Not too long ago it seemed that the cultural phenom that is Lady Gaga was heading for a permanent place in the post-millennial pop pantheon. Hit followed hit and the likes of “Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” “Bad Romance,” and that staple of the TV talent show audition room “Edge Of Glory,” were branded upon our collective consciousness with their catchy, hook-laden arrangements. Of late, however, it feels like Stefani Germanotta’s star is perhaps on the wane. There is a sense that ARTPOP perhaps represents something of a crossroads, a make-or-break moment for this most unique chart act.
Thematically, ARTPOP is very much a record with two distinct halves. The first half deals almost exclusively, and with all the subtlety of a kick to the groin, with the theme of lust, sex and sexuality. The frankly bonkers, nonsensical sci-fi sex romp “Venus” was, for reasons I cannot fathom, earmarked as a potential single and features some truly unfortunate, cliche-ridden lyrics. Such nuggets as “Let’s blast off to another dimension (in your bedroom)” and “Goddess of love, please take me to your leader” are surely meant as tongue-in-cheek fun, but fall well short of the mark. Elsewhere in this sexually-charged opening half, “Sexxx Dreams” sadly comes across as the musical equivalent of a drunk text message to a same-sex high-school crush, while Gaga desperately attempts to court controversy by teasing the listener with what is to be found “behind the aura, behind the curtain, behind the burka” on the otherwise decent “Aura.” Obvious troll is obvious.
Side B, if you’ll allow such an old-fashioned notion, shifts its focus to matters of fame, fashion, celebrity and the perils thereof – particularly the spectre of addiction. Again, the results are frequently too in-your-face to be anywhere near as effective as they could perhaps have been. The fashion-industry baiting one-two of “Donatella” and “Fashion” poke fun at the faddy, fake world of designer labels, skinny models and, oddly, eating disorders, without being clever enough to be truly scathing. Another thematic double-header follows closely behind, this time charting the highs and lows of substance misuse. “Mary Jane Holland” is an ode to the highs and herbs to be enjoyed in Amsterdam, while the effective, piano-led “Dope” is a pleading promise made to a lover on the verge of walking away from the excesses of their partner. Although a little clunky, lines such as “My heart would break without you, might not awake without you” and “I need you more than dope” are delivered with enough emotion to ensure that “Dope” injects a little heart into an otherwise cold and distant record.
Musically, ARTPOP drags the listener to the dance-floor and rarely lets up. As a matter of fact, the relentless beats become almost migraine-inducing at times and would have undoubtedly have benefited from a little variation from the almost constant pounding present throughout. While the scattering of hooks and up-tempo beats will keep many happy, it is the disappointing, throw-away quality of the lyrical content that really leave an impression. If Lady Gaga truly has something interesting to say about the issues she so frequently toys with, and I believe that she does, then she needs to stop worrying so much about hit singles and dance-floor fillers, and think about how best to get her message across through her lyrics.[subscribe2]