It’s 1am on a Monday night and I’m sitting in my room with headphones on listening to the new Lady Gaga album. Needless to say, it doesn’t translate very well to this type of environment, which is something that I’m trying to stay constantly aware of.
Artpop sold 258,000 copies in its first week, which is a shockingly low number since Interscope reportedly spent $25 million promoting the album. For perspective, Born This Way sold over a million copies in its first week. Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus both had better first-week sales on their 2013 releases; Artpop is not even in the same sales ballpark as Taylor Swift’s Red, which might be a sign of Lady Gaga slipping from whatever stranglehold she seemed to have on pop music a couple of years ago.
So, after looking at the commercial aspect of it, how about the music itself? Considering that Gaga has a seemingly endless supply of talented producers and money at her fingertips, we should be able to expect glorious production and innovation. And of course, everything does sound huge here. But allow me to describe how the first song transpires.
Kicking things off, there’s a strummy acoustic guitar line and Gaga doing some kind of monologue in a weird accent. Then it starts building to a cheesy club-ready crescendo, there’s a drop… all of the sudden, it’s commercial dubstep. “Do you wanna see me naked, lover?” Gaga howls over stabbing synths, then there’s another breakdown-to-drop combo, and then it turns into a funky Daft Punk rip-off. During yet another breakdown, a robotic voice chants, “Dance…sex…art…pop” over and over and Gaga starts wailing about seeing her naked again, before another dubstep drop wraps things up. It’s a nightmare.
This track is a framework for the rest of the album; the idea seems to be: throw every trick used in modern pop music at a wall and hope something sticks. There’s no sense of taste, nuance or style. This album feels like a club DJ shuffling through his playlist over and over, as fast as possible, for an hour, and it is impossible to discern what Gaga could be trying to get across here, except for maybe everything.
But sometimes things line up for the couple of minutes necessary to create something of value. “Do What U Want,” featuring R. Kelly, has her voice sounding powerful and dangerous, like Michael Jackson on “Beat It,” and R. Kelly lends a kind of playfulness and sense of humor to an album that takes itself extremely seriously. “Manicure,” with its massive power chords and thunderous drums, comes across as a classic rock parody that actually brought a grin to my face.
The Rick Rubin-produced “Dope” provides a welcome break from the manic madness. It begins with Gaga singing beautifully over warm piano chords, and I kept thinking to myself, “Please don’t build up into some kind of disco breakdown.” And it doesn’t! The song builds in intensity without overwhelming the listener. Kanye West enlisted Rubin on his latest album to help bring a sense of minimalism to his self-aggrandizing recklessness. Rubin seems to have stripped things back for Gaga as well, and it plays out as an honest well-written pop song, with some kind of soul at the root of it. For most of Artpop, one frantically and unsuccessfully searches for anything that sounds this human.
While Lady Gaga’s ability (or willingness) to write perfect pop songs like “Just Dance” or “Born This Way” has waned, her vocal abilities have reached heights that are unrivaled by her contemporaries. The range her voice reaches in songs like “Dope” can be scarily emotive and raw.
Gaga’s album sales are at an all-time low and the current mish-mash of genre-meddling seems unlikely to generate the kind of chart-topping runs we’ve come to expect from the 27-year-old singer. On the title track Gaga sings, “I just love the music, not the bling.” Is she being honest? If so, going forward maybe she should focus on what she’s trying to accomplish and avoid filling up her albums with thousands of easy-outs and half-assed references to things other artists are doing more successfully. At the beginning of “Donatella,” Gaga says: “I am so fab. Check out: I’m blonde, I’m skinny, I’m rich, and I’m a little bit of a bitch.”
Now, I don’t want to be accused of the kind of person who takes pop music too seriously—and it might be foolish to try to immerse myself into music that probably wasn’t conceived with my demographic in mind—but the beauty of this kind of music is supposed to be its ability to transcend boundaries and connect with people on some kind of universal level. I didn’t have to think about what made “Bad Romance” great, it just was. If I can’t make it through Artpop without getting lost, it seems like the one who is truly lost in this entire album is probably its creator.
— Thomas Molander