It’s hard to remember the last time a pop star made their way into pop culture as viciously and immediately as Lady Gaga did between 2008 and 2010. “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” put her a cut above other pop artists at the time, but “Bad Romance” and its accompanying video were her true breakthrough. Lady Gaga went from “typical, if kind of kooky” pop artist to a thoroughly weird performer that juggled outsized music, image, and persona in a way that, even if it wasn’t always successful, was entertaining to watch. From The Fame Monster EP and into the album cycle for Born This Way in 2011, Lady Gaga seemed like she was going to be a commanding pop force for the long haul.
And then…something went wrong. Born This Way churned out a pair of hits, neither of which were as successful as her other monster singles, and she struggled to gain commercial and critical footing during the entire album’s cycle. Born This Way was and still is a flawed but fascinating album, and two years later, I finally see the overarching problem with it: Lady Gaga had stopped laughing with us.
I know that’s a weird diagnosis to give an album filled with celebratory anthems and a song called “Highway Unicorn”, but the delivery on BTW and in its videos is deadly serious. There was an undercurrent of humor in those The Fame/The Fame Monster videos: Gaga knew that pop was bullshit, and responded by making it as extreme as possible; would someone who wasn’t self-aware make something as gaudy and absurd (and still kind of insufferable) as the “Telephone” video? Fast forward to the video for “Marry the Night”–it’s a superior product, but presented as seriously as a film school application. Taking your art seriously is all good and fine, but Gaga did it without paring anything down; now she had to mean something while being larger than life.
That’s still the approach on ARTPOP, arguably the most Lady Gaga-y record title of all time. Gaga herself has billed this album as one of reinvention, of stripping off the huge glasses, the elaborate costumes, and the meat dresses, and building something new from a black cat suit, all while making a “reverse Warhol” statement. Hearing Lady Gaga shed away layers of her persona and remake herself could make for an intriguing and great album, but sadly, that isn’t what we get on ARTPOP. Her career-long balancing act of artistic ideas against musical output has never swung so hard in one direction.
Take the opening four tracks, for example. Each one is a variation on the “overstuffed, distorted synths with thundering drums” markers that characterized Born This Way at its worst stapled to eager to please choruses. Opener “Aura” works the best out of bunch; the chorus has an actual build to it, while the chaotic dubstep-tinged verses sound fittingly deranged, and the lyrical theme of “behind the aura” is an enticing start to ARTPOP (spoiler: this idea spends most of the LP ditched in line to get in the club, only turning up late in the game for piano ballad “Dope”). The trio of following songs–“Venus”, “G.U.Y.”, and “Sexxx Dreams” are by-numbers sex jams that feel redundant one after another after another.
Those three songs demonstrate ARTPOP‘s largest conceptual flaw: Lady Gaga can present themes, but she never expands on them across the album. She can mull over fashion, drugs, or sex in three to four minute chunks, but rarely with any depth or personal interest. The same artist that once famously sang, “I wanna take a ride on your disco stick” and “I want your whiskey mouth all over my blonde south” can’t write a song called “Sexxx Dreams” without sounding like she’s slumming it. Like naming the album ARTPOP, Lady Gaga writing a song called “Fashion!” or “ARTPOP” issues a non-reaction from me; haven’t these been key ideas since Day 1?
ARTPOP‘s middle and back sections fair better than the front, although that still doesn’t mean as much as it could. The fight for “best song” is between three songs: the R.Kelly assisted R&B jam “Do What U Want”, simple pop song “Fashion!”, and Born This Way-style anthem pop “Gypsy”. “Do What U Want”, the album’s by-demand second single, is a slowburning, industrial R&B electro-stomper that sees both artists turning in stellar vocals over a smooth instrumental. “Fashion!”‘s unarguably the simplest song on the LP, and works all more because of it; most of the song’s lead by a simple piano-bass-drums combo that erupts into a metal-tinged guitar finale that’s grandiose and indulgent in all the best ways. “ARTPOP” and “Dope” are both somewhat restrained with electronic overtones, and while they aren’t stellar songs, work as a lovely alternative to forgetful tunes like “Manicure” and “Swine”.
Finally comes “Applause”, a decent first single and great album closer. The hook is strong and builds, the post-chorus synth line and melody have great interplay, and even though it’s always been a safe song, it’s always enjoyable. It’s just a shame that “Applause”, a song I was ready to think of as a mid-tier cut on the album is one of ARTPOP‘s better tracks. Lady Gaga’s music has been vapid, loud, and messy before, but it’s never been this empty. ARTPOP doesn’t successfully live up to its name on either account; it’s Lady Gaga’s most conventional release by a stretch, and it’s also her least memorable as far as pop music goes. It’s disappointing to hear one of pop’s most unpredictable voices on repeat, two and a half stars out of five.
tl;dr: the Lady Gaga bubble busts on ARTPOP, 2.5/5