“My ARTPOP could mean anything.” So sings Lady Gaga on the superior title track of this, her third full-length studio album since she exploded onto the music scene only five years ago. Given the advance hype emanating from Gaga and her camp, painting the album as certain to “bring the music industry into a new age”, such an opaque statement is odd.
It is not, however, unexpected. Barely-there concepts have been bolted onto Gaga’s work since her straightforward debut, yet it was after the world-conquering success of Bad Romance and its parent EP The Fame Monster (one of the best pop records of recent years) that they started to overshadow the music. Second album proper Born This Way was a laboured blend of ’80s stadium-pop and European EDM which sank beneath a grating appropriation of victimhood; it ended its run with struggling singles and a tour cancelled.
If Gaga initially seemed to understand what had gone wrong, promising that ARTPOP would be “fun” and relatively unadorned, the official album announcement hilariously promising a “reverse Warholian expedition” rather suggested otherwise. Lead single Applause confirmed the worst, its addictive retro sound and soaring chorus being eclipsed by arduously self-involved lyrics which offered little to listeners. It also made the intention behind that otherwise meaningless statement about Warhol obvious – Gaga wants to bring high art into pop, a manifesto underlined by ARTPOP’s artwork blend of Jeff Koons and Botticelli.
Coming hot on the heels of the death of Lou Reed, a figure more responsible for blending art and pop than most, this seems like a rather modest ambition. Quite what it means in practice is unclear: for the most part ARTPOP is a straight musical continuation of the ’80s-indebted dance-pop which has served Gaga so well. The most successful songs, such as the infectiously commanding G.U.Y. and the restrained electro of Do What U Want, bear comparison with peers such as Ke$ha and Christina Aguilera. Such smooth moments are unfortunately few and far between in an album which ramps up the worst aspects of Born This Way.
Album opener Aura offers a tongue-in-cheek electro take on the spaghetti western with its compelling Infected Mushroom backing track, yet this is squandered on atrocious lyrics which present a dull, sexualised take on the burqa. Still, at least one aspect works – elsewhere ‘songs’ such as Venus and Swine attempt to be self-consciously epic, even if they are instead disjointed messes. This is a particular shame as the former finds a gloriously Abba-esque chorus drowning in an awkward cacophony which rather suggests Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Donatella, meanwhile, offers arrogant clichés of fashion monsters, but you emerge from the wreckage with little clue as to whether it’s camp satire or a woefully misguided empowerment anthem. The relatively simple pleasure of Fashion!, a song beginning with a piano motif reminiscent of Coldplay before fusing ’80s David Bowie and Madonna’s Holiday, suggests the latter.
Given that she’s paid such attention to Madonna’s career, you wonder if Gaga is aware of the famous Norman Mailer interview wherein the curmudgeonly man of letters observed that Madonna followed in the footsteps of Warhol as a “philosopher of voids and silences”. He was referring to a pervasive lack of respect for art which allowed capable figures to step in and stamp their authority; Gaga’s ‘reversal’ of Warhol’s vision could be said to refer to a modern emptiness in pop. She stamps her authority on a pop landscape where the catatonic Britney Spears is viewed as ‘legendary’ and our most successful stars sing a revolving door of Dr Luke/Max Martin/Calvin Harris/David Guetta hits. In this context you need only make the right noises to be viewed as a cut above – it’s telling how frequently you see Gaga referred to as our most ‘interesting’ pop star. Certainly in this context you can understand the thrill of a Janet Jackson facsimile like Sexx Dreams or the Bruce Springsteen nod of Gypsy (itself not far from Gaga’s own The Edge Of Glory).
Yet if she understands how to be viewed as an artist, Gaga lacks confidence in pop as an art form in itself, seeming unable to let a song breathe and instead overbearing it with very deliberate efforts to be seen as a ‘proper artist’. Throughout ARTPOP signifier upon signifier is piled on top of sometimes brilliant melodies, creating enough room for breathless readings of Gaga’s ‘art’ certainly, but failing on the more basic level as engaging pop music. One of her early statements was that ‘pop will never be low-brow’, a suggested understanding that the simple pleasures of pop songs like (for example) Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe or Gaga’s own Poker Face were a powerful and admirable art form in themselves. With ARTPOP, however, it instead seems that Gaga thinks pop needs to be smothered in the language and aesthetics of more traditional art forms in order to have ‘value’.
ARTPOP strikes all the right poses for Lady Gaga’s vociferous fanbase to proclaim it as a work of genius. Taken in a wider context, however, it’s a depressing testament to how moribund pop music is at the moment. Does Gaga deserve praise for making an effort and avoiding the ready charms of Dr Luke and co? She most certainly does – but this doesn’t make ARTPOP a good album. It’s time for a rethink.