I consider myself to be a moderate-to-very-fascinated Lady Gaga fan; I’ve enjoyed each of her albums all for different reasons. On the deeper end of my enjoyment, I appreciate her commitment to her art and using every facet of her self-aware being (style, songwriting, sexuality, etc.) to express her thoughts on subjects from how hard you should go in a club to love not being reserved for two people of the opposite sex. On the more shallow end of the enjoyment spectrum, I’m a sucker – hook, line, and sinker – for pure pop music.
Now, before you go judging and swearing off any music recommendation I give you forever, hear me out. Pop music (short for “popular music”), is a melting pot of different styles that are loved worldwide ranging from Latin, R&B, Disco, and Dance. By definition, the genre aims to appeal to a general audience and is often intended to encourage dancing via its use of dance-oriented beats.
TL;DR: Pop music is meant to be popular and get your out of your seat, busting a move (good or bad). As a student of music school (mmmhmmm), I’ve encountered people who unconditionally HATE pop music because they claim it doesn’t require as much talent as other genres. To them, my Dr. Luke-loving self has this to say:
I gave ARTPOP a first, dedicated listen this morning, and now as I type this, I’m on my fourth listen (yes, I’ve listened to this album 4 times today). My sometimes moderate interest in Lady Gaga’s music comes from certain songs like “Government Hooker” that I like, but I’m also kind of like, “is it okay that I enjoy this?”. In all honesty, I expected a lot of this taboo feeling to manifest itself in me as I checked out ARTPOP, fearing the overdramatic club kid rearing its ugly head at a goth opera of an album, but alas, I was met with a mixture of Baroque-rendered disco bangers.
ARTPOP begins strongly with “Aura”, opening the album with Southwestern-influenced, almost Desperado-esque, plucked guitar notes complimented by vocals that sounds like Gaga sampled them from an old Western film. The song begins its slow explosion into the anticipated dance number we were all waiting for at the sound of Gaga’s signature “oh-raa” and reveals the song’s hook during the first bridge, inviting listeners to “see the girl behind the Aura.” Yes, please, thank you. And if you don’t want to see it, maybe you should listen to something else.
And it is so, the album’s theme has been revealed within the first two minutes; ARTPOP is a homage to Gaga, from Gaga for her celebrity and love affair with such extreme, seemingly sought-after-but-rarely-touched pillars of fame & fortune. Referencing her affinity for the mythical goddess of love: Aphrodite Lady / Seashell Bikini / Get With me / Venus in the second track, “Venus,” Gaga introduces her motif of referencing deities and the seemingly unattainable and her presence in the ranks of them (this motif, unfortunately, falls off from obviously-stated to understated as the album progresses). Much like the third track, “G. U. Y.” (Girl Under You), “Venus” is an abrupt EDM track meant to go all the way up to 11 on your soundsystem - both loud and hard-hitting, only taking breaks to manifest their hooks through languid, legato bridges.
The second motif, the vice of lust, although identified subtly (as subtly as the typically over-stated Gaga can be) in the first few tracks, manifests itself in “Sexxx Dreams,” which takes things down a notch, opening with a slower 4/4 time signature and soulful vocals, before Gaga proclaiming, When I lay in bed / I touch myself and think of you. And so, the two motifs meet as the protagonist of ARTPOP, Gaga herself, is found lusting toward the unattainable.
The first large break in the album comes in the form of “Jewels N’ Drugs,” AKA Gaga’s foray into hood street cred (“Chillin” with Wale does not count). The fifth track features verses from rap game veteran T.I., the Bay Area’s Too $hort, and that dude from that one Kanye song that talks really fast, Twista. The track opens with the sounds of an orchestra tuning up before falling into your quintessential Atlanta hip-hop beat provided for T.I. & Lady Gaga’s respective verses before speeding up to a hyphy, Bay Area beat announcing that Too $hort has arrived. The final change-up comes for Twista’s forgettable, undecipherable verse. All in all, “Jewels N’ Drugs” features an almost head-scratchingly eclectic lineup and is definitely the wild card of the album that is not to be missed.
Pulling us back into the throws of radio pop anthems, “MANiCURE” is essentially that: a loud, power-pop ballad (complete with shredding guitar solo, not necessarily in a good way) that declares Gaga’s need for a “man cure” for her “addiction to love.” Vices manifest themselves again. The second single of the album, “Do What U Want,” features R.Kelly with a powerful synth-driven beat reminiscent of essentially any song off the “Drive” Soundtrack that serves as the groundwork for the R&B Ballad of vocals provided by Gaga & Kellz. The main theme of Gaga’s love affair with fame manifests itself in a submissive way in this track, lending her being to the celebrity without the emotional investment or losing herself: You can’t have my heart and / You wont use my mind but/ Do what you want with my body / You can’t stop my voice and / You don’t own my life but / Do what you want with my body.
The title track, “ARTPOP” is the most techno, house-driven song on the album, playing the most into the the smoke & mirrors behind disco: My ARTPOP could mean anything / I just love the music not the bling. Foraying into what I feel could be the song’s dark horse, “Swine,” which features Gaga making references to a Pig in a Human’s Body over fragmented, keyboard shards and effectively ripping whomever the song may be about a new one. Following each chorus, the song falls into a rolling EDM instrumental with hints of dubstep, setting an intense backdrop for an intense song. The intensity breaks, however, with the ironic, humorous opening lines of “Donatella”: I am SO fab / Check out, I’m blonde / I’m skinny / I’m rich/ and I’m a little bit of a bitch. The song is outlandish and references the namesake of the song’s muse: Versace. The Will.I.Am-produced “Fashion!” proves to be just as outlandish and even more forgettable than the track that precedes it (although it will take a lot to get the atrocious goth-opera synth line out of my head).
Three songs to the end of the album after several underwhelming tracks (they can’t all be winners), “Dope,” the piano-driven star ballad of ARTPOP restores in us the belief that Gaga is a pop artist with a strong foundation of pure talent and powerful songwriting. Perhaps illustrating the less-glamorous side of her affair with fame, Gaga sings: I know I fucked up again / God forgive me for my sins before powerfully reiterating in the post chorus, I need you more than dope. A vague, open-ended reference that can be applied to a variety of the themes mentioned throughout the album before ending on the underwhelming, although appropriately-placed “Applause” which alone almost convinced me to not even check out ARTPOP to begin with after Gaga’s ’80s workout-meets-Neptune VMA performance.
All in all, ARTPOP has a little bit of good, a little bit of not-so-good, and a lot of hard-hitting EDM-meets-pop songs begging to be remixed. Although as a cohesive piece of work, the themes and motifs of ARTPOP become misconstrued or questionable from time to time, I recommend this album to anyone hungry for new pop tunes or a song to play at a party to make people get up and dance. Because that is what pop music does.