Article written by: Laurence H. Collin
Photos from V-Magazine, Lady Gaga online and Bravo TV
Don’t tell Mother Monster, but the (inevitable) leak of her massively anticipated third LP might just turn what was meant to be ARTPOP’s triumphant coming-out party into the era’s biggest test yet. The reality is that, despite obvious hard work and having earnestly oversold the project in that fruit vendor sort of way, Gaga’s latest labor of love isn’t quite as interesting or immersive as she believes—or rather, that it is interesting, but for different reasons than the creative flourishes from its two-and-a-half-year gestation period (truly aeons by today’s industry standards). Two-thirds of a greatly successful world tour, a perfume launch, several wig changes, one hip injury and a forced hiatus later, ARTPOP is finally ready to be unleashed upon international markets. But if word-of-mouth that happens to be more mixed than favorable catches fire before the official November 11th release date, the lady and her team may need to roll up their sleeves a bit higher to successfully re-connect with an audience that goes beyond a devoted fan base of Little Monsters.
For the postmodern artiste-slash-established hitmaker, simply putting out a solidly-crafted collection of pop tracks was never going to be satisfying. Much like her frontloaded 2011 blockbuster Born This Way, the ARTPOP ship was built on an epic scale– the type of big-budget album landing to the sound and fury of a promo blitz that showcases a full universe to get lost within, with all the grandiose visuals, big-name collaborations, media events & tie-in apps implied. In Gaga’s words: a ‘‘celebration and poetic musical journey’’, a ‘‘reverse Warholian experience’’ about the ‘‘decay of the blonde pop icon’’ or, in a winking bit of self-aggrandizement on her part, ‘‘THE ALBUM OF THE MILLENIUM !’’.
It should surprise approximately no one that the fifteen cuts here don’t exactly amount to the intricacy & eloquence of a Master’s thesis in Studies in Art History. Clocking in at just under an hour, the high-concept ARTPOP has lofty aspirations of creating a space in which refined high culture and manufactured pleasures are mutually inclusive, even vital to one another. That’s a very cute manner of summarizing the overarching vision, but Gaga doesn’t seem to realize that said ‘commercial + intellectual in PERFECT UNISON’ hook is arguably as much of what makes the heart of plenty other 2013 musical ventures beat, from Charli XCX’s True Romance to V V Brown’s Samson & Delilah to even last week’s Reflektor by Arcade—all records that achieve a fine balance between artful exploration and immediate sonic delight, without hammering their themes too hard or spelling out their creative process to the listener. Slap the ‘artpop’ title on any of those, and they would ostensibly still make sense given their content.
After a dozen listens or so, ‘GAGA™ by Gaga’ is the title I (teasingly) came up with to sum up the overall musical experience that ARTPOP offers. In no way do I mean that in a dismissive (or reductive) way : this is still top-tier, Haus of Gaga-approved material, with the supernaturally talented diva not pushing herself into unexpected territory as much as polishing the craft that elevated her way, way up there in those post-Bad Romance days. In those regards, the opening stretch of ARTPOP is especially glowing. Despite the unfortunate softening of her vocals in the reworking of Aura’s verses, the Zedd-produced number proves to be an alluring, dangerous opener. It leads way into three exciting back-to-back cuts : the ecstatic lunacy of Venus (also marking her very first producer credit— and whoo boy, that bridge!), the irresistible electronic groove of G.U.Y., and the absolute knockout that is Sexxx Dreams, whose pulsating erotic charge, gender-ambiguous lyrics and once-in-a-lifetime chorus are nearly enough to push into career-best territory. So far, so great : blending in shockingly well is the trap/glam hybrid Jewels n’ Drug live-premiered in the middle of her iTunes Festival last September, which lets its three– three!– guest rappers (T.I., Too $hort and Twista) make a solid collective impression.Gaga V-Magazine
The first warning signs of ARTPOP’s shortcomings begin with MANiCURE, a thin handclaps-and-guitars jam that would have been relegated to back-half filler on Gaga’s 2008 debut The Fame. As later cuts such as the insipid ‘homage’ that is Donatella (‘‘Just ask your gay friends for advice!’’ she shouts, sounding like Yelle) or the will.i.am/David Guetta-produced Fashion! (which is, to be fair, not at all the embarrassment many of us were fearing) will bring up repeatedly, it is unclear what the recurring themes of empty but ‘empowering’ materialism and obsession with appearance are supposed to demonstrate within the larger scope of the project. Of course, everyone and their mama know by now that bizarro aesthetics and avant-garde fashion are an integral part of the Lady Gaga brand, but those elements are usually relayed to the visual part of her packaging. Something appears to have been lost in translation; something of a lyrical step down becomes apparent. To see those components dragged front-and-center so many times with little attempt at a renewed meaning at this point in her career… I’m one hundred percent convinced that it all made perfect sense into the elaborate mind of Stefani Germanotta, but presented as such, their sheer inclusion on an album that apparently has had much as fifty written songs cockfighting for a spot on there is puzzling, to say the least.
