Monday, November 11, 2013

Track by Track: ARTPOP

Year: 2013
Artist: Lady Gaga
Label: Streamline / Interscope

It's finally happening. Lady Gaga's long-awaited third studio album, the much hyped ARTPOP! Since she burst on the scene in 2008, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta has constantly been updating her musical style (and her outfits), progressing from the bouncy dance pop of The Fame to the more experimental and Euro-tinged LP The Fame Monster to the Christian rock opera excess of Born This Way.

For over a year she has been touting this album as a magnum opus - a perfect synthesis of pop music and high art (as evidenced by her album cover - designed by always controversial Jeff Koons with motifs from Botticelli's The Birth of Venus), but now the day has come for us to judge that for ourselves.

Has Lady Gaga produced a masterpiece? Or is she just overhyping a routine pop album with some eccentric influences? Only Track by Track will tell. Let's get started! ART! POP!

Track 1: "Aura"

This one has been floating around for some time now, and let me tell you. I honestly just can't bring myself to enjoy it. I won't go so far as to say it isn't "art," because that's all subjective and whatnot. And I accept that for an artist to be truly experimental and push the boundaries of their previous work, that means they'll have to produce a couple tracks that alienate certain people. Everybody's tastes are different. I get that. I still can't stand "Aura" though.

The problem is, it's actually a pretty great song musically. Starting off with a Middle Eastern / country inflection and sliding into a hip pounding beat and an computerized sonic tidal wave that lead to a soaring pop chorus, this song is decidedly unique and fresh, delivering on Gaga's promise of pushing the envelope of Top 40. It's danceable, dark, and just a little weird.

But this song, originally titled "Burqa," (changed presumably due to Muslim backlash) takes heavy damage from tremendously wooden lyrics (check out my "best line") and a bizarre opening that involves Gaga chanting "HA HA HA HA" in a looming monotone. And while I'm a supporter the weird, affected intonation Gaga uses to chant her lines in this song and most of the other tracks on this album (heretofore referred to as "Nutcracker Voice" because whenever she uses it, I imagine her jaw flapping open and shut, mouth gaping like a little wooden man), in this one it's a little bit much.

I just can't get past the HA thing. It's lazy, it's boring, and it's not opening track worthy. Sorry, Gaga.

Best Line: "I hear you screaming / Is it because of pleasure or toil?"

Track 2: "Venus"

This one would have been my pick for opening track. The grinding synths and computerized soundscape recall the better parts of "Aura" but the lyrics are otherworldly and fun, combining Gaga's alien mystique cultivated during "Born This Way" with her newfound obsession with Roman mythology.

Something of a triple entendre, "Venus" combines the idea of an extraterrestrial romance (a concept previously explored in Katy's "E.T") with the Roman goddess of love (based on the Greek Aphrodite, who is also mentioned) into a sensual cocktail of supernaturally fantastic romance. And sex. Lots of sex.

And the breakdown is one to remember. Gaga chants out a list of planets, belts out vocal trills that remind one of Queen's "Flash" theme, and devours the track with electric zeal. It could have gone oh so wrong (consider The Black Eyed Peas listing days of the week in "I Gotta Feeling") but ends up being precisely tuned to the overarching themes of the song and draws you further into the electronic wonderland of Outer Space.

Best Line: "Uranus / DON'T YOU KNOW MY ASS IS FAMOUS?"

Track 3: "G.U.Y."

"Girl Under You." This gender-bending song explores the dynamics of a G.U.Y. wresting control from her beau and blowing his mind with her goddess powers. Yes, we're back to the gods again. This time, they're explicitly Greek though, with references to Aphrodite (always a favorite) and her son Himeros, the god of sexual desire. Also Mars, the Roman god of war. For some reason.

With a background track that recalls the soundtrack to a Pokémon game in the best way possible, Gaga alternately channels Beyoncé and a speaking calculator in an irresistible sing-along track. With her gender bending, the union of widely varied sources, and bringing the ancient Gods of classical art to a modern song of desire, the manifesto of ARTPOP is heard loud and clear.

I dunno if acronymically dubious house music is art, but this track is convincing me to take her word for it.

Best Line: "Touch me, Touch me, Don't be sweet / Love me, Love me, Please retweet"

Track 4: "Sexxx Dreams"

Wow, "Sexxx Dreams" is just all over the place. Part 90's R&B with an 80's bass riff that wouldn't be out of place on a Michael Jackson single and a brief Taylor Swift apostrophe, this relaxed track doesn't benefit from being the third sex-centric song in a row.

