Welcome, dear reader, to the very small center of the venn diagram of current day pop superstar Lady Gaga and ’90s icons and current Toto cover band Weezer. It’s a space in which we won’t focus on the different genres, different generations, nor, if I may, the entirely different “deals” of Lady Gaga and Weezer, but one in which we’ll appreciate what happens when a popular artist releases an unpopular record, and how time can redeem those who make bold, personal, and overly ambitious works. In this case, the works at hand are Weezer’s sophomore album Pinkerton, and Lady Gaga’s 2013 album ARTPOP.
When Pinkerton was released in 1996, it was received with hatred from fans, critics, and even frontman Rivers Cuomo himself, who called the album “hideous.” But over the years it gained a cult following, which then snowballed into critical praise. I was thrilled by the possibility of an entire society wrongly judging an album upon its release, so I kept my eyes peeled for the next Pinkerton. Critics have been wrong before, and they would be wrong again. Then Lady Gaga arrived.
Lady Gaga’s rise to the top of pop was immediate and endured without serious challenge through the release of three albums. The Fame and The Fame Monster gave us exclusively tasteful pop hits wrapped in Alexander McQueen. With Born This Way, Lady Gaga delivered musically on her self-proclaimed weirdness, dipping into more bizarre and goofy genre shifts with body modification aesthetics. Through these years of absolute domination, Gaga changed what it meant to be a pop star by bringing costumes and full-on stunts to the forefront of her image, but after three album-cycles of this, Gaga fatigue began to set in. By the time ARTPOP came out, the stunts seemed stale (do you remember the vomit artist? The flying dress?) and people weren’t sure if Gaga was the fashion/art/pop star they had been promised. The album’s debut single, “Applause,” was the first debut from a Gaga album to not reach number one, peaking at number four on the Billboard Hot 100. The other ARTPOP singles, “Do What U Want” and “G.U.Y.,” respectively reached number 13 and number 76 on the Hot 100. The album as a whole debuted at number one, but compared to Born This Way, which sold 1.1 million copies in its first week, ARTPOP, which sold 258,000 copies in its first week, seemed like a significant step down, and people took notice.
Critics were mixed on the album; some appreciated its ambition, but by and large, it was ultimately considered a failure. In Rolling Stone’s review of the record, critic Caryn Ganz wrote, “Gaga wants us to believe the LP was inspired by Marina Abramović, Jeff Koons, and Sandro Botticelli; at its best, it sounds like it was creatively directed by RuPaul, Dr. Ruth, and Beavis and Butt-Head.” The album wasn’t nominated for any Grammys, was perceived as a misstep at best, and mockingly received the nickname “Artflop” from the infinitely bitchy side of the pop-obsessed internet. Some feared that Lady Gaga’s career was ending not with a bang, but with a shriek: “Swine!” Even Gaga herself, when appearing on SNL soon after the release of ARTPOP , performed one of the bleakest sketches I’ve ever seen, in which she played a future version of herself as an elderly woman striving to get a repairman to recognize her by playing snippets of her hits. He doesn’t know who she is and only recognizes “Born This Way” from a commercial. The sketch ended with a haunting, melancholic rendition of “Applause” that hints at a low point in Gaga’s own belief in her staying power.
Those who listened to Pinkerton expecting the Blue Album, Two (Full Throttle), would’ve been reasonably disappointed. The Blue Album (officially titled Weezer) came out and went triple-platinum with its quirky, nerdy anthems, but left frontman Rivers Cuomo feeling isolated by the stardom he suddenly possessed. On top of that, he underwent a painful surgery to extend his right leg, and decided to retreat from fame and study musical composition at Harvard. Upon Pinkerton’s release, people expecting another bubbly “Buddy Holly” were greeted with a bizarre complaint about the numbness that came with having too much sex on “Tired of Sex.” In general, sad, perverted, and hopeless sex runs throughout Pinkerton. Songs like “Why Bother?” feel preemptively defeatist; “Across The Sea” inappropriately pines for an 18-year-old fan; and on “Pink Triangle,” Cuomo almost humorously, and somewhat desperately, wants a lesbian to like him. Cuomo’s lyrics are confessional, sometimes cringey, and often childish, with the most stream-of-consciousness ones coming from “El Scorcho” (“I asked you to go to the Green Day Ccncert / You said you’d never heard of them / How cool is that! / So I went to your room / And read your diary”) and he is close to shouting or whispering at all times, rarely finding a medium volume at which to express his juvenile feelings. Even the radio-friendly “The Good Life” is a fun-sounding song that complains about fame and features Cuomo blaming himself for not finding joy in his success. It’s a whole album of someone shouting their deepest desires, being emotionally off the rails, and rarely stopping to let the music slow down or to filter any thoughts, which, while off-putting to casual fans expecting hits, became essential listening for those able to appreciate the emotional roller-coaster.
