Is Lady Gaga’s ‘Artpop’ Really As Bad As Everyone Says?
We decided to find out, once and for all.
Artpop, Lady Gaga’s fourth album, never stood a chance.
While her second-most commercially successful album to date, 2011’s Born This Way didn’t sustain Gaga’s cataclysmic hold on pop culture, not that it ever could. As its follow up, Artpop was framed as a last-grab attempt to return to the throne. Measured under the metric of ‘reach astronomical heights of artistry or bust’, it was doomed to flop.
Then again, the promo cycle certainly didn’t help. In the lead-up, Gaga herself promised something spectacular, never the same, totally unique, completely not ever been done before: where she once said Born This Way would be “the album of the decade”, now she claimed Artpop was the “album of infinite”.
When lead single ‘Applause’ dropped, most casual listeners were too off-caught by its clunky self-described artful-ness to enjoy it for what it was: a synth-pop banger. Lines like “Pop culture was an art/Now pop culture and art are me” sounded a little too Warhol 101 — which would be fine, but Gaga seemed intent on presenting Artpop as something so much more.
And what better way to show that something more than with ArtRave, a performance art party in Brooklyn featuring pieces from the likes of Marina Abramović and Inez and Vinoodh? Or the confusing, pointless Artpop app? Or the album cover, featuring a hyperrealistic Gaga sculpture by Jeff Koons? Oh, and how could we forget the debut of Volantis, Gaga’s multi-million dollar flying dress?
When a fake story circulated online that Gaga had blown US $25 million on album promo, it made sense — each stunt felt artless, style without substance. Then news broke she’d fired her long-term manager.
By the time Artpop arrived, its narrative had already been etched — as The Guardian said, it read as a desperate attempt “to re-establish brand Gaga as some luridly necessary cultural force”. Subsequently, the album ‘flopped’ by selling well but not at the astronomical level we’d come to expect, merely sitting alongside Katy Perry’s Prism and Miley Cryus’ Bangerz.
Five years later, Artpop‘s biggest cultural mark is its meme status. Little Monsters and ironic hashtaggers alike still to this day implore people to #BuyArtpopOniTunes, despite the fact that Gaga herself seems to have more or less wiped it from her own caché. On her latest world tour, ‘Applause’ was the sole song from the album to be routinely performed, and she’s since said the era was ‘mismanaged’ by her label.
my last words will be #buyartpoponitunes
— Calvin (@calvinstowell) April 21, 2015
Cynics cite Gaga’s latest turn to the ‘authentic’, ‘stripped back’ country-twanged pop of 2016’s Joanne as a post-Artpop retreat, a pivot to avoid the pitfalls of ‘out Gaga-ing’ herself once again. Which is probably, to some extent, true — the commercial failures of Artpop undoubtably prompted a change-of-direction. But was Artpop really so unredeemable?
My Artpop Could Mean Anything
While Born This Way is arguably Gaga’s ‘best’ album — a bombastic coalesce of her influences, peppering saxophone solos with Springsteen-esque ballads and Berlin techno — Artpop is Gaga’s most ‘Gaga’ album.
It follows its predecessor’s formula of quirk-driven choruses and genre-clashing, but there’s less concern for cohesion or radio play. As a result, it’s an obtuse, intense and unapologetic hour of indulgence.
While Artpop sits around Gaga’s standard hour-long mark, it can feel a lot longer due to its scattershot sound. Across its fifteen tracks, Gaga jumps between R&B (‘Sexxx Dreams’, ‘Do What U Want’), industrial breakdowns (‘Swine’, ‘Donatella’), high-octane EDM (‘Aura’, ‘G.U.Y.’), glam-rock (‘Manicure’) and Elton John-style piano ballads (‘Dope’), all tied together by a shared campiness. As you can expect, it doesn’t always work.
my child can be gay… a hoe… a gay hoe… a drug addict… a kleptomaniac… even a vegan… but i will never, 𝐧𝐞𝐯𝐞𝐫 raise a child who doesn’t like lady gaga’s artpop
— jack (@fkajxck) July 19, 2018
Opening track ‘Aura’ encapsulates the album’s worst tendencies. Produced by Zedd and Israeli trance duo Infected Mushroom, the turbo track combines mariachi, EDM, vaguely Eastern motifs with an spoken-word intro straight from a Kill Bill fan-fiction. All the while, the lyrics muddle sexual and artistic freedom into a metaphor about peeking behind a burqa, the song’s pre-release title.
