Lady Gaga's Artpop Is an Attention-Freak's Manifesto

First impressions of the superstar's third album
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Lady Gaga’s Artpop hit the Internet on Saturday, more than a week before its Nov. 11 scheduled release. As you can tell from its Jeff Koons-assisted cover, and from the fact that it's a Lady Gaga album, there's a lot going on here. So, while I process, a few early, not-quite-formed thoughts: 

1. With M.I.A.’s Matangi going online a few days earlier, and closely following full-length releases from Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, and Miley Cyrus, it’s a season of big, superstar-driven pop. But no one makes pop bigger than Lady Gaga does. That’s one reason why she’s worth paying attention to—she draws the upward boundary for how garish, and how polarizing, music aimed straight at the center of culture can get.

2. I had my first of many out-loud laughs listening to Artpop around the one-minute mark, when Gaga follows up her spaghetti-Western opening monologue with laughs of her own and then stretches the syllables of the song title—“AuraaAAAH, auraaAAH”—with Elvira malevolence. It’s so over the top, so campy, so theater-geek dramatic, that you either have to grin or cringe. And then the beat slams in, and that grin/cringe just gets more pronounced. “Aura,” and the rest of Artpop, wants to be the most entertaining music ever made, which is ridiculous. Thankfully, Gaga seems to recognize that it’s ridiculous.

3. The humor here signals a change for her. Born This Way, her divisive previous album, saw Gaga attempting to make music of social importance while repurposing some of the most earnest music of all time—hair metal, ‘80s R&B, German techno, country. Artpop sees Gaga veering back to the straight-up club sounds that made her famous, turning down her heal-the-world pretensions, and having a few jokes on herself. Whereas Born This Way featured a Springsteen-esque anthem rebelling against moms and dads who don't let their kids have edgy haircuts, Artpop takes parental disapproval more in stride: "I know that Mom and Dad think I'm a mess," she sings on "Mary Jane Holland." "But it's all right, because I am rich as piss."

4. The songs are uniformly catchy—tracks like "Venus" seem to pack a dozen separate choruses—the production makes the music sound enormous. But the highs don't match her career bests ("Bad Romance," "Just Dance," "Edge of Glory"), and I miss the crazed diversity of the last record a bit. Among this album’s standouts are the tracks that offer a brief break from pure beats—the “Hey Mickey” aping cheerleading of “Manicure,” the histrionic piano ballad “Dope,” the soft/loud odyssey "Gypsy."

5. Then again, the pure beats here still manage to seem pretty crazed. Gaga and her producers layer these songs deeply, offering body music that can withstand close dissection on headphones. The main motif on “Aura” sounds like it samples an Aphex Twin freakout, and the EDM arrangement on “Swine” groans and hiccups on its way to higher and higher levels of agitation. Fun, weird stuff.

6. The most surprising thing about the album might be its sex-obsessed lyrics. Sex obviously plays a big role in pop, but Gaga for a while seemed like she’d given up on it; Born This Way instead focused on empowerment and outsiders, a theme that is absent here. Artpop’s words are all about lust: one-night stands, stripteases, and “Sexxx Dreams.” That’s not to say it’s sexy—its jackhammer tempos are about as far from Sade as you get—but the obsession with the carnal fits with how immediate, how ecstatic, and how physical the music is.

7. The sex talk also fits with the larger theme: owning up to one’s own desire for attention. These love songs aren't about how someone else is perfect and beautiful and should never change, but rather about wanting love for validation. Sometimes that translates to sexual lust, but other times she’s talking about fame (“Applause”) or looks on the street (“Fashion!”). “G.U.Y.” even has her horny for social-media likes: “love me / love me / please retweet.” As with all things Gaga, you can find this apologia for narcissism tacky and outrageous, or you can just find it entertainingly honest and relevant given the state of pop culture.

8. Ahead of Artpop’s release, a lot of media coverage centered on a perceived rivalry between Gaga and Katy Perry, who both happened to be releasing their third major albums around the same time. Listening to Artpop makes that rivalry seem both silly and kind of important. Silly because the two women are entirely different: Perry’s Prism shows off a superstar choosing to tone down her personality and offer a grab bag of fashionable sounds to reach the widest audience possible. Artpop sees Gaga going harder, louder, funnier—more extreme—in the hopes of selling millions. The distinction is important because a lot of people look at pop music as uniform and soulless. While Prism could have been made by anyone, Artpop is unmistakably a Gaga creation. It may not be quite as incredible as Gaga thinks it is, and its excesses will turn a lot of people away, but it's nevertheless big, dumb pop music with a person behind it—a person who unapologetically, desperately craves to be loved.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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