Nov 12, 2013

CD Review: Lady GaGa - "ARTPOP"

One of the most enigmatic, defiant artists in pop music today remains Lady GaGa and her rotating wardrobe and bizarre music videos. It has sometimes even felt like it came to the point of self parody with each outfit being more scandalous than the last. First and foremost, she is one of the most compelling singers of the modern era because of that. Unable to compromise her tastes for anyone, her music manages to exploit a superego of confidence, sexuality, wit, and maybe even some commentary on the aspect of being a celebrity. All fused together with a mishmash of genre styles, she manages to be powerful in ways that would seem unprecedented. Somehow, "ARTPOP" manages to be both a magnum opus and an example of her persona overshadowing the music.
The album starts off strong with "Aura," a song that was also used in her acting debut Machete Kills. With a flamenco guitar, it builds to a neo-western tale of... sex. Despite the beginning's motif, it is quickly sacrificed for a synth-heavy song that asks the question "Do you want to peek under the covers?" In a way, it is the album's overall thesis, though it also reflects the jagged nature of the album that jumps tonally all over the place. It may be commentary on the integration of art and pop, but it is also a little confused on how to handle it.
In fact, the album seems more sexual than most Lady GaGa albums. Where she spent most of "Born This Way" writing anthems for the downtrodden and forgotten, this feels more like a sensual get down for those people. It becomes apparent three songs in on "G.U.Y." in which she does some role playing and asks an unknown person to play a G.I.R.L.. Even if the song is ambiguous and confusing, it does reflect Lady GaGa's quest to mix up the gender politics in clever and enjoyable ways. Along with the underlying feeling that she perceives herself as a goddess, as present in "Venus," she defines her persona early on and never lets go.
This could easily be much a concept album like "Born This Way" theoretically could be. While there isn't any through narrative, there are consistent themes. Not only is there an exploration of art and pop, but there is a sense of sexuality in the culture. As "Do What U Want" suggests, she is fine with being sexualized, but won't let anyone take her brain or words. She is confident while also being highly sexual. Also, with song titles like "Aura" and "Venus," there is an ethereal quality developing that makes it seem like the album is attempting to also be a pseudo-sci-fi tale of exploring sexuality, fame, and fashion. At points, Lady GaGa even comes off singing with an accent that while European, could be suggested as a way to make the song feel otherworldly.
Her mission statements add weight to the music and while they aren't as broad or as interesting as "Born This Way," it feels like a more consistent tone. If her previous album attempted to go bigger and more boombastic, this feels more like a continuation of her debut "The Fame" stylistically. Now being famous, or "rich as piss" as she puts it, she has the insight into writing these songs about the culture in ways that could feel exploitative. In a sense, they are sometimes too much the case, as "Mary Jane Holland" proves by embracing someone in a way that almost feels too insider baseball. Her enthusiasm keeps the song from ever being a total waste, but it also feels like it is isolating just who is supposed to enjoy the music.
If there is anything wrong with "ARTPOP," it is the occasional disconnect that is felt from Lady GaGa's choice of songs. She is more focused on the physical, cultural goods that are fleeting. Even if it is great subject matter for an art/pop infusion concept album, it does make her sound somewhat superior to her audience in demeaning ways. Maybe it is that the recession makes songs like this feel more problematic, but it also hurts when lyrically things shift so quickly. Even when it does work, on songs like "Jewels 'N Drugs," it does feel like this is Lady GaGa on the brink of hocking merchandise like Jay-Z instead of making bold, artistic statements with great pop music.
The consistency also keeps the album from feeling as immediate and interesting as "Born This Way," which was at times excessive beyond belief but backed it up with bizarre concepts. Here, they almost all seem to be focused around sexual, material things. As a concept album, it is fine, though it does make Lady GaGa a little bit more questionable as a performer going forward. There is a sense of disconnect from the people that enhanced her success: the downtrodden and forgotten, whom she highlighted in the past. Here, they don't feel as referenced as much as her insistence for an unknown individual to "Do what you want with my body." It doesn't feel geared towards her audience, which may be troublesome long term.
Despite all of this, it almost feels like a magnum opus of themes that she has explored in the past. "The Fame" was essentially a call to pay attention to her. Her ambiguously sexual presence has always made her fascinating. With her vocal delivery improving and making songs like "Dope" have emotional depth, she has proven that no matter what the material is, she can make it work. It may be isolating at times, but her confidence, shatter voice, and occasional accents all give her a persona that bleeds authenticity unlike some other artists. Maybe fame has gone to her head too much and that this is the turning point, but given the benefit of the doubt that this is a "concept album," it is hopefully just that.
In terms of creating an album that crosses art and pop, it does feel like it does it pretty well. Even if she claims that it is "Whatever you want it to be," her vague interpretation leaves room for dissection without sacrificing a single song's quality. Much like art and pop, there are common, connecting themes on the songs: sex, materialism, and drug addiction. This may not be her greatest output of songs, but it does reflect an ambitious decision to try something bold and different, which has always been her forte and also the meta proof of why this album is solid enough to pop on and dance to. It manages to be empty yet deep with substance and fueled by a superego unlike anything else, which may be its biggest success.

Rating: 3.4 out of 5

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