Cadenza critique: ARTPOP by Lady Gaga
On the title track of “ARTPOP,” Lady Gaga croons, “My ARTPOP could mean anything.” Critics have debated what she means by this and have tried to figure out what the convergence of art and pop means for Gaga as an artist, but I have a much simpler interpretation: “ARTPOP” means that Gaga is back and ready to continue her reign over pop music, except she’s brought in more modern art influences this time, like Marina Abramovic and Jeff Koons.
“ARTPOP” is Gaga’s third studio album, following her debut album, “The Fame,” and its follow-up, “Born This Way.” “ARTPOP” is Gaga’s most cohesive effort to date and hopefully will mark a successful return to the spotlight after breaking her hip while supporting her last album. It’s also an album that will suffer from the hype of its maker, who has moved beyond making radio fodder like “Just Dance” to try and be the artist she wants to be. She’s more of an acquired taste than she was on previous albums, like a fine pinot noir—surprising and maybe even difficult at first but palatable once you learn how to enjoy it.
On first listen, the songs come across as scattered or glutted with ideas. Album opener “Aura” begins with the strums of what sounds like an out-of-tune guitar, then adds in some Western movie showdown riffs and plunges full-on into a verse delivered in an accent from no country I’ve heard of. It’s almost a full two minutes before the actual chorus comes in, but the actual chorus is easily her best since “Paparazzi.” The next track, an ode to the Roman goddess of love, “Venus,” is much of the same: weird verses but multiple choruses or bridges that feature some of the catchiest pop songwriting in recent memory. The songs take risk in their structure and complexity, and once you get past the initial shock of the lack of a formula, they’re quite enjoyable.
But on some songs, her use of different melodies comes across as less like the need for an editor and more like musical brilliance. “Manicure,” a song that sees Gaga pulling off her best Karen O or Blondie impression, layers famous ’80s one-hit wonder “Mickey” like handclaps on top of a genuine rock melody. “Swine,” which features production from wunderkind electric dance music artist Zedd, has a scratchy, intricate beat and a drop that wouldn’t be out of place at a festival like Tomorrowland but is instead on one of the biggest pop albums of the year.
Gaga is at her best, though, when she sings about sex. She’s not trying too hard with her tongue wagging around the air like there’s a scorpion attached to it or being wink-wink-cutesy while singing about her voluptuous figure. She can convey sex almost effortlessly. “Sexxx Dreams,” one of the first pop songs I’ve heard take on the universal subject of wet dreams so explicitly, oozes sex (or sexxx) and quotes an equally groundbreaking masturbation song, “I Touch Myself” by Divinyls. My favorite moment of the entire album is perhaps the most honest and relatable, when Gaga says, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this but I’ve had a couple of drinks and oh my god.” Instead of sounding like a pop diva or an alien presence, the confession makes her sound like anyone who has ever talked to a crush while drunk and accidentally admitted something incriminating. Another equally sexual and memorable song is “G.U.Y.,” which stands for Girl Under You. It is a refreshing take on a radio-ready single, featuring a deviation from the heterosexual norm and references to anal sex that are sure to make this a hit in gay clubs around the country.
Some of the other songs are at first glance perplexing yet still worth a listen. “Jewels N’ Drugs” is a largely forgettable experiment with trap. She barely features on the song, ceding the spotlight to rappers T.I., Too Short and Twista. None of the verses are anything groundbreaking, but Gaga sounds like she’s having a ball of a time. It’s definitely a track that takes a few listens to truly enjoy. Her sing-rapping is certainly better than anything Miley Cyrus or Ke$ha have put out, but it is ever so brief, and while its beat does fit in with the rest of the electropop on the album, the three features are jarring on an album almost entirely belonging to Gaga.
The only other featured artist on the album is R. Kelly on “Do What U Want,” the second single from the album. While it is sort of hilarious to hear R. Kelly sing about his busy schedule when the only thing of note he’s done in the past five years is appear with Phoenix at Coachella, his voice is a perfect fit for the throbbing, rhythm-and-blues-infused beat of the song. Gaga herself is simultaneously sultry and defiant, challenging her critics to leave her heart and mind out of it, but they can do what they want with her body. Hopefully it starts a larger trend of releasing singles where you can hear the full range of her powerful voice.
Even the biggest misstep of the album is intriguing. Overwrought piano ballad “Dope” is a reworked version of a song she premiered at the iTunes Festival, “I Wanna Be With You.” The previous song was better, but Gaga’s willingness to show a rawer, more vulnerable side of herself is refreshing compared to the overproduced drivel churned out by Katy Perry and Cyrus. When Gaga performed at the album release party streamed by VEVO, artRave, she pledged that she was capable of putting together good performances without the assistance of drugs or alcohol. Artists very rarely address addictions so publically, so despite the track’s weaknesses, it hits home lyrically. Many will call Gaga a hypocrite for including this song on an album alongside tracks like “Mary Jane Holland.” But her point is that some things are better than drugs—drugs can still be fun, but she’s enough of a performer to impress you with just her.
Lady Gaga still hasn’t turned in a perfect full-length album, though this is the closest she’s come. And she’s an artist who is becoming increasingly aware of the limited shelf life of a pop star, poking fun at her fame-thirsty antics, crazy outfits and wacky persona during her hosting job on “Saturday Night Live.” But as pop music becomes dominated by bland singers with no hand in their songs and YouTube viral videos, it’s refreshing to have an artist with an actual voice, both in that she knows how to sing and that she has a vision for herself. If “ARTPOP” truly can be anything, then hopefully it’s just the next step on a pathway to the perfect pop album.