"ARTPOP is a portrait of an artist at her prime"
Lady Gaga opens ARTPOP by posing a critical question to the listener, her “cosmic lover”: “Do you want to peek underneath the cover?” If your answer is anything less than a resounding hell yes – head for the hills, quick. You’ve been forewarned. Gaga’s third full-length studio album is no peek, but a full-frontal exhibition of her psyche in all its batshit glory.
The girl who lives behind the aura,” on the other hand, is Stefani Germanotta, a supremely canny, talented, and bruised artist. Years of hijinks have taken their toll. It seems as if Gaga now only inspires derision – or worse, indifference – from all outside her cult of Little Monsters. I, too, used to dismiss her outright, and even relished each harsh criticism regularly lobbed her way: sexless Madonna wannabe, weirdo provocateur, brazen kleptomaniac. That is, until I reviewed Born This Way, her terrific 2011 sophomore album (which, admittedly, tended to buckle under its own heft), and began to perceive Gaga anew. A few months later, I was introduced to the woman buried under the wigs in a revelatory interview with Howard Stern on his SiriusXM radio show. By the time Germanotta performed “The Edge of Glory,” solo with grand piano, I was left rapt, deep in the back pocket of her black-leather hot pants. Here was an artist and musician who could have flourished in any number of respectable genres (take your pick). Germanotta instead chose a radical route – to inject Pop Art into the artifice of pop. Taking a new moniker from a Queen song (with a thunder-clapping wink), she consequently strode atop the Hot 100 in Alexander McQueen stilettos and a beekeeper’s suit.
Stefani Germanotta’s alter-ego detonates like a supernova throughout ARTPOP, a truly bonkers album aimed squarely at the mainstream, ready or not. (I suspect not.) Sonically, ARTPOP picks up where Lady Gaga’s phenomenal EP The Fame Monster left off. Born This Way’s guitar bombast rears its rawk head every so often, and Gaga takes a few detours, both welcome (splendid piano balladry) and failed (disastrous hip-hop). But ARTPOP mostly booms with familiar four-on-the-floor electronic dance. Gay scenesters across the land may now roar with a collective hallelujah.
Lady Gaga’s utter lack of self-restraint sets ARTPOP apart from her earlier work (ruminate on that for a moment). The Fame’s chilly remove and Born This Way’s self-help bluster are thoroughly exorcised. For once, Gaga’s quotidian performance-art stunts can be heard in the sound of her music: ARTPOP brims with blindingly vivid, jubilantly executed, idiosyncratic pop. Gaga sings with deadpan flair and full drag-show drama, when she’s not bleeding her vocal cords dry in a soaring holler. Song lyrics vary from playful and comical (“I know that mom and dad think I’m a mess/ But it’s alright because I am rich as piss”), to piercing and emotionally naked (“Been hurting low from living high for so long”). More often than not, her words stick their landing. Any hack can be provocative and weird with substandard material (entire genres are built around that premise, after all). Only a visionary would be willing to take such exquisitely wrought melodies, so fit for popular consumption, and subvert them for the sake her art.
ARTPOP may be marred by some missteps – the obvious Bowie homage “Fashion!” and the forgettable “Sexxx Dreams” – and sinks to a career-worthy nadir on “Jewels and Drugs.” Also, did Gaga have to telegraph her intent so literally with the album’s title, in ALL CAPS no less? These flaws aside, this is not just another collection of pop songs. Lady Gaga aspires for the sort of greatness her peers couldn’t fathom, let alone attempt. (I doubt Miley Cyrus has even heard of Clarence Clemons or Brian May; both were prominently featured on Born This Way.) Make no mistake – ARTPOP is a portrait of an artist at her prime.
Strike through the kaleidoscopic swirl of ARTPOP and you’re bound to hit a melody that could rival “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance.” “Aura” and “Venus,” ARTPOP’s opening knockout, contain Gaga’s strongest choruses on the album and maybe to date. Plucked from its context, the plaintive call at the center of “Aura” represents the year’s finest pop moment. A close runner-up would be the exuberant hook that rockets “Venus” upward. ARTPOP concludes by slowing to a gorgeous halt (“Dope”), building up grandiosity (“Gypsy”), and then tying a bow around itself with a club-ready manifesto (“Applause”). In between, we encounter Gaga at her brashest (“Swine”), slinkiest (“Artpop”), and most sexually political (“Do What U Want”).
Lady Gaga opens ARTPOP by calling bullshit on herself and my entire review: “Enigma pop star is fun/ She wear burqa for fashion/ It’s not a statement as much as just a move of passion.” Is that not the central doubt that nags at us all when we evaluate the worthiness of contemporary art? Is Gaga being ironic? Is the snake swallowing its tail? Do we have to call in a philosopher to untangle this mess? Before you ponder any of the above questions, consider for a second what Katy Perry would have to say about all of this. [B+]