Okay, Let’s Talk About ARTPOP

Lady Gaga’s most misunderstood album has been resurrected, but it never really died. Photo: Lady Gaga/YouTube

Miss Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta shifted space with ARTPOP. Released on November 6, 2013, it surpassed the already-ambitious pop achievements of The Fame (2008) and Born This Way (2011), with an album cover that depicted Lady Gaga, nude, sitting with a blue orb between her legs like the goddess Venus, waiting to watch people fall in love. Or get fucked. ARTPOP has, for nearly a decade, occupied a peculiar spot on the pop-disco shelf. In many ways, the album reinvented electronic-pop music. Though that’s what Lady Gaga has always done as an artist — she translates emotional labor into better listening experiences; her music is spiritual to the point of ecstasy, with lyrics that evoke memories and fantasies of romance or sex or agony. ARTPOP, though, remains one of one in her catalogue — and from the lustful “Sexxx Dreams” to the rawness of “Gypsy,” it epitomizes the mission of its Mother.

ARTPOP showcases the most extreme, weirdly gobsmacking of Gaga’s creative ability; it honors pop music in a way that other albums of its generation do not. It’s hot, it’s fashion, it’s robotically synced to Lady Gaga’s artistic intentions. It’s also some of the singer’s most revealing work. Her passion and sorrow are exhumed in “Dope,” as Stefani sings about her addictions at the time. The bitchy, campy “Donatella” is not just a reference to the Versace designer, but an ode to silliness as well as owning yourself with pride. And then there are songs like “G.U.Y” and “Applause” — audio feasts that flex the strength of Gaga’s beats; their choruses build with futuristic sonics before painting a wild sky of lyrical magic, doing what she does best: tell stories.

In November of 2019, Rose Dommu wrote in Paper,ARTPOP has been something of a barometer for how invested and well versed Little Monsters are in Gaga’s discography” — a response to a Gaga tweet that same week, in which the pop star claimed, “i don’t remember ARTPOP.” Dommu is right: Despite being widely labeled a critical and commercial “flop” at the time (and despite including an R. Kelly feature that Gaga would later remove from streaming services, not to mention its scrapped Terry Richardson–directed video), this album is the one that day-one fans appreciated, danced to, and exulted in both then and, almost more crucially, now. In 2013, Kitty Empire wrote in the Guardian: “The bloopy title track boasts the great reveal that ‘my Artpop could mean anything’ and the impression of a pop star scrambling, post-hoc, towards coherence never goes away. Illusion, masks, bareness, posing: all are exercised as ideas, without Gaga really settling on a preference.” Various reviews at the time said that ARTPOP’s message was fuzzy — a seemingly random album, thrown together and tossed into the pop abyss hoping to land, and that for some, failed. ARTPOP has been resurrected, but it never actually died, though it did rebel against all the preset industry standards for mainstream music at the time. The only awards nod the album ever received was a Billboard Music Awards nomination for Top Electronic/Dance Album. It’d probably win a Grammy today.

Recently, after a fan created a Change.org petition for Lady Gaga to release an ARTPOP “Act II” — a move fueled by longtime Gaga collaborator and producer DJ White Shadow’s April Fool’s joke that there are outtakes in the vault still to come — ARTPOP surged once again (as it should!). The hashtag #buyARTPOPoniTunes trended across the internet, and the original album rose to the platform’s top-three spot, almost eight years after its debut. Gaga responded to the album’s newfound acclaim with grace: “Making this album was like heart surgery, I was desperate, in pain, and poured my heart into electronic music that slammed harder than any drug I could find.” She thanked her fans with a simple message: “Paws up.”

There is rare art like this out there, art that’s beautiful — scarred by mainstream criticism, maybe — that mustn’t be lost. Art that was ahead of its time without trying to be. I listen to ARTPOP and I hear hype and experimentation, rules broken so that another musical pathway could be forged. I taste liberation. I get to feel the full spectrum of emotions again: sad, joyful, energized, horny. With the album back in the limelight, fans are remembering — or maybe just realizing — its influence and the original discourse it opened. So here, we rank the songs that made ARTPOP a singular piece of pop evolution that’s forever tattooed on my [*in Drag Race’s Joey Jay’s voice*] “gay-ass” heart (and Gaga’s arm).

