Review: ARTPOP by Lady Gaga
I’ve started writing this review several times and in several ways now. There is so much to review in a new Lady Gaga album, such a weight of context, hype and explanation that I’ve found it hard to know how to tackle it. Do I review it as a ‘reverse Warholian experiment’, as a follow up to a divisive but ultimately artist-defining sophomore(ish) album, as an exuberant meditation on sex and drugs, as an exercise in pairing back and joining the dots between the simplicity of The Fame and the madness of Born This Way - or somehow all of the above? I decided to take a big meditative Abramovic breath (EAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYY) and dive head first into the actual music itself so forgive me for almost totally ignoring the other amazing parts of the Gaga package like videos, outfits, artwork and so on. Trust me I care about that stuff a lot but I also don’t want to write a PHD by accident..
I am very aware that Lady Gaga is critiqued against a bar much higher than that of any of her peers, in truth a bar higher than many other recording artists right now full stop. It’s not so much just that she is expected to be better (whatever that means) but that she is expected to be all things to all people. A great album will never be enough - she must be a juggernaut of cultural change and a singularly unique vision backed by music that will blow our brains, slicing through genre bias as it goes. Anything less is a failure. And in fairness she has no-one to blame for this but herself - with great ambition comes great expectation. How ARTPOP, or any album really, will ever square up against that I’m not sure but I’m comfortable in saying that as an audio experience it is certainly not a failure. Does it surpas Born This way for me? I don’t think so yet but it’s not a disappointment either and perhaps almost as importantly it’s a progression not a retread.
The sweeter the cake, the more bitter the jelly can be
Whilst the mission statement of her pre-fame Fame era was a tantalising combination of knowing pretension and pop sensibility Gaga’s later ascension into mainstream success via songs like Pokerface and Just Dance always felt like something of a trojan horse and though the Fame / Fame Monster was punctuated by moments that gave a heady glimpse into what you hoped she was capable of there was often an undeniable gulf between what you got on record and what she presented in person. It took until her last album for her to make a tangible connection between her lyrical content, her sound and her visual imagery achieving something that felt, however polarising, like it all made sense together. Where previously her emotional rawness was buried under too-generic production - or dark, sprawling videos were attached to songs that could barely hold them - Born This Way seemed to gather up all that had gone before and, in Gaga parlance, vomit it back out as a difficult, noisy, crazy and near-perfect fully formed thing.
All artists have ‘that’ album (if they are very lucky a few throughout a long career) that all future work is held against and doubtless Born This Way will be that for Gaga. Not because it was a unanimous critical success or because of world conquering sales figures but because it seemed to so completely say ‘This Is Lady Gaga’. And like many artists faced with what to do after that moment she has, on the face of it at least, done the exact opposite.
Artpop is ebulant, sexy, funny and unashamedly POP. Of course what words like ‘pop’, ‘mainstream’ and ‘experimental’ mean with Gaga will always depend what side of the fence you are sitting on. While her music is generally considered too full throttle, her lyrics too ‘alienating’ and her genre-influences too wide for conservatively chart-focused listeners she is also ironically still constantly berated by others for being too safe, too generic and too corporate. In trying wilfully to straddle both sides of the chart/alt pigeon hole she seems to often end up impaled in the middle. Standing before you in the divide, as it were.
How can I protect something so perfect without evil?
On first listen Artpop feels like a volte-face dash back to her earlier, less threatening sound but for me it is the logical combination and progression of everything she has done so far. Combining the slickness of The Fame and the uncompromisingly Gaganess of Born This Way Artpop is more hippy disco and less gothic springsteen but somehow it seems to make perfect sense in the here and now.
The early days of my love affair with Gaga were soaked in macabre imagery - the VMAs hanging, the pvc Juddermen of the Bad Romance video, the ever increasingly copious amounts of fake blood on the Monster Ball tour - and it seemed to me then that her appeal lay largely in her desire to bring the gothic to the dancefloor. To open a chart smash with a line like ‘I want your ugly, I want your disease’ was a pretty strong statement of intent and rather than Bowie or Madonna she seemed to me more like the flipside to Marilyn Manson’s Dope Show era pop flirations. The fact they collaborated on a (better than the album version) remix of Love Game seemed to suggest that she agreed.