ARTPOP soars back with the sequencing of another smashing trio, each song individually displaying more content and a better sense of melody than all of the glamazon-posturing tracks put together. The R. Kelly-assisted second single Do What U Want, which vogues to the zigzagging rhythm of a Kavinsky-esque mid-tempo beat, covers interesting notions of body image as public property and media’s obsessions, all while remaining playfully sexy. That very same topic finds a dark incarnation intelligently mirrored in Swine, a bludgeoning, bass-heavy EDM banger that hints at a past of sexual abuse— doing what you want with her body, but here in the ‘bad’, disgusting way. It’s visceral, fairly powerful stuff, certainly the angriest Gaga has ever sounded, and it has absolutely zero business segueing into Donatella and its platitudes right afterwards, but separating it and Do What U Want, the yang to its yin, is the gorgeous title track, in which the tender exchange between of ‘art’ and ‘pop’, organic and synthetic, is a cause for blissful chanting (‘‘We could, we could, belong together / Artpop’’, goes the velvety chorus).
There’s also a song called Mary Jane Holland, and I’m sure it’s a good because I was humming it this morning, but 19-year old French house sensation Madeon did the production work, so that means it’s buried under layers of buzzing neon sleaze and robotic vocal processing.
Since this is a Lady Gaga album, the tracklisting must obligatorily feature a ‘personal’, stripped-down piano ballad near its very conclusion. On ARTPOP, this takes the form of the Rick Rubin-produced (reduced?) Dope, which is about an addiction whose contours remain ambiguous (is it a substance? A person? Her beloved Little Monsters?). The effort is noble, the turns of phrases heartfelt and the chords pretty, and even if I wish Gaga hadn’t cranked the Broadway knob all the way up to eleven for her vocals, it’s easy to forget how much of a free flowing ball of energy she is as a performer having all gotten used to seeing her ever-surrounded by artifice and larger-than-life theatrics (her one previous performance of the song on keys, then-titled I Wanna Be With You, had the singer ditch fabulous wigs and ridiculous makeup but still over-singing while swingin’ her head, for the most part).
Gypsy is what follows. Gypsy is a cautionary tale about the importance of resisting every urge to turn a perfectly fine piano number into a pummeling sub-Marry The Night mediocrity sprinkled with garish day-glo synths.
ARTPOP concludes with Applause, the good-not-great kickoff single that should have grown on everybody by now at least a little. Looking back on the song at the tail end of the record proves to be something that works in Applause’s favor, in the sense that it does sound more like a closing statement on the entirety of the project rather than a three-and-a-half sales pitch, unlike, say, Born This Way and its oh-so-philanthropic grocery list of inclusivity (I forgot to mention that Gypsy also reproduces said name-checking tick but with nationalities instead of marginalized group, and that it is at that precise moment that Gypsy goes from merely a generic Lady Gaga song to a full-on unintentional parody of Lady Gaga songs. It even has a reference Scheiße, from the previous album– MetaGaga!).
In her write-up of Lady Gaga’s iTunes Festival performance, NME music columnist Eve Barlow seemed to have put a finger on something that could make sense of at least a fraction of the general public’s reluctance in immediately celebrating the Gaga comeback train. Barlow notes that with the arrival of ARTPOP, ‘‘the concept of failure feels possible. Actually, the concept of failure seems necessary. Gaga must fail. She must fail, she must go away, hang out with some normal people for a while, switch off her Little Monsters website, tell Terry Richardson to leave her alone for five minutes, listen to something other than the din of late-night post-show European clubs, forget about art, jesters, performance technique, forget fame, expectation, pursuit, success and the notion that time is never on her side.’’ Those are words that, all things considered, seem a bit hard to completely disagree with, n’est-ce-pas? For pop music enthusiasts, I reckon that nothing could be more heartbreaking than seeing the Gaga succumb to Aging Beauty Queen syndrome pumping out the most pandering, desperate material just to regain her crown. But for the time being, there is enough near-brilliant razzle-dazzle on ARTPOP to comfortably put our trust in Lady Gaga as an artist having accepted the end of her run as The Biggest Pop Stars In The World, as phenomenal as it was, and moving on to something else that matters. And what matters for her now is her music, her craft– not keeping her ass on the charts. Maybe it isn’t such a bad idea to keep her head buried in art history books.