14. “Fashion!”

Written with will.i.am, “Fashion!” is just too slow. The message is to live life “like it’s a catwalk,” but opening this song with six-too-many lines saying the same thing (“looking good and feeling fine”) doesn’t provide the gravitational pull she’s going for. According to Richard S. He’s Vulture ranking of every Gaga song, this track is “a tad less vital than ARTPOP’s best.” I agree.

13. “ARTPOP”

The album’s self-titled track is Matrix-y but simple, allowing for a bit of breathing room that the album needs. Gaga sings: “A hybrid can withstand these things / My heart can beat with bricks and strings / My ARTPOP could mean anything,” referencing the true point of the album — the magic that can happen when art and pop music collide. “ARTPOP” is oddly sequenced as the No. 7 track on the album; it’s more of an anticipatory experience than a mid-record hit.

12. “Jewels N’ Drugs” ft. T.I., Too $hort, Twista

It’s hard not to have a certain appreciation for what “Jewels N’ Drugs” attempted. Featuring rap veterans T.I., Too $hort, and Twista, Lady Gaga talk-sings on the album’s strongest curveball — a trap song on ARTPOP might not necessarily have been on anyone’s Bingo card eight years ago, but it contains a sassy, Gaga-esque monotone that really works. (Per an MTV interview at the time, Twista got “butterflies” before performing it live with Mother Monster herself at that year’s iTunes Festival in the U.K.) I was recently riding in an Uber from Brooklyn to Manhattan — it was early evening and the highway was lit orange-yellow by skyscraper lights, the city’s night creeping in to the sounds of Gaga’s punkish mantra “Don’t want your jewels, I want your drugs / Don’t want your money, want your love.” A mood!

11. “Mary Jane Holland”

Gaga told SiriusXM in 2013 that she wrote “Mary Jane Holland” with French DJ Madeon, and its story line focuses on the “alter ego of who [Gaga] became when [he] was smoking weed.” A robotic, rock-skewing hit evoking the realm of EDM, it works especially well at the beginning of the song’s second verse, in which LG slow-motion mouths, with rage, “Mad-magical in Amsterdam!” It’s a fierce, fun hit and has a climax that’s reminiscent of “Marry the Night,” but here, clearly, is about marijuana.

10. “Donatella”

Introducing a song with the words, “I am so fab / Check out: / I’m blonde, I’m skinny / I’m rich, and I’m a little bit of a bitch” is iconic and messy, and you can never tell me less. Blatantly referencing Donatella Versace — and every bad bitch with blond/e locks — the song was described by Jason Lipshutz in Billboard asan anthem for the outcasts that have a right to feel gorgeous.” Produced with Zedd, the rude-but-wise attitude imprinted on the listener is unmatched. That it’s also a rose-colored ode to self-love, buried beneath a shallow riff on fashion, is clever. However much “Donatella” might match the rhythms of other ARTPOP greats still to come — “Aura,” “Sexxx Dreams” — it doesn’t do them better. Nonetheless, it’s fresh, smart, and cheeky.

9. “Swine”

During an appearance on The Howard Stern Show in 2014, Gaga said that “Swine” was about “rape,” “demoralization,” and “rage and fury and passion.” It’s a fast but jerky, even nasty, song with a mesmerizing chorus: “I know, I know, I know, I know you want me / You’re just a pig inside a human body / Squealer, squealer, squeal out, you’re so disgusting / You’re just a pig inside.” (The background noise reminds of Born This Way’s “Scheiße). In its very odd Gaga way, the song praises our subconscious freak; Dommu also wrote that “Swine” finds Gaga “casting herself as a reluctant dominatrix,” which I think sums up the parable perfectly.

