When Lady Gaga announced her new album would be called Artpop, the title seemed strangely redundant. Her entire career has been about trying to liven up dumb-seeming dance music with color, provocation, and meaning; she, if no one else, thinks she’s been up to artpop this whole time.
Her 2011 album Born This Way was the art-poppiest thing she’d ever done—a gonzo mix of proudly cheesy sounds with lyrics waging war against self-consciousness. Some of it amazed, some of it bored, and plenty of people saw its self-empowerment pretensions as, well, just pretensions. But to Gaga’s fans—and to skeptics who, like me, found themselves hooked by the gutsiness of the thing—the album worked: Listening to these crazy, over-the-top songs about feeling good about yourself really did make you feel good about yourself.
At first, it seemed like the same could be said of Artpop. When it leaked more than a week ago, it felt like a rush—as I wrote at the time, the music sounded huge, made you laugh, and packed some quirk. It seemed like there was a lot of fun craziness to be had here.
Listening more, though, I’m not so sure. Artpop, on sale today, is noisy and excited and well produced, yes. But none of the hooks bite as hard as Gaga’s best, and none of the weirdness is as weird as, say, the industrial meatgrinder clamor of “Judas,” Born This Way’s second single. The music's hyperactive, but also pretty safe—eager to please, not blow minds or change the world. Combine that move towards the conventional with what Gaga’s singing about, and it becomes downright bleak; Artpop is about, and embodies, the idea of entertainment as a mere distraction from emotional emptiness.
“When I am not onstage I feel dead,” she told Rolling Stone in 2011. “Whether that is healthy or not to you, or healthy or not to anyone, or a doctor, is really of no concern to me.” That's the idea behind tracks like lead single/album closer “Applause,” which lays out the philosophy here: fame as medication, “I live for the applause.” The version of the song that’s reached the Billboard Top 10 is springy, vaudevillian electronica, but the DJ White Shadow remix on the extended version of Artpop stretches out the song to something slow-moving, atmospheric, and spooky—a more-fitting sonic accompaniment for a sentiment that, as Gaga put it, may not be all that healthy.
Pathological fame cravings have inspired Gaga for her entire career and have fueled some of her most interesting work—think the 2009 VMAs performance for “Paparazzi,” which had the singer bloody herself on stage to illustrate just how far a pop star might go for attention. Artpop, queasily, goes further, equating all human interaction as serving the same purpose—making her, and presumably others, feel a little less dead inside for a few minutes.
You can pick out lyrics along this theme for hours. “Love me love me please retweet” from “G.U.Y.” stood out on first listen, but the entire album’s a parade of references to sex, fashion, and performance as interchangeable substitutes for drug use—and, often, better than drug use. “I need you more than dope,” goes the chorus to the futuristic bar ballad “Dope,” reportedly derived from a song Gaga wrote when medical problems forced her to cancel her world tour. The shimmering, R. Kelly-assisted R&B of “Do What You Want” opens with Gaga lamenting mean bloggers, and then gets to the chorus: “You can’t have my heart and you won't use my mind, but do what you want with my body.” It’s sex-not-love hedonism equated with pop stardom, with both presented somewhere between empowerment and coping mechanism.
That ambivalence seems intentional. “Sexxx Dreams” doses Prince's "Little Red Corvette" with some dread and Gaga using lust as therapy: “I just want this to be perfect / because I’m broken.” On a track like “Donatella,” she parodies herself and many of her famous compatriots, opening with a monologue: “I am so fab, check it out: I'm blonde, I'm skinny I'm rich, and I'm a bit of a bitch.” The rest of the song waffles between condemnation and you-go-girl slogans. “I’m gonna wear designer and forget your name,” she says, and there’s a sense that it’s ok to do that; if vanity gets you through the day, why not indulge it?
Towards the end of the album, the desperation becomes more explicit. The KISS-esque stomp of "Mary Jane Holland" sees Gaga inventing another alter ego, a pot-smoking Amsterdam libertine who doesn’t care about “the culture of the popular.” “I think that I could be fine if I could be Mary Jane Holland tonight,” she says, making clear that we’re far in the realm of fantasy escape—and escape would mean not needing constant validation. On the following track, the album standout “Gypsy,” she resurrects the same “Living on a Prayer” vibe previously seen on Born This Way’s eternal-commitment capstone “The Edge of Glory.” She’s too busy touring the world to have a romance, but throbbing EDM beats make it bearable for now: “I don’t want to be alone forever, but I can be tonight,” she belts.
Happiness through temporary pleasure, vulnerability mixed with partying—these themes make pop music pop music, so why does Artpop feel especially depressing? It’s because not long ago, Gaga built a career on the idea that strength comes from within, that you’re born a beautiful amazing creature and it’s only society that makes you feel bad. She may still hold that opinion, but on Artpop she spends her energy demonstrating how to deal with the bad feelings by burying them under flings, fame, clothes, and loud music. The idea that you might earnestly love something—a person, a dress, a song—because it's inherently awesome and not just because you need a boost of endorphins seems secondary.
In a way, Gaga's shedding the lie of her entire career, as she acknowledges on the album opener that asks, "do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura?" She still creates good pop—"Aura," "G.U.Y.," and "Gypsy" will sound great at parties—but it was her fantastical dimension that made her a superstar. Before, she'd made a plausible case that she acts and dresses so bizarrely simply because she likes how it looks, or because it's a genuine expression of the unique human inside, or because it upends notions of how people should dress and act. Now she’s owning up to the abject hunger for attention underlying the routine. That’s perhaps honest, and it's what most people suspected all along, but it’s also a bummer: artpop as real talk.