If you had asked me to pick a song from The Fame Monster that I thought would signal her future direction I would have put my money on Dance In The Dark - an uptempo but tragic song with an anti-Vogue middle eight name checking ‘Marilyn, Judy, Sylvia’ and of all people Jonbenet Ramsay. I was in part right as Born This Way, sonically, was much more the industrial, kitchen sink sound of Dance In The Dark than the pure pop of Telephone or Pokerface but thematically a new Gaga had emerged. Increasingly using the Monster Ball tour as a platform to talk about love, acceptance and personal freedom I found myself viewing her more and more as some kind of punk hippy. Sort of a BE NICE OR GO FUCK YOURSELF kind of a thing. And indeed for all the leather, and whisky and consistently dark imagery that accompanied the Born This Way album it’s central themes are positive to the point of saccharine, saved only by her off-the-beaten-tracks lyrics and ‘putting the love in Courtney Love’ rock & roll persona. Indeed even You & I the albums sister-track to the fabulously nihilistic Speechless is a much more straight-up love song than it’s predecessor no matter how much more tortured (and the better for it) the production sounds.
If the Fame Monster was a dark album masquerading as light and fluffy one then in a lot of ways Born This Way was the reverse. What I feel she has managed to with Artpop is both sonically and lyrically melt these things together into something that is hard to position one way or the other. It is neither as stridently activist as Born This Way or as throwaway as The Fame. As an album it has highs and lows (emotionally, musically and chemically) and despite seeming on the face of it more vacuous it somehow ultimately feels more personal. At it’s very core Artpop is about sex and drugs and very little else. And do you know what ? That’s fine because those are the twin anchors of the history of music, though typically for Gaga more commonly rock than pop. Sex and drugs and the struggles there within.
Sometimes the simplest move is right
Gaga’s songs can often suffer from a case of the James Dean Bradfield’s (although unlike poor James she’s only got herself to blame) cramming ideas and words into melodies that can barely accommodate them. This can deliver easter eggs of genius like the, ironically generally unheard, ear-condom lyric in Judas but can just as easily lead to un-necessary (if often hilarious) clumsiness like
in Marry The Night. Indeed it’s often seemed to me that her most effective lyrics are her ‘worst’ and vice versa. Not to say there aren’t exceptions to that but I’ve generally felt like the more she has to say the worse she communicates it.
It is clear listening to Artpop that there has been a conscious effort to pair back, open the windows and let some air in. Everything feels fresher, lighter, cleaner and less bogged down in ‘MEANING’. Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Back To Basics - this is still an album that includes a pig-themed, techno-rave-out about sexual abuse - but on the whole it’s a much more streamlined Gaga than we had become accustomed to.
Thematically as I said the songs rarely stray from sex, drugs and er.. Donatella Versace .. but make no mistake this is still a very Gaga take on such subjects. The sex is kinky (and more than a little gender-bending), the drugs are fun.. until they’re not.. and the whole thing has a sort of Hair (the musical not the song) meets Hot Gossip meets The Shamen vibe about it that is at once both totally surprising and completely perfect.
Whilst perhaps Artpop fails to deliver the mission statement she promised it certainly succeeds on it’s own terms. Will it generate a seismic shift in the landscape of popular music? It’s unlikely but it will surely enrich my life and my CD collection enough that I’m very glad it exists in the world. To try and assess it in pre-retrospective terms like ‘impact’ and ‘reach’ feels futile but as a record, as as set of 15 vibrant, fun, occasionally moving and frequently peculiar songs, it’s a solid piece of work. It’s a very good Lady Gaga album and an exceptional pop album by most other people’s standards.
Track by Track
Enigma popstar is fun
This was the song most written about before the album was released due to it’s demo title of ‘Burqa’ although the apoplectic blog-rants have subsided to a quiet whine now that the song has been released and, somewhat anticlimactically, references the aforementioned clothing item precisely twice and so innocuously and apolitically that no one really has the energy to even bother saying the words ‘cultural appropriation’ out loud anymore. Aura has a great chorus and works well on the trailer for Machete Kills but I could happily lose it from the album. Thematically I understand it’s position as the opener (‘I killed my former and left her in the trunk on highway 10’ she tells us in the opening lines) but for me it’s a throwback and sounds out of place on Artpop.
