After a number of female pop singers – primarily Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Britney Spears – released new music within the span of a few weeks, the resulting comparisons were inevitable. The prime targets of this chatter were Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, after the first singles from their respective new albums ended up coming out within days of each other. Katy Perry unsurprisingly won the sales battle (as she often does), but it was still hard to figure out whether Perry’s lacklustre ‘Roar’ or Gaga’s bland ‘Applause’ had more merit. What seemed fairly obvious though was that (despite what the Grammy nominations might suggest) neither delivered a pop masterpiece. Now it turns out that neither of them has delivered a remarkable album either, albeit for completely opposite reasons: Katy didn’t try hard enough; Gaga tried way too hard.
That, however, isn’t exactly a revelation. Ever since Stefani Germanotta donned the persona of Lady Gaga, she has gone out of her way to seek attention and court controversy, often leaving commentators wondering whether she is a serious artist or a hackneyed joke with a stale punch line. All too often, it seems like she talks a big game, overhypes her projects, leaves the listener expecting too much, and then just can’t deliver. And following the incessant spotlight-hogging antics, the music itself feels like a middle-of-the-road letdown. Her latest album Artpop suffers the same fate. There’s no art here – or at least no more than any other piece of mainstream music – but a lot of pop. Messy, laboured, all-over-the-place pop.A return to familiar territory, her third record finds her singing about – prepare to be shocked – lust, fame, and fashion, and sees her co-write each of its 15 tracks and work with producers including Paul Blair, Nick Monson, and Dino Zisis among others. Neither focused nor coherent, Artpop offers a lot of grandstanding and showcases a singer with a chronic aversion to lyrical subtlety and sonic restraint. The record often finds its songs buried under layers of effects and in insufferable lyrical territory. As a result, the songs sound overdone and convoluted. And then the repetition of phrases or the song titles (“Venus, Venus, Venus”, “artpop, artpop, artpop”, “gypsy, gypsy, gyspy”, “applause, applause, applause”) over and over, the use of the same tempo for much of its run, and the application of similar styles on multiple ditties makes the album seem musically tired.
Not to say that it all sounds the same, but sometimes the different ones aren’t very impressive either. The R. Kelly duet ‘Do What U Want’ works better than the T.I., Too Short, and Twista assisted detour into hip hop in the shape of ‘Jewels n’ Drugs’ which feels misplaced. The synth drenched ‘Donatella’ is so witless that it doesn’t quite make it clear enough if it’s a glorification or a send-up of its subject, Donatella Versace. Though her long-standing friendship and modelling contract with the Versace magnate is the only clue of the case bring of the former variety. And while the will.i.am and David Guetta produced ‘Fashion!’ starts with a promising piano intro, it then descends into an uninspired, generic tune. When she gets to the simpler tunes towards the end of the set, though, she truly shines as a singer. ‘Gypsy’ might be a more straightforward, and perhaps even uninventive ditty that could have found home on her previous disc Born This Way, but there is no denying that it is an irresistible, solid pop song. Sure she over-sings on ‘Dope’, producer Rick Rubin’s sole contribution to the album, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is an impressive ballad.
Ultimately, while listening to Artpop, it often becomes hard to decide if she’s taking herself too seriously or not seriously enough. Of course mixing art and pop isn’t a novel idea, but it’s a concept that becomes trickier to carry out when the artist trying to execute it isn’t willing to stray from the mainstream. A generic execution obviously doesn’t work; the songs might be catchy, but the singer seems to be going the ‘vocals on a layer of techno beats’ route that has become commonplace at this point. Yet, even the flaws of this record – and there are many – can’t hide the talent of the singer who made it. It has been obvious from the start that underneath all the makeup and costumes and ridiculousness is a good singer who can come up with strong melodies and infectious tunes. Unfortunately, on Artpop, she seems a little too enamoured with her own shtick, and it’s a pity that her pretentious persona has overshadowed her music, and her focus on spectacle is becoming a hindrance. Or maybe it’s just that flamboyance just doesn’t stand out as much today as it did five years ago. Since she arrived, strange has become the new normal, and the only thing shocking at this point would be if she appeared simple, fully clothed, and makeup-less, and sang a clean, bare pop song without pretending that it’s anything more than just that. And perhaps that’s exactly what she should do – see the art in simplicity, show restraint, and put her powerful vocals to better use, because at this point, creating an album that is raw but powerful might give her career a boost, widen her appeal, and increase her longevity, and truly surprise the jaded audience.