Just to be clear: Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP is not going crash the world economy. It isn’t going to put Interscope Records out of business. It’s not even going to end Lady Gaga’s career, or measurably cut into her meat-dress budget. The Internet has crackled with portents of doom this week, as word came down that the first-week sales of Gaga’s third album totaled 258,000, less than a quarter of the opening-week tally of her previous release, Born This Way (2011). For clarity on the numbers and their meaning, look no further than chart-watcher Chris Molanphy’s Pitchfork piece “Did Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP Actually Flop?” Molanphy’s answer is three-fold. In relative terms, it kinda flopped; in inflated Lady Gaga terms, it definitively flopped. But in any case, it’s not about to end her career — merely reconfigure it, scale it down. Gaga is transitioning, Molanphy says, from her “Imperial Phase” to a more modest kind of pop-star dominion.
So much for the commerce. What about the art — or the “artpop”? For me, the album is, by far, Gaga’s weakest, which isn’t to say that it’s bad, exactly. It’s not a record that I care to spend much time listening to. But it’s imposing, it casts a shadow: It’s big in sound and ambition and, especially, absurdity. As always, Gaga takes on Heady Topics: fame, money, sex, drugs, fashion. She fancies herself a social commentator, but her satirical touch isn’t light. In “Donatella” she sings: “You just had a salad today / Boulangerie / Just ask your gay friends their advice, before you / Get a spray tan on holiday / In Taipei.” Hang on: Is Lady Gaga taking potshots at a jet-setting fashionista for relying on the counsel of a gay male glam-squad? That’s chutzpah.
As the album title suggests, Gaga has gone full theory-head: With returns diminishing on her 24-7-365, world-as-catwalk provocations, she’s taken a deep dive into the Warholian meta-pop-stardom thingamabob that she’s been rattling on about in interviews for years. The ideas she tosses around on ARTPOP are a lot more banal than she seems to realize, but her unswerving commitment to them gives the songs — the lyrics, at least — a freaky fizziness. “Dance, sex, ARTPOP, tech,” goes the refrain in the album opener, a string of nouns (or are they verbs?) that relate, somehow or other, to the verses, which, not quite grammatically, liken the peekaboo machinations of celebrity to the wearing of a burqa: “Enigma popstar is fun, she wear burqa for fashion / It’s not a statement as much as just a move of passion.” The title track is even more heavy-going. “Come to me / With all your sub-text and fantasy … A hybrid can withstand these things / My heart can beat with bricks and strings / My ARTPOP could mean anything” — another way of saying that her ARTPOP may be total nonsense, and mean absolutely nothing at all.
Which would be fine — which would be awesome, even, in that daffy-bombastic Gaga-ian way — if the music was in place. It’s not. The album is stuffed-to-bursting with “tech”: blaring, banging state-of-the-art nü-disco dance-beats. But where are the tunes? From “Paparazzi” to “Bad Romance” to “The Edge of Glory,” Gaga’s songs have thrived on hooks, on the big chorus that seals the deal. The only decent one I hear on ARTPOP is in “Applause,” and it’s definitely lesser Gaga.
In short, I’m not convinced that ARTPOP holds many hits. That’s bad news indeed for Lady Gaga’s imperial designs, but it may not be the worst thing for her artpop, lowercase, going forward. With the pressure off to beat the world, she might just be able step back, take a deep breath, and make some great songs. You could argue, after all, that Gaga’s apotheosis was a fluke, a case of historical happenstance — that she was merely the right singer in the right place at the right time. Gaga’s arrival coincided with a brief flickering, from about 2008 to 2011, of American pop Europhilia, when the Top 40 was captivated by four-on-the-floor Eurodisco beats. That phase came to a crashing end this summer, as American pop swung backward, toward the warmer, funkier, retro-flavored sounds of “Blurred Lines,” “Get Lucky,” “Treasure,” etc. The mob has moved on, as it always does, and Gaga shouldn’t feel too bad about it. The pop audience doesn’t make considered judgments; it acts on impulse. When your album sales drop by 80 percent, it’s not a statement. Just a move of passion.