STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga–Artpop (2013)

220px-artpop_coverWell, I guess it couldn’t last forever. After two straight albums of seemingly endless melodic inspiration, it was bound to happen that she’d screech to a halt eventually. I’ve been known to theorize that talent is more like a finite resource than an innate trait, bound to run out eventually if you mine it for long enough, and this point in Gaga’s career gives me some worrisome evidence in support of this hypothesis. This album’s got a whole lot of faults, but the most powerful and important, and the one that ultimately sours it most of all, is that Gaga appears, at least temporarily, to have gotten near the bottom of her vein of outstanding melodies. The stuff she’s dredging up here is mostly passable at best, fool’s gold more than the real thing, and it’s a tragic thing to hear.

It’s a problem she seems to recognise on at least some subconscious level, because there’s a lot of superfluous shit here that seems specifically made to distract from the lacklustre tunes. The first track is especially instructive; it’s a ridiculous hodgepodge of all sorts of ideas shoved brutally together into a single misshapen package, bursting at the seams and falling apart as it struggles to present a coherent facade of musical creativity. There’s a bit of spaghetti western-style acoustic guitar in the intro, a lot of ridiculous pop-EDM synths and buildups, some English-accented spoken word shit, and a whole host of distinct, loosely-structured musical segments that ultimately serve only to distract from the fact that there really isn’t all that much melodic content present outside of the hook. The hook melody itself is pretty promising, but it’s backed up by some very confused synths that build up to the verses as if they’re the song’s real climax – only for the verses themselves to start over and try and build up energy again. There’s never a satisfactory resolution to all that building energy, and it leaves you feeling rather disappointed and dissatisfied, ending on an abrupt note that takes you right into one of the worst songs Gaga ever made.

Remember how “LoveGame” felt like Gaga was very much going for camp over quality? Well, this isn’t quite as bad as “LoveGame”, but it’s very close, and that’s largely because it commits the same dreadful sin. Right from the opening lyric – “Rocket number nine, take off to the planet… Venus!” – it’s clear that this is a song far more concerned with being as silly as possible than it is with actually being any good, and it successfully achieves a level of silly awfulness I find absolutely intolerable. The verses are only melodic in the most technical sense, and neither the production nor the lyrics are good enough to provide any alternative point of interest. The whole thing is structured in much the same way as one of those pop-EDM tracks that was popular on the radio at the time, with a big rhythmic buildup to a dumb, dramatic drop serving as a hook, and the melodies Gaga lays over the top aren’t good enough to salvage the song from sounding uncomfortably mawkish. The spoken word bridge, meanwhile, may be the absolute nadir of any such Gaga bridge, consisting of almost nothing but a “Uranus” joke so bad it may have ruined all such jokes for me forevermore. See what you’ve done, Gaga? You’ve only gone and murdered my inner child!

The pop-EDM era to which much of this album’s production belongs lasted, I dunno, maybe four years at most, and in retrospect its influence on this album is a little too big to justify. “Swine” is the track most victimized by this issue, but it’s hard to feel any sympathy for it, since it’s not like it ever had much potential anyway. The prechorus has some decent melodic content, but for the most part the song’s a big, forgettable, overblown mess that all serves as a buildup to a big ol’ generic EDM drop of the type one can almost imagine the late Avicii creating, and that, loath as I generally am to speak ill of the recently deceased, is not a good thing. It’s rather grotesque to see such a singular artist so nakedly pandering to such momentary pop trends, especially on an album conceived and marketed as her craziest, most exploratory artistic period. Barely four years removed from the glory days of DJ Snake, and this stuff already sounds uncomfortable in the same “what the fuck were we thinking?” way as hair metal. It should have passed us by without infecting any of our major artists, but alas, it ensnared Gaga, and we’re forced to put up with shit like this and “Fashion!”.

“Fashion!” is some sickening shit, man. Strip away all that fashion plating – disco guitars and basslines, expensive synths – and you’re left with a hook that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Imagine Dragons’ most nauseating anthems melded with a bridge that doubles as a horrid EDM buildup-and-drop, adding nothing to the song except a vaguely irritating sense that it’s somehow managing to be both over and underambitious at the same time. Listening to it gets me really down, but not quite as much as the immediately preceding “Donatella”, another moment of ridiculous overcampensation that seeks to replace melodic invention with exuberance. “I am so fab“, she proclaims as the song opens, presumably trying, in some way, to imitate the titular Ms. Versace and doing a great disservice to all involved. The hook here is nothing but a pathetic, underwritten anticlimax, and the perfunctory trancey synths that inhabit the treble end of this song’s range really get on my nerves. If these two songs aren’t enough to convince you to ban the entire field of high fashion and exterminate all its practitioners, you may be a lost cause.

When Gaga’s neither burying herself in camp nor pretending to be David Guetta, she’s writing songs so boring I find it difficult to say anything about them at all. “MANiCURE” is the sort of song title that should belong to RiFF RAFF more than Gaga, and that’s about the most interesting insight I have to offer on the song, which is so bland and unremarkable that I can’t really remember anything about it beyond the presence of some token guitars. The title track is so listless and lazily written that it feels almost like it was abandoned halfway through the writing process, as if she wrote a prechorus and then decided she couldn’t be bothered to write the actual hook. “Do What U Want” is the most competent of these three, and the propulsive synth production is actually quite nice, but it’s still a little nondescript and is also host to the rather icky spectacle of Gaga, empowering female symbol, happily telling noted serial child predator R. Kelly to, ahem, “do what you want with my body”. Seriously – I try to separate art from artist, but this song goes out of its way to make it difficult for me, you know?

