Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP hit the shelves today, always the trendsetter she went against the industry standard of releasing records on Tuesday. Much like her last record, 2011’s Born This Way, this is not a record that instantly wins you over. She challenges her listeners lyrically and sonically, to say nothing of her image. She adds some rougher industrial and EDM inspired elements to her usual disco/dance vibe which makes it interesting but not immediately interesting to pop listeners. Little wonder though. That’s the whole point of this record.
Gaga set out with the mission to challenge the notions of art and pop and prove that pop music is plenty capable of being a real artistic statement. The album’s title track takes a stab at summing it up with its chorus of, “We could, we could belong together (ARTPOP!)”. Whether she succeeds is up for debate. Her first single does say she “lives for the applause.” Not exactly the statement of a serious artist. As a self-identified Gaga fan and poptimist I really want her to succeed, but I also can’t help but pick it apart and see the places she falls short. My biggest issue is always her lyrics. This is the woman who wrote, “Find your Jesus find your Kubrick” (“Dance in the Dark” from 2009’s The Fame Monster). She constantly struggles between being overly literal or just nonsensical in her frequently awkward prose. I feel like this is a prime example of her having a good idea but being surrounded by yes men that won’t challenge her.
The two biggest themes of the record are fame and escapism, mostly through drugs, but also through fashion and sex. Where her previous discussions of fame have been celebratory, this record sees her feeling trapped by it and her public persona, on songs like “Aura” and “Do What U Want”. The former has a reference to “enigma popstar” and asks, “Do you want to see the girl that lives behind the aura?” On “Do What U Want,” duet partner R. Kelley describes the pop star life as, “Early morning, longer nights/Tom Ford, private flights/Crazy schedule, fast life/I wouldn’t trade it in, cause it’s our life,” even likening her to Marilyn Monroe. She answers with her chant of “do what you want with my body,” suggesting that the pop machine can do what they want with her body/public self but, “you can’t have my heart and/you won’t use my mind…./you can’t stop my voice cause/you don’t own my life.”
She’s not content to just examine her own life. She examines the notion that you cannot be too thin, rich, or blonde on “Donatalla,” about fashion designer Donatella, which opens, “I am so fab check it out/ I’m blonde, I’m skinny/I’m rich, and I’m a bit of a bitch.” She goes on to make reference to tailoring clothes to fit your guilt and eating disorders, saying, don’t vomit “you only had a salad today.” I saw one reviewer who claimed this track was an empowerment anthem for the underdog. Clearly we are not listening to the same song. This can’t have positive impact on their friendship.
The most overt examples of escapism are the numerous drug references, namely “Mary Jane Holland,” “Dope,” and “Jewels n’ Drugs,” the last of which is practically unlistenable and amounts to “my love don’t cost a thing” wrapped up in rap clichés. “Mary Jane Holland” explains how the drugs allow her “brunette to sprout” and not “be a slave to the blonde/or the culture of the popular.” Where “Mary Jane Holland” is sonically interesting with its synths over heavy bass, if lyrically awkward, “Dope” lacks the interest and is even more lyrically awkward, with a chorus of “I love you more than dope.” This is the only ballad on the record, which is disappointing given that ballads were among her best moments on past records.
Despite all of that, I really do like this record, even if Gaga and her distaste for critics would argue otherwise. Among the best moments on the records is “G.U.Y.” which could be argued is an example of Gaga’s love of playing with gender. “G.U.Y.,” is incredibly catchy and an obvious choice for a single. If you’re wondering, G.U.Y. stands for “girl under you”, so she’s giving a masculine name to a submissive feminine role, which I have to say I dig. Catchier still is “MANiCURE”. This chanting that she needs to be “man cured” and handclapping are amongst the most anthemic compositions she’s done on any record.
While this record has sonically won me over, it’s the themes and lyrics that really worry me. All artists go through stages and examine numerous subjects, but her past records have been joyous, celebrating the “bad kids” and being “born this way”. This record feels quite tragic, especially in regard to fame, which is quite worrisome for some as thoroughly in the public eye as Lady Gaga. There’s also the conspicuous drug use. While she has repeatedly said that she dabbles in various drugs to help her artistic process, the references on this record are so pervasive that I wouldn’t be surprised if she had a rehab stint in her future, especially given their context. I just hope this record is exorcising her demons or dabbling with another persona, as this record could very easily set the stage for a devolution of some kind.