Thursday, November 7, 2013

album review: 'artpop' by lady gaga

So here it is, the review you've all apparently been waiting for. It's a little amazing how many people left comments asking that I review this album, as if I wasn't going to bother - which, I have to admit, was more than a little funny to me. This album's hype machine has been working in overdrive the past couple of months, you didn't think I wasn't going to cover it, right?

Because here's the thing: I love talking about Lady Gaga. Hell, most critics do. She's the kind of artist who might not always make good music, but she always makes interesting material, and the fact that she's defiantly committed to making pop music suggests a populist streak I really appreciate. Plus, for the most part, she's a pretty solid artist in her own right, having written several songs I like a great deal. Is she arrogant or occasionally far too pretentious for her own good? Absolutely, but in most cases that's a feature rather than a criticism, and it's belied by her broad spectrum of musical influences and her willingness to experiment with different styles. She's a pop culture junkie just like me, and the fact that she clearly loves what she's doing and throws herself into it mercilessly earns her my respect.

All of that being said, I can't help but feel that some of the popular acclaim she's received might be a bit misplaced, because, really, she's really made only one consistently great album. I mean, The Fame was pretty good, but after the first five songs it takes a nosedive in quality. The Fame Monster was definitely a lot stronger as she stretched into darker, more subversive directions, and is arguably her best work, but songs like 'Telephone' are a bit weaker than they should be. As for Born This Way... well, I appreciate the experimentation and the broad variety of influences did lead to some fantastic songs, it also cast into sharper relief my big issue with Lady Gaga: that despite all of the well-crafted artifice, she doesn't really have much more substance beneath the flash and glamour besides self-obsession, exploration of the concept of 'fame', and surface-level references to other genres. And while as a pop culture geek I like and get the references, I always find myself disappointed there isn't more beneath said references. I like that she's driving the aesthetics of pop in a darker direction - I just wish she had something more to say with that shift.

But, then again, she's taken a fair amount of time off and come back with an album titled ARTPOP, which Gaga has described as 'subscribing to a reverse-Warholian formula'. This is actually kind of interesting because while Warhol was interested in exposing the art in commercialism (Warhol scholars, it's a necessary simplification, I know he was saying far more), Gaga is looking to flip that around, bring the 'art' culture into the commercialism sphere, using her own populism to introduce normally inaccessible elements to mainstream acceptance. Now let me make this clear: on a conceptual level, I love this idea, and Lady Gaga might be one of the few pop stars who could reasonably pull it off... but this sort of plan carries a lot of risk as it implies that Gaga will be able to, on sheer populism and skill alone, be able to bring these genres into the mainstream. Can she pull it off?

Ehh... in a way, she does, but not in the way I expected or for which I was hoping. It also makes ARTPOP as an album rather frustrating to talk about, for it's an interesting case: it's an album that effectively succeeds in what it's trying to do, but doesn't quite go the extra step to really stand out or become something special. And even despite its artistic success, I find that I don't like this album as much as I wanted to. Let me put this another way: I respect ARTPOP a fair amount more than I like it, and yet, I can't help but feel disappointed with it. I can acknowledge that it's mostly good and will probably get a recommendation from me, but it doesn't have the breadth of conceptual experimentation that Born This Way had or the killer hooks of The Fame or The Fame Monster. In short, I can't help but feel it's her weakest album and while I'm going to make the argument that it succeeds in its intent, it doesn't do so in a particularly compelling - or memorable - way, at least to me.

Okay, let's start with the unquestionable positives, most of which are directly linked to Gaga herself. This is probably the most raw and emotionally invested she's ever sounded in her material, and her energy does a lot to elevate the subject matter into something a listener might care about. She's got a wide range, an incredibly expressive voice with real texture, and she doesn't shy away from throwing herself into her music. It also helps matters that she has a great voice and a ton of natural charisma, and she sounds better here than she ever has - it's clear that she definitely cares about her subject material and she's determined to try and make us care as well. 

And I'll say this for her as well, you can tell there's been a lot of effort and care placed into these tracks, from the instrumentation and production to the lyrics. You can tell that Gaga was specifically designing every facet of this album to convey her specific message, and each piece plays a role in articulating that message. In comparison with her friend Justin Timberlake's album, there's not an ounce of bloat on this album, which means it makes for a shockingly quick listen. And you know, that kind of makes sense - Gaga is still making pop music, even despite her desire to incorporate elements from the art-world into it...

And it's here where I have to discuss arguably the greatest strength and weakness of this album, because Gaga does indeed succeed in bringing in elements of the art world to this album... in a way, that is. She doesn't so much bring in the big 'ideas' of the art world as the aesthetics of the art world, specifically the opulent upper-class art world common in cities like New York and Paris and not many other places. So in other words, we get all manner of flash and glitz and glam and an obsession with high fashion and an overloaded emphasis on sexuality for its sake. And I'll give Gaga this, you can tell she knows that scene and she does a superb job capturing it in her music...

