It was only six years ago that the name “Lady Gaga” would have sounded like nonsense, which is exactly what I thought of it when I first heard of the lady. I didn’t flip for “Just Dance” the way everybody else did and was rather annoyed when this seemingly vapid prostitute made her meteoric rise to fame (self-consciously foretold in her very first album title) based on nothing but paparazzi, money (honey), and boys, boys, boys. She was hailed as the greatest thing to hit pop music since you-know-who, and in my eyes, we already had a perfectly good Material Girl.
I know, I know — heresy! There are a few standout tracks on The Fame, in particular the spectacular single “Poker Face,” but listening to the whole thing all the way through is like eating an entire bag of lollipops in one sitting. You may get a sugar high, but there’s no nourishment. It wasn’t until The Fame Monster, an EP that might as well have been its own album since it’s, to date, the best work she’s done, that I started respecting the Lady. (A little.) “Bad Romance” is a true original, and it was here that Gaga began to carve out her own niche in the mainstream music scene. (A niche derivative of other works of art and fashion, perhaps, but not of other major recording artists.) I won’t give Lady Gaga too much credit, but The Fame Monster perfectly straddled that line between art and pop.
Yeah, that’s right — she already did that. Two albums ago. And the whole world could see it, whether or not everyone wanted to call it “art” or not. It was about as artsy as a mainstream pop artist is likely to get, anyway, and it was preferable to the totally superficial text of The Fame. The Fame Monster, true to its title, had teeth — and also a track called “Teeth.” Was it super edgy? Groundbreaking? A sonic masterpiece? No. Of course not. But it was Gaga at the height of both her talent and her popularity, before the inevitable backlash began.
By the time Born This Way rolled around, many of Gaga’s early supporters had jumped ship. Partially because she was just too popular now, and perhaps also too aware of her popularity. Humility was certainly never Gaga’s strong suit, and lead single “Born This Way” was a well-intentioned but all-too-aware statement to keep the gays in her corner. The album Born This Way was a freaky hybrid, a little bit 80s, a little bit electro, a little bit a lot of other things. It certainly wasn’t cohesive, though most tracks hold up on repeat listens. Of course the album did just fine commercially, but it wasn’t iconic the way The Fame Monster was. It was a mess, even if it was an enjoyable one.
And now we have Artpop. There’s no question as to what Lady Gaga’s going for with this one — that same balance between commerce and creativity. It’s all right there in the title, though this sort of thing works better when you let the fans and the critics say it for you.
There was already only a certain amount of goodwill in the air for Gaga’s latest release, in large part thanks to the antics that led to overexposure early in her career — and also because Born This Way rubbed some the wrong way. Artpop was met with mixed reviews, at best, with most agreeing that this is Gaga’s weakest and messiest offering to date.
I don’t disagree. Artpop suffers from everything that was wrong with Born This Way, but moreso. You have to wonder sometimes, with an artist this powerful, with a fair amount of raw talent displayed at earlier points in her career — how can she misfire? How can an album go so wrong?
Artpop is bloated and unfocused. And sure, some of it qualifies as both art and pop — but mostly, it’s just pop, not all of it good. I’m not here to hate on Artpop, though — that’s entirely too easy — because after a few spins, it did kind of start to come together for me. I realized that I’d probably like a lot of Artpop if it had come from another artist — one who hadn’t been hyping this album as the second coming of both art and music for over a year now. An artist for whom our expectations are a little lower.
It’s Gaga herself who sets the bar so high for herself, so she’s guiltier than most when she fails to live up to her fans’ expectations. But if you can divorce Artpop from any and all promises Gaga made in the months leading up to its release, and the overall sense that her music should be as catchy and danceable as her early singles, you can appreciate it for being rather innovative (within the constraints of mainstream pop). After all, doesn’t the best art make people go, “What the fuck is this shit?”at first glance?
The album is called Artpop, so I’ve decided that Gaga wouldn’t find if I took the liberty of rearranging and editing her creation to suit my liking, since I sometimes enjoy rewriting existing pieces of entertainment retroactively. Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? I’m under the impression that Artpop‘s biggest flaw is in its arrangement — the tracks aren’t presented in a cohesive or even sensible order. It makes the album feel even messier than it really is, and there are a few filler tracks that drag the whole thing down, completely watering down the whole art-meets-pop vibe.
Occasionally, an album needs a little pruning, and Artpop is one of them. I propose that Artpop actually is a pretty good pop album — and even a semi-artistic one — if you arrange it as follows. Give it a try, and see if Artpop works better for you?
