Lady Gaga's 'ARTPOP' means everything and nothing - and that's OK

Lady Gaga , fashion diva, in Berlin last month. ODD ANDERSEN /AFP / Getty Images
Lady Gaga , fashion diva, in Berlin last month. ODD ANDERSEN /AFP / Getty Images
Posted: November 11, 2013

Lady Gaga is a mess.

That's hardly an insult. Everyone loves a good mess.

Lady Gaga knows. For Gaga - crafty songwriter and powerhouse singer - a holy mess is a fallback position. Even at her most focused, empowered, sexually driven, and aware, she can break down into schizophrenic absurdity (or downright awkwardness) - with matching costumes that make David Bowie seem buttoned-down.

Now we have the new Gaga CD, titled ARTPOP (Interscope ***). ARTPOP makes a mess - then cleans it up, and just barely triumphs over the disarray.

Beyond all her other chatter (plans to somehow put her music into space by 2015), Gaga keeps saying she wants to merge the worlds of art and pop. That follows some of pop's most entertaining and experimental acts, including Eno and Velvet Underground. ARTPOP may not entirely succeed, but it wants to, and much is the fun along the way.

The album's title track - one of its best, with a spacey ambience and slow groove - more or less foregrounds Gaga's biggest problem:

A hybrid can withstand these things

My heart can beat with bricks and strings

My ARTPOP could mean anything

And/or nothing. The ground rules appear to be that Gaga gets to make grand statements and wild hypotheses about sex (a lot of that here), identity, mystique, and more, without much substance behind them. This is, in the words of James Brown, what's known as "talking loud and saying nothing." But at times - with further apologies to John Cage - it's a brilliant nothing she's saying.

Gaga has a flexible singing voice capable of great nuance, a voice that allows her to take on as many personality traits as Lon Chaney had faces.

There's the churchy coo that fills the piano balladry of "Dope" with pensive reverence. There's the snotty sneer of "G.U.Y.," sung so much like her role model, Madonna, that you'll run to check the credits. There's the gritty, soulful croon of "Do What U Want," which bumps and grinds against duet partner R. Kelly's silky wail. She's hammy and theatrical on "Mary Jane Holland," with a voice as big as the Great White Way.

On "Aura," she achieves an icy, robotic monotone that would give Grace Jones chills. "Aura" is lush with John Barry-like grandeur and Middle Eastern breaks through which she stretches the word aurahhhhhhhh like aural taffy. "Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura?" she asks. As if we haven't heard, read, and seen enough.

This is a Gaga album with the Gaga imprint. Her CDs are marked with piercing lyricism, naked honesty, explosive ego, and gender-bending role-playing. Her sound fuses dance-tronica and glam rock with Broadway at its schmaltziest. The Fame (2008), its expanded version The Fame Monster (2009), and its weirdly diverse follow-up, Born This Way (2011), encouraged her Little Monsters fan base to laugh and cry at her exploits, real or imagined, in the name of fame and fabulousness.

Musically, the bloop- and bleep-filled ARTPOP veers closer to The Fame ("G.U.Y." even borrows the chorus from her smash hit "Bad Romance") than it does Born This Way. With the exception of a few slow numbers, this Gaga is headed for the dance floor more often than the bedroom, despite the sex and kink in her lyrics.

ARTPOP is far from perfect. There's a stretch of three clunkers so dull that the album all but halts. "Swine" is filled with tired sentiments (men are pigs?!) and cheap effects. "Fashion!" is tedious in every way. "Donatella" is either a Christopher Guest-like takeoff or simply dumb and dated. Headache-inducing.

Then there are the lyrics, some tender and wise, most simply banal and apparently perfunctory. On "Venus," she actually sings this:

Uranus

Don't you know my ass is famous?

If that isn't dumb enough, and it should have been, try "MANiCURE":

Touch me in the dark

Put your hands all over my body parts.

Luckily, ARTPOP ends with two great anthems. "Gypsy" starts off breathy and cool, with a slow, ethereal synth-string ambience, and builds into an epic of Donna-Summer-meets-Springsteen proportions. The now-familiar, fast-paced hit single "Applause" is the grand finale, a song that begs its audience for love.

These two songs alone are worth the price of the CD.

Ultimately, ARTPOP is a victory, but a fragile one. It gets past the self-made mess to find the beauty. Isn't that just like Lady Gaga, though?

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