, November 7th, 2013 08:05
There's no getting away from it – some people really loathe Lady Gaga. Those that oppose Gaga (not including those who simply reject the notion of her based solely on a hatred of commercial, popular music) see her as a phoney – a loudmouth lifestyle tourist latching onto various sub-cultures, ripping off Madonna's moves and quite tedious in her attempts to shock with her wardrobe. On the flipside, her army of Little Monsters offer up the kind of devotion normally accorded to either cult leaders in bad jumpers or Morrissey, worshipping Gaga as an eccentric, funny, sarcastic icon.
Fact is, as ever, the truth probably lies somewhere between the two. And there's no getting away from the fact that, while other pop stars deal in trying to out-risqué each other, Gaga's weirdness (genuine or otherwise) keeps us transfixed.
In the past, she's surpassed the expectations of a pop singer. 'Poker Face' and 'Just Dance' were dancefloor dynamite and perfect for the radio. Then she blew up with 'Bad Romance' and 'Telephone', both with ridiculous, irresistible choruses and lavish videos. She made events out of each release, teasing with lyrics and online countdowns, premiering new ideas online as she went along… all the while cannily giving the air that everyone was invited to the red carpet. After a delightfully pompous arena tour, complete with the kind of giant rubber monster that would've kept Peter Gabriel in Genesis, she'd gone from no-one to being able to walk on water.
Yet the wheels started to wobble when she told us she was 'Born This Way'. The message, admittedly sound, felt a bit forced and the album artwork that followed – Gaga morphed into a motorbike – wasn't exactly cut with the style we'd become accustomed to. Still, conservatives (both musically and politically) hated her. She, like no other, could get a rise out of dissenting voices and it was still a fabulous spectator sport for all concerned. However, doubt had set in and it looked like Gaga couldn't work out where she was exactly supposed to be, leaving fans slightly apprehensive about new album Artpop. For starters, the name of the project produced a collective squirm. We geddit. You want to meld art with pop. Of course, part of the appeal of Gaga when she first arrived was she wrote songs that treated pop music like it was an artform in itself. All the cod highbrow ephemera that went along with it was good, campy fun.
And now, with Artpop, it seems she's got confused. You can feel the weight of what Gaga thinks her work is, rather than what it actually is. The once wonderful haphazard gesturing has been replaced with the crowbarring of ideas into songs. Musically, in places, this is a tremendous juggernaut of pop. Unfortunately, at times the lyrics can be found wanting. On too many occasions, a line will be so poor that it takes you out of the moment, killing your pop buzz dead. Gaga sings about being "behind the burka" at one moment, before breaking into "walk down the runway but don't puke, it's okay, you just had a salad today, boulangerie."
That said, like other Gaga LPs, this isn't an album to be ruminated over (sadly for her). She wanted Artpop; we wanted Goodpop, and what we actually have is Somepop, with regrettable sags caused by the odd filler track. However, when it is good, it is terrific. 'Sexxx Dreams' has a wonderful energy, while 'Jewels 'n' Drugs' (feat T.I., Twista & Too Short) sees Gaga trying her hand at skittering the hip hop you'd find in Juicy J or buried in trap. 'Applause', we know, is a bit sticky in places but, if you stop expecting too much of Gaga, you'll realise it has a furiously irresistible chorus.
While 'Manicure' is the lousy rock song she's been threatening to make for years and 'Dope' tries too hard to tell everyone she's clean, Gaga may well have made her best song in the gigantic 'Do What U Want' which features R Kelly, a man in the middle of a renaissance. In this song, Gaga and Kels go head-to-head to see how can out-sex the other. Of course, R Kelly has his detractors (he's a genius, but his social life is troubling), but here he teams up with Gaga to take a pop at the detractors: "we're taking these haters and roughin' 'em up and laying a cut like we don't give a fuck." It'd be nice to believe that.
Fact is, Artpop seems a little too eager to impress Gaga's critics. If she has tried to make things cerebral, to answer the criticism of 'you're just some dumb pop singer', then it doesn't quite work. This is a shame, for Gaga is always best when she doesn't worry about those people. The simple matter is that Gaga always works best in the language she speaks fluently - heartbreak, partying, fucking, falling in love and teen melodrama. It's in these moments that Artpop really shines. Yet it's not Gaga's finest hour. There are moments where she reminds us that she can still do wonderful things, but for the most part, Artpop shows us an artist who is trying to do too much all at once. Gaga's head on a swan neck is perfectly hilarious, but rein in the preaching and clanging references to fashion because, basically, all we ever wanted was to dance, for inspiration.
If Gaga learns anything from Artpop, it that she should stop trying to impress the hooting cynics who keep asking her to prove herself and stick to turning basic human emotions into rousing, hair-raising pop because, quite simply, when she's on form, there's no-one quite like her.