If so, you’re welcome. If not, just consider it an art project gone wrong…
First of all, I can’t fathom why the cool but bizarre “Aura” kicks off the current version of Artpop — it doesn’t really set the right mood for what’s to come, as it’s fairly atypical of the rest of the album. I’d be more forgiving if there wasn’t an obviously much better substitute for that all-important first track — “G.U.Y,” which has a spacey intro that begins with “greetings” and promises that this audio will guide us “through new and exciting positions.” How better to welcome us to an album called Artpop? Besides, “G.U.Y” is one of few true standout tracks on the album that everyone seems to agree is a good one, so it wouldn’t hurt to kick things off on a high note. “G.U.Y” definitely needs to be #1.
Not all of Gaga’s arrangement choices were poor. “Venus” actually does belong as the album’s second track, as it currently is, but it’s better coming after “G.U.Y” than “Aura.” “Venus” is a freaky little track that conjures up visions of Martians (or, okay, Venusians) demanding to be taken to our leader. It fits directly into the “out there” vibe of the album as a whole, though it may take a few listens to appreciate it, since it’s hardly a Top 40-ready single. (Though Gaga has made Top 40 happen with even stranger subjects, such as “Judas.”) It’s worth it in particular for the (out of order) countdown of planets at the end, the highlight of which is, naturally, a corny shoutout to Uranus. This track more than any other seems like a throwback to Gaga’s Davie Bowie inspiration — it’s the slutty cousin to “Space Oddity,” and I’m willing to call it artpop if Gaga wants me to. More than almost any other track on the album, this one feels like a truly creative expression.
The bleep-bloopiness (for lack of a better term) of “Artpop” seems like a natural fit after the spacey “Venus.” As a general rule, the title track doesn’t need to come in any particular place on the album, but in this case, after a couple genuinely artsy-poppy tracks, it feels like now is a good time to make a statement about what she’s attempting to do here. This is also a generally strong track that people seem to like, very listenable and agreeable, and not as alienating as some of the others (we’ll get to those later). Three tracks in, and I think the Artpop message is still on point in my version, without any lurches or distractions.
4. “Sexxx Dreams”
This song just sounds right coming after “Artpop.” The vibe of it is similar to “Artpop,” though the tribal-sounding beat is quite different — dirtier and grungier. This is a less essential Artpop track, and less essential tracks shouldn’t typically come before Track #4. (I do like it, though.) It’s a low-key track about fucking that leads us right into — yes, of course, another song about fucking!
5. “Do What U Want”
Okay, Track #5, it’s time for a broadly appealing single. This song sounds pretty good transitioning from “Sexxx Dreams,” sticking with similar subject matter. “Do What U Want” is definitely more pop than art (hello, R. Kelly!), but by Track #5, it’s okay to stray from that message a bit in favor of selling some records. “Do What U Want” is a strong single, even if it feels way more Top 40-friendly than anything else on this album (it sounds like old school Mariah Carey). It’s the centerpiece of this album for a few reasons (catchiness, commercial viability, crossover appeal, and that propulsive beat), so yes, it should be in about the middle. Personally, I like to think that the song is about organ donation, which makes it seem a little artier — but no, it’s totally pop. Good pop, though.
We’re about midway through my version of Artpop now, so it’s time for a drink of water. That’s the sound effect that kicks off “Donatella,” a song that displays some of Gaga’s worst indulgences, but doesn’t suffer as badly from them as other tracks do. In general, I think it’s time Gaga gave up on the materialism of her early work — we fully covered being rich and fabulous on The Fame, didn’t we? This album’s weakest tracks are just repeats of those motifs (looking good and dropping cash — got it). I’ll allow this one, mainly because it’s worth it for Gaga’s shameless “I’m blonde, I’m rich, I’m skinny” mantra in the intro. Coming after “Do What U Want,” we’ve officially moved into the second movement of Artpop, which is harder and clubbier (and way less artistic) than my first four tracks, separated by the “Do What U Want” single centerpiece.
Gaga really lets her freak flag fly on this one, practically squealing herself as she delivers a whole song about pigs in human bodies. My first reaction upon hearing it was, “What the hell?” Like many of Gaga’s lyrics, these are a little, well, hammy. But I think I would have been delighted had this brazen ode to animal instincts come from a less commercial artist, and quickly grew to appreciate it. (It’s the track that always gets stuck in my head the most.) It’s also one of the easiest to dance to, which is odd given how uncommercial the subject matter is. There’s nothing super clever about “Swine,” but it’s not thematically derivative of other EDM tracks out there, and instead feels fresh and rather daring for a pop artist. Art? Maybe not, but I’ll take it — it’s fairly abstract for a dance track.
