Lady Gaga can see all the smiling faces in the funhouse mirrors nodding in approval, but she refuses to believe that she's the only person in the room, the smiles all her own.
We all saw it coming. When Lady Gaga appeared on the scene in 2008, she was a thundershock. Out of nowhere, this young starlet with a serious set of pipes and some of the best pop hooks we've heard so far in the new millennium managed to capture the world's attention in a remarkably short amount of time. Her fans were absolutely devout, while even casual onlookers could at least make passing comments on her perpetually-outrageous outfits. Oh sure, the lyrics on her debut album were very surface-level, repeating popular themes like dancing at parties and riding someone's disco stick. But the songs were fun and memorable, and her impact on both music and meat-skirt sales was powerful and immediate.
Before long, everyone began jumping on the Eurodisco bandwagon that Gaga very much helped popularize. By the time Christina Aguilera released her 2010 single "Not Myself Tonight", a lot of people viewed it as a pale, desperate Gaga imitation (which was only furthered by Aguilera's frequently disparaging remarks to her young rival in the press). While several established popstars started playing catchup to Gaga's trends, Mother Monster's ambitions grew, and with each new release, she started venturing away from simple club songs to instead focus on empowerment anthems, autobiographical musings, and religious iconography, all with her own Haus of Gaga twist. Make no mistake, 2011's Born This Way was a bloated mess that could've easily shaved off four songs to no consequence. However, when it worked, it was transcendent, and even when she lost the plot, her songs, at the very least, were interesting. That isn't something you could say for every modern-day disco diva.
Inevitably, we all knew this day would come. There would come a moment when her intellect would get the best of her, and in following her desire to create capital-A "Art" within the confines of the four-minute pop song, she'd get lost inside her own universe, crafting a world that only she could see, leaving her audience out in the cold. Tragically, this time has come, and it takes the form of a very confused album called Artpop.
"Enigma pop star is fun / She wear burqa for fashion," Gaga sings on Artpop's opening salvo, "Aura", which attempts to be some sort of statement about how unguarded she is, teasing us to get a glimpse of the "real" Gaga, but does so in a way that hints at something deep and profound but never actually gets there. In fact, a lot of songs on Artpop are about either her life as pop/fashion icon or about having lots and lots of sex. These are tropes that Gaga has trotted out many times before, but there are few emotional entry points for these songs, which, when mixed with a drab musical backdrop of muted hooks and dance songs that carry on at the same generic tempo, makes for one of the least-engaging listening experiences in Gaga's discography thus far.
In fact, Artpop is a remarkably backloaded album, as its first stretch, from "Aura" to "Manicure", is bland in a way that we would never think Gaga was even capable of. Despite bringing in previous collaborators DJ White Shadow and RedOne (as well as current EDM chart star Zedd), the hooks on this album are flat, and -- worst of all -- simply not that memorable. While Born This Way featured numerous genre detours and a flair for the overtly theatrical ("You & I" with its Queen-gone-country vibe, the sax solo on "Edge of Glory"), Artpop just feels like a collection of dance songs, and while tracks like "Venus" strike all the right poses, her drawn-out repetition of the phrase "Goddess of Love" and a too-predictable Uranus joke leave us feeling like Gaga has phoned things in a bit.
While her specific word choices are certainly far from generic, the sentiments expressed by them are. "G.U.Y.", for example, plays around with gender roles in the bedroom, which is fine by itself, but given the fact that she's already done this exact type of song in the form of Born This Way's infinitely superior "Government Hooker", it feels more like a rehash than a re-envisioning. Unfortunately, only five songs into Artpop's tracklist, we reach Gaga's absolute nadir: "Jewels N' Drugs", an atonal rap track that sounds like it was beamed in from another album entirely. Its abrasive street-level tone is ill-fitting to Gaga's whole aesthetic, and the verses from T.I., Too $hort, and Twista reduce Gaga down to the role of mere hook girl, her sole verse a pale comparison to her other flirtations with hip-hop (especially this one). It feels less like Gaga is experimenting around with new genres as much as she is desperately scrambling for relevance.
Outside of the decent thumper "Sexx Dreams", Artpop's first half would almost make one give up on Gaga altogether, as it proves to be an absolute slog to get through, sounding more like Aguilera's Gaga imitation than it does Gaga herself. Fortunately, salvation arrives in the form of the naughty "Do What You Want", a sexy little number with a steady mid-tempo synth pulse and a solid R. Kelly guest spot. It's a naughty, risqué number, but one where Gaga sounds absolutely at home, the bridge giving the song some real emotional stakes, the hook immediate and memorable. That vibe thankfully carries over on the strange and hypnotic title track, which is by far the best thing on the album. It's such an odd dichotomy. For the album's first half, she pushes the generic dance-pop gambit extremely hard, smothering her hooks with too many details and deflating the album's momentum. The second she stops that gambit and embraces some of the stranger beats (while, strangely, taking more conventional lyrical stances), the album picks up immensely.
Artpop's latter half is still very much hit-or-miss, but when it does hit, it conjures the ghost of classic Gaga, the kind where he's not trying too hard to win us over and winds up winning us because of it. "Donatella" is too obvious a commentary on the fashion world to make for an effective song. Yet the number that follows, "Fashion!", proves to be one of Artpop's highlights, using a spectacular piano intro (which actually sounds like one of the files pre-loaded onto your smartphone) to bleed into a positively minimal bassline and therefore one of the album's most direct hooks. The Rick Rubin-produced "Dope", meanwhile, has an effective ballad-y atmosphere, and while some may debate the power of a chorus that repeats the phrase "I need you more than dope" over and over again, its still a memorable song, even if it isn't necessarily a great one.
While "Applause" is tacked on at the very end of the album almost as an afterthought -- doubly odd given it was the album's lead single -- "Mary Jane Holland" is dynamic enough a song to worth mentioning, especially when the guitars surge in during the bridge, making for one the more musically arresting moments on the album. But really, when you get down to it, these highlights are modest pleasures at best. Artpop is far hornier than Born This Way and more oblique in its meaningful statements. Even with the heavyweight production team behind it, it's downright astonishing how forgettable a majority of the songs are, with nearly every track riding the same tempo and virtually all of the synth textures bleeding into one another with little deviation. Despite the abundance of ideas attempted here, this is by far the most boring album of Gaga's entire career, jazz-hands down.
We've all known Lady Gaga to be one of the most ambitious pop stars on the planet, and while some are quick to mock such phrases as "bluffin' with my muffin" (from "PokerFace") or the stranger moments on Born This Way, these eccentricities are what makes Gaga unique and vital in a pop scene that relies so heavily on whatever the latest chart trend is. Part of Gaga's appeal was that no matter how out-there the idea was, she always seemed to know what she wanted, and in following her muse, she took us to strange, new, interesting places. With Artpop, Gaga sounds confused, disengaged, and at its worst, just downright bored. She's never been one to give us the generic, but for all its lofty ambitions, Artpop never rises above the level of sideshow curiosity, lost in its own sense of meaning and self-importance.