Tuesday, 10 May 2016

UnPOPular opinions - Lady Gaga

Artpop is her best album.


Artflop. Heartpoop. Mattstop. While I'm by no means down with the little monsters, it's no secret that Artpop didn't exactly meet the hype. It didn't sell quite as well and certainly didn't produce hits as high as Bad Romance or Poker Face (I can't stand the latter but nvm). But as, perhaps, the opening line implies, I like Artpop. It was the first Gaga album I liked enough to actually purchase and while it's by no means perfect it is certainly underrated.

(One main caveat: I'm kind of ignoring The Fame Monster tracks. Some of them represent Gaga at her absolute peak for me but I found its nature as an EP made it challenging to compare with her three main albums. It'll get references where appropriate.)

The main factor in my decision to buy Artpop was its consistent quality. On both The Fame and Born This Way I've always felt a very strong and distressing divide between the good songs and the clunkers. Do What U Want is Artpop's only song which rivals the highs of Paparazzi or Telephone, but at least it never falls to the hideous depths of Highway Unicorn or - lets face it - a good 50% of The Fame. There are weak links on Artpop, certainly. Venus is groovy and brassy, but feels downright unfinished. Dope is good in concept but fails to capture a satisfying emotional release in its chorus. Fashion! is a sparkling and empoweringly camp entry, but next to its more ambitious sister Donatella, it feels a bit inoffensive and superfluous.

"Have an oyster baby, it's aphrod-isy" ????

Yes: The weak links in Artpop feel more like opportunities not fully capitalised upon than outright missteps in the way previous albums had. I could listen to the whole thing start to finish, and that's something I simply couldn't say of The Fame or Born This Way.

Beyond quality, its thematic cohesion but musical diversity goes miles in helping how easy Artpop is to enjoy. Gaga drifts seemlessly around themes of identity relating to sex, self-expression and empowerment in a far more rounded and subtle way than Born This Way does, and continues to question subtext itself in more subversive tracks like the title track Artpop. But it manages to focus several songs on similar ideas and give them all a distinctive musical identity. 

"Be a troll or evil queen. I'll be a human jelly bean."

One of my key issues with Born This Way are the overabundance of generic empowerment anthems which frankly just blend into each other. Artpop instead maintains a common theme of some powerful synth work, but darts from the whirring and intense EDM of Mary Jane Holland, west end ballad Dope, the sexually charged and playful Sexxx Dreams, raw and industrial Swine, and trap in Jewels N Drugs. You can certainly argue that Born This Way had a lot of musical diversity, because it does; influences from country, opera, trance, even mariachi and heavy metal find their way in. But these stand in contrast with the disco and dance-pop anthems and the confluence of musical influences do not feel remotely unified as they are in Artpop.

Born This Way, Bad Kids, and even Hair feel manufactured, falsified, and insincere in their messages of empowerment, to varying extents. Hair I would even call outright misguided. There's something very basic, pandering and thoughtless in simply declaring "Yeah you were born this way I love you" and it never made an impression on me. Not even as the recently out and deeply insecure gay kid I was in 2011. Born This Way is at its best with the moody atmosphere of tracks like Bloody Mary, and less with the more prevalent yelling and belting of the likes of The Edge of Glory. 

Artpop!Gaga is, conversely, far less afraid to infuse emotion into her vocal delivery. The angry, visceral delivery of Swine comes to mind as a fine example of this: Gaga sounds disgusted and furious as she attacks the aforementioned porcine organism. Meanwhile in Dope, she sounds utterly broken and it hurts to listen to her. In... like, a good way. Perhaps the comparison is easier to observe with Do What U Want: It too is an empowering anthem, but it feels like it has a far more solid subject matter and concrete meaning to it that Born This Way did.

I've largely glossed over The Fame. We all collectively agree it's got its gems but a bit patchy, yes?

Good.

"Even though she knows she's misunderstood..."

But yeah, beneath the slick production and powerful ruffs of Artpop is a very metatextual, questioning, and emotionally damaged Gaga. The album isn't perfect, but neither is she. And I find that far more interesting. It's boistrous and imaginative and you should give it another chance.