There have always been two Lady Gagas: the button-pushing, meat dress-clad provocateur and the distressingly conventional pop singer. Her new album, “Artpop,” is meant to be a transgressive exploration of fame, fashion and art, but it’s really a middlebrow pop album with high-art ambitions that too often go unrealized.
“This is the reverse of Warhol,” Gaga recently told an interviewer. “This is the reverse of the soup can, this is art imprinted onto pop culture.” A pop album that truly tried to democratize the avant-garde would have been a great idea, but “Artpop” isn’t it. Gaga doesn’t have a lot to say about culture, except in the most cartoonishly broad strokes. Everything is burned down to its most obvious, tired signifiers: Versace, Warhol, Louboutin; it doesn’t say much for “Artpop” that its avant-garde touchstones haven’t been avant since the Clinton administration.
The album is an undisciplined sprawl of genres (most of them variations on dance pop), personas (drama camp weirdo, Weimar Republic vamp, Grace Jones impersonator) and ideas (fame is bad, sex is good) that is sometimes intensely pleasurable and sometimes wince-inducing.
It’s grounded in the recognition that, however admirable Gaga’s fine-art ambitions, she still must keep one eye on peers such as Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus. “Artpop” bears the skeletal outlines of everybody else’s 2013 hits: There’s trap, rave, disco, EDM, ’80s nostalgia, songs about weed and awkward hip-hop. Everything is bent into recognizable, radio-friendly shapes, with enough eccentricities to make it recognizably Gaga but not so much that things actually get weird.
It’s unclear whether Gaga knows it isn’t safe to venture too far from the unspoken limitations of Top 40, or whether she thinks she has. Any halfway diligent student of pop culture knows this was inevitable, that most artistically ambitious figures will eventually release an album their advisers couldn’t talk them out of, one the artist thinks is revolutionary and everyone else knows is kind of a mess. Despite its mission statement, “Artpop” isn’t a Warhol. It isn’t even a “Yeezus.” It’s the musical equivalent of Madonna’s “Sex” book, an ambitious misfire that read the moment all wrong.
— Allison Stewart, The Washington Post