The words "pop" and "art" can be confusing. We use "pop" to describe a piece of music from within and without—it can speak to music's genre, its sensibility, and the reaction to it, sometimes simultaneously. When we use the label "art" to describe what's already evidently art—music, for example—we do it as a way of describing a particular expressiveness or originality or difficulty. We use it to distinguish "artful" art.
"Pop" and "art" are taken, sometimes, to be mutually exclusive—or, if not exclusive, opposed in some way. So what does it mean when one of the biggest pop stars in the world, Lady Gaga, who can make such a claim precisely because she has been so populist with her art, titles her third full-length ARTPOP?
"My ARTPOP could mean anything," Gaga says on the title track. Oh.
The title inverts the name of style of visual art best known via the work of Gaga's more visionary but similarly fame-obsessed predecessor Andy Warhol. Says Gaga,"The intention of the album was to put art culture into pop music, a reverse of Warhol. Instead of putting pop onto the canvas, we wanted to put the art onto the soup can."
"Art culture" is a hollow phrase, at least when used as a counterpoint to "pop culture." Pop culture is art culture—our society is obsessed with art and its creators. The distinction between art culture and pop culture is the same as that between "high" art and "low" art—a distinction made as a way of signaling certain bona fides about education and class. Needless to say it's exhausting and snobbish in nature and unfriendly to someone whose art is crafted to appeal to the masses. In fact, talking about her art in such terms places Gaga very much in step with her peers. Describing pop music as art isn't daring or revolutionary. It's popular.
Pop music is increasingly fascinated by the contemporary art world, and with being included in it. Sometimes this reads as a resistance to the thoughtless dismissal of a medium that we take for granted because it's almost as accessible as tap water—when Jay Z compares himself to Picasso, it's powerful because there are people who would never consider him in that league, regardless of his skill and reach, because of the color of his skin. (Granted, he draws the comparison on what is probably his worst album, so he has reasons beyond the greater culture to be defensive, even if he doesn't acknowledge them.) When he stages performance art, it's a way of making literal the art of performance that has always been inherent in his work.
And sometimes said entitlement reads as self-deluded bullshit. Katy Perry recently described her last album to Billboard this way: "Teenage Dream was highly conceptual, super-pop art."
Gaga's somewhere between the two poles. She is evidently more passionate and thoughtful than so many of her peers—ARTPOP has more ideas on a single song (even the truly dreadful ones, and there are several of them here) than Katy Perry has on her entire Prism album and that Rihanna ever had in her entire artistic life. Gaga sings the shit out of this record. She belts out her soul on the ARTPOP highlight "Do What You Want" (a duet with R. Kelly), and puts on a slurry Joe Cocker swagger in the cringey and melodramatic piano ballad "Dope." Unafraid to annoy (and, at times, seemingly calculating to do so), she consistently does weird things with her voice like singing the chorus of "Sexxx Dreams" through her nose and affecting a Bowie pose (which is to say a pose of a pose) on "Fashion!" On that track, her bellow—and comfort in lagging behind the beat—recall most strongly Bowie's "Let's Dance" (as opposed to his own "Fashion"), while producers Giorgio Tuinfort, David Guetta, and will.i.am employ Chic guitars that proved so profitable for Daft Punk earlier this year. Together, they form a multi-era patchwork salute to Nile Rogers.
Many of ARTPOP's songs have multiple hooks that keep them soaring where other contemporary pop would plateau. A lot of them follow Gaga's basic format of a somewhat melodically inert verse that gives way to a rocket boost of a chorus (or two, or three—in a row). This has been Gaga's preferred structure for a while, and while it is predictable and manipulative, it works consistently well enough to be justified, no explanation needed. (This is pop, after all—shameless, unapologetic manipulation is its primary function.)
But a less fortunate carryover from her last album, 2011's Born This Way, is a similar, screamy approach to sound, particularly during those giant hooks, where high octane and block waveforms are conflated. Though Gaga and her producers (Zedd, DJ White Shadow, and Infected Mushroom among them) allow more spaciousness on this record than that one, which was produced within an inch of its life and our functioning eardrums, most of these songs inevitably build to a pile of noise whose constituents bleed together and become indistinguishable. Often this noise is preceded or accompanied by a grinding synth sound that threads through the album, regardless of what genre Gaga is dabbling in at a given moment.
Again, Gaga seems intent on annoying. Though there are forays into chanty stadium rock, power balladry, and R&B, she generally comes back to house music with good reason—if the modern strain of dance music that gave the genre renewed commercial viability in the U.S. has a face, surely it is hers. She embraced it whole-heartedly and matter-of-factly from the start of her major-label career. I would never argue against house music's qualification as art, and I believe that Gaga isn't given enough credit for her overall cleverness in terms of her music. However, so much of what appears on ARTPOP is just thoughtfully crafted EDM, drops and all.
Gaga's lyrics only mix the bag further. There are terrible puns ("manicure" becomes "man cure," when she sings, "I wanna be that G.U.Y." she means "girl under you," and there's a particularly infantile Uranus/ass joke). "Have an oyster, baby / It's Aphrod-isy / Act sleazy," she sings in "Venus," which surveys the galaxy and Greco-Roman mythology without much of a point beyond an exercise in obviousness. "Please retweet," she sings in another song. The especially irritating first single "Applause" is just dumb—a superstar informing us, "I live for the applause," is only slightly less obvious than a singer singing, "I sing," or an artist describing her art as "art." Gaga has been obsessing about celebrity for the past five years (her first album was titled The Fame), and so something as simple as "Applause" feels remedial. Its honesty is about as admirable as Paris Hilton declaring, "I like attention" on reality TV. (If "Applause" is remedial, her attempt to explain it in the most complicated terms possible might as well be pre-verbal for all the sense that it makes.)
Far better is "Gypsy," the kind of house/power ballad hybrid that Gaga has perfected, which expresses the ambivalence that comes from life on the road and yearning for an intimate connection. "Do What U Want," in which romantic submission is compared to the submission of a public figure ("You can't have my heart and / You won't use my mind but / Do what you want with my body"), comments on the fetishistic allure of scrutiny without having to state as much.
It's a rare sly moment for a performer who knows that subtlety is a dying art. We have come to the point where records are delivered already reviewed—Kanye West declared his work a beautiful dark twisted fantasy before the rest of us got the chance. Given the many instantaneous avenues for feedback, it's easier than ever to understand how misunderstood you are. The problem with being so obvious, with lavishing yourself with praise by pointing out that your art is, in fact, art, is that you're almost certainly setting yourself up to disappoint.
ARTPOP is overlong and its highlights are few and far between (basically, the tracks that I haven't mentioned in this review I would never want to hear again). But it has an overall effect that is not unlike Miley Cyrus' VMAs performance, which was ridiculous and disrespectful and yet instructive in its portrayal of how dumb kids look when they try hard too hard to be down. ARTPOP captures the very real phenomenon of wanting to be an artist, wanting to be surrounded by art, wanting your output to be taken particularly seriously. Its voraciousness to achieve all of this sometimes comes out kind of dumb. That hunger and its effect combine in an aesthetic that I don't necessarily admire, and yet it gives ARTPOP a multi-faceted appeal. It's amusing. When the album isn't occasionally delivering clever, first-rate pop music, there is pleasure to be had at the expense of its artful pretensions. It's rarely a joy to listen to, but as an object to ponder and be entertained by, ARTPOP is win/win.
[Image via Getty]