“[Artpop is] a celebration and a poetic musical journey [that displays a] lack of maturity and responsibility”
So here we are again, it’s always such a pleasure. Remember when we tried to turn to bikes? It’s 2013 and we’re all back in Gaga-town, USA. It’s been a long while, hasn’t it? Years have passed since Lady Gaga pleasantly surprised me with her wackiness and secret identity as an Autobot. I’m not kidding! Born This Way was a cool couple of discs, stretching Gaga’s obsession with leather studs, Meatloaf and Queen into 17 whole tracks of vocal acrobatics, at least one LGBTQ anthem, and incredible bizarrity (“Highway Unicorn“). But of course, it’s Gaga, and so we can’t expect her to do the same thing twice, and she left herself with two clear options: play it safe, or lose her damn mind. It’s a stretch to suggest she’s done both. This is Gaga, though, and she’s getting older, so there are things we get to expect by now: her voice is more distinct than ever, as is her style, and she’s improved as a singer again. Less fortunately, Artpop presents the worrying argument that Born This Way and Fame Monster weren’t her personal touchstones; The Fame was. And that ought to be sort of disappointing, for anyone hoping Freddy Mercury and Meatloaf could be her key muses; The weirder Steph gets the better, the music critic has to say. Fortunately we’re beholden to no such beliefs in the club, but a critical cruise down Artpop‘s logical continuity won’t take us anywhere particularly exciting, despite her artistic aspirations. My Artpop could mean anything, she croons on “Artpop”, ironically one of the album’s weakest cuts. But could it, really? Primarily it seems to mean: 1. I’m cool. 2. I’m secretly not cool (and I know it). 3. I have sex like a wildcat, possibly too often, and 4. I’ve done some drugs in my time. I refuse to interface with Lady Gaga’s claims that Artpop represents a post-Warholian aesthetic, because no one knows what that means. Her grandiose speech is, though, a clue as to what she’s up to here: Artpop, so frequently, is all pomp and no deep statement. This is a shame, if only because Gaga’s quickly becoming the Peter Molyneux of pop music, talking everything up to a ludicrous level to which her products don’t necessarily rise. So when someone like me approaches Artpop, they hope desperately for that flurry of insane artistic activity that Lady Gaga promises every single time she produces an album – and that lyrical ambition simply doesn’t materialize here, however often she intimates it. Oh well. We sigh, that’s fine. It’s synthpop, it’s club-pop, a genre where a lyrical message is often more of a fun bonus than a necessity. Approached on that level, its own level, Artpop is pretty solid! It has to be – this is Lady Gaga, she’s the millennial Queen of this Stuff. So let’s all pay attention like we have to: court is in session.
For everything that’s going to come after, Artpop gets off to a roaring start. Maybe you haven’t seen “Aura”‘s Robert Rodriguez-directed music video yet, or heard Gaga’s Faster-Pussycat whine on track, but it rocks. The flamenco guitars stir up dust, the beat drops like a ton of bricks, Gaga’s hitting peak-weirdo – but of course all of this would happen; Infected Mushroom produced the track. Oh, my bad, INFECTED MUSHROOM: Israeli psytrance pioneers and general symphonic-dance gods. That’s cool and unexpected and ambitious, it’s everything I want from Lady Gaga and none of the filler. That is, until we hit the inevitable ‘Gaga Breakdown’ about 75% in. This part’s important, because it’s going to happen on almost every track here. It’s the bridge, of course: the point that the beat drops out, rises slowly, Lady Gaga stands up from her Salvador Dalí piano and serenades the crowd with her crazy pipes. She can do this! She will do this, but it kills the flow of the track – and it happens on almost every track. To the point that I had to name it, and start pointing it out like a glitch. It’s a nod to pop convention, certainly, but Lady Gaga seems so absurdly past the point of needing to throw back the curtains and wail that it seems unnecessary; not to mention utterly sabotaging the flow of the Mushroom guitarscape she’s coiling across for the rest of the song. (It’s a promo video but whatever; Rodriguez.)
From there, the album’s off at a run and Gaga’s playing bumper-cars with a variety of genres and influences. “Venus” is runway-pop with an obsession with Greek myth (and to her credit, some clever wordplay and Bowie-esque space-travel). “G.U.Y.” Gaga putting her “Poker Face” gender-twist hat back on and having some fun with acronyms and gender dynamics. “Sexxx Dreams” is masturbatory both stylistically and lyrically, and sounds like Justice. “Jewels n’ Drugs” has T.I. in killer shape, Too Short present and, uh, Twista of all people – and the star herself cleanly showing up the rich-bitch competition in the female club-hop department. “Donatella” does this too, so we can ask, fairly, if she’s been listening to The Millionaires at this point (ugh). In fact, as we go on the touchstones become even more obvious: “Manicure” is worryingly similar to a lot of Chantal Claret’s work, specifically “Pop Pop Bang Bang“. “Do What U Want” runs like “Stylo” and features Gaga emphasizing the primacy of her mind and voice over her body… a message that R. Kelly’s slithering feature manages to immediately undercut. Whoops. They come faster from there: “Dope” – Meatloaf, “Fashion” – Bowie, “Mary Jane Holland” and “Artpop” – Gaga, actually, in a fun turn. Her career’s finally reached a length where she can reference her own material and voice, which works to her credit as an evolving artist. “Swine” is an odd moment and her most deprecating, coming off a touch like Depeche Mode might have written the lyrics in a fit of synthy, gothic melancholy. It’s by far her most self-deprecating track and a shockingly cruel one, which also means it comes as a pleasant surprise on an often-innocuous album. “Applause”, of course, is the hit, and largely impervious to the rest of the album’s art direction. It’s also the last track, and hits as a surprise; intentional or otherwise, putting your hit single as the album’s final track always speaks to a certain confidence. Or hubris. Or insecurity.