And here's where we run into the first big problem: in capturing the aesthetics of the art world instead of the bigger ideas and concepts, the album feels astoundingly superficial. Yes, I know Gaga places a lot of weight in these aesthetics and she's trying to get us to feel the same, but without touching on the ideas or potential ramifications of this art, it feels like we're only brushing the surface. And that would be fine if that was Gaga's point - that most people seldom get beyond the surface of the art they experience - but it's clear from the opening track 'Aura' that she wants us to go deeper and find that depth when it's really not there. Instead on tracks like 'Donatella' and 'Fashion!' we get a wealth of brand names and buzzwords and little-to-nothing else, and then tracks like 'Jewels & Drugs' and 'Mary Jane Holland' and 'Applause' which seem to only be emphasizing the theme that Lady Gaga sure thinks she's awesome and rich and incredibly empowered and that's obviously why we should like her. It's reveling in raw, shallow excess - and frankly, I didn't really find it compelling, mostly because of a broad lack of imagination in her instrumentation (I'll come back to this) and greatly lessened populism. Instead of bringing art ideas to the mainstream, she brought the snobbish, pretentious, generally insufferable art attitude to the mainstream instead. Lovely.

Now Gaga already prepared for this criticism on 'Applause', where she attacks critics who have the nerve to point out that her musical inspirations aren't nearly as revolutionary as she might think. And you know, she has a point about this - there's nothing wrong with drawing influences from the past, and critics who make reductive statements about an act's quality by just sniffing and saying, 'Well, Madonna did it first' don't help the critical discussion. But here's my point, Gaga: as a pop geek myself, I have no problems with you drawing influences and sounds from obscure scenes of the past, or even the underground today - what my problem is that you're not doing anything special with those influences. You're not using these influences to explore new ideas or deeper meaning, but instead focusing on reveling in the atmosphere and environment of the art world rather than the ideas beneath it. And what's worse about this is that she jettisons some of her populist appeal by going in this direction. Look, let's be honest here: the majority of people will never even see the high art 'circles' of wealth and fashion and opulence Lady Gaga is singing about here, and when she spends so much of her songs bragging about living in that world, you lose some of that connection with your audience!

Then again, the life of art and high fashion aren't the only areas where Gaga focuses her attention - nope, we get a large focus on sex - primarily lesbian sex in songs like 'G.U.Y.', 'Sexxx Dreams', and 'Manicure' and vanilla sex in 'Venus' and 'Do What You Want'. The Prince influence is unmistakable (and not just in the content, but the instrumentation), but honestly I don't have nearly as many issues with these songs because they aren't trying to be deep or meaningful - or at least I hope they're not, because they aren't. I mean, 'Sexxx Dreams' might be the most inappropriate karaoke song since Divinyls' big hit and 'Venus' contains a load of Greek/Roman mythology imagery and then ruins it with a terrible Uranus joke. And I have to be honest, despite the great groove behind 'Do What You Want' and hiring R. Kelly to deliver an incredibly sexual verse, I'm really kind of uncomfortable with the sentiment where Gaga asserts that her mind, her heart, her voice, and her life are impenetrable from threat and then adds 'Do what you want to my body'. As somebody is not a prude at all, is there anyone else that thinks that sends a bit of an uncomfortable message?

But I'll say this: the album does strike two big hits for me with 'Dope' and 'Gypsy', mostly because they feel more real and accessible than anything else on this album and also because they feel vulnerable. They show the downside to living the high life and the constant travel, how it can be crushingly lonely when you're on your own and how you want to hold onto love even when your passions take you elsewhere. They're the only songs that feel 'real' on this album, and they only emphasize how shallow so much of this album feels. And the sad fact is that the instrumentation doesn't really help matters. Sure, there are moments with some interesting melodies like the opening guitar on 'Aura', a rock edge on 'Manicure', a phenomenally hollow synth groove on 'Do What You Want', and some great little piano moments that show that Gaga's still a great keyboardist, but most of the instrumentation is cold, electro-pop dance beats and they lack a lot of character and uniqueness, especially in comparison with Born This Way's eclectic sound. What's ironic in a twisted way is that while Gaga appropriates art aesthetics for her lyrics, she didn't do so for her instrumentation, and it's not nearly as weird or eclectic as most mainstream pop. It's really quite frustrating, because while this might be Gaga's most cohesive album to date, it's also, on an instrumental level, her least interesting, especially when it comes to good melodies. This is becoming a big problem in the mainstream pop industry, replacing catchy melody hooks with beats that just hammer a simple progression of notes, with the issue being that they make the songs a lot less memorable.

Ugh, this review is coming off a lot more negative than I would have liked, but I wanted to really get into this album and I just can't in the same way. Because make no mistake, there are good songs on this album, but there aren't a lot of great songs. I'm significantly underwhelmed by this album and the more I listen to it, the less I like it. For now, it's a 7/10 - as I said, I respect this album more than I like it because I'll argue it accomplished its goal, but at the same time, it still feels significantly shallower than it should, even for a pop album. 

Gaga, I hate to say it, but I expected more here, and I know you're capable of more. But I'm looking past the aura and I'm not seeing much underneath - I'd really you to prove me wrong with that.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, don't know if you read comments here, but I really enjoy your reviews :) that said, some of her lyrics are slightly more nuanced than you give them credit for; the theme of Applause, for example, isn't really how awesome and empowered Gaga thinks she is - to the contrary, if you take the album as a whole, it sort of deconstructs that image. Applause is the final track - and the track following Dope and Gypsy - for a reason; it's about a moment in life when you look at what mistakes you're doing, the negativity that surrounds you and search for a reason to keep going on - and for Gaga, it's the applause, the pure joy of seeing your art reach out to people and that moment when they let you know that for them, you are doing a great thing, and finding the reason and meaning in that moment.