Aphrodite Lady Seashell Bikini
A wonderfully camp, retro, disco tinged piece of froth that comes off like a Kraut-pop I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper. It contains the lyrical gem of rhyming ‘Uranus’ with her screaming ‘DON’T YOU KNOW MY ASS IS FAMOUS??’. To get the full picture of the hippy-diva brilliance of Venus it’s worth watching her windmill around in a smock while she sings it:
Let me be the girl under you that makes you cry
It’s hard to knock a track written entirely about being a power bottom, especially one as innuendo-filled and filthy as this. The thing I love most about G.U.Y is that for a song containing lyrics like ‘I’ll lie down, face up this time’, ‘mount your goddess’, and ‘I know you’ll wear my makeup well’ along with various astrological metaphors about things ramming into the atmosphere somehow it never feels like it’s meant to shock you. Titillate or amuse you, sure, but the sheer joy of it all doesn’t for a minute feel like she thinks she’s being in any way offensive, which just makes it all the more fun really.
There’s a lyric that’s listed in the CD book as ‘I’m going wear the tie’ but I’m utterly convinced she’s singing ‘tower’ and what with it rhyming with ‘power’ and all that bossy-bottom ramming and mounting that’s going on I’m not being told any different. Surely it’s time we all had a ride on her disco stick right?
(Oh, and there’s some Germanic yelling at the end. No idea why but it sounds great.)
We’re both convicted criminals of thought
Let’s white glove the bed
Gaga once fessed up that the video for Alejandro was about being a fag-hag, perpetually in love with gay boys (I can empathise) although in most subsequent interviews the sentiment was sadly sanitised to the more generic pro-LGBT ‘it’s for all my gay fans’. The ‘heard your boyfriend was away this weekend’ lyric suggests she’s either indulging in similar fantasies again - or she’s back to ‘bluffin with her muffin’. Either way Sexxx Dreams is a throbbing Prince via Janet piece of sauce that lyrically calls to mind the Eurythmics Sex Crimes.
Jewels N’ Drugs
I know that my habit’s expensive and you might find it quite offensive
When she played this at the iTunes festival I thought it was completely awful but it’s been the very definition of a grower for me and I absolutely love it now. I’m not entirely convinced that it sits well within the rest of the album pushing as it does towards the hip-hop/rap end of urban (featuring 3, count ‘em 3 guest rappers) rather than the smooth, sex jam side of things like Do What U Want but unlike Aura I enjoy it enough that I’m happy for it to be there even if it does stick out a little.
Touch me in the dark
Put your hands all over my body parts
I’m pretty sure she’s singing ‘salon’s enough for her’ but I swear it sounds like ‘Cylons’. Seriously though this is a real highlight of the album for me. Pop-rock in a way that brings to mind Joan Jett, Suzy Quatro and Toni Basil. A total earworm.
Do What U Want
You can’t have my heart and you won’t use my mind but do what you want with my body
Musically and lyrically this song gives me flashes of Michael Jackson (the bits about the press not about her body obviously) and although it seemed a bit urban-light to me at first it’s surprisingly settled in as a highlight on repeat listens. R. Kelly’s chunk is hugely enjoyable (to the point of dare I say it almost overshadowing Gaga) making it feel much more like a duet than a ‘featured artist’. His ‘FUUUUUUUUUUUUUU’ is hysterical and I’d love to see them perform it together live as gloriously awkward as it would likely be. That said some of her solo performances of it have been absolutely knock out.
(I also have to give special mention to the now memetastic bit where R. Kelly sings ‘you’re the Marilyn, I’m the President’ and it sounds for all the world like ‘you’re the melon on the president’.)
A hybrid can withstand these things
My heart can beat with bricks and strings
My Artpop could mean anything
Easily the best lyrics on the album - both a mission statement and a superb get-out clause - set to a swoonsome Blondie / Kylie piece of sophistopop and another woozy, hippy love-in chorus. A centerpiece of the album for me. It also spawned one of my favourite ever of her performances:
I know, I know, I know you want me
You’re just a pig inside a human body
Squealer, squealer, squeal out, you’re so disgusting.
You’re just a pig inside.
So, there was this moment during the iTunes festival where she started introducing this song by talking about being taken advantage of when she was starting out in the industry, loss of innocence and so on and it got really pretty dark and heavy. Someone I know tweeted ‘is she about to tell us she got gang-banged for a record deal?’ and they were joking but it was heading in that direction. Then a minute later we are watching her leap about to a rave-inspired, glow-stick waving techno track whilst men in pig suits wearing gas masks descended from the roof. Only in Gagaland.
