(Originally written for Reverb1)
No one expected “ARTPOP” to be anything more than another Lady Gaga album, did they?
The artist had made claims that her new album would try and pull off a reverse Warhol: using a mass-produced medium—pop music—to distribute art, instead of art as a means to examine the mass-produced.
So what would constitute artistically merited pop music? Songs with vague, undisclosed meaning? Rhythms attuned to a salient, evocative purpose? Sing-a-long choruses with words you wouldn’t dare utter in public? (All of that set in catchy, pop-sensible music, no less.)
Because that album has seen the light of day—two weeks ago. “ARTPOP,” on the other hand, doesn’t succeed as an “artistic” pop album any more than her albums preceding it did. That’s not to say it fails completely—Gaga has always been the most creative and nonstandard choice available to Top-40 pop junkies—but it’s no more avant-garde than “The Fame Monster” was, and less memorable.
But none of this is immediately evident. As of the album-opening “Aura,” formerly known as “Burqa,” the album has all the potential of being exactly what she said it’d be. Through the first chorus, we hear ukelele power chords, some demented Spanish guitar and a bit-crunched Gaga refashioning the idea of the burqa, setting aside rhyming convention in the process: “I’m not a wandering slave I am a woman of choice / my veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face.” While this doesn’t make it Art by any means, by actually making a statement—a pretty damn controversial one, no less—it’s aim is closer to that of art than a pop song. Then, the odd instrumentations fall away and a spare synth leads us into the sex-standard chorus—”Do you wanna see me naked lover? / Do you wanna peek underneath the cover?”—and it’s back to pop reality.
While “Aura” nails the art/pop equation, few other songs on the album come close. “Fashion” is a fitting chunk of Gaga-ian pop, if a little banal. But behind all of its straight-forward praise of fashion, we hear a voice chanting “slay,” just a lowly consonant away from “slave.” Intentional or not, it adds a level of subversive intrigue that you’d expect in a so-called “art pop” album. On title track “Artpop,” Gaga imagines the two mediums as almost physical entities, joined together inside her. Here, she takes the opportunity to throw in some abstraction (“My heart can beat with bricks and strings”) before settling on a clunky line that sinks the album’s lofty vision: “My Artpop could mean anything.”
This statement would seem obvious if it came from an established artist like Marina Abramovic, who’s incidentally more Artpop than Gaga or any other modern figure thanks to her recent influence and celebrity. Coming from a pop singer trying to make an art-slanted pop album, it’s a cop-out, not to mention a bit of a sham. Because it’s not true: “Sexxx Dreams” is definitely about having a sex dream; the Zombie Zombie-sampling “Venus” is definitely about having sex; and most obvious, “Applause” is about the singer’s love of being a pop star. There just aren’t many opportunities to get the songs on the album backward. Gaga talks a lot about manifesting reality, but simply saying your songs are cryptic doesn’t make them so.
But as a straight pop album, “ARTPOP” is actually pretty interesting. Thanks to Lady Gaga’s twisted sensibilities, it’s got an edge to it, and pushes hard electronica foremost as opposed to the smooth-and-even gamut of genres you find in most pop albums today. Yes, compared to “Prism,” “ArtPop” is visionary. But calling it “art,” or anything but what it is—a middling collection of pop songs—doesn’t make it true.