Lady Gaga’s relationship with fame has always been full of nuance. From album one, she’s acknowledged the “monstrous” side of celebrity—things gleaned from the wild bohemian years she spent in New York City’s clubs and bars trying to achieve success. With this vulnerability, Gaga positioned herself as a savvy cultural observer and a sympathetic character. Her embrace of stardom and its trappings felt akin to provocation. She was an outsider infiltrating the fame complex, and her commitment to attention-grabbing outfits and outrageous performances was an act of subversion, not personal extravagance.
More importantly, Gaga made sure to bring her posse of weirdos, misfits, and freaks along for the ride, both literally (glam rockers Semi Precious Weapons—for whom Gaga once opened—were on much of her Monster Ball tour) and figuratively. Despite any perceived fame, she was still Mother Monster, protector and champion of the misunderstood. She wasn’t above her fans, because it wasn’t that long ago that Gaga was one them. They were going to enjoy the bizarre experience of being famous together.
In light of all this, it’s disappointing that ARTPOP takes itself so seriously. The underlying playfulness that marked much of Gaga’s previous work—and mitigated the manifesto aspect of her music—is largely absent. Sex-obsessed tunes such as the submissive-empowerment anthem “G.U.Y.” and racy “Sexxx Dreams” are strident, while the thundering hip-hop track “Jewels N’ Drugs” is a mess, and cameos by T.I., Twista and Too Short can’t redeem the chorus, where a monotone Gaga utters lyrics such as, “Don’t want your jewels, I want your drugs.”
Worse yet, ARTPOP’s characters are self-absorbed. “Donatella”—as in Versace—aims for a celebration of fabulousness (“She’s so rich, and so blond / She’s so fab, it’s beyond”), but comes off as glorifying someone shallow. The couture-embracing “Fashion!” lacks the kind of winking edge that made David Bowie’s song of the same name so effective, and “Mary Jane Holland” describes someone who’s transformed by smoking weed. The tone of these songs only magnifies the poignant themes elsewhere—a nomad finding a home with someone else (“Gypsy”) and illicit substances screwing up a relationship (the raw, confessional “Dope”).
ARTPOP’s music is at least more three-dimensional. Modern EDM and ’80s synthpop are the dominant influences, meaning songs explode with rubbery keyboards, digital zaps, insistent beats, and manipulated vocals. “Applause” is equal parts Teutonic techno and Grace Jones; “Gypsy” starts with simple piano and blooms into a high-energy electro anthem; and “Sexxx Dreams” has a breathy synthpop chorus and rattling funk accents. Still, Gaga’s weird streak comes through—the record also has raging electric guitars (the Adele-goes-wild “Manicure”), sparkly R&B electro (the R. Kelly-featuring “Do What U Want”) and Sun Ra quotes (“Venus”). EDM stalwarts Infected Mushroom even collaborate with Gaga on “Aura” for a hiccuping disco hopscotch.
Yet, ARTPOP’s elaborate production reflects the distance present in the music. On her previous records, Gaga clearly empathized with listeners; her colorful music invited listeners into her world, warts and all. ARTPOP is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition that more often than not feels detached from its emotions. For as flamboyant as she is, Gaga’s never lacked sincerity; ARTPOP’s lack of substantial personal connection and its tenuous grasp on reality makes it a tough record to like.