There is no question that Lady Gaga has delivered some classic pop singles since she burst onto the scene five years ago with her first #1 single “Just Dance.” She has made her mark on the music industry, and imitators have followed in her wake. She changed the direction of pop music. Her attention-seeking antics, although wearing thin lately, have generally been amusing and have kept her in the spotlight she so obviously craves. Lady Gaga has been a valuable ally in the fight for LGBT rights, and has a sincere and meaningful relationship with her fans. Unfortunately her new album “Artpop,” out next week, is a major disappointment. Gaga set up a promise she was unable to fulfill by relentlessly hyping the album for months. She’s revved and stoked expectations to such a feverish level that any artist would be hard-pressed to deliver. In that context, “Artpop” is nothing short of a fiasco. It’s a barely average modern pop/dance album at best, light on originality, imagination and heart, replete with vapid lyrics and almost completely devoid of strong melodic hooks.
The album isn’t really about fully developed, strongly composed material — it’s more about Gaga herself, and the various themes and sounds that inhabit Gaga-world. “Artpop” itself. “Venus.” “Aura.” “Fashion!” But evidently someone forgot to remind her that at some point there actually should be, you know, good songs. “Artpop” offers nothing approaching kinetic whip-smart classics like “Bad Romance” or “Poker Face.” “Born This Way” may be a brazen theft of “Express Yourself,” but it is undeniably catchy and its message of acceptance was a positive force on society, and for that we owe her a debt of gratitude. Nothing like that to be found here. Lady Gaga’s music has always been highly derivative, but she’s previously shown the ability to weave a wide swath of influence into some great material. Alas, that magical alchemy is largely absent on “Artpop.” Maybe it was the pressure of following up such an iconic album as “Born This Way.” Maybe there were too many ideas and too much material, and no clear direction. Gaga has said in interviews that dozens of songs were recorded for this project, and the album had a protracted gestation as she and her production team searched for that magic combination of songs and sounds. Maybe the commercial stakes were so high that “too many cooks in the kitchen” ended up sterilizing the album in a frantic attempt to deliver a product that would keep Gaga’s mega-empire rolling. Whatever path led to its creation, the end result is frankly a hot mess.
Lead single “Applause” was the first sign of trouble. It was adequate perhaps as an album track — it’s not horrible by any means. But as the leadoff single for one of the year’s most anticipated albums? Surprisingly weak. Compare “Applause” to prior lead singles (“Just Dance,” “Bad Romance,” “Born This Way”) and it’s not even in the same stratosphere. But after hearing the entire album, it’s now easy to understad why “Applause” was chosen — it is clearly the best track on the album. Gaga and her production team and label apparently couldn’t figure out what the second single should be, first announcing “Venus” then deciding on the absolutely forgettable duet with R. Kelly “Do What U Want.” Even with the album’s release date approaching, it’s clear there is no direction to the project.
There are some cool sounds on “Aura,” especially at the beginning, but the lyrics are just so mind-numbingly banal, and the main chorus melody isn’t strong enough to carry what is otherwise one of the better songs on the album. For a song with such a provocative title, “Sexxx Dreams” is remarkably pedestrian, throwaway pop (“When I lay in bed I touch myself and think of you”… oh my, edgy! Vanity would blush!) “Venus” has a certain funky appeal, but it doesn’t have a hook strong enough to make it really work (and again, those cringe-worthy lyrics – “Uranus, don’t you know my ass is famous!!!). The title-track seems promising at first but ultimately grows dull and lifeless. “Swine” is a bit edgier than the rest of the album and could possibly be salvaged by some good remixes. “Fashion!” is Gaga’s dip into the combination of modern electronic pop and retro R&B that Daft Punk, Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake have already done far better. Just dig up Bowie’s original “Fashion,” you’ll be far better off. “Dope” is Pink-lite (“Sober,” a track similar in style and subject, is far superior), and Gaga’s oddly overwrought vocal performance is off-putting. She doesn’t have the vocal chops to make it work. “Gypsy” is one of the stronger tracks, and it’s tucked away near the end — but that said, it sounds like every other pop-dance song that’s been pumped out by the record industry machine in the last five years. Like the rest of “Artpop,” it will ultimately erase itself from the world’s collective consciousness.
There is no depth of feeling or spirit of experimentation on “Artpop” — it’s all gimmicks, and half-hearted stabs at a variety of styles that others have already done far better. There is no cohesion, unity or purpose. There isn’t even much fun. It has a vibe of calculation and projecting an image or persona rather than of creating great pop music. And then there’s Gaga’s voice — on several tracks her vocals sound remarkably thin and whiny.
If this album had been released by a no-name pop singer who wasn’t one of the world’s biggest stars it would be met largely with an epic shrug. Maybe Gaga can squeeze a couple hits out of this record, and her legions of die-hard fans will no doubt send it hurling straight to #1 on the Billboard Top 200 album charts. It will sell… but for how long? And what about the long-term? Will there be any reason to go back and listen to “Artpop” five months from now, let alone five years from now? No. “Artpop” is pop artifice without charm, wit or heart. Who knows, maybe that’s the point? Maybe it’s meant to be a sort of bizarre performance art experiment to see if massive fame and adulation are enough to compel fans to purchase an album that’s really average at best. Whatever the thinking behind it, “Artpop” is a major miscalculation from an artist that has been arguably the most dominant force in pop music over the last five years. It’s a shame because Lady Gaga has shown she can do much better. Let’s hope she finds her inspiration and direction on the next album. But hey, at least it’s better than that awful Katy Perry record. Score one for team Gaga.