8. “Mary Jane Holland”
In my edit of Artpop, this is the track I most nearly left off, but I figured the stoners would rebel if I cut both this and “Dope,” and “Mary Jane Holland” is more in sync with the rest of the album. I’m under the impression that this track is mainly filler, which is why it’s coming toward the end (but not at the very end, so we can have a strong finish). As filler, it’s perfectly fine, even if I don’t really “get” it. (“Venus” is similar but better.) Plus, I like that it takes us out on a big ol’ bong rip.
We’re nearing the end, folks. Time to slow it down. Yes, “Gypsy” sounds like a leftover from Born This Way, and in some ways I think that messiness makes Artpop feels more like a Frankenstein (fame) monster made of rejected pieces of Gaga’s previous albums. Still, “Gypsy” is strong enough that it deserves a place on one of Gaga’s albums, and it’s too late to go back in time and stick it on Born This Way where it belongs, so here it is. Like many of Gaga’s power ballads, “Gypsy” sounds a little too self-consciously anthemic and Journey-like. Again, this is pop — not original enough to be called “art” — but I do like the message about Gaga choosing temporary solitude over settling down. (Spoken like a true artist!) We’ve strayed a bit from the whole Artpop thing, but this is just a detour in my version of the album, and we’re about to get right back on track, trust me.
See? I do like “Aura,” I just don’t think it belongs at the begininng of this album. I’m not sure what inspired Gaga to write a track in which she personifies a woman in a burqa, but it’s definitely an offbeat choice. Like most of Gaga’s music, it’s not exactly clever enough to be taken seriously as a feminist statement about gender politics in the Middle East (or whatever), especially since it ends up just being about getting naked (as most Artpop tracks are, let’s be honest). With the Middle Eastern sounds that begins this track (before deviating wildly into hardcore EDM territory), it’s a nice follow-up to “Gypsy,” and the end of it nicely winds down with a lot of reminders as to what album we’re listening to, which segues nicely into our grand finale…
Ah, “Applause.” Like many of Gaga’s recent singles, I first heard it and was wildly underwhelmed, and now I really dig it. Gaga did right by making it the last track of the album, asking for applause after an album’s worth of her “art.” (Okay, even if it isn’t really art, we can applaud for pop, too.) It’s atypical to put an album’s lead single as the final track, but it definitely works here. There’s something about this track that just works best as a climax, and I feel a lot more like applauding for this version of the album than one that includes a few too many duds.
Speaking of duds, let me spend a moment or two explaining why I did not include the following on my edit of Artpop. (Stick them on the end as bonus tracks if you must.)
I suspect this is a love-it-or-hate-it track, and maybe some will be angry that I’d dare cut it from Artpop. It’s a little too “You And I” for me to get jazzed about, and Gaga’s weirdo vocals don’t work here as well as they do on something more upbeat like “Applause.” I don’t think it gels with other tracks on the album whatsoever. Bye bye, “Dope”!
This isn’t a bad song once it gets going, though the whimsical piano intro annoys me. Unfortunately, Gaga already has a superior song called “Fashion” (check the Confessions Of A Shopaholic soundtrack if you’re not familiar), another move from stolen from Madonna’s playbook (she has two tracks called “Forbidden Love,” because she has so much music she can’t possibly be bothered to remember all of her own songs). Ultimately, this track is just a shade too generic, and it drags down the art side of Artpop too much to register here. (I do think it’s the strongest of the four tracks I cut, for what it’s worth.)
I like a hand-clappy beat as much as the next guy, and it’d be sort of nice if this hand-clappy beat could be placed up next to “Applause” for extra relevance. But this song ends up just being a little embarrassing, mostly because Gaga uses “manicure” to mean something about a cure for men (get it?!), which sounds a little silly after she’s spent the rest of the album shedding burquas, confessing her sexxx dreams, climbing underneath guys, singing the praises of swine, and traveling all the way to Venus to get a little action. It’s a failed attempt at a girl power number, which I’d argue Gaga never does well when she’s being straight-faced rather than bitchy. It’s all too reminiscent of “Hair,” and we’d all like to forget that one, wouldn’t we? Let’s not use feminine beauty treatments as metaphors, please.
“Jewels N’ Drugs”
This track has no business being on this Lady Gaga album or any Lady Gaga album. It’s just terrible. It’s certainly not art and barely qualifies as pop — and Gaga, you’re already asking us to accept an R. Kelly collaboration on this album. We let that slide. But T.I., Too Short, and Twista? This is a blatant attempt at a hip hop crossover, like it might fool a few thugs into buying an album with track names like “Manicure,” “Aura,” and “Fashion!” (Not likely.) I have no idea what she was thinking allowing this anywhere near Artpop.1. “G.U.Y”
4. “Sexxx Dreams”
5. “Do What U Want”
8. “Mary Jane Holland”
And that’s my version of Artpop! Give it a spin and let me know what you think.