2017 thus far has shaped up to be the year of Gaga. Not only did she drop into Superbowl LI and revive a career I thought was waning, but she did it again on the mainstage of Coachella while dropping a banging new track. And thanks to my slow uptake on Gaga’s newest era, here I am trying to Stubhub tickets to a sold-out stadium (Stadium? Yes, stadium) show for the Joanne World Tour. (Why am I like this?)
Anyway, Gaga’s (somewhat predictable) return to America’s middle with the country-tinged pop-rock record Joanne comes on the heels of a particularly eccentric era; however, the transition was made smoothly, leaving Gaga back on top of the pop game after a few years of doing “American Horror Story” and duetting with Tony Bennett. A more well-thought-out and executed version of Miley Cyrus’s return to normality, if you will. However, a key deviation between the reception of Gaga’s transition and Cyrus’s lies in their previous solo studio albums, Artpop and Bangerz, respectively. Bangerz, on one hand, was almost impossible to ignore between the music videos, the 2013 VMAs, the outpour of think pieces that followed addressing cultural appropriation and sexual liberation. The total image makeover lead to Cyrus’s highest level of visibility post-Hannah Montana, a number-one album and near sold-out world tour. But in 2017, “Malibu”’s Miley Cyrus is finished with “sit on my dick”-type hip hop now that she is done using it to prove she’s a serious adult artist.
Most will fail to remember, though, that Gaga was also on the 2013 VMA stage, performing Artpop’s lead single “Applause.” But as Bangerz increased Cyrus’s prominence, Artpop took Gaga down a notch following Born This Way, which sold over a million copies in its first week (almost 4x that of Bangerz’s debut), leading to her least prominent era to date. Furthermore, as Cyrus’s brand grew more “mature” Gaga’s did the opposite. Artpop is an infantile EDM mess of sex, drugs and consumption that is intentionally lacking in maturity and responsibility. By accepting that the record’s perspective is largely that of a SoHo party girl — it should go without saying — it’s a good fucking time.
Not always, not all the time, but when the mood strikes, the album’s heavy beats, repetitive themes/lyrics and unapologetic excess can successfully soundtrack a dance party of one or a rave of many, as long as everyone is ready to get down and get weird.
But beyond being a “fun” record, Artpop does offer a surprisingly stunning narrative, its perspective offering more growth start to finish than Miley between 2013-2017. Opening with “Aura,” Gaga sets her sights on eccentricity and energy. Neither of which are new to her brand; she wore a meat dress to the 2010 VMAs and created some of the most anthemic dance-pop songs of the millennium on her first two albums. The eccentricity of her persona infiltrates her production and delivery, producing a sound that is more techno-grit than art-pop. The well-known, almost trance-inducing bass line of “Do What U Want” (regrettably featuring R. Kelly), is a mainstream example on the LP’s tamer side. On the less radio-friendly side, the singular strums leading to the bass drop of “Aura” could drive a casual listener into insanity before getting to the chorus.
“Artpop” — the concept, not the album — is not what I had anticipated up to its 2013 release. Linguistically, “artpop” lead me to expect a sound that more closely resembled the trip-hop of Lana’s Born to Die (2012) but with more niche lyrical content. Content-wise, my prediction wasn’t far off: Artpop covers greek mythology, addiction, high art, fashion, sexual submission and social domination (among many others). While the album trades psychedelia for EDM, the hip hop influences that have given-rise to techno hold the album together, offering the era’s strongest components.
The album’s up-front embrace of hip hop, “Jewels N’ Drugs,” which features verses from TI, Too $hort and Twista, is one of its sturdiest pillars. One-liners are abound: “Don’t want your jewels, want your drugs,” “This family is stupid attractive,” just to name a couple. But more important than anything Gaga does on the track is Twista’s verse. Try to rap along; you can’t. At least I can’t, and it has been 4 years. Delivering at lightning speed, Twista steals the show.
Had Artpop leaned more heavily into trap, the result might’ve been very different. Two other tracks from the era, “Cake Like Lady Gaga” and “PARTYNAUSEOUS,” offer a glimpse of possibilities left on the cutting room floor. The former, a half-joking rap track, has the bass and brags to fit in perfectly on Artpop, boasting the zingers, “Getting fat and so is my bank” and “You chew beef, I wear meat.” The latter, a could-have-been collab with Kendrick Lamar, was remixed for ArtRave, and sees the era’s finest fashion reference, “I don’t mind if they a-arrest me ‘cause I’m wearing my Versace,” effectively beating out official Artpop cuts “FASHION!” and “Donatella” for the crown.
But beyond the fashion, fun and need to get faded, Gaga transforms Artpop into a narrative of addiction, loss and finding oneself during the album’s second half. “Swine,” one of the album’s roughest cuts, is produced in such fashion with good reason. Over a year after releasing Artpop, Gaga said the track is about rape, specifically her own experience of being taken advantage of by a producer. Gaga’s comments give the track a two-sided place within music and Artpop. For one, it shows that you can be rich, famous, confident etc. and still vulnerable as a woman, specifically in the entertainment industry (See: Bill Cosby mistrial). But in addition to humanizing the Lady Gaga persona, the track openly acknowledges — quite simply — that some human bodies host nothing more than swine and offers no attempt at empathy with an attacker.
Additionally, Artpop’s latter half grapples with the swings of addiction, coming to an ultimate high, and even forming an additional persona in “Mary Jane Holland.” “Mary Jane Holland” depicts a typical addiction cloud: “I think I could be fine / If I could be Mary Jane Holland tonight,” Gaga sings in the chorus. The bridge, however, offers addiction’s downside: “I know that Mom and Dad think I’m a mess / But it’s alright because I am rich as piss / When I ignite the flames and put you in my mouth / The grass eats up my insides and my brunette starts to sprout.” The high is so high one feels invisible, but it’s an illusion, and eventually what seems to give you everything leaves you with nothing.
“Dope,” as the LP’s only ballad, represents rock bottom. In it, Gaga croons, “Been hurting low from living high for so long / I’m sorry and I love you.” Between the raspy vocals and its sense of growth, the emotional appeal of “Dope” is gripping, effectively capturing desperation and longing and forcing both listeners and the songstress to come to terms with the situation. It’s the song to hear from Artpop and one of Gaga’s most stunning vocal performances. However, it would be cruel to end a record and leave listeners in the dust: Life might be like that, but Artpop isn’t. The darkest nights do indeed turn into the brightest days as “Gypsy” takes listeners around the world while Artpop’s heroine finds herself: “I don’t want to be alone forever but I can be tonight.”
Technically, lead-single “Applause” closes the album, but post-”Gypsy” it feels unnecessary. Nonetheless, after skyrocketing to prominence between her debut and this record, Gaga’s unsubtle reminder that she lives for the “Applause” — for her fans — is a reminder little monsters across the world appreciated.
So when you see the memes of Lady Gaga handing out Starbucks cups because “Y’all didn’t buy Artpop,” here is what to do: 1. Laugh because memes are life and 2. Put some respect on Artpop’s name because it damn-well deserves it.