“The devil whispered behind the leaves, ‘It’s pretty, but it is art?’” –The Conundrum of the Workshops
You gotta hand it to Lady Gaga; she’s nothing if not creative and ambitious. You never know from moment to moment what she’s going to do, say, look like, or wear; in a sense, she’s turned keeping-people-guessing into an art form in itself. Her long-awaited, much anticipated effort ARTPOP springs from a self-proclaimed mission to superimpose art into the pop vein—in Gaga’s own words to the Daily Mail, “a reverse of [Andy] Warhol.”
Everything leading up to this moment, in fact, has been chock full of the eclecticism that has defined Lady Gaga pretty much from the beginning—from the facepaint on the album cover to appearing without a stitch of clothing in a Marina Abramovic performance art Kickstarter video, from the live-streamed “artRave” that heralded the release of her album at midnight (complete with costumes, flying dresses and other things that scream “art”) to her declared ambition to be the first musical artist to perform in space. Gaga knows how to make an entrance, and she obviously knows how to help her album make an entrance.
The only problem with screaming “ART, ART, ART!” to announce your next piece of, um, art, is that it’s going to be held up to intense scrutiny from its very inception. Because, of course, when someone puts something out there and says, “THIS is art,” the inevitable next question is, “Is it?”
The what-is-art question has been a matter of debate for centuries, and believe you me, I’m not about to step into that fray. As soon as I suggest that this is, or is not, art, someone sure as hell will put up the argument to the contrary. But it does leave one scratching one’s head, at least to ask the question: “Is it art?”
On one hand, Gaga has succeeded with ARTPOP, at least in the sense of creating a reverse Warhol. Indeed, listening to this album conveys the experience of what an Andy Warhol exhibit might sound like if it were music. As with anything else Gaga does, it feels like anything could happen. One minute she’s practically chanting over some of the weirdest electronic soundscapes you’ve ever heard, and the next she’s breaking into a satisfying dance riff that is certain to fill the club floors with sweaty people. At the very least, it’s interesting.
But on the other hand—and this is the head-scratcher—some of the things she says lyrically in the name of “art” are so grotesque, risqué or just plain crude that it skirts the line between erotica and porn. Thematically, most of ARTPOP plays like the diary of a sex, drug and fashion addict who leaves nothing to the imagination. It is reported that Lady Gaga recorded the album stark naked in the studio, and for at least the first half of the album, it feels like she was rather obsessed with that idea. It may be art in the eyes of some, but the art of seduction, at any rate, is all but lost in graphic descriptions that would make a sailor blush. Opening track “Aura” presents just a little shock value in the contrast between a Muslim burqua and the sexual being beneath it, but it gets progressively more explicit from there—in mythogical metaphors that don’t appear to make any sense (“Venus”), in mixed-gender references that have to be explained to be understood (“G.U.Y.” means “Girl Under You”—the lyric says so), and in the misplaced hip-hop of “Jewels N’ Drugs” with notably filthy guest raps from the likes of T.I., Too $hort and Twista).
The midpoint of the album, and the turning of the record from Side A to Side B, if you will, comes with the title track, in which Gaga gives the first hint that what you’re listening to is up for personal interpretation: “My ARTPOP could mean anything.” After that, the focus turns rather surprisingly toward fashion with twin tunes “Donatella” and “Fashion!”, and then toward drugs with another interesting pairing: “Mary Jane Holland”, which plays like an ode to weed and sounds like you might have actually smoked some, and “Dope”, a regretful love song in which the singer seems to be grappling with the effect her love affair with dope is having on real love.
In my view, the strongest tracks from a pop perspective (if not an “art” one) are the last two: “Gypsy,” a powerful, honest and self-reflective love anthem, and “Applause,” the already-smash hit which Gaga released a couple of months ago. If the other tracks on ARTPOP had been more like these two, there would have been a lot more dancing and a lot less head-scratching.
“It’s pretty, but is it art?” This question is complicated further by the fact that much of ARTPOP is more grotesque than pretty. (And don’t start on me—I realize art isn’t always “pretty.”) The one redeeming quality here is that while Lady Gaga appears at times erratic and random, as an artist she still conveys the idea that everything she does, she does on purpose. This leads me to believe that she’s not just rambling randomly in an NC-17 manner and calling it “art”, but that she’s making a statement and inviting discussion. (In that regard, Gaga also succeeds; there will definitely be a LOT of discussion about this album.) In essence, while the adult content of the record left me wanting a shower after listening to it, at the same time I must admit that it didn’t leave me wanting to attend an orgy or do drugs. Much the opposite, in fact. Maybe that was the point.
So, the verdict? I’m sorry to say it, but it’s ultimately a “meh” for me. ARTPOP deserves to be recognized as a valiant attempt to bring a more artful edge into the pop market, but in more ways than one, it gets in its own way. Lady Gaga may be an artist, but her audience is still dance-pop fans. With the exception of a couple of tracks (“Applause” being one), this record is more likely to start arguments over what is art than it is to put feet on the dance floor.