8. “Venus”

“APHRODITE LADY SEASHELL BIKINI, GARDEN PANTY.” Apart from containing one of the most iconic lines of Gaga’s music career to date, the only thing better than “Venus” is the visual for “Venus” — part of an 11-minute, 46-second film dedicated to ARTPOP — which displays Gaga dressed as a wounded bird reborn in a swimming pool surrounded by the cast of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, then becoming a flowery queen destined to command the world’s sexual fantasies. Gaga sings her next unforgettable verse, calling out the planets — “Neptune, go / Now serve Pluto! / Saturn, Jupiter, Mercury, Venus (Uh-huh) / Uranus, don’t you know my ass is famous? / Mars, now serve for the gods / Earth, serve for the stars” — as she strokes the wings of something supernatural, which is really ARTPOP’s assignment: to metaphorically take you somewhere you’ve never gone before.

7. “Dope”

Lady Gaga has possibly never been more candid than she is on “Dope.” She writes about substance abuse and sings directly to the trolls that enslave her: “My heart would break without you / Might not awake without you / Been hurting low from living high for so long / I’m sorry, and I love you” — an actualization of the toxic friend her “dope” had become. The quietness of the song, introduced by piano, gears up as Gaga talks about something maybe more scary than drug or alcohol abuse: admitting it. She grabs our hand and we’re taken on her journey, filled with ache and demolition and acceptance. The dark process of healing is presented beautifully in Gaga’s words. In 2013, Kory Grow wrote of the song for Rolling Stone: “The chorus is the song’s emotional high point as she promises she’ll keep searching for a way to get better.” With “Dope,” fans are entrusted with Lady Gaga’s most personal pain; in turn, Gaga reveals that they are just as important to her as she is to them.

6. “Aura”

If any one song on ARTPOP tricks you, it’s “Aura,” and it’s an exhilarating roller coaster. The opener answers the question: What happens when pop is flipped upside down? The first minute of “Aura” is marked by Gaga’s haunted laughter, then, as the track’s echoed chorus arrives, you inevitably want to sing along: “Do you wanna see me naked, lover? / Do you wanna peek underneath the cover? / Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura, behind the aura?” The song hints at a veil concealing … something, but Gaga never really tells us what it is. However much “Aura” revels in mystery, it is also very literal — it’s about “Dance, sex, art, pop, tech.” It’s also just an incredible banger.

5. “Applause”

“Applause,” ARTPOP’s lead single, might have faced the most backlash, with some fans and critics turning it into a symbol of the album’s failure. The beauty of “Applause” is that, however underappreciated as a Gaga single or stand-alone, it’s essential to the album. It may be flawed but offers a portal into ARTPOP (nothing else on the album really sounds like it). It’s foretelling that Gaga sings in the song, “I’ve overheard your theory / Nostalgia’s for geeks” — have the haters now become the geeks? And there’s no forgetting the line, “Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture, in me.” With an immediately recognizable, high-speed intro, it’s a metaphorical mind-fuck that splashes your insides. “Applause” was the green light into ARTPOP, and an archetype of this junction in Lady Gaga’s career.

(But let’s not forget Lady Gaga’s 2013 MTV VMAs performance — who else could slay five lewks in one night, on top of coordinating multiple choreos and wigs?)


“MANiCURE” may be an unexpected No. 4 — it has never earned the respect that the best songs on ARTPOP have, not even now, during the album’s latest reappraisal. In Vulture’s ranking of every Lady Gaga song, Richard S. He calls the track a “glam-rock stomper set in a little beauty shop of horrors.” I picture MANiCURE as the emo slasher of the album; Gaga sings on top of layered clapping: “Touch me in the dark / Put your hands all over my body parts Throw me on the bed / Squeeze, tease me, please me, that’s what I said!” The song’s title gets a bit inverted in the chorus, flipping its meaning as Gaga rephrases: “I’m gon’ be MANiCURED / You wanna be man cured / Ma-ma-ma-MANiCURE.” This falls in line with the message of ARTPOP: less structure, more risk, and reward will follow.

