There have always been two Lady Gagas: the button-pushing, meat dress-clad provocateur and the distressingly conventional pop singer. Her new album, “Artpop,” is meant to be a transgressive exploration of fame, fashion and art, but it’s really a middlebrow pop album with high-art ambitions that too often go unrealized.
“This is the reverse of Warhol,” Gaga recently told an interviewer. “This is the reverse of the soup can, this is art imprinted onto pop culture.” A pop album that truly tried to democratize the avant-garde would have been a great idea, but “Artpop” isn’t it. Gaga doesn’t have a lot to say about culture, except in the most cartoonishly broad strokes. Everything is burned down to its most obvious, tired signifiers: Versace, Warhol, Louboutin, Jeff Koons (the latter being Gaga’s fellow high-toned kitsch enthusiast, and the album’s cover artist). It doesn’t say much for “Artpop” that its avant-garde touchstones haven’t been avant since the Clinton administration.
The album is an undisciplined sprawl of genres (most of them variations on dance pop), personas (drama camp weirdo, Weimar Republic vamp, Grace Jones impersonator) and ideas (fame is bad, sex is good) that is sometimes intensely pleasurable and sometimes wince-inducing.
It’s grounded in the recognition that, however admirable Gaga’s fine-art ambitions, she still must keep one eye on peers such as Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus. “Artpop” bears the skeletal outlines of everybody else’s 2013 hits: There’s trap, rave, disco, vaguely Euro-inspired EDM, ’80s nostalgia, songs about weed and awkward hip-hop featuring whatever rappers are willing to degrade their brand. (Twista shows up. Twista will always show up.) Everything is bent into recognizable, radio-friendly shapes, with enough eccentricities to make it recognizably Gaga but not so much that things actually get weird.
It’s unclear whether Gaga knows it isn’t safe to venture too far from the unspoken limitations of Top 40, or whether she thinks she has. “Artpop” occasionally likes to explain its underlying thesis (“Pop culture was in art / Now art’s in pop culture / In me,” Gaga intones on the first single, “Applause,” which would have been terrible without those clunky lyrics). “My Artpop could mean anything,” she sings on the title track.
Awkwardly pointing out the Art in “Artpop” doesn’t make it any Artier. There are still moments when it’s a likable, buoyant dance-pop album, at least in its first half, which is highlighted by “Do What U Want,” an electro/’80s R&B hybrid, which pairs Gaga with R. Kelly and is the album’s best and liveliest track.
“G.U.Y.” checks every familiar box: role playing, bad puns (“G.U.Y.” stands for “Girl Under You”), a killer hook, lyrics she’ll regret in five years (“Touch me, touch me / Don’t be sweet / Love me, love me, please retweet”). Like many songs here, it’s highly sexualized, which is different from saying it’s sexy, because Gaga’s air of sexual detachment rivals Rihanna’s. She recites lines such as “Do you wanna see me naked, lover?” as if she were ordering lunch.
“Artpop” disintegrates in its second half, some point after “Swine” (a shuddering, irredeemable rage stroke of a song, with a whiff of Nine Inch Nails), but before “Mary Jane Holland,” an improbably energetic ode to smoking pot. About the time Will.i.am shows up as a co-producer of the ersatz Bowie takeoff, “Fashion!” (“Fashion! / Step into the room / Like it’s a catwalk / Fashion!”), it becomes apparent that Gaga’s definition of avant-garde differs significantly from most everybody else’s.
Gaga is at the point in her super-fame where everything is meta. Every song is about Gaga, even the ones that are technically about something else. “Listen to her radiate her magic / Even though she knows she’s misunderstood,” she nudge-nudges/wink-winks on “Donatella,” a tribute to the Versace matriarch that runs into the same trouble that most Gaga homages do. Most of her subjects are less compelling than she is.
The penultimate track, “Gypsy,” is a souped-up electro ballad that sounds like a Billy Joel collaboration with the ghost of Kurt Weill. In other words, it’s great, offering just the sort of heartfelt, pulpy melodrama Gaga does so well, if increasingly rarely. But “Artpop” has other things on its mind. Any halfway diligent student of pop culture knows this was inevitable, that most artistically ambitious figures will eventually release an album their advisers couldn’t talk them out of — one the artist thinks is revolutionary and everyone else knows is kind of a mess. Despite its mission statement, “Artpop” isn’t a Warhol. It isn’t even a “Yeezus.” It’s the musical equivalent of Madonna’s “Sex” book, with R. Kelly standing in for Vanilla Ice; an ambitious misfire that read the moment all wrong.
Stewart is a freelance writer.