Is there such a thing as too gay? There is when it’s this contrived. Lady Gaga’s latest attempt at a tour de force concept, Artpop, comes across as a desperate plea for attention and “respectability.” Gaga’s main downfall, of course, has always been drawing upon too many influences. Artpop is a catastrophic explosion of pop culture overload. It is almost as though Gaga is seizing some sort of final opportunity to showcase her knowledge off all things important before taking that spaceship journey in 2015.
“Aura,” which also appeared on the Machete Kills soundtrack, kicks off Artpop with a strange, surreal vibe. Produced by Infected Mushroom, the general sound of the track is largely drug-addled. Dabbling with the notion of profundity, Gaga makes sure to work in the faux philosophical question, “Do you want to see the girl that lives behind the aura?” Next up is “Venus,” which opens with an 80s motif that echoes David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in terms of planetary lyricism. Because the image of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” was one of the primary sources of inspiration for imagery on Artpop—along with Pierrot, that specific breed of sad clown—it makes sense that Gaga would title a song after the beloved goddess of love and decadence.
What would a Gaga album without a song featuring sexual bipolarity? “G.U.Y.” –which stands for “girl under you”—embraces the 80s synthpop vibe whole-heartedly as Gaga gender bends with lyrics like, “I know you’ll wear my makeup well/I wanna be your G.U.Y.” The song opens with the robotic sounding intro of “Born This Way” as she drones, “Greetings from Eros, god of sexual desire, son of Venus.” Effectively, it draws comparisons between Gaga (Venus) as Mother Monster and her fans (a million diaper-clad Cupids) as little monsters. And so, yet again, Gaga relies on another immortally iconic woman for inspiration. Lady G, is if nothing else, a skilled body snatcher.
“Sexxx Dreams” is something of an homage to Prince, with Gaga admitting, “When I lie in bed I touch myself and think of you.” It’s a largely forgettable track musically and there is an especially uncomfortable moment when Gaga feigns the role of a circa ’99 Britney Spears-esque ingénue with the brief interlude, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this but I’ve had a couple of drinks and oh my god…(giggles).”
“Jewels n’ Drugs”—which already sounds like the name of an ironically titled pawn shop that might appear in Daria—serves as the beginning of Gaga cultivating her hip hop credibility on this album (obviously leading up to the climax of “Do What U Want” featuring R. Kelly). In this way, she is emulating yet another pop star heavy hitter: Mariah. Once again, this reveals something of an identity crisis in that Gaga is trying frantically to appeal to all facets of pop. With lyrical contributions from Twista (back from the dead), Too Short and T.I., Gaga does her best to keep up with the hip hop-infused backbeat as she asserts, “Don’t want your jewels, don’t’ want your drugs/Don’t want your money, want your love.”
“Manicure” is a guttural track that finds Gaga testing the limits of her scream-singing abilities. It is a test that she doesn’t quite pass. The second single from Artpop, “Do What U Want,” is the one-two punch in Gaga’s rap-styled arsenal. Naturally, the finishing component to the lyric “do what you want” is “to my body.” It’s R. Kelly, so it has to be sexual. Easily the strongest song on the album (and I’m not sure how much that has to do with every R. Kelly collaboration being flawless), the goodness of “Do What U Want” is quickly negated by “Artpop.” For as much as Gaga wants to be Madonna, her songs named after album titles are rarely that good (unlike “Like A Virgin,” “Like A Prayer” and “Ray of Light”). Relying heavily on the surreal back beat that at times sound like the lovechild of Lipps, Inc. and Kylie Minogue, Gaga repeats the chorus with little lyrical variation.
“Swine” is an interesting effort in that insult songs seem so few and far between nowadays. Again, Gaga uses her scream-singing method against a rock-tinged background to say “You’re just a pig inside a human’s body.” “Donatella” initiates the fashion-inspired portion of the album, with the intro “I am so fab. I’m blonde, I’m skinny and I’m a little bit of a bitch.” Toeing the line between homage and smear campaign, Gaga describes the inimitable lifestyle of Donatella Versace, uttering one of the gayest sentences in pop music history, “I wanna dress you up in silk taffeta.”
“Fashion!” (another ripoff from Bowie) begins as a whimsical and heartfelt ditty, but then Gaga starts singing. “Married to the stars, I own the world” are just some of the inanities spewed on this track—which leaves only the Jamiroquai-like beat to enjoy. “Mary Jane Holland”—the perfect drag name—follows “Fashion!” with a production value that drips with decadence. Sung with a wink at the reference to weed-smoking in Amsterdam (Miley’s favorite pastime), it's still not as good as some of Gaga’ other name songs (e.g. “Alejandro” and “Judas”). Still, it is certainly one of the most theatrical tracks on the record.
Continuing the drug motif, “Dope” is a slow, sultry sort of a song—the type you might hear a lounge singer croon. “I need you more than dope” is the romantic sentiment of longing Gaga states throughout, at times conjuring the vocal stylings of Queen’s Freddie Mercury. The subtle gay pop culture references persist with “Gypsy,” another (at first) slow-paced song that bursts into a musical sounding number that finds a way to give a nod to Judy Garland with “Like Dorothy on the yellow brick.”
The closer—or show-stopper if we’re speaking in flamboyant musical terms—is the first single from Artpop, “Applause.” Exuding pretension with the proclamation, “One second I’m a Koontz then suddenly the Koontz is me/Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture in me,” it’s almost impossible to take the song seriously. And this can also be said of Lady Gaga herself. As someone who began her career in such an over the top, esoteric manner, it has only become increasingly difficult for her to adequately trump her former selves. This conundrum is more apparent than ever on Artpop. And, P.S., inverting the words for pop art doesn’t automatically imbue you with Andy Warhol’s pop culture guru status.