ARTPOP: Lady Gaga Gets Weird (Even For Her), But The Backlash Is Unmerited
The dominant narrative about ARTPOP, the fourth major release from Lady Gaga, has been obvious since at least six months before the damn thing actually came out. You could see it coming down the pike clear as day–she had been popular and famous for too long. She’d taken too long to follow up Born This Way. It was time for a backlash! Gaga herself knew it was coming, and played on it for her performance at the VMAs earlier this year–as she stared into the camera, theatrically bugging her eyes, tapes of jeering audience members declared that she was “over.” Her defiant response, a gloriously weird performance of ARTPOP debut single “Applause,” could have been the takeaway moment from that entire awards show… if Miley Cyrus hadn’t hit the stage less than an hour later in a rubber bikini. Hey, win some lose some, right?
An intensely media-savvy artist, Gaga is nonetheless not perfect, and could be accused of playing the media game poorly by taking too long between albums. Understandable medical issues aside, she missed the opportunity to keep her name and music in the public eye. After all, Katy Perry took nearly half a year longer between Teenage Dream and Roar than Gaga did between Born This Way and ARTPOP, but Perry re-released her smash hit album in early 2012 with seven additional songs tacked on, two of which became hit singles in their own right. This kept people talking about her, and seems to have prevented a backlash from rolling in. So why didn’t Gaga do that?
We can sit here and dissect her career moves, figure out exactly what happened to position Gaga in the uncomfortable place she occupies now, where critics and observers of pop culture hover like vultures, waiting breathlessly for a flop. But before I determined anything about the overall success or failure of the latest chapter in Gaga’s career, I figured I should actually listen to her new album. The music is what really matters here, right? Well, with ARTPOP‘s 15 tracks, Lady Gaga does a lot more to fly in the face of the current backlash narrative than she does to affirm it.
Coming from an artist who has always contrasted her strong pop songcraft with a cultivated image of over-the-top art-damaged weirdness, it might seem impossible for ARTPOP to throw anybody off by being overly bizarre. And yet, when “Aura” began with flamenco-style guitars, I briefly wondered if I’d downloaded a fake leak. The first minute of this album sounds like Sergio Leone trapped in an Italo-disco production studio with Joan Crawford or something. Even when “Aura” turns back into a more standard Gaga song with an epic Eurohouse chorus, the verses are driven by the same abrasive synth sounds that showed up all over Kanye West’s Yeezus earlier this year. This is a hell of a track to start a straight-up mainstream pop album with, and it’s a pretty fair approximation for what’s going on throughout ARTPOP.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some pretty obvious singles embedded throughout ARTPOP. By now you all know what’s up with “Applause,” which wraps up the album, in perfect curtain-call position as the most traditional Lady Gaga song here. There’s nothing wrong with this track (aside from my personal kneejerk/punk rock instinct to scorn the desire for commercial appeal expressed in the lyrics), but its slightly underwhelming commercial performance might be explained by the fact that it breaks little new ground in Gaga terms. People made that same criticism of “Born This Way,” which didn’t slow that song down any. Of course, my theory has always been that “Born This Way” was designed to be musically unchallenging so it would be a guaranteed pop hit, acting as a Trojan horse to get the song’s extremely progressive lyrical content onto the radio. “Applause” doesn’t have that excuse. But then again, are we really considering a song that hit #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 a failure? Such a judgement seems to say more about the eagerness to start the backlash than the quality of the song.
Commercially speaking, Gaga still knows how to write hits, and “Applause” isn’t the only evidence of that to be found on ARTPOP. Her use of features on two tracks is certainly reflective of the 2013 state of play, in which the majority of top 10 singles feature some guest or another. Both songs disrupt the album’s overall mood to at least some extent. “Jewels n’ Drugs” features T.I., Twista, and the legendary Too $hort, a reasonably impressive guest list. Sure enough, the song gives them a modified trap beat to spit over, complete with synth blurps that would fit on a UGK or Three 6 Mafia jam. But whenever Gaga starts to sing, she steals the song back, making the backing track sound right at home in her oeuvre of artsy Eurodisco jams merely by laying down a vocal track on it. A similar metamorphosis takes place on “Do What U Want,” an uptempo but smooth R&B jam, slap-funk bass and all–when guest R. Kelly is singing, he makes the song his own, but Gaga does the same on her verses. By the way, if anything on ARTPOP is going to sneak past the backlash narrative and score Gaga a crossover hit, it’s this track. It hasn’t cracked the top 10 yet, and I’m not too stoked about the Terry Richardson thong image on the single’s cover, but hey, it’s not like this song sucks.
Does anything on ARTPOP suck? Well, “Donatella” has been an easy target thus far, and I guess I can see why, if you take this song seriously. But anything that starts with Gaga intoning “I am so fab. Check me out–I’m blonde, I’m skinny, I’m rich, and I’m a little bit of a bitch” in an overdone Eurotrash accent seems obviously tongue-in-cheek to me. Gaga talks about this song in interviews like it’s a straightforward tribute to Donatella Versace, a “fearless female”–but does the line “Walk down the runway but don’t puke” sound to anyone else like something that belongs in a sincere tribute? I don’t buy it.
