November 13, 2013

Test Spins: Lady Gaga, ARTPOP

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By KAITLYN TIFFANY

“I am the artist and culture doesn’t cue me. I cue culture,” declared Lady Gaga in a SiriusXM interview last week. This is just one example of a stream of could-it-be-Kanye statements she gave regarding the impending release of her fourth studio album ARTPOP, a work which she promised was going to be the record “of the millennium.”

As much as I love her, Lady Gaga is a mess of contradictory impulses — that which says she is a true artist, a visionary, a slave to her own creativity above all else, and that which openly admits to a ruthless desire for fame, a pathological craving epitomized by living “for the applause.” ARTPOP isn’t going to be dubbed the album of the millennium, and isn’t even going to be called the artistic highpoint of Gaga’s career, but it can at the least be called the Lady Gaga album that most aptly sums up all of the contradiction, confusion, mind-blowing imagination and raw ambition that Lady Gaga encapsulates. She introduces it as such in her opening track, asking, “Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura?”

This invitation sets off a string of songs that read as a bulleted list of confessions — mostly of addiction. To fame, to dope, to attention, to recognition of her creative genius, to sex, to pain. The tracks “Applause” and “Do What U Want,” are ones we’ve already seen as singles — turns out they were a pretty reliable sample of what the rest of the album would be. Gaga waxes philosophical or sometimes gets downright spiritual with her exaltation of fame, money, fashion and a whole lot of sex and drugs in nearly every track. A collaboration with T.I. called “Jewels N’ Drugs” is catchy enough, but its title is pretty self-explanatory — after some decent verses from T.I., Gaga proclaims over and over (and over a backdrop of full-on Skrillex imitation) her desire for, “Jewels and drugs, baby. Hustle.”

The Atlantic’s review of ARTPOP called the whole work “kind of a bummer,” which I’m not ready to agree with, but they are correct in assessing a significant difference in message between ARTPOP and Gaga’s past albums. Tracks like “G.U.Y.,” “Sexxx Dreams” and “MANiCURE” are airheaded pop all about escaping from how icky life is and how tricky emotions are, even if it’s just for a night. “G.U.Y.” begs, “touch me, touch me, don’t be sweet,” and “Sexxx Dreams” admits “I’m broken from the one before. He was kind of nasty.” Both “Venus” and “G.U.Y.” use what reads as a middle school student’s brief fascination with Greek mythology to make a series of puns off of Aphrodite and Eros, and represent the most obvious examples of Gaga’s fondness for the ornate, the allusion-laden, the historically-steeped and musically pastiched, sometimes going way over the top and into the realm of caricature. “Donatella,” too, is a  ranty bit of pop-rock that puts Gaga’s entire persona on the chopping block, saying “I am so fab, check it out: I’m blonde, I’m skinny, I’m rich, I’m a little bit of a bitch,” and detailing a narcissistic infatuation with fashion and beauty that borders on cult worship. While it is as interesting as promised to finally see the true, terrible side of the Gaga persona, and at her own hands, the execution is nothing like what a Gaga album usually promises — it’s all pop, no art.

The late-album track “Dope,” starts out as a gorgeous piano and organ-backed acoustic belter, the moment alone with Gaga’s unmistakable voice and raw power that we’d been craving through the entire album. But as Gaga moves through some stellar phrasing in the verses and makes it to the chorus, the punch reads more like punch line, with the refrain being “I need you more than dope.” It echoes hollowly at best and sounds like a Lonely Island project at its worst.

The sole narrative song on the album, “Mary Jane Holland,” takes on the trope of the ballad-for-the-tortured-lady, but ups the ante — kicking up the pace and warping portraiture into the reveal of a new alter ego. Gaga says, “I think I could be fine if I could just be Mary Jane Holland tonight,” and proclaims her intent to “make deals with every devil in sight,” in an impressive and musically ambitious chronicle of a joint-smoking Russian prostitute giving zero fucks. “Gypsy” is also a standout and a knockout, the type of power rock-ballad more recognizable in the ’80s heyday of Heart or Journey. “I don’t wanna be alone forever,” belts Gaga, “but I can be tonight.” The track seems like it could have been something off the cutting room floor from 2011’s Born This Way, an LP that was mainly genius pastiches of musical history ground up with the expected Gaga edge. It was that ability to perfectly interpret musical history and create theatrical homages to what was grand, parodies of what deserved it, that made Lady Gaga what she is. And so this album, laden with pure pop, intermixed with an unfamiliar electro-mania and offering few glimpses of Gaga’s true talent, falls perilously close to self-indulgence and audience alienation.

All in all, it’s hard to piece the puzzle together, and as Gaga repeats in the eponymous track, “ARTPOP could mean anything.” But what it most feels like is a moment of cathartic purging for a woman who has spent most of her career promising that attention isn’t the only reason she’s doing all of this.

Lady Gaga has broken down walls, shattered ceilings for women in the music industry and I will never argue that she hasn’t turned herself into an icon’s icon with the talent to back it up. However, ARTPOP’s sole relief comes from the fact that it probably was high time that a population who held Gaga up as a demi-goddess hear some real talk about a few of her flaws — namely that we’re not her Little Monsters and she’s not our mother. She’s as fucked up as anyone else and these aren’t problems she’s spending much time thinking about fixing. She can hide anything sinister under a veneer of jewels, dope and Donatella.

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