What’s the most outrageous, controversial thing you could do in pop music in 2013? If you guessed dropping out of the race of outdoing everyone else’s spectacle and simply making a great record, your guess would probably be as good as anyone’s, but Lady Gaga only gets that half right on ‘ARTPOP,’ and then only accidentally. Miley Cyrus managed to upstage everyone in the game at being over-the-top, and if anyone was going to be able to top her, it would have been Lady Gaga, but she’s failed to adjust since ‘Born This Way.’ She’s still pulling all the same old tricks, and thus fails to impress anymore with her bizarre antics. Call it a case of overexposure, but her uneven music can no longer be glossed over by any great overarching statement. This was the album where the music should have been able to speak for itself; unfortunately, it’s not got much to say for itself.
There are hints of genius here and there, for example on the abrasive opener ‘Aura,’ which contains heavy industrial overtones seems outright challenging to her usual fanbase, but that song is sullied by its relatively bland chorus. Her duet with R. Kelly on “Do What U Want” is formidable, and the title track probably fulfills the ambition of the project more than any other moment on the album, but I feel like it was supposed to be more of an overture than the centerpiece, and considering the unevenness of the rest of the album, the blatant repetition of “Artpop! Artpo-o-op!” just sounds silly and banal. “Applause” does a pretty good job of closing out the album, regaining the confidence and momentum lost on all the songs that follow the title track just long enough to reconsider the hour-long slog we just listened to, if only for a moment.
But the contrast to these strong, single-worthy tracks aren’t necessarily bad, per se. They’re just nothing new, and they stand out little from either Gaga’s previous work or from the general contemporary pop music climate. “Sexxx Dreams” (oh boy, that’s a clever title, one can only wonder at how they ever came up with it) attempts to be risqué but ends up being pretty forgettable due to its overwrought craftsmanship. The collaboration with party-rappers Too $hort, T.I., and Twista on “Jewels n’ Drugs” makes for a good club track, as do most of the tracks here, but lack much depth beyond a passable beat. “Swine” sports some of the most embarrassingly pointless lyrics Gaga’s come up with yet, but it and “G.U.Y” contain some interesting production work recalling the electro-house duo Justice at times. It’s difficult to tell how seriously we should take “Donatella,” but the irony that permeates this self-parody makes it difficult to appreciate Gaga’s high-art aspirations. “Gypsy” reaches for sentimental reflection on the meaningless of fame (which she has dubiously chosen to make the focus of most of the album, a topic she’s done to death and is not worth exploring much anymore), but feels insincere, which does more to drive the message home than the actual content of the song.
It’s too bad that this album is so thoroughly average. It’s clear that Lady Gaga has some lofty goals that she hopes to achieve through her music, but she’s limited by the fact that she’s effective at making individual, isolated statements, but not especially good at uniting them with a greater message. And so it translates to her music – she makes great singles, but making albums is not her strong point. Which is perhaps why ‘The Fame Monster,’ a relatively short EP, was such a success (being largely comprised of singles), while her albums aren’t quite up to par.
Recommended Tracks: Aura, Do What U Want, ARTPOP, Applause