And I'm sorry, but you can do better than repeating "making love in my sex dreams" for the chorus. Good enough, but forgettable in the grand scheme of things.

Best Line: "When I lay in bed / I touch myself and I think of you"

Track 5: "Jewels N' Drugs (feat. T.I., Too $hort, and Twista)"

ARTPOP's first foray away from eurodance/house-inspired pop buries Gaga's personality beneath a truckload of the thin clattering beats and tinny blips of Top 40 rap music. I'm glad she's trying something new and exploring other musical styles that inspire her.

But Gaga really isn't as thug as she thinks she is.

This song is too much like every other rap song on the charts right now. It brings nothing new to the genre, which is one I never really liked to begin with. I'm not angry that I spent money on it, but it's not going on my iPod. We'll call this one an well-intentioned misstep.

Best Line: "Slap honey on your pancake / We know how to make a lot of money"

Track 6: "MANiCURE"

Rock guitar! Hand claps! Gaga puts her own paint on the road paved by grrl rock n' rollers like Joan Jett or Pat Benatar. The shoutalong chorus is destined to be mumbled by people who don't quite remember the lyrics but always know exactly when to punch in and scream.

"humma hum bum MANICURE!"

It's peppy and fun, and wouldn't be out of place in a Mean Girls style makeover montage. It's pretty superficial and the least arty/experimental track so far, but it is driven by pure energy and that's never a waste.

Best Line: "Touch me in the dark / Put your hands all over my body parts"

Track 7: "Do What U Want (feat. R. Kelly)"

Lady Gaga has always had a rocky relationship with feminism, so when she announcing you could "do what U want with [her] body," it was hard not to cringe. Although upon closer inspection the lyrics are much less rapey than they originally seemed.

It's more about control issues and fear of commitment. Gaga doesn't want to give her heart to this man (R. Kelly? Yeah, why would you?), so she just resigns herself to just having awesome sex. Which I guess isn't the worst possible outcome.

The track itself is inoffensive, with an opening that sounds a lot like late 80's Depeche Mode. I'm so glad the 80's are coming back, I missed them so.

I have no idea why the "U" isn't spelled out though. That one's gonna bother me.

Best Line: "You can't have my heart and / You won't use my mind but / Do what U want with my body"

Track 8: "ARTPOP"

"ARTPOP" sounds like an alien transmission from beyond Pluto. That is a compliment. The Nutcracker Voice makes its triumphant return, having taken a brief hiatus after wearing itself out on "G.U.Y."

So far, the strongest tracks on the album are the more standard house-inspired Euro tracks that Gaga has proven herself so adept at producing. It isn't exactly breaking brand new ground, but they are always a welcome presence.

Although this song bears more than a passing resemblance to Selena Gomez's "Love You Like a Love Song," it is a return to form for the album which has proven so far to be very pleasing if not infinitely mind-blowing.

Best Line: "My ARTPOP could mean anything"

Track 9: "Swine"

The first time I heard "Swine" was during Gaga's performance at the iTunes music festival (available for free on iTunes, if you want to check it out) and it absolutely blew my mind. Gaga throws herself body and soul into this hate song (rumored to be written about Perez Hilton and it's easy to believe).

Energy! Such energy! Gaga squeals and growls and belts a roaring one word chorus that short circuits the brain's pleasure centers. She screeches and wails her way into an orgasmic dubstep drop that's going to absolutely murder at the clubs.

I love "Swine." It's an impassioned track, a rage anthem for the masses, and the most personality-filled track on what was already a very personal album for Gaga.


Track 10: "Donatella"

Although this peppy ode to the good life would feel more at home on The Fame (there's shades of "Money Honey" and "Beautiful, Dirty, Rich" as well as "Fashion," which only ever was released on the Confessions of a Shopaholic soundtrack and was originally written for Heidi Montag. Gaga had some growing pains apparently), it's a nice reprieve from her more challenging tracks.

Dubstep bleats are laid alongside a lively piano, which hasn't taken center stage at all yet during this album. "Donatella" is basically The Devil Wears Prada distilled into a pop track as heard through an Icona Pop filter. It's pretty great. Who doesn't love all of those things? 

Best Line: "Cause she walks so bad / Like you feel so good"

Track 11: "Fashion!"