Gaga was a pioneer of stretching pop’s superfluousness — the risk with experiments is they don’t always work.
Its flaws are made all the more obvious against ‘Swine’, a pop odyssey rape revenge based around Gaga’s own experience at age 19 with an unnamed record producer, complete with a dubstep breakdown that is filled with more bloodlust than a Tarantino film. As the description suggests, the song’s bursting at the seams — and it’s all the better for it.
Where the chaos of ‘Swine’ sounds like the only way Gaga could write about her experience, it’s hard to not hear ‘Aura’ as intentionally histrionic, its many sounds obscuring something half-finished. Suitably, the world first heard ‘Aura’ in the trailer for Machete Kills, a middling 2013 B-grade action film where Gaga plays a shapeshifting hitman — the song is equally formless. If Gaga’s wrapped in anything, it’s overproduction.
Thankfully, there are other moments where Gaga balances herself more. ‘G.U.Y’ is as liberating a listen as its gender-bending through line (‘I want to be your Girl Under You/Your G.U.Y.’) and as tongue-in-cheek its Housewives-featuring film clip, while ‘Fashion’ and ‘Donatella’ revel in their facetiousness.
Elsewhere, the flirtations with R&B prove Gaga’s voice is more than adaptable. ‘Sexx Dreams’ and ‘Do What U Want’ are excellent, though R. Kelly sullies the latter — it’s best to swap it out with the opulent re-release with Christina Aguilera.
If there’s one point where Artpop slides off, it’s the EDM influence. Where the big crossover hits of the past decade (‘We Found Love’, ‘Break Free’, ‘Titanium’) centre a clean, anonymous vocal, Gaga’s personality and distinct voice never cede. The result is a stubborn war, as Gaga’s ‘Gaganess’ seems to fight against the songs themselves. Understandably, casual listeners and commercial radio didn’t have the patience to stick around.
Enigma Pop Star Is Fun
In an excellent feature on whether Artpop ‘flopped’, Pitchfork contributor Chris Molanphy describes 2009-2010 as Gaga’s “imperial era”: a time where she was untouchable.
Back then, the club-ready and bass-heavy pop on 2008 debut album The Fame (and it’s composite EP, The Fame Monster) not only catapulted to the top of the charts, but defined them. But in an era which largely lacked persona-based pop, it was Gaga’s weirdness that truly stood out: the heights of ‘Paparazzi’ and ‘Bad Romance’ were matched with meat dresses, bubble-based outfits and a public presence that left other pop stars in dust.
Empires rarely gain a second wind — and it’s hard to think either Gaga or her label were naive enough to think Artpop would be the album to do it. As Molanphy argues, the tide had already turned: the disdain for Artpop was motivated by a Born This Way backlash, which sold well at first but had little staying power, proving to be both too weird and not weird enough.
Artpop was an unapologetic push towards further pop maximalism, something which would be echoed by the success of PC Music producers A.G. Cook and SOPHIE in a few years — not necessarily in sound but in concept, an irony-free embrace of pop’s vacuousness.
But even at its most obnoxious, Artpop encourages repeat listens, even if you’re just trying to work out what exactly is going on.
While the pop world has slowly caught up (though Charli XCX’s underground status says there’s still a way to go), Artpop was stretching pop’s superfluousness back in 2013 — unfortunately, the risk with experiments is that they wouldn’t always work.
Writing this feature, I listened to Artpop consistently for a week — it was a bumpy ride, and one which nearly derailed this article as I alternated between viscerally hating and loving the album. But even at its most obnoxious, Artpop encourages repeat listens, even if you’re just trying to work out what exactly is going on. That’s more than could be said for ‘The Cure’, Gaga’s standalone single from last year — a disappointing post-Joanne return which trades in pop-by numbers platitudes that seemed geared towards algorithmic tastes than star power.
Gaga, at her best, is an artist who prompts questions. ‘The Cure’, which could be anyone’s song, at best prompts a skip. And Artpop? Well, that could mean anything.
Jared ‘I’m Italian, I’m From New York’ Richards is a staff writer at Junkee. His Year 12 varsity jacket nickname was ‘Lady JaJa’. Follow him on Twitter.