By: John Rademaker – Staff Writer
“A phoenix rising from the ashes, a reverse Warholian expedition, a poetic musical journey.”
Lady Gaga has used all of these phrases to promote her fourth full-length album “ARTPOP,” and they sound equally ambitious. So, what can fans of the pop superstar expect of this new album? Is she entering an experimental phase like her hero David Bowie’s “Berlin” trilogy? Has she made the pop songstress equivalent of “Yeezus”?
Her previous album, “Born This Way” was a bit neutered; it’s hard to imagine songs that made parents uncomfortable like its title track, “The Edge of Glory,” “Poker Face,” or the video for “Alejandro” did. Surely an artistic turnaround would have won the public’s attention. But lest we forget, we’re talking about a pop star who wore a dress made of meat, who’s designed her own earbuds, and who’s made a small universe in her name.
Lady Gaga thinks in terms bigger than music, and “ARTPOP” is best taken as a multimedia project. “Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture,” says the singer herself in “Applause.” So that’s what a reverse Warholian expedition is.
Lady Gaga recruited a healthy list of artists for the “ARTPOP” experience. Divisive artist Jeff Koons designed the flashy album cover featuring a nude sculpture of the singer. According to Complex Magazine, the sculpture was also displayed at Gaga’s album release party, artRAVE, which displayed work by artists such as Robert Wilson, Benjamin Rollins Caldwell and Marina Abramovic.
The showcase coincided with the launch of the “ARTPOP” app, which “combines music, art, fashion and technology with a new interactive worldwide community,” according to Lady Gaga’s official Facebook page. How this will “bring the music industry into a new age” is unclear. When was the last time you used your app for “Magna Carta Holy Grail”?
Gaudy presentation and high-profile guests aside, there is actual music on “ARTPOP.” Gaga producer DJ White Shadow told Rolling Stone, when listening to “ARTPOP,” “you can hear the inter-connectivity of the songs and how it comes together,” but as a cohesive whole, the album makes about as much sense as an actual white shadow.
Opener “Aura” is a truly ugly song, all squelching sub-dubstep bass and controversy-baiting lyrics barked out without a hook in sight. Luckily, things pick up with second track, “Venus,” a surging dance-pop number laced with a handful of earworms. Of course, the song references Botticelli’s 1846 painting “The Birth of Venus” because, you know… art.
Like Lady Gaga’s previous albums, “ARTPOP” succeeds most when the energy is high. “G.U.Y.” and “Applause” are flashy rave-ups worthy of spots on “The Fame,” and “Fashion!” is right up there with Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Bruno Mars’ “Treasure” as the best disco-revival 2013 has to offer. “Sexxx Dreams” and the R. Kelly duet “Do What U Want” manage to slow down the tempo and ramp up the sexual tension quite well too.
Unfortunately, “ARTPOP” is weighed down by a lot of fluff. “Jewels n’ Drugs” is basically a T.I., Too $hort and Twista (not exactly the Jeff Koons’ of the 2013 rap world) song. The snotty chants and claps of “Manicure” will just make you long for “Hollaback Girl,” and “Dope” and “Gypsy” lay the cheese on a little too thick despite great vocal performances.
Another flaw of “ARTPOP” is the lyrical content. Subject matter isn’t the issue here. “G.U.Y.” explores power dynamics as gracefully as you’d expect from a song whose title is an acronym for “girl under you.” “Dope” and “Mary Jane Holland” discuss the singer’s struggle with marijuana dependency and a good chunk of the album examines her relationship with the media.
The problem is, for starters, that there are lines like “love me, love me, please retweet,” that “Mary Jane Holland” opts for the painfully obvious personification of marijuana as Mary Jane, and that she makes a butt pun after shouting out Uranus on “Venus.” To be fair, nobody would ever claim to listen to Lady Gaga for literary value, and lyrics are easy enough to tune out in music like this, but still – a butt pun.
Given the fanfare of the album’s release, it’s easy to accuse Lady Gaga of putting style over substance, but with “ARTPOP” she’s reaffirmed her position not as a singer dabbling in art, but as a peer of the Jeff Koons and Damien Hirsts of the world.
Lady Gaga herself is an art project. It’s just a shame that in her immersion in the art world, she seems to have lost her ear for a sharp hook.