Photo: Courtesy of Interscope.
Five years ago, Lady Gaga released two albums, The Fame and The Fame Monster, as a kind of narrative about the all-encompassing desire to become famous, and also the destructive nature of fame — the way an audience can become enthralled with watching an idol live and die in the spotlight. (Remember? She has been both "born" and "killed" on stage.) Gaga has identified herself as being of the Warholian school of thought, a performer who is as interested with the idea of celebrity as much as being a celebrity herself.
These thoughts are at the forefront of ARTPOP, the performer's fourth album that has been not-so-quietly making its way around the Internet. To put it simply: If you are a fan of Lady Gaga, you will adore this album. If you find her antics ham-fisted or derivative, you won't. That's how it goes.
ARTPOP is the album Born This Way should have been: declarative; filled with dancefloor anthems and cutting-edge productions; and showcasing predatory darkness that she hints at in earlier efforts like "Teeth" or "Bad Romance." (In fact, "G.U.Y" could be the sequel to the latter, except instead of being informed by a McQueen-infused nightmare, it evokes Svedka-style robot minxes.) Thankfully, she has left her Boss-fueled, saxophone anthems to her previous album, and serves us steaming, syrupy stadium music. But, do Little Monsters want to hear her continue to ruminate on the machinations on fame, especially when the narratives her contemporaries are supplying feel much more universal?
Photo: REX USA/Beretta/Sims/Rex.
Of course, there are moments of true genius. "Aura" is a swirling dance song that was one of the first glimpses listeners got of the album, with Gaga cackling over a plucked flamenco guitar. Instrumentally, "Do What U Want" is in the vein of what indie stars like Neon Indian or Disclosure would love to debut, but Gaga turns it into a soulful declaration that the world doesn't own her, per se, just her body. This is where she succeeds. More than her contemporaries, Gaga is a songwriter and in complete control of what she is communicating to her audience — the high-minded ideas and the celebrity-ruminating-on-celebrity rabbit hole she sends listeners down. Unlike, say, Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus, Gaga is only interested in growling, stuttering, affecting accents, all to showcase the language with which she is most fluent: blistering, staggering pop music.
It is this control that makes her missteps particularly painful. Gaga, and her massive ego, are front-and-center, even when she is sharing the song with a guest (of which there aren't many). "Donatella," the ode to the head of House Versace, sounds like a parody of the songwriter. "Venus" plays like a mix between Queen and David Bowie (Yay!) but, like, "Flash"-era Queen and "Dancing In The Streets"-era Bowie (Not yay!). The best part of the song is her howl-slash-asking, "Uranus? Don't you know my ass is famous!?!" Indeed.
Yet, it is officially incorrect to write Lady Gaga off as a master imitator (though that title can be given to any of the greats, from Madonna to The Rolling Stones), even if "Sexxx Dreams" could be Prince And The Revolution for the 21st Century. Madonna had great ideas and was able to nail a zeitgeist, develop them into her own moment, and repurpose them for the masses — but she has never been able to sit on a stage with her instrument and, well, nothing else. And, in a song like "Dope," where Gaga compares her need for someone to an addiction, she growls and plays a heart-aching ballad, allowing her operatic voice to soar. That, folks, is pretty unforgettable.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, Gaga reflects on her Warholian fascination. "Instead of putting pop onto the canvas, we wanted to put the art onto the soup can," she explains. This, of course, is taking her whole performance into account, from the teeth to the outfits to the Marina Abromovic influence. She's trying. She's thinking. She's letting her imagination go over a 4x4 beat. But, to borrow her own metaphor, if you put art on a soup can, it still doesn't affect the flavor of the soup.
Or if all else fails, she could just do an acoustic album.