The contrarian narratives that emerged from Gaga’s Born This Wayperiod were unfortunate. Many came to view the record as self-absorbed, patronizing, and just plain full of shit in its Messiah Complex posturing. Someone somewhere started the stupid “she’s just copying Madonna” thing (which this blog previously discussed and refuted), and the two colossal personalities publicly quarreled for a while.
When all was said and done, Born This Way had sold less than half the copies that The Fame did (noting, however, that the latter enjoyed a re-release boost in sales with The Fame Monster).
So it’s probably no mistake that ARTPOP feels like a conceptual sequel to The Fame. Compare, for instance, songs like “Jewels N’ Drugs,” “Donatella,” and “Fashion!” with nascent counterparts like “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “The Fame,” and “Money Honey.” This album also sees the return of collaborations with high-profile hip-hop and R&B artists; onThe Fame, it was Akon, Colby O’Donis, and Flo Rida. Now, it’s R. Kelly and T.I.
One of the first things listeners will notice about ARTPOP is that the diverse influences and radical stylistic shifts that characterized her first two albums are largely gone. Born This Way clearly expressed her primary electro-house and Eurodance influences on tracks like “Judas,” “Scheße,” but at times it equally sounded like Bruce Springsteen, Poison, and Marilyn Manson. The Fame is remembered for timeless dance tracks like “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,” but songs like “Eh, Eh” and “Summerboy” revealed a novice Gaga far less confident in who she was as an artist.
In contrast, ARTPOP is a relatively straightforward pop-EDM fusion record. It’s her most stylistically cohesive release since the brilliantly dark and meditatively ecstatic Fame Monster EP. The album’s cohesive sound was engineered by talented EDM figures; DJ White Shadow boasts the most frequent credits, but also including Israeli psy-trance visionaries Infected Mushroom and a lil’ Russian guy named Zedd. Obviously, the producers kill it. It’s just as much their record as it is Gaga’s.
Additionally, the high-concept anthems that dominated Born This Way have almost disappeared entirely. Sure, “Do What U Want” is about being proud of one’s body while simultaneously recognizing that it’s often our least important feature. But never do the songs approach the grandiose rebelliousness and faux-ideological individualism of pop-canticles like “Born This Way,” “Hair” and “Bad Kids.”
Nonetheless, the album’s thematics and lyrical attitudes are still very cool, intelligent, and intellectually stimulating. In other words- this album is very, very Gaga.
We start with “Aura” (formerly titled “Burka”), a violently beautiful dance track about persona and artifice. “Venus” then channels schizophrenic Jazz legend Sun Ra and features her most ecstatically infectious hook since “Bad Romance.”
“G.U.Y.” ostensibly functions as anti-feminist polemic celebrating the eroticism in female submission, its playfully acronymic lyrics ultimately play with gender signifiers in a way that’s quite libertine and exuberant. When she provocatively, if ambiguously, declares that “our sex doesn’t tell us no lies,” you’ve got to wonder whether the double-negative was intentional.
“Swine” is an absolute blast. “Mary Jane Holland” and “Dope” converse with each other in a back-to-back conversation on drug (ab)use. The latter is her best piano ballad since the inexplicably unreleased “Fooled Me Again (Honest Eyes).”
At track eight, the title track sits at the album’s heart both literally and figuratively. Her simple deconstructionist assertion that “my artpop can mean anything” is the album’s core contention. You see it expressed elsewhere on bookend tracks “Aura” (“Enigma popstar is fun!”) and “Applause” (“Some of us just like to read”), as both seem to be gleefully taunting of overeducated critics and analysts, challenging them to have fun patting themselves on the back while misinterpreting and reinterpreting everything she does.
That said, the album isn’t perfect. A couple tracks just don’t work. The obligatory trap collaboration with T.I., et. al. “Jewels N’ Drugs” feels out of place, and strikes one more as a reaction to Katy Perry’s curiously excellent “Dark Horse” and Miley’s controversial ongoing appropriation of urban culture than anything like her seamless early hip-pop tracks ”Starstruck” and “Paper Gangsta.” She goes through the motions on “Fashion!,” which duplicatively follows the cynically humorous “Donatella” but adds nothing to the conversation (it’s no coincidence that established charlatans will.i.am and David Guetta were involved). And “Gypsy” is just a pretty much just a lame song.
Although I think it will prove to be a far less divisive record, the inevitable conventional knowledge on this record -that it’s Gaga’s humble and much-needed return basics -probably goes too far. I categorically reject the suggestion that ARTPOP is “better” than Born This Way. It’s surely different. It’s more enjoyable, accessible, and aesthetically cohesive. But achieving these admitted virtues also makes it less inventive, less audacious, and perhaps too reliant on the steady crutch of contemporary EDM’s blanket attractiveness.
As this blog argued strenuously, Born This Way‘s eclectic and hyperactive sonic sensibilities were a good thing. Let’s not forget that. But let’s also appreciate how completely fantastic this record is. I still can’t stop listening.