There are some good ideas on this album, but they’re often underdeveloped. “Sexxx Dreams” comes very dangerously close to sounding like a Jenna Maroney single, but the prechorus melody is actually kind of amazing, all lilting and druggy and drowned under effects, conveying a lovelorn, substance-addled longing that the sugary hook ends up ruining. “Dope” has one of the only effective, memorable hooks on the album, but it’s present on a ballad so overdriven and ridiculous it makes Adele sound like Taku Sugimoto, sung so passionately the melody almost disappears under the uncontrolled vocal power. It’s sort of admirable, really, that Gaga utterly belts this song as if she truly believes it were one of the greatest ballads ever written, but that gives rise to the terrifying corollary that she might actually believe that shit, and that gives me existential quivers.

In my humble opinion, there are exactly five good songs out of the fifteen on this album, and most of them have at least one flaw. The prechorus melody on “Gypsy” is truly, utterly gorgeous, and honestly one of my favourite tunes Gaga ever wrote – and she recognises she’s onto something, too, because she isolates and repeats that melody as much as she can within the pop song structure. I ain’t complaining, especially since that prechorus goes a long way towards making the annoying EDM structure more tolerable on this song than anywhere else on the album, and if one doesn’t look too closely one can almost miss that the chorus is maybe just a tad underwritten. “Mary Jane Holland” is a bafflingly little-known deep cut that almost certainly has the best hook melody on the album, full of just the sort of longing and regret that makes all her best hooks so memorable. It contrasts beautifully with the roaring, growling synths that underlie it and build up to it in the verses, and it’s all almost enough to make one forgive the bridge, which sounds like the worst showtune from the worst off-broadway show ever made. And then there’s “Applause”, which is well-structured, well-produced and well-sung enough that one may be willing to overlook the intense arrogance present in the lyrics of the second verse. “Pop culture wasn’t art, now art’s in pop culture in me”, sneers Gaga, causing my head to spin and making me contemplate suicide as I wonder if this woman has ever actually listened to the Bowie records she claims to love so much. I mean, come on – half the singing on this very song sounds like you’re directly imitating him! Show some respect to the original, ya dingus!

There are only two songs here I return to as regularly as the highlights from previous records. One of them is “Jewels N’ Drugs”, which I truly believe accidentally slipped into this reality through a crack in spacetime from bizarro world or some similarly strange universe. It’s a deeply surreal experience, right from the moment that vast, Lex Luger-type trap beat comes in and we are made to confront the spectacle of T.I brazenly announcing the presence of “HUSTLE GANG!” on a fucking Lady Gaga song. After his verse – which I can’t recall a single lyric from, not that it matters next to his charisma – we are forced to further confront the surreality of Gaga singing one of her sweetest, most tender melodies over the top of this giant, booming trap glamsplosion, crooning as softly as an angel atop the sort of music that should really be accommodating a murderously aggressive Waka Flocka Flame. The song’s oddities go deeper than that, though – the fact that Gaga sings the verse and then, uh, raps the initial hooks is bizarre enough, but the song also hosts two distinct beat changes and, perhaps most weirdly, two entirely distinct, repeated hooks, one for the first half of the song and one for the second. It’s a totally unhinged mess of a song, and I simply do not know how it can possibly exist, but I gotta admit I actually totally love it. Its eccentricities don’t actively conflict with another like they usually do on this album, and in fact they end up putting a big ol’ smile on my face for just about the song’s entire, deceptively brief runtime. Should I feel guilty about loving it so much? I mean, maybe, but I don’t. Besides, how can anyone hate Twista’s verse? That guy’s a verbal machine gun!

So, finally, we come to the best song on here, and the only song on the album that really ranks up there with Gaga’s best contributions to the state of pop music in the 2010s. “G.U.Y” is still a little disappointing compared to former best-songs-on-the-album, I guess, and it’s got nothing on “The Edge of Glory” or “Paparazzi”, but I’ve still listened to it countless times without ever getting bored, and it’s a thoroughly great, energetic dance bop with the most badass synth riff Gaga ever sang over and a properly structured build from verse through prechorus to hook that feels just as natural and cathartic as it should. The chorus melody always reminds me just a tad of Lana Del Rey, with the way she builds up and then just drops everything in the last syllable, as if the drugs have suddenly hit and slowed her to a sudden crawl. It picks up a lot of power from those bright, sizzling synths, though, flowering up around her as she sings and carrying her up to heaven even as the melody descends. It’s a great song, for sure, and if the rest of the album had lived up to its level I might be able to defy the consensus once again. But, alas, the album largely sucks just as much as people say it does, and that’s a real shame.

See, the narrative around Gaga is all wrong. This isn’t the experimental, overambitious one – that’s Born This Way! This one has some madcap moments, for sure (refer, once again, to “Jewels N’ Drugs”), but for the most part it’s actually kind of boring, and a clear artistic regression from her previous realms. It’s nakedly bowing to pop trends in a way Born This Way absolutely never did, and it’s doing so while abandoning most of the fantastic melodicism that used to make even her most misguided moments so tolerable. It’s a big step backwards, in other words, and it actually kinda pisses me off. I mean, those lyrics on “Applause” really are insulting when surrounded by this dreck, y’know? Did she really think this was her art album? Did she think is brave to incorporate all these EDM drops? Did she think she was rebelling?

Well, whatever the answer to that, this ain’t a good album. As for her next one, well – I can’t really remember. We’ll see. Next time might be a surprise, folks! (Probably not.)

Advertisements