For every one of Lady Gaga’s outfits that breaks the barriers between fashion and studio art, she’ll write five of the most infantile hooks on pop radio. Like it or not, Gaga’s brilliance lies in her ability to sink down to the lowest common denominator while still conveying a sense of authenticity.
On “ARTPOP,” Gaga’s third LP, she doesn’t hold back in delivering choruses that sound like playground taunts and spoken-word segments that make anyone over the age of 16 involuntarily cringe. But “ARTPOP” also brings an unprecedented level of weirdness to Gaga’s sound, and it’s about time. For those who have experienced the cognitive dissonance of hearing a radio-ready pop song like “Bad Romance” and then seeing Gaga accept an award in a meat dress, “ARTPOP” offers a welcome if inconsistent solution to this problem.
A big part of “ARTPOP”’s charm lies in its production. Gaga had some big guns assist in the production of the album, from Russian producer Zed to the Israeli electronic collective Infected Mushroom. The European dance music influence comes through loud and clear on “ARTPOP” as the album’s overall sound hovers somewhere between the abrasive bump and grind of Justice’s “Genesis” and the icy sheen of “Empire of the Sun.” The result is absolutely gorgeous, and at her best, Gaga complements this sound with finesse and confidence. On “G.U.Y.,” Gaga busts out her signature gimmick of starting a song off with a dramatic monologue over a synthetic neo-church organ. Yet unlike older songs like “Marry the Night,” Gaga follows up her grandiose intro with a track that’s legitimately ambitious. “G.U.Y.” features all-encompassing synthesizers, pristine drum sequencing, and a vocodered Gaga at her most dynamic. Admittedly, the screaming at the end of the track is a bit silly. But hey, we’ll take what we can get.
Unfortunately, even when Gaga demonstrates her ability to create transcendent pop music, she still feels a need to conform to stale and uninspired pop idioms. Perhaps “ARTPOP”’s worst offender is the rap foray “Jewels N’ Drugs,” where Gaga provides further proof that cinematic instrumentals when combined trap beats are almost always ridiculously garish. Also, the track “MANiCURE” deviates from the album’s glossy sound with raucous country-girl stomp but doesn’t contribute the same level of color and interest as tracks like “G.U.Y.” or “Venus.”
Blemishes aside, “ARTPOP” represents a considerable step forward in Gaga’s artistic development. As a pop star whose talents used to shine the brightest during her 20-second piano solos at award shows, Gaga’s songwriting prowess and creativity take a much more prominent position on “ARTPOP” than on previous albums. Unfortunately, a number of weak tracks still leave the listener with the impression that Gaga is holding back from being as groundbreaking as she could be. Still, considering the progress she’s made from 2011’s “Born This Way” to “ARTPOP,” maybe her next album will be the one.
Howard is a member of the class of 2017.