Lady Gaga dealt with her own personal turmoil between the release of Born This Way and ARTPOP, which included a public feud and eventual split with her longtime manager, Troy Carter, and a cancellation of many stops of the Born This Way Ball tour because of a broken hip. In an interview with Billboard, she discussed having severe writer’s block while working on ARTPOP, saying, “I couldn’t write for two f—ing years. For ARTPOP, I was doing beats instead. I didn’t want to be near that damn [piano].” She also discussed feeling betrayed by her management during the making and release of the album in a confessional post on Little Monsters: “Those who have betrayed me gravely mismanaged my time and health and left me on my own to damage control any problems that ensued as a result. Millions of dollars are not enough for some people. They want billions. Then they need trillions. I was not enough for some people. They wanted more.” Later, she tweeted on the fourth anniversary of the album’s release that ARTPOP was an expression of her “rage & passion & fear.”
If you were to listen to ARTPOP expecting it to uplift, you would be disappointed. Those coming at it without that expectation, and without the Gaga fatigue of 2013, would find an album that is equal parts fun, angry, hectic, goofy, and sugary. ARTPOP plays like someone trying to have fun despite being in an awful mood. Gaga doubles down on hard beats to the point of absuridty (“Venus” will set off car alarms), tries blending every genre from runway pop to rap to dubstep, is virtually begging for something to hit, and entirely forgoes the light-pop voice of her “Poker Face” days to further commit to a Halloween howl that blasts off from the very first cackling laugh of “Aura.” It feels manic when you reach “Gypsy,” and aggressively light on songs like “Fashion!” and “Applause.” You can get whiplash between “Swine” and “Donatella” or you can fully lift off for the “Venus,” “G.U.Y.,” “Sexxx Dreams” chunk. The album is, from start to finish, deeply psychotic, and much more interesting than anything else Gaga had put out before it. Like Pinkerton, its immediate difficulty isn’t a glitch, but the reason it’s worth listening to.
For ARTPOP to truly be the Pinkerton of Lady Gaga’s career, it has to have its public redemption, and we may already be in the middle of it. On gay Twitter there is bubbling support on the side seeking #JusticeForARTPOP. In the ultimate test, upon entering Brooklyn gay bar Metropolitan recently, I heard the familiar dubstep-inspired build drop to that screeching voice shouting “SWINE!!!!” The groundswell is there, and not even “Jewels and Drugs” will stop ARTPOP from getting the respect it deserves.
The biggest remaining question is how Gaga will move forward from ARTPOP. Since its release in 2013, she has yet to put out a straight pop record. She’s done the country tinged Joanne, the piano-rock/country/pop soundtrack to A Star Is Born, and Cheek to Cheek with Tony Bennett. When Weezer was releasing its Pinkerton follow-up, the also-technically-self-titled Green Album, in 2001, Rivers Cuomo said of Pinkerton: “It’s like getting really drunk at a party and spilling your guts in front of everyone and feeling incredibly great and cathartic about it, and then waking up the next morning and realizing what a complete fool you made of yourself.” He proudly said in an interview with Rolling Stone that on The Green Album “there’s no feeling, there’s no emotion,” and much of Weezer’s music since has had the same impersonal touch. In Gaga’s performance at the Super Bowl, ARTPOP was the only album not represented in the medley. On her most recent Joanne tour, the only ARTPOP song to make it onto the setlist was “Applause.” It took Rivers Cuomo years to recognize that Pinkerton was potentially his best work and to value his hyper-sincerity. Hopefully Gaga will soon find the beauty in her own experimentation and these off-the-wall pop records will be able to — to quote “Applause” — crash the critics asking, “Is it right or is it wrong?”