The self-indulgent marketing bubble that Lady Gaga exists in has never been an excuse for her ambition to fall short. We’re speaking of a woman who writes great songs, and (arguably more importantly), writes songs. Her vision is that of a thinker, and not even her worst adversaries would suggest that she’s in it only for the juice of it.
The thing is, we sort of get the idea ever since she threw that party with Akon, trademarked the bejeweled shoulder pad and lay in a charred bed with a skeleton. Gaga’s main strategy was always to not to skewer incredulity, but to evoke it, and to make sure she’s artfully apt to pull it off. Yet, she did this while under the impression that she’d only do what she does solely for the greater good, or for ‘the music’— this is impressive, seeing as ‘the music’ is usually nothing more than a blurred and unfocused entity that writers use to tie up their thinkpieces and pop music. She wrote pop music with an equal esteem Madonna did with Like a Prayer, Prince with Purple Rain, and the result wasn’t at all political.
Lady Gaga used to use her songs as more than just pretexts. She used to showcase them, and allow us to see them as what they actually are: solid songs with rich production and ridiculously clever near-Orwellian lyrics (‘we could be caught. We’re both convicted criminal of thoughts’, intoned Gaga on Sexxx Dreams, the lone ode to her previous style). With Artpop, her third proper LP, she just doesn’t seem to understand that her ambition, while of a certain merit, doesn’t need external convictions; not from the critics, not from her fans, and not even from her cult-following little monsters.
What did you expect when she told you that it was a reverse Warholian experience? When she told you that she’d recorded a hip hop song, did you think she’d gone all Death Grips? Clearly, she could do that, though maybe not to a Death Grips extent. Artpop is what you get when your scope is too big for the charts to handle, and the execution, while ambitious, is a shy less than impressive.
In spite of that, Aura’s Gaga-esque (she’s got an esque) narrative and EDM stomp (owing to the master of earworms, Zedd) was a brilliant output, as was G.U.Y (her ode to sex), with Gaga’s unrestrained vocals being allowed to shine through. Dope, the record’s finest minutes, doesn’t choke in its sanctimony— there’s just a piano, a chirping synth, and a shitload of proof of how good a singer she is.
Consider this: this is an album that not everybody could make, and it seems fitting that Lady Gaga was behind this. Our marvel stems mostly from its tenacity to go weird and be weirded out, and to go weird after being weirded out, but it’s also a record of one sound musical mind. It doesn’t sound callous when Gaga blubbers that spoken confession in Sexxx Dreams, when she contends with how a much of a bitch she thinks she is, or even the theme of the album itself (SEX, MORE SEX, oh yeah, art and pop).
The restless electric bangs that permeate the album, however, hold the core weakness of it all: the carelessness. Conceptually—lust over romance—it’s awesome, but when you lean on the concept for too long and it begins to falter, you pick yourself up on a reflex. Fashion! is not the product of unskilled pens, but rather their reluctance to get on with it, and Venus (Lady Gaga’s first self-produced track), is little more than a disjointed musical vignette that never found its climax.
Do What U Want saves our trust in Lady Gaga’s instinct, and shows that she can write a solid R’n’B fusion song that namedrops Curtis Mayfield’s Pusherman. This is good, because it shows that her musical forays won’t always end up like Their Satanic Majesties Request. In Manicure, Lady Gaga begs to be healed/saved because she’s ‘addicted to love.’ We’d love to, but we don’t know how.
It’s easy to deem the album as a shameful manifesto; the truth is, it’s far from it. You can’t blame the geek for attempting to talk cool, and you certainly can’t blame Lady Gaga for trying (albeit, too hard) to just be herself. The careening Gypsy, an Europop candy that name checks every country that loves her or wants her head (Jakarta, I’ll always love you), is a testament of the capacity Lady Gaga had to knowingly overlook in order for the actual closer, Applause, to slide in.
The applause is accorded to her bravery, her vision to revolutionize pop music (to meld art and pop into one equation), but it often takes someone who no longer needs reminding about who they are to realize that they have a vision. Artpop’s got a few strong moments, and even a couple of highlights, but it’s just not Gaga. It’s the product of perfectionism and an artist who knows they can get away with anything, and we sincerely hope that her next LP will herald the return of the Gaga of old.