Is it good? Well yes: like I said, it has to be. “Dope” features Rick Rubin production and a straight-faced acknowledgment of Lady Gaga’s now-renowned drug habits. “Jewels ‘n Drugs”, for all its club-girl goofiness, has a beat like a bejewelled trap hit. “Venus” is a grower, and weird enough to be compelling after “Aura”‘s initial shock wears off. The melodies are strong and the 4-on-the-floor is firmly in check. It’s all danceable, all the production is stellar, Gaga isn’t known for missing notes or wasting an opportunity to stretch her voice. Stretching her voice, specifically, happens a lot here, and it’s Artpop’s only real innovation: anyone looking for Lady Gaga kicking and screaming, laughing and chatting and doing her best Milla Jovovich impression – well all of that happens in the first few tracks here. Born This Way played around with the notion as well, but on Artpop it’s so much more exaggerated. Listen to “Swine” to see what I mean: she growls, squeals and screams throughout the album as well (albeit more subtly) and those moments stand out when placed alongside the calmer slant of “Dope” and much of “Gypsy” toward the end.
Artpop‘s greatest talking-point, though, has been its supposed self-awareness and deprecation. Of course this occurs, it’s all over the place and done to great effect. Should that be surprising, though? Most of those lauded “introspective” tracks fall in the last half, and yes there’s a lot of self-acknowledgment and winking and deprecation going on, and word is all of this is new for Gaga. Um, guys? The Fame. The Fame Monster. Born This Way’s motorcycle-hybrid-sexpot, constant winking humour and religious imagery play. Highway Unicorn. Self-awareness is and has always been Gaga’s major virtue – of course she’s absurdly talented, and her performance capability is beyond criticism at this point. But to suggest she’s only now breaching the topic of her own egoism is absurd. Gaga’s self-awareness is the reason she still has a career, and likely the reason she’s given so much control over her appearance and stage-presence. That’s great! But it certainly isn’t new, and better – even laugh-inducing – examples exist all over the place on Born This Way (“I don’t speak German but I wish I could”).
The problem with a person like me reviewing a girl like Gaga is this: no one’s buying a Gaga album for thematic variety or compelling lyrical structure, let’s face it. Or even if they do, the sequencing is designed to minimize distinction between tracks. No one wants to let the beat drop, and she isn’t writing songs necessarily; she’s crafting house opuses, synthpop jams, Meatloaf-meets-disco hits. And that’s just fine! It also means that for her to do anything but that specific BPM she’s addicted to is often mistaken for experimentation; that’s not what it is. That’s… songwriting. No one can blame Gaga for playing it safe, but the novelty of her physical appearance so often overshadows the fact that she has yet to produce a remarkable album – because she isn’t necessarily producing albums yet, with Born This Way her only (bloated) exception. They’re selling on the strength of the singles, but the sequencing has yet to mean anything distinct, and she’s still rewriting Bad Romance roughly once a disk. Now is it cool? Oh yeah, of course it is, you can wander through and point out the bangers left and right, the production is gorgeous and lush and colourful. But it’s all on that aesthetic Rick Ross level of cool, that innocuous level where you’re really only paying attention to the riffs and the production values because you’re afraid to criticize the lyricism or analyze the record for themes and sequencing and so on, the things we properly (reasonably) expect from albums. Is that what Anti-Warholian means? Maybe it’s just Skrillex syndrome (or let’s generalize – marketing), but Gaga has yet to release anything whose track diversity, lyrical chops or sequencing has rendered me anything but dulled by the 5th Judas re-up. I just listened to Born This Way now; I got to track 10 before I moved on to another task. Can you name Born This Way‘s remaining 8 tracks? So we’re left with this – a familiar product, a firmly in-the-pocket update to everything we already knew about Lady Gaga. She’s not lyrically ambitious (seeeex), I’m not her target audience, and I’ll just keep on quickly checking in until we get something out of her that’s as substantial as the time she puts into her live shows and her artistic aspiration. That said, we know it can happen because her talent demands it, and I think we’re about 3 years away from Gaga’s Bat Out Of Hell (or more excitingly, her Ziggy Stardust) – so if you need me, I’ll be outside the club keeping tabs until then.
Originally reviewed right here, November 2013.