Rating:ARTPOP has one of the most misleading album titles of the year. One might think that Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta will explore the boundaries between commerce and personal expression on her third LP. It turns out that ARTPOP has no discernible connection to Andy Warhol and, even more unforgivably, has little to say of substance about much of anything. It’s definitely not great art and, for that matter, doesn’t even succeed very well as pop music.
Some would be quick to point out, I’m sure, that it’s Lady Gaga we’re talking about here, not the Velvet Underground. Is it reasonable to expect “substance” from the performer who brought us a song that featured the lyric, “Let’s have some fun/ This beat is sick/ I wanna take a ride on your disco stick”? Admittedly, many have (perhaps rightfully) placed Gaga safely in their secret “guilty pleasure” playlist, viewing “Bad Romance” and “Poker Face” as songs to groove to when nobody else is around. But, while Gaga has never made particularly profound music, The Fame caught the world on fire in 2008 for a reason. On her first LP, and on her follow-up EP The Fame Monster, Gaga made music that critiqued the idea of celebrity in the postmodern era while simultaneously wallowing in its trappings. There was enough substance to Gaga’s initial ascent that a reputable university even started offering a sociology course in Gaga Studies.
Unfortunately, ARTPOP comes off like a record from a once-provocative artist who has nothing new to say. Gaga gives us a few fleeting moments of pure pop pleasure, but their impact is often subverted by lyrics that are trite, juvenile and, at times, downright boring. Opening track “Aura” starts out promisingly enough. Tarantino soundtrack-esque guitars back the rather odd lyric, “I killed my former and/ Left her in the trunk on Highway 10/ Put the knife under the hood/ If you find it, send it straight to Hollywood.” The potential of a good murder-mystery song is thwarted by some smug Middle Eastern-sounding chords—a failed attempt at exoticism—and the sexually banal lyrics of the chorus, “Do you want to see me naked, lover?/ Do you want to peek underneath the covers?”
Gaga, like one of her primary influences, Madonna, made aggressive, quirky sexuality a part of her shtick from the start. She takes the dirty talk to a whole new level on ARTPOP, though. Three sexually-themed songs in a row are just too much. On the album’s second track, Gaga is nice enough to inform us that Venus is the goddess of love, just in case our knowledge of elementary mythology is seriously lacking. While on first listen it might seem like “G.U.Y.” is a clever sort of gender-bending anthem, the acronym really stands for “girl under you.” The synth and bass lines on the chorus of “Sexxx Dreams” are admittedly catchy, reminiscent of the likes of Phoenix and Passion Pit, but lyrics like “And I lay in bed, I touch myself, and think of you” lack imagination, to say the least. Single “Do What U Want,” which features R. Kelly, is annoyingly repetitive and suffers from a discontent between Kelly’s kinky verses and the rest of the song.
Gaga tries to tackle a serious topic on “Donatella,” but the lyrics come off as contrived and clichéd. In this attempted exposé of the fashion industry, Gaga sings, “Walk down the runway, but don’t puke/ It’s okay/ You had just a salad today.” The similarly themed “Fashion!” starts out rather promisingly, with an acoustic piano and punchy bass line invoking the spirit of Daft Punk’s song of the summer, “Get Lucky.” The second half is comparatively disappointing, descending into a swirl of EDM blips and beeps that sound more like Skrillex at his worst.
A reward awaits those who are strong enough to wade through all 59 of ARTPOP’s mediocre minutes. The last two tracks are in fact the record’s strongest. Gaga shows off her vocal chops on “Gypsy,” reminding us that she has range and can, in fact, sing. The four-to-the-floor dance groove is infectiously fast and frenzied. The album’s final track, the lead single “Applause,” serves as a love letter from Gaga to her fans (“I live for the applause,” the superstar asserts). Nevertheless, the pounding low-register synths and minor-key tonality give the track a slightly sinister feel, suggesting the dark side of fame. The musical tone and lyrical content of “Applause” are reminiscent of Gaga’s first record, and this only makes it harder to think of a good reason to listen to ARTPOP when you can otherwise listen to The Fame.