Now the white-dust has cleared from that unexpected performance what Swine presents is the proposition that you don’t have to sing rock music to get angry about the shit that’s happened to you in life. And that if you are going to sing about the bad shit that happened when you were 18 and coked out of your nut then what better a way to do it than in a piece of nasty techno?
I recently made up a t-shirt with the Animal Nitrate artwork and the lyrics from Swine in the suede font as a jokey nod to my two great loves and their pig obsessions but I was only partially joking. Thematically, if not musically, the songs have quite a lot in common. Violence, sex, abuse, self medication and the animal inside. Gaga spoke frankly on Howard Stern recently about how her early experiences made it difficult to engage with sex in a healthy way for a long time and I couldn’t help but think ‘what does it take to turn you on now your animal’s gone?’
A brave, challenging, sonically stuffed curio that really only Gaga could produce.
Walk down the runway but don’t puke
Musically enjoyable enough but the only song that edges towards filler for me. The pre-chorus has a good old Bow Wow Wow stomp about it but it somehow falls short of the standard of the rest of the tracks. Could be a grower.
Married to the night.
I own the world, we own the world..
Lyrically total frippery but musically this was one of my first favourite tracks. The verses bring to mind a little of Bowie’s Fame while the choruses swoon and crash all over the place. One of the most self assured, musically mature (in a good way) songs she has produced. It’s exactly the kind of song that would lead someone elses campaign but will be sadly buried in Gaga’s.
Oh, and yes she does already have a song called Fashion and no it’s not the same one. This one has an exclamation mark at the end. (!)
Mary Jane Holland
I don’t like to boast but our truffles are the most.
Mad magical in Amsterdam
Only Gaga could write an ode to weed as a club banger, but here we have it and it’s fabulous. One of the most unashamedly pro-drugs songs I can think of inside of pop or otherwise - it opens with her sparking up and ends with her taking a puff. This dubious message is somewhat softened by the two hander of this and the following track Dope but as it stands on it’s own she’s happy to let us know over a big squelchy, bouncing beat that she could be just fine ‘if she could be Mary Jane Holland tonight’. Musically it has every right to be a single but this will never happen for all the obvious reasons. Talk about gateway drug though, so infectious is this song that it almost makes me, a life long tea-totaler, want a blunt.
There’s also a fabulous bit in the middle (more than a little reminiscent of the middle 8 in, of all things, Geri Halliwell’s Look At Me) where she howls ‘I know that Mom and Dad think I’m a mess but it’s allright because I’m as rich as pissed..’
This and, funnily enough Dope, are probably my favourite tracks on the album and as a ‘highs and lows’ double whammy back to back they are top notch.
I need you more than dope
A desperate plea for a lover not to leave her even as she struggles to put them above her vices and addictions. Sung in a booze-soaked affectation she tells us she’s been ‘hurting low from living high for so long.’ Dope is pretty much the song that Speachless nearly was had it not had the life sucked out of it in the studio. The most gut wrenching bits for me are the lyrics ‘mine myself like coal, a mountain of his soul’ and when she sings ‘stay with me Bell Bottom Blue’ - no doubt a reference to the Eric Clapton song containing equally gut wrenching lyrics like ‘Do you want to see me crawl across the floor to you? Do you want to hear me beg you to take me back?’. There is no pride or ego in this song, just pure desperation.
I don’t want to be alone forever, but I can be tonight
A joyous celebration of life on the road and a welcome ‘IT’S ALL OK FOLKS’ after Dope. This one has future single written all over it. Reminiscent of a slightly more ebullient Edge of Glory and ready-made for tour adaptations during the bit where she name-checks half the world.
One second I’m a Koons then Suddenly the Koons is me
I thought this was a great lead single being as it it’s slightly weird but nice and hooky and serves as a bit of an ‘ok let’s get this over with, the thing about me is..’ song - cheekily dealing as it does with her artpopist leanings and addiction for fame (I found the vein, put it in here). In retrospect it’s maybe not that indicative of the album but I still think it was a good choice and personally would prefer it at the head of the album instead of Aura with Gypsy closing out. Yes, yes, I know it’s meant to be the encore but still.
The Reverse Warholian Liner Notes
Ce n’est pas seulement un album pop.