Release Date: November 12, 2013
As the culmination of a seemingly endless promotional cycle that involved onstage quick-change, naked meditation with Marina Abramović, and a wig that sent gossip bloggers scuttling to figure out what the purpose of a merkin might be, the first few moments of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP are spectacular: “I killed my former and / Left her in the trunk on Highway 10,” she intones grandly over the spaghetti-Western guitars that usher in “Aura.” A rejection of persona from one of the biggest pop stars in the world, on an album that immediately calls attention to its artistic aspirations? Can it get more exciting than this?
Unfortunately, the answer is that it can get less exciting. As “Aura” unfurls, it reveals itself as an utter mess, with Gaga laughing maniacally and bleating a curiously uncatchy chorus over a kitchen-sink musical bed courtesy of Israeli trancetronica duo Infected Mushroom. They would rather you didn’t know about their involvement, although it’s hard to figure out who should be embarrassed for whom here — the Mushroom guys, with their gloppy stew of bleeps and beats, or Gaga, who offers a redundant admission that she loves to push buttons (and use burqas as a titillation device). Track two, “Venus,” is not much better, with verses that recall the pre-chorus of “Telephone” and a Uranus single-entendre about having a famous ass. By the time the intro to “G.U.Y.” rolls around, Gaga takes on a hostess role that brings to mind Cyborgasm, the 1993 cybersex “virtual audio” album that billed itself as “the first erotic CD.” (It’s no flying dress, but the ’90s were a simpler time.)
Thankfully, things rebound almost immediately, and a seriously banging pop EP ensues. “G.U.Y.” turns out to be an ode to taking on the submissive role in a relationship and lands like a harsher “Alejandro,” throwing elbows as Gaga sinks into her intended’s embrace. The R. Kelly collaboration “Do What U Want” leaps out of the speakers from note one and swaggers around the club, confusing both critical theory and theories of getting down. The jock-jam-in-waiting “MANiCURE” has cheerleaders and a guitar solo straight out of Headbangers’ Ball. “Swine” is the album’s other big highlight, with Gaga spitting out rebukes to “a pig inside a human body” over keyboard shards that seem to emulate the similarly pig-obsessed Trent Reznor. Some of the lyrics in this span are a bit cringe-worthy — “Touch me touch me don’t be sweet / Love me love me please retweet,” oh dear —but she delivers them with such verve and conviction that they’re forgivable.
Indeed, Gaga’s willingness to look kinda silly while she’s doing her thing is what makes her so compelling: Even the outlandish garb she wears for an errand as mundane as checking out of a hotel is a meta-statement on the panoptic-paparazzo age. This all-in attitude lets her fail in a way that’s still thrilling. Her commitment to playing dress-up, even when such cultural appropriation might ruffle a few feathers, is at least more sincere than a lot of the mealy-mouthed canned-interview answers that you’ll get from her fellow pop stars.
The great tragedy of ARTPOP, though, comes from those moments that sound not just flat, but deflated — for example, the eminently skippable one-two punch of the boastful “Donatella” (which is like “Supermodel” with the wit sucked out) and the will.i.am-produced “Fashion!,” which repurposes the glossy blue-eyed soul of Scritti Politti but waters it down so Gaga can shout about wearing Louboutins (which seem sort of basic for someone so consistently outlandish), while owning the world.
Naming an album ARTPOP implies a certain drama-club-kid flair, a willingness to take one’s devotion to the pop ideal as seriously as a cocaine-induced heart attack. “I just love the music, not the bling,” Gaga protests on the title track — a claim that seems a bit disingenuous, given the narrative arc of her career up to this point. If anything, her primary message since she shed the Stefani Germanotta stage persona has been something like “Fame is a thing that is important in 21st-century society.” Not the deepest statement, but also not that unique to the new millennium, as evidenced by the ad hoc cohort she’s assembled in the run-up to this album’s release: The steely-eyed Abramović, the pop fantasist Jeff Koons, and the perpetually icky Terry Richardson have all prioritized the artist (i.e., themselves) over the art.
The final three tracks of ARTPOP make Gaga’s intended arc plain: After a long, often unpleasant journey through sexual obsession and drug-heavy fashion-crowd vapidity, it’s time to retake the stage and refocus the crowd. As she did on 2011’s Born This Way, she sticks the most rock-inflected tracks in the 13 and 14 slots: “Dope,” a leave-it-all-onstage, Rick Rubin-produced mope, sounds all wrong on purpose, Gaga’s voice wavering off-pitch as the burbling low end blows itself out, while the wind-in-her-wig “Gypsy” (the lone assist from longtime henchman RedOne) doubles as an ode to both love and the road. (Nothing therein beats the late Clarence Clemons’ sweet sax solo on Born This Way‘s similarly triumphant “The Edge of Glory,” though.)
And then, finally, the curtain call: “Applause,” the charging, atonal ode to being onstage and basking in her fans’ adulation, closes out this sprawling, seemingly flawed-out-of-necessity record. As a final statement, “Love me, because I love you” certainly transcends both art and pop; she remains singularly compelling and lovable as a celebrity, even if her records don’t always match up to her outsized persona. Even at their worst, they only prove that the art is sometimes unworthy of the artist.