business, telling the crowd that you don’t need corporations to be an artist. “I won’t play by your fucking rules,” she screamed. Later Gaga pleaded with fans to put their phones down, which would of course prohibit them from tweeting #bold things. “When you leave the earth no one’s gonna care what you tweeted,” Gaga protested, wisely. “Don’t let the machine and don’t let technology take you from this earth.”

When you book Gaga, I think you expect a small amount of rebellion. That’s her brand, the authentic pop star. But the act of accepting a rumored multimillion-dollar sum to play an hour-long set at one of SXSW’s most aggressively sponsored gigs — a show that, when it debuted two years ago with Snoop Dogg, was decried as the nail in the coffin that is the corporatization of SXSW — when it’s clear you don’t use the product you’re shilling is the opposite of authenticity.

Gaga could use a win right now, after an over-the-top but somewhat ineffective record campaign behind last year’s ARTPOP, an album that received mixed critical reception. Unfortunately, this was not a win for her, and barely even #bold. Lord knows she tried, being trotted out on stage by her sex slave back-up dancers on a roasting spit and belting out “Aura.” The show itself started out with one of her dancers deep-throating sausage links and mainlining BBQ sauce, which seemed more like an ad for Stubb’s than Doritos. Later, for “Swine,” Gaga mounted a mechanical swine with Millie Brown, the British performance artist known for vomiting colored milk on various objects (including, previously, Gaga). You can guess what transpired.

The highlight of the eight-song set was Gaga’s final song, “Gypsy,” which she dedicated to the victims of Wednesday’s tragedy. She toned down the clique vibe she gave off during “Applause,” which she played alongside longtime pals Semi-Precious Weapons and Lady Starlight, whom she called “the original New York club kids.” After the aforementioned anti-tech screed, Gaga started into a tender version of this piano ballad, which crescendoes into a rave track. It was just about the only thing #bold about the whole night. Afterwards, fans shuffled out onto Red River, waiting to have something else marketed to them. It wouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes.

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