AUSTIN, Texas -- Lady Gaga wants to have her snack chips and eat them too.
During her keynote address (actually a softball interview) Friday, Gaga attacked naysayers who criticized her for performing at the South by Southwest Music Conference for a corporate snack-food sponsor that required fans to shill for its product in exchange for gaining admission to her concert Thursday night. At the same time, she touted rebellion and her refusal to play by the corporate rulebook as one of the keys to her career.
It was a complex message, one that demanded to be untangled and could've made for a fascinating keynote. She was hardly the only superstar performer to appear this week under the banner of a corporate brand. Jay Z, Kanye West and Coldplay did the same. But her inquisitor, John Norris of Fuse, wasn't up to it. In addition, all audience questions were filtered ahead of time. So the formidable Gaga intellect was barely engaged.
"Whoever is writing or saying all these things (about the corporate sponsorship for her SXSW concert), you don't know (anything) about the music industry," Gaga said. "Without sponsorships we wouldn't have any more artists coming to Austin, we wouldn't have any more festivals, because record labels don't have any ... money."
Yet Gaga noted that corporate thinking has tried to hem in her creativity. "What are we as an industry if we're not telling our artists to be creative?" she said. "Why are we allowing it (the music industry) to be a prison?"
The mixed message spoke to some of Gaga's difficulties in the last year. Her 2013 "ArtPop" album was not as commercially successful as her previous recordings, and she canceled a tour to have hip surgery. "My hip was falling apart, there are three screws in it now," she said.
But she's gearing up for a major tour this year, which kicked off at South by Southwest with a highly theatrical and unconventional presentation that included a vomiting skit, with the star getting the worst of it.
She has staked out a niche on the pop charts by being more theatrical and more outrageous than her peers, and bringing a subversive, layered intelligence to her best songs and videos. Her entrance at the keynote was part of her all-encompassing image: she was dressed in "tailored plastic" -- a big bag, basically -- with blond dreadlocks streaming down her back. She says one of the early criticisms of her act was that she was too theatrical, and she pointed to artists such as David Bowie and Freddie Mercury as examples (notably omitting another obvious role model, Madonna).
Her declining sales aren't something she concerns herself with, she said, even though the first single from "ArtPop" declared -- ironically perhaps -- that "I live for the applause, applause, applause."
"I'm held to such an insane standard -- I'm sorry I didn't sell a million copies the first week," she said. But "I don't know what I have to do with Katy Perry. I don't fit in pop music, but I came up through it."
She referred frequently to her days as a solo performer in New York, dragging her keyboard up and down a flight of stairs to her apartment, while writing songs and describing how she was determined to be appreciated for her music, not her physical attributes. She was told that "it's better for female artists to just look beautiful. That's the thing that poisoned me from 2013 to 2014, to the point where I just wanted to look ugly all the time. Is that what this is about?"
For Gaga, this was about reclaiming her turf as the edgiest of pop performers, the one who doesn't mind provoking her audience or being showered with bodily fluids, who lives not just for the applause but for art that can be twisted and unpredictable. And apparently all the better if you can get a snack-chip company to help pay for it all.