3. “Gypsy”

This might be the most sacred song on the record. “Gypsy” is about finding and falling in — or out of — love. With whom? You decide. And it’s about being stuck and being alone and floating in mystery, confusion, or unknowing. Gaga sings, “And what about the future plans? / Does this thing we have even makes sense / When I got the whole world in front of me?” Those are the kind of questions we never want to ask ourselves. Richard S. He wrote, “Ultimately, the era’s excesses took a toll on Gaga’s mind, body, and the perception of her public persona … but ‘Gypsy’ makes it feel like it was all worth it.” The chorus battles a night of isolation to find the light of independence: “I don’t wanna be alone forever, but I can be tonight.” Gaga makes her listener, too, feel safe, and, even if for one night, okay. Though it’s also important to note Gaga’s use of the term “gypsy” and its negative cultural connotations. The word, while also meaning “nomadic” or “free-spirited” (which is how Gaga is using it), has often been used as an offensive term for a traditionally itinerant group of Romani people.

In the end, Lady Gaga’s “Gypsy” recognizes the freedom that comes with being on your own. It honors the time we have to ourselves, to discover the globe or just the person we’re meant to be — or want to be! Gaga sings, “And took a road to nowhere on my own / Like Dorothy on a yellow brick / Hope my ruby shoes get us there quick / ‘Cause I left everyone I love at home.” The penultimate track on ARTPOP, “Gypsy” is an excellent time capsule of Lady Gaga’s emotional expeditions.

2. “G.U.Y.”

Finally! Power bottom representation. An acronym for “Girl Under You,” this song is one of Gaga’s best, ever. The heavenly gates of ARTPOP seem to open as “G.U.Y.” begins: “Greetings, Himeros / God of sexual desire, son of Aphrodite / Lay back, and feast as this audio guides you through new and exciting positions.” The track, the album’s third, is Gaga stimulating our senses, swimming between the musical pools of pop and electronic. Her voice is artificial, machine-like, as she talks in the pre-chorus: “Touch me, touch me, don’t be sweet / Love me, love me, please retweet / Let me be the girl under you that makes you cry.” Who else’s mind could do it like this?

Let’s also recall a few incredible scenes from this song in Gaga’s ARTPOP film: three typically amazing Lady Gaga music-video dance numbers; a risen Jesus Christ and Michael Jackson; a caricature of Gaga as a half-human, half-Lego woman; and a golden Speedo. “G.U.Y.” is a pop-perfect Gaga anthem, with an alluring spirit of revolt; it challenges the orthodoxy, and is one of ARTPOP’s most feminist ballads.

1. “Sexxx Dreams”

Per Gaga Radio, “Sexxx Dreams” was supposed to be ARTPOP’s lead single. You can probably guess why it wasn’t — the song is, iconically, about seduction, intimacy, and scandal. Right after Gaga blares about her sex(xx) dreams, she sings: “We could be caught (I just want this to be perfect) / We’re both convicted criminals of thought (’Cause I’m broken)” — um, that’s poetry, luv. “Sexxx Dreams,” the album’s fourth track, is ranked first on this list for a number of reasons. It explores sexuality by way of inclusive partying — a rave anthem! — while maintaining the same universal thrill as any of Gaga’s most successful radio hits. It’s an all-around manifestation of the fun and forward-thinking that ARTPOP bestowed on pop music and its ever-changing audience. “Sexx Dreams” is also a precursor to last year’s Chromatica, carrying the upbeat pop energy intended to unite people for the sole purpose of physical release, similar to “Stupid Love” or “Replay.”

Behold her most masterful chorus on the entire album: “Last night / Damn, you were in my sex dreams (You were in my) /Doing really nasty things (You were in my dreams) / Damn, you were in my sex dreams (You were in my) / Making love in my sex dreams,” Gaga belts. It pulses with energy, but with enough hesitation and foreplay to make eardrums frenzied with pleasure. Above all, the song’s playback shelf life has no expiration date, the way all Gaga standards do. And as IRL clubbing slowly but surely returns this year, “Sexxx Dreams” will always be a key for checking out of reality for three minutes and 34 seconds on the dance floor. Run it back, forever.

Okay, Let’s Talk About ARTPOP