The refreshing and problematic thing about Lady Gaga is she hasn’t changed since 2008. Sure, she’s upped the power in her power pop, as “Born This Way” and “Judas” are more electrified and urgent than boozy club bangers “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,” but she’s still the same snarling, soaring, operatically attention-seeking imp who drunkenly raged into view with The Fame.
Along with her funny and obnoxious gall, self-awareness has always separated Gaga from contemporaries like Beyonce, Rihanna, and Katy Perry, unerringly safe ciphers who’ve spent the past five years emerging with state-of-the-art singles and throwaway sentiments at precisely the right radio moment. As those vocalists change up their game when trends demand it, Lady Gaga is still brandishing her mic like a disco stick and demanding pop radio adapt to her. She can be both too sarcastic and too earnest, but unlike her competition, she’s never cynical. She threw in some horror tropes on The Fame Monster and enough cries of self-empowerment to overwhelm Richard Simmons on Born This Way, but she is loudly, righteously the same.
And yet, that’s why her new album ARTPOP isn’t as fascinating as it could be: Though the 15-track disc has triumphs and follies aplenty, they’re mostly the same triumphs and follies from her previous three albums, only now they’re crunching and thudding harder in ARTPOP’s dizzying, somewhat unfounded aggression.
First single “Applause” is a rock’em-sock’em ode to vanity and superstardom delivered in the nutty patois of David Byrne; “Do What U Want” is a slow-throbbing, hard-grunting call for self-possession and sexual freedom. They are both fabulous singles, and they’re both distinct from the rest of Gaga’s catalog in their skittish and rumbling rhythms, respectively. ARTPOP’s other highlights — and they are highlights — will inspire some great dancefloor chaos, but they feel like 5 Hr. Energy-blasted sequels to previous Gaga songs. “Donatella,” a fun but cockamamie “rich bitch” ode to the gurgle-voiced Versace, gives you more of the runway-strutting angst you remember from “Bad Romance” and the quasi-rapped pop iconography from “Dance in the Dark.” “Gypsy” — which boasts the powerfully hollered line, “I don’t want to be alone forever / But I can be tonight” — is another slice of night-owning transcendence that smacks of “Marry the Night” or “Highway Unicorn.” “G.U.Y.” is a rollicking robo-jam by an emboldened “Girl Under You” that would’ve made sense sequenced after “Government Hooker” on Born This Way. “Venus,” a testament to the “goddess of love” that will traumatize Vanna White, hits with the rawness of “Judas” but settles into the ambient tinniness of “Electric Chapel.” Only “MANiCURE,” with its clap-along verve, seems particularly new for Gaga, and I’m happy to report it outperforms similar clap-along jams like Madonna’s “Give Me All Your Luvin” or Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend.” Phew.
But if this album is meant to be pop-as-art — though who knows precisely what Gaga is selling, pretending to sell, or refusing to sell in all her hype and pomp — the problem is that she cannot resist curating her own exhibition as she performs within it, and that self-consciousness feels more “art school” than “art world.” She says it herself (with admittedly funny delivery) on the title track “ARTPOP”: “My ARTPOP could mean anything.” Therefore, it could be meaningless too — which would be fine and even fun if she weren’t so determined to assure us she’s selling something, whether or not it’s anything we haven’t seen before from her.
The worst downside to ARTPOP is its seismic tonal shifts that ultimately don’t matter, as is the case with the unlistenable, rap-heavy “Jewels N’ Drugs” (featuring T.I., Too $hort of “Bossy” fame, and Twista), the songless “Sexxx Dreams,” and the gothically oversung “Dope,” in which Gaga croons about love and dependency in her spooky Elsa Lanchester quaver and mistakes eeriness for intimacy. Strangely, Gaga’s ballads are often the source of her weakest lyrics. Their undercooked sentimentalism feels lachrymose, much like The Fame Monster’s most indecipherable track, “Speechless.” It’s not that Gaga isn’t believable as a piano lounge prophetess, but her head-scratching attempts at confessional, “stripped-down” songs make her seem unaware of her own vagueness. That negates the intentional dadaism ARTPOP purports to sell.
Gaga’s third proper album is certainly varied and commanding, and she gives us at least five songs that feel like one-of-a-kind contributions to popular music from a bona fide goddess and legitimate weirdo. But it’s hard to celebrate ARTPOP as a singular sensation when Gaga is just offering up her familiar shtick as crazy new trinkets at a louder, more decadent bazaar. ARTPOP might be wicked and wild, but it’s hardly revolutionary. In fact, it would’ve been a good title for The Fame.