Another track that may ruffle feathers is “Gypsy,” which follows in the tradition of Stevie Nicks and Cher by being named after what is considered by some to be a slur against a persecuted European ethnic minority. I don’t feel like getting too mad at Gaga over this, especially since I have a friend who named his daughter Gypsy and I’ve never yelled at him about it, but rest assured, she’ll take some heat for this decision (she already has on tumblr, in fact). The song itself has the same epic/triumphant feel she achieved on “Edge Of Glory,” only with a bit less 80s retro infusion, so it’s a shame it’ll be overshadowed by the debate the title is bound to stir up, but that’s nobody’s fault but Gaga’s own (by the way, she probably shouldn’t be talking about burqas on “Aura,” either).
Backlash, problematic lyrical content, and debatably smooth interjections of featured guests aside, though, there’s a lot for a Gaga fan to like here. The noisy Yeezus synths show up a whole lot across the length of ARTPOP, and the Gaga-does-Reznor disco-diva goth of “Swine” is a pretty great use of them. “Venus” is my personal favorite tune on this entire album, and I particularly dig the fact that it’s sort of a Sun Ra cover. The Sun Ra line was repurposed from a song by the legendary free-jazz weirdo for a recent single by French disco group Zombie Zombie. Gaga takes that song’s chorus as a starting point for this hook-filled space disco track, which almost sounds like a lost Random Access Memories outtake. It also follows in the noble footsteps of the MC5 in that it covers Sun Ra by pretty much rewriting his song completely (see “Starship,” from Kick Out The Jams). “Manicure” is the sort of football-chant glam-rock that Slade, or more aptly Joan Jett, built their careers with. At tracks 3 and 4, “G.U.Y” and “Sexx Dreams” make up a one-two punch that will make the years of fans who show up to Gaga albums for the dirty sex jams (even if “G.U.Y” does make prominent use of the phrase “please retweet” in its lyrics–again, I’m assuming this is irony).
And of course, Gaga also meets her heartwrenching-ballad quota on ARTPOP. “Dope” is the latest in a series of tracks on Gaga albums in which she breaks it down to piano and heartfelt vocals and proceeds to exorcise some demons. She does her bottle-smashing 2009 performance of “Speechless” one better in a recent YouTube Awards performance of “Dope” that appears to be her “Goodbye Waterface” moment–though I don’t know how seriously to take her weepy intro and seemingly disheveled appearance. I tend to assume that any actual emotion Gaga expresses in song is sincere, since she’s usually so good at distracting from her emotional content with her over-the-top fashions. When she’s wearing a flannel shirt and a baseball cap, though, I don’t know what to think. For the record, the marijuana habit referenced in “Dope”‘s chorus was apparently real (at least it wasn’t coke this time). Once again, though, if you push context to the background and concentrate on the song itself, you will be rewarded. Say what you will about Gaga, but there’s no doubt she can sing her ass off–and she does that here. “Dope”‘s lyrics, about attempting to find a way to dampen emotional pain without succumbing to the negative effects of substance abuse or losing friends to one’s own out-of-control behavior, will hit way too close to home for many listeners. “I need you more than dope” is a dark line to build a chorus around, but it’s not a sentiment that will be unfamiliar to many.
ARTPOP is not without its flaws, but even Gaga’s crowning moment, The Fame Monster, was something other than perfect. Most of what makes this album less than a down-the-middle commercial pop masterpiece, though, comes from its tendency to follow Gaga’s high-art instincts into musical terrain that is spiritually closer to her extra-musical image than she’s previously gotten in song. It seems like this must have been a conscious decision. After all, we already know she saw the backlash coming. Choosing to sacrifice a bit of her mass musical appeal might lose her some attention from those who regard her as equivalent to any other pop star, and therefore only as good as her last single. But for the art kids, fashion nerds, and Little Monsters to whom Gaga is their generation’s David Bowie, ARTPOP will be pure catnip. It’s a rare artist for whom getting unprecedentedly weird can be seen as appealing to her base, but we’re talking about a woman whose meat dress has its own Wikipedia entry. ARTPOP may not be a perfect pop album, but its quirks and imperfections mostly serve to make it a cooler and more interesting “art pop” album, so I have no doubt that her superfans (of which I will always be one) will love it. If you’re a more casual appreciator of Gaga’s work, you may not connect with everything here, but it’s not like she’s abandoned the disco grooves, epic choruses, and top-notch singing that made her so beloved in the first place. If you can accept that this album flows a little less smoothly than Born This Way did, you’ll find a lot to love on ARTPOP.
Where’s the meat-dress clad nonconformist who wooed us with Euro-pop ballads…September 21, 2016
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