“My artpop could mean anything,” Lady Gaga sings in the title track of her new album, ARTPOP. It also, it turns out, could mean nothing at all.
The music industry’s most thoughtful, if not overthinking, superstar teased ARTPOP to be many things. On Twitter, she proclaimed it “the album of the millennium.” In an interview in England, she defined the confusing combination of “art” and “pop” as entities that have hitherto been mutually exclusive (as David Bowie, Bjork, and Madonna presumably raised a collective eyebrow) and which will be united in her album: “the dream of these two things belonging, art and pop together, but with art in the front.”
But as so many of us know, sometimes a “dream” is just a delusion. ARTPOP isn’t a trailblazing new art form. For all of its adornment in the veils of importance, creativity, and ambition, the album is the starkly naked exhibition of an artist whose brilliance is stripped away by her counterproductive and, at times, pretentious obsession with those very things: Importance, Creativity, and Ambition.
In many ways, ARTPOP is the confession of an addict—someone addicted to sex, fashion, love, fame, and excess. The album takes off with the otherworldly electronica of “Aura,” enticing listeners with the question, “Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura?,” hinting that ARTPOP will use this so-called melding of “art” and “pop” to offer a deeper look at the artist so often hidden beneath those vices. Instead, the album succumbs to them, masking kernels of at least a half dozen stellar pop songs in the overworked pompousness and titillation of what Lady Gaga considers “art.”
Lady Gaga, she of Jeff Koons obsession and meat dresses and Little Monsters, has long been a slave to her addiction to such things. But it’s easy to forgive, even enable, an addict when she delivers musical perfection in the form of “Bad Romance” or “Pokerface.” ARTPOP raises the question: can we even tolerate the addict when she fails musically?
To be clear, ARTPOP is not a bad album. There are smatterings of genius on it, even, though moments of great never morph into songs of greatness.
Her collaboration with R. Kelly, “Do What U Want,” slithers stealthily between synth pop and R&B, a radio-ready marriage, even if it never develops with any of the signature theatricality we expect from Gaga. The cheeky “MANiCURE” bounces buoyantly on a clap-driven melody, but where pop parody has always been Gaga’s strong suit, the track struggles to toe the line between wily camp and frivolity. Likewise, there’s about 30-seconds of pure pop candy in the hooks for “Donatella” and “Fashion!”—two songs headed straight to a drag show near you—that are soured by lyrics that careen from tongue-in-cheek self-awareness (“I’m blonde, I’m skinny/ I’m rich, and I’m a bit of a bitch”) to obtuse and tired pandering (“Just ask your gay friends their advice before you get a spray tan on holiday in Taipei”).
It’s as if Gaga’s afraid that she complemented her “pop” with so much “art” that she needs to overtly shout, “You see what I was going for there?” Whether it’s the blatant “hey, gays, this one’s for you!” on “Donatella” or the way she feels the need to spell out what the acronym “G.U.Y.” stands for (“girl under you”) in the title of the overly complicated track. In fact, “G.U.Y.” is just one of the cacophonous, Frankenstein-like songs she’s built on ARTPOP, on which a catchy hook is drowned out by the whirring bee’s nest production surrounding it. “Aura” and “Venus” fall to the same fate: booming, earworm choruses interrupted by a clunky hodgepodge of stuttering verses and blandly complex atmospherics.
But whereas Gaga bundles up so much of the album’s production in excessive amounts of nuance, her lyrics could’ve benefitted from slightly more of that very thing. “Sexxx Dreams” has all the come-hither appeal of a sultry Janet Jackson track without any of the erotic mysticism. “When I lay in bed I touch myself and I think of you,” she bluntly states. Get it? Sex dream! Or there’s the cringe-worthy “Jupiter/Mercury, Venus—uh ha! Uranus/ Don’t you know my ass is famous?” couplet on “Venus.”
But after weathering 12 tracks that occasionally snap, sometimes crackle, but never really pop, Gaga rewards with a stellar closing trifecta.
In the wrenching ballad “Dope,” Gaga’s voice crackles with a vulnerability that is startling in its showiness—a dichotomy so very Gaga. She’s slurring her words, growling her chorus, and finally laying bare an irrefutable honesty: for all her addictions, it’s love that’s her drug. It’s a confession that follows on “Gypsy,” the album’s rousing, Springsteen-ian standout track. The house-infused power ballad is the kind destined for last-call sing-a-longs at those bars with peanut shells on the floor, with Gaga belting over tickling ivories about trusting instincts and charging into the unknown. Then there’s the album’s fitting finale, “Applause,” a track whose disjointed verses become increasingly forgivable every time the song’s unshakable chorus blasts over the radio. “I came for the applause,” she admits, even brags, unabashedly, waiting for—or maybe demanding—accolades for the “artpop” she’s created.
“Pop culture was in art,” she sings, “now art’s in pop culture in me.” She’s right, and ARTPOP is “art” in every way: polarizing, indulgent, and, as is often the case, raises the question, “What’s the point?”