The cover of the Artpop CD is a shiny creation by Jeff Koons and, like much of his work, it is glossy, sexually provocative, colourful, physical and not quite as clever as it thinks it is. So is the musical content of Lady Gaga's long awaited opus.
Glossy: The production is stellar and polished with layers of instruments and synthesizers laid over pounding beats. Surprisingly the effect is more off-putting than ear-catching. Gaga has a stunning and expressive voice, as she demonstrated on Howard Stern's radio show and SNL, but it is buried and processed, rendering it somewhat mechanical. The synthesizers are also consistently cold, there is little warmth beyond the occasional piano riff and the sunstroke guitar riff that opens "Aura" only to be swallowed by a tsunami of synthetic sound. The vocal hooks surface and disappear in the same manner. La Gaga is telling us that this is art, if she wanted to create a dance album or a pop album she is completely capable of tossing one off. Artpop radiates a pseudo-Warholian cool, lovely to look at/listen to but supposedly containing profundity. Warhol, at his best, contrasted emotional content with a detached view, Gaga just seems detached. The lyrics don't read as particularly profound (but then of course pop doesn't have to be to touch the heart, but that doesn't require the brain which is the muscle Gaga is self-consciously exercising here) so the dichotomy is missing. Too much critical thought for a pop album? She's the one who put "Art" in the title and namedropped a long list of artists as influences. In Artpop's defence, by the third listen I found myself singing along - even if it was mindless repetition of a hook without any conscious appreciation of context - it might be brilliant subterfuge on Gaga's part, the glossy cold surface somehow drew me in.
Sexually provocative: For lyrics that are so explicitly sexual and reference Aphrodite, Gaga is surprisingly passionlesss. Great gay divas come in two temperatures: hot and cold. There are the emotionally hot divas, the Celines and Judys, occasionally overwrought, that rip out their hearts and offer them, dripping with melissima and guts, to us. Or a diva can be as frigid and robotically unerotic as a Kylie or Britney, and depend entirely on production and beats to create energy. I'd always figured Gaga as one of the former but on Artpop she sings listlessly of "Sexxx Dreams" with all the masturbatory zeal of a bored housewife reading a grocery list. Her duet "Do What U Want" with R Kelly does generate heat but it is Gaga in an unusually submissive position. "Gypsy" backtracks to the classic rock influences of Born This Way and it pulls a more powerful vocal out of Gaga. Before that it is almost as if she is cloaking her desires, telling her fans to take a step back, and substituting sexual descriptives for erotic revelation. She no longer wants to embrace her Little Monsters, she just wants, as she sings in the final track, their "Applause." It is her life, her artistic evolution, and if she wants to back off from the giddy pansexuality of "Born This Way" and the soaring emotion of "Marry the Night," that's her right. But it is very intriguing that her next project is duets with Tony Bennett - her song and video from his last duets album generated real and, given the age difference provocative, heat.
Colourful: Gaga pulls on many sources to create a palatable palette. The resulting range of hues is consistently on one level but the effect is pleasant and utterly listenable. Great art risks alienating but Artpop is more about insinuating itself into a place in one's ears, like a vaguely edgy painting with a few splashes of vicious colour that will still look fine hanging over a sofa.
Physical: Oh yes, Artpop will make one dance. It is impossible to resist cranking Artpop to a loud volume and undoubtedly these songs, and the inevitable remixes, will sound glorious when the bass is powerful enough to punch the solar plexus. There is a tactility to Artpop that is frustrated by the chilly barrier it sets up between the listener and Gaga's heart. Along with the Parental Advisory sticker there should be a standard institutional warning sign about not touching the art.
Not as clever as it thinks it is: "G.U.Y." is a witty pun, there are catchy lyrical fragments but when she posits, "Do you want to see me naked lover?," it is a given that it won't be full frontal. She sings, "One second I'm a Koons then suddenly the Koons is me," and it is an utterly true statement. Aligning oneself with artists and theories doesn't make one an artist but, as Picasso said, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal." When good artist Gaga has the confidence to stop worshipping at the altar of high art, loses the distancing self-conscious posturing, and pours her passions into what she has learned, it will be a theft that will create an album entitled Artart. Though, it might be just as much an accomplishment to create Poppop