Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP is much more than the sum of its parts. The album, a collaboration with the likes of Zedd, Madeon, David Guetta, will.i.am and Def Jam’s legendary founder, Rick Rubin, is synergetic. It crosses genre between synth-pop, hip-hop and electronic, and is accompanied with verses by R Kelly, TI, Twista and Too $hort. ARTPOP draws power not only from the musicians involved, but for its combination of music, fashion, art and technology. This idea is hardly new — it was pioneered first by opera composer Richard Wagner in the nineteenth century. Much like Gaga, musicians David Bowie and Madonna lived this ideal almost every day through their fashion, their performances and their pursuits in film. The album’s title references Andy Warhol, who was also greatly interested in the intersections of the arts. Jeff Koons, the artist many call the heir to Warhol’s legacy, designed the album cover. Late Sunday night, Koons unveiled an oversize statue of Lady Gaga with one of his famous gazing balls. TechHaus, a division of the Haus of Gaga, has developed an app to accompany the album. Gaga debuted “Volantis”, her new flying jetpack dress, at artRave. And it was recently announced that she will be performing from outerspace in a few years. ARTPOP’s grand vision is to deliberately bring together technology, art, fashion and music into a synergetic creative experience.
There was some anxiety about ARTPOP after the relative flop of the first single, “Applause”. Like several other tracks on the album, Gaga’s interest in writing about her experience of fame is deeply un-relatable to many of her lowly fans. But “Do What U Want,” the R Kelly track surprise released last week, quickly made up for any disappointments. The mid-tempo song has made stellar progress, already reaching number one in sixty four countries. The clean disco beats that recur throughout ARTPOP lay the base for Gaga’s clever lyrics. She simultaneously shuts down press criticism and touts her sexuality, singing, “You can’t have my heart/and you won’t use my mind/but do what you want with my body.” Like many of its tracks, “Do What U Want” nods to the eighties but takes a distinctly contemporary approach to melody.
For all the innovative production and writing on the dance tracks, the best song on the album is the rawest: “Dope.” Here, Gaga uses her classical training and a traditional structure to lay bare an uncharacteristic vulnerability. In this confessional song, she lays aside her distancing and inaccessible obsession with writing about fame for something more normal: her struggle with addiction. Her voice is without any artifice. No embarrassing accents or cartoon voices, no tech touch-ups, and no hiding. Depending on your mood, the questionable post-chorus riff, “I need you more than dope,” could arouse a chuckle or a muffled sob. Certainly Gaga really feels the song; she cried real tears during a recent performance at the iTunes festival. And at Sunday night’s artRave she emotionally announced the intention to give up drugs and alcohol for good just before playing the song. She then altered the lyrics and crooned to her “Little Monster” fans, “I’m sorry and I love you, forgive me monsters, won’t you.” But with or without these emotional performances, the song shows off the talent that made Gaga famous in the first place.
The album’s most dramatic lyrical mistake comes out in one of its first tracks. Once again, Gaga’s attempts to empower a minority group have gone awry with “Aura.” She starts off fine, proclaiming that she is “a woman of choice”. But then she goes on to sing, “Do you wanna see me naked/…Do you wanna see the girl behind the aura, behind burqa.” While there are some interesting metaphorical moments in the song, Gaga’s continued failure to recognize the problems with speaking on behalf of a marginalized group undermine her ill-informed attempts at empowerment. This echoes (though much less explicitly) on gender-bending “G.U.Y.” While Gaga identifies as queer and has spent time dressed as her male alter ego Jo Calderone, some members of the LGBTQ community have taken offense to similar tracks on “Born This Way” and “The Fame.” The Gaga Empire certainly has a superpower, but the singer does not always use it responsibly.
Gaga’s lyrics count towards both the strength and the weakness of the album. Along with the “Aura” debacle, many of the tracks further Gaga’s pre-occupation with writing about her own fame. And while many movie stars and fashion moguls count themselves as Little Monsters, the vast majority of the singer’s fan base consists of normal people. The greatest tracks on the album find ways to appeal to these people as well as to her quirky compatriots in Hollywood. In “Do What U Want” and “Dope,” Gaga proves that her status as a celebrity does not undermine her ability to write relatable music. But with tracks like “Applause,” this is not always true — and so ARTPOP’s mission runs the risk of bringing us not closer to the arts but leaving us out even more.