“I killed my former and left her in the trunk on Highway 10” begins Lady Gaga’s new album, ARTPOP. Were this anybody else, such opening lyrics might ring with a bit of finality—the artist definitively moving to a new phase. But for Gaga, it simply signals an iteration in a constant cycle of reinvention. It’s ARTPOP’s version of hatching out of an egg at the Grammys.
The song those lyrics belong to is “Aura,” which features abrasive EDM that propels its verses (a sample from Infected Mushroom) and oddly inflected vocals from Gaga. Pair that with the cultural appropriation (the song makes mention of burqas and hinges on a play on the words aura/awrah), and you have a work destined to be polarizing. It’s really an incredibly intelligent song—a metaphorical examination of identity, of intimacy and “nakedness” as signifiers of honesty and “realness.”
The problem is that the song itself is only middling, and is a disastrous reworking of the leaked demo, which was about ten times more aggressive. One of Gaga’s greatest qualities is how she takes the sheen of pop music—that focus-group tested, A&R concocted, assembly-line like “perfection”—and injects it with something surprisingly visceral and raw. But that’s been neutered here, and it’s a mystery why.
“Aura” gives way to “Venus,” which is big, messy (it’s Gaga’s first attempt at a primarily self-produced track), and incredibly kitschy. This sits alongside “Highway Unicorn” as Gaga’s campiest song to date, but “Unicorn’s” pairing of arena-rock with her queer sensibility made for a more dynamic and unexpected combo than this song, which is a spacy, synthpop, disco banger through and through. It works, but really only through that camp lens.
After this wobbly start, the album finds a groove. “G.U.Y.” is the hardest hitting dance track here, and a clear standout. It’s a clever song, a full-on feminist anthem about power dynamics in sex, and how submission isn’t necessarily submissiveness: “I don’t need to be on top to know that I’m wanted / ‘cause I’m strong enough to know the truth.”
Next up is “Sexxx Dreams,” a mid-tempo jam with verses that sound genuinely menacing, a perfect reflection of the mix of excitement and guilt suggested by the song’s themes of fantasized infidelity. It’s an intricately produced song, and with “G.U.Y,” it represents the album’s peak.
Things stay strong for the next few tracks. “Jewels n’ Drugs” is Gaga tackling a full-on rap song and it mostly works, even if it feels like a digression for the pop star. “MANiCURE,” combines very 80’s guitar riffs with hand claps and cheerleader-ish shouts. The resulting cocktail is cheesy but addictive, a song begging to be belted out with the windows down.
“Do What U Want,” on its surface, is a total winner. It’s produced with great restraint and ends up sounding smooth and liquid cool. The lyrics are yet another interesting examination of power and submission. Gaga claims to have written it in response to her critics, and while some of the lyrics bear this reading out, it’s also hard not to interpret a dark and troubling sexual scenario from the chorus: “you can’t stop my voice / ‘cause you don’t own my life / but do what you want with my body.” Like a lot of Gaga’s work, it’s a song that reveals several layers and invites multiple readings. However, some of those readings leave me deeply uncomfortable. R. Kelly is a guest feature on the track and it seems a bit like possible “stunt-casting” on Gaga’s part, further complicating the sexual and power dynamics. I have trouble getting past the contextual baggage here.
“Artpop,” the album’s centerpiece and namesake, is a highlight. With spectral and hypnotic production, it’s part manifesto, part love song. It leads into “Swine,” another huge EDM stomper. This track sees DJ WhiteShadow going for guttural, buzzy, ripsaw synths, some of which suggest pig squeals and grunts. As the track culminates, it even features vocals that seem to imitate Porky Pig. Gaga has hinted that this particular song’s germination is rooted in some particularly dark occurrences in her life, but it’s a wonderful reminder that her sense of humor hasn’t been lost.
Unfortunately, after this rather dynamic and interesting run, the album hits a brick wall with “Donatella.” It’s not that the song is bad, necessarily, just bland. The ridiculous, diva-ish lyrics might make it at home in a gay club, but the appeal quickly wears off. This leads right into “Fashion!”—one of the worst things Gaga has ever put her name to. Produced by will.i.am, it’s repetitive, grating, and, worst of all, boring. It sounds like an outtake from The Fame, and it shouldn’t have happened at this stage in her career.
The album recovers a bit toward the end with “Mary Jane Holland,” “Dope,” and “Gypsy,” but it fails to match its earlier streak. “Gypsy” in particular seems destined to be a huge hit for her; the pop hooks here stick their landing. Unfortunately, the production can’t keep up and feels chintzy rather than anthemic. “Applause” works well as a closer, but it’s still not a great song, and hearing it in context only does so much to cover up its shortcomings.
ARTPOP is both deeply flawed and enjoyable. This erratic swing in quality was apparent on Born This Way, too, but that album felt like a unified piece—the songs, good and bad, reverberated off of one another in interesting ways. That cohesion is much less apparent here. There are blatant attempts to force it (the cosmic/Roman mythology images that pair “Venus” and “G.U.Y,” the sequencing of “Donatella” and “Fashion!”), but most of the links between these songs feel incidental. What ARTPOP does maintain, though, is that Gaga is still our most interesting pop star. It’s odd that people act as though she is inscrutable compared to her contemporaries. I listen to the albums of her peers and come away unable to tell you a damn thing about them as people or as artists. Not so with Gaga. Good or bad, whether you like it or hate it, when you listen to ARTPOP you are getting an unfiltered view of Gaga both as a person and an artist. Exhausting and inconsistent, ARTPOP is, nevertheless, a fascinating and ultimately rewarding endeavor. – Michael Ward
[author ]Michael teaches college English and Composition courses in Ohio and subjects students to his fascination with movies and pop culture on a regular basis. He is a member of the International Cinephile Society and has been published in the Bright Lights Film Journal.[/author]