A little confusing, given that she already has a song titled "Fashion," but we'll let it slide just this once.

The piano's back in full force, guys!  Gaga's talents on keyboard are unmatched in the pop scene today, so it's always a gift when she gets a chance to show off. This isn't exactly a heavy piano song, even, it's just nice to hear that she hasn't forgotten where she came from.

Unfortunately, "Fashion!" doesn't rise above the level of aggressively bland pop fare. It's not bad, but merely unmemorable and uninspired. Completely out of place alongside even the worst of ARTPOP's other tracks, "Fashion!" feels like a demo track from her pre-"Just Dance" days.

Not like "Just Dance" was even a pillar of pop originality.

It's not great, guys. I honestly don't know how this song ended up on here.

Best Line: "Looking good and feeling fine / Slay, slay"

Track 12: "Mary Jane Holland"

This plodding dubstep crooner goes hand in hand with "Fashion!" as a track that really in no way deserves to be on the album. Rather than having an excitingly cluttered soundscape like the earlier ARTPOP tracks, "Mary Jane Holland" just feels overproduced and sloppy.

If it weren't for the sprightly breakdown, this track could barely even be considered bonus track material. Although if it was a bonus track, I suppose I'd feel less animosity toward it.

One of the few tracks on the album that doesn't require a second listen.

Best Line: "But our truffles are the most / Mad-magical in Amsterdam"

Track 13: "Dope"

We're almost to the end, and this is the first actual ballad we've come across. It's a shame, because it's a darn good one. A slow and powerful piano melody full of regret and heartbreak, Gaga's voice is shattering. Although I was initially wary of the seemingly pandering title, this track is solid and heartfelt.

It's like a more cohesive, less self-indulgent iteration of "Yoü and I." It's so so much better than that track, which is one that I really loved off Born This Way. "Dope" is one of those songs that absolutely deserves the massive ballyhoo that Gaga raised over the release of this album.

Best Line: "Been hurting low / From living high for so long"

Track 14: "Gypsy"

The only other ballady track on the album is for some reason shoved ceremoniously right behind "Dope" like sardines. I was apprehensive during the slow opening because there's no way another straight ballad could have held up while following that heart-wrenching track, but a tempo change at the chorus sends "Gypsy" spiraling over the moon.

A thrilling revelation, "Gypsy" is this album's "Edge of Glory" and it is fabulous. Gaga busts out the hard drums, name drops "Scheiße," and hits the 80's influences harder than she ever has. It's joyful and glides effortlessly above the world, taking its strength from a repetitive chorus that's so captivating it's impossible to notice the lyrical shortcomings.

This song is basically like running stark naked through a field of daisies, a sparkler in each hand. A totally exhilarating and liberating experience.

Best Line: "Thought that I would be alone forever / But I won't be tonight"

Track 15: "Applause"

"Applause" is what every lead single off an experimental album is: safe. It's a diluted introduction to the themes and musicality of the album to come. The Nutcracker Voice makes its appearance, Gaga does some self analysis and name drops Jeff Koons, but only the self consciously arty video reveals the album's true intentions.

Nevertheless, "Applause" is a solid pop track, perhaps the most dance friendly on the entire album. If it's good enough for the exercise hamsters, it's good enough for me.

Best Line: "If only fame had an IV / Baby, could I bear"

Overall: ARTPOP hits more than it misses. Although it doesn't exactly live up to its enthusiastically bombastic hype, what album possibly could? Although her lyrics are uncharacteristically weak, she more than makes up for it with solid house and 80's-inspired backing tracks that revel in their extravagance.

It briefly sags in the middle but the opening and especially the closing sets are strong, occasionally grazing the perfect synthesis of high art and pop that Gaga wants this junior album to be. Regardless of its shortcomings, Gaga is still a pop queen and at least four of these tracks are likely to wind up on my top 50 of the year, maybe even the top 20. "Swine" and "Gypsy" are definitely in my top 10.


#15 "Fashion!"
#14 "Mary Jane Holland"
#13 "Jewels N' Drugs (feat. T.I, Too $hort, & Twista)"
#12 "Aura"
#11 "Do What U Want (feat. R. Kelly)"
#10 "Sexxx Dreams"
#8 "G.U.Y."
#6 "Applause"
#5 "Donatella"
#4 "Venus"
#3 "Dope"
#2 "Gypsy"
#1 "Swine"

Word Count: 2493

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