In Defense of Lady Gaga’s ‘ARTPOP’

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Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP could mean anything, so why has it become codeword for “flop”?

On this day two years ago, Gaga released her fourth album, ARTPOP. It debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart; spawned a triple-platinum, Top 5 single (and two other minor hits); and became, if perhaps for the wrong reasons, a cultural talking point. And yet, it is considered by many, if not most, to be one of the most notorious flops of the digital era.

There are many reasons why the album’s negative reputation persists, both fair and unfair. Of the former reasons: ARTPOP failed to sell — both in its debut week and overall — as much as its predecessors. And despite the success of lead single “Applause,” none of the album’s singles managed to reach the levels of, say, “Poker Face,” “Bad Romance,” or “Born This Way.” Inarguably, ARTPOP had a short shelf-life, falling down the Album 200 more rapidly than any of her previous offerings. There were other factors too (endless comparisons to Katy Perry’s Prism and Miley CyrusBangerz, for instance), and eventually all of these things cohered into a black cloud that overshadowed everything the album and the era had to offer.  Its legacy tainted from the get-go, ARTPOP was never given a real chance to prove itself.

But a lot of what was said and is still being said about the album is unfair. One oddly persistent story states that ARTPOP cost Gaga’s label $25 million in unrecouped costs. Despite the fact that this story has been proven untrue, I still see mention of it often. I also find it odd that many dismissed the album as an out-of-the-gate disappointment, because it did debut at No. 1, and it did so by selling more copies than BangerzBritney Jean, Rebel Heart, Confident, Revival, and any other number of major pop releases over the past two years. This speaks to the larger issue affecting ARTPOP’s legacy: people simultaneously remember the album within its context — the bungled promotional campaign, which I will get to momentarily — and refuse to acknowledge that its context, and not necessarily the music, is what damned it.

I will grant the naysayers this: ARTPOP’s promotional campaign was a complete failure. The months leading up to the album saw Gaga bitterly feuding with Perez Hilton and bitterly splitting with her longtime manager Troy Carter. It also saw her promising all kinds of exciting, inventive projects — a performance in space, an interactive app — that never came to fruition. The extravagant and bizarre album release party, the anticlimactic flying dress, and the often overstated performances didn’t help people relate to Gaga or to her project. In hindsight, we can recognize that much of this was symptomatic of the behind-the-scenes frictions between her and her management; that was, however, not clear at the time.

But most importantly, the album suffered because the music took a backseat to everything else. “Applause” was rush-released after a leak in August of 2013. This brought it out the same week as Perry’s “Roar,” a populist anthem that trounced Gaga’s weird (and wonderful!) ode to fame and fans. After the video for “Applause” was released the following week, we would not see another ARTPOP video until March (!!!) of 2014 (!!!!!) when Gaga released “G.U.Y.” That is, objectively, insane. The original second single, “Venus,” was scrapped when promotional single “Do What U Want (Feat. R. Kelly)” gained traction on iTunes. A video was shot for “Do What U Want,” but it was never released. So while the song was shaping up to be a hit at radio, the lack of a video torpedoed the song’s chances of becoming something major. In short: ARTPOP, the follow-up to Gaga’s multiplatinum smash, Born This Way, produced one proper single. One. So while it would be fair to argue that Gaga promoted the album heavily — performances, social media messages, increasingly out-there and aggressive sartorial choices, naked appearances in performance art films, high-profile beefs — it also stands that it was hardly promoted in any way that actually mattered. People were tuned into the spectacle but not the music.

Compare this to another album that came out in 2013. One month after ARTPOP’s release, Beyoncé surprise-released her self-titled fifth album. Beyoncé came two years after 4, an album that spawned no major hit and underperformed in the grand scheme of Beyoncé albums. And yet Beyoncé was a wild success. Part of that is due to the fact that it was (and is still) a good album, her most mature yet. And part (most) of it is owed to its innovative release strategy, one that saw Bey drop the album (and a video for each song) with no forewarning, creating an instant hurricane of ecstatic interest and praise. All people had to talk about was the art. The sound of ARTPOP, on the other hand, had already been drowned out by negative and off-putting press, some of which pre-dated the album by months. Gaga asked fans and the media to “stop the drama and start the music,” but Beyoncé was the one who walked that walk.

But put all of that aside, just for a second. These extraneous factors are important, yes, and they affect how ARTPOP is remembered. Ultimately, however, the music is what matters. (Music not the bling!) So strip away the aborted single launches, the shelved videos, the controversial partnerships, and the management shifts. What of ARTPOP: The Album?

Two years on and I can say this: ARTPOP is a good album, though perhaps not a great one. It has great songs, yes, but it also has a few clunkers. I still maintain that “Venus” is home to Gaga’s best chorus since “Bad Romance,” and that is was never released as a single is a testament to the gross mismanagement that plagued Gaga and her team during the era. “Do What U Want” is a proper modern banger, though one with an unfortunate choice of guest vocalist. (The Christina Aguilera remix remains unimpeachable.) “MANiCURE” is a joyful and empowering jock jam, crackling with an infectious energy. “Sexxx Dreams” earns its title. “Dope” is among her best ballads, right up there with “Speechless.” I could take or leave “Donatella” and “Fashion!” “Swine” is more notable for its bombastic, elastic production than for its melody or lyrics. I enjoy “Jewels N’ Drugs” for what it is, though I am still not convinced it belongs at the heart of a Gaga album. “Gypsy” is pretty and would have made a great single, but it’s a retread of “The Edge of Glory.” Album opener “Aura” has an amazing chorus that is undercut by abrasive verses.

ARTPOP is an album bursting with ideas, some of them brilliant and some only half-formed. Within the confines of 15 songs, Gaga addresses topics as disparate as sexual assault (“Swine”), the artistic process (“ARTPOP”), gender roles (“G.U.Y.”), class satire (“Donatella”), and addiction (“Dope”). No one idea is explored too thoroughly, but they are there: actual ideas, points-of-view. And ultimately, those ideas — that ambition — is what sets Gaga apart from her peers.  She may not always hit her mark, but you can always see her pushing herself: to try harder, to say something, to immortalize a message she feels passionate about. The same, I’m afraid, cannot be said of many of her competitors. ARTPOP saw her pushing her “weirdness” to grotesque and often uncomfortable places. That, understandably, turned a lot of people off, including some of her own fans. It’s an album that doesn’t sound much like what other pop stars were making at the time. It’s harder, more aggressive, and trades almost exclusively in rather oblique metaphors. It’s a little bit messy, but it has a purpose. It sometimes bites off more than it can chew. Just like its creator.

So no, it’s not a perfect album. It is no The Fame Monster. It’s not as cohesive as Born This Way. It may not be fully-realized, but it is ambitious. It is fun. It is, occasionally, both funny and sexy. It is a good album that suffered under the weighty expectations placed upon its maker’s shoulders. It is better than most of us remember.

I’d rather support an artist who swings and misses, one who is so clearly passionate about her own ideas (even the ones she can’t properly articulate), than one who plays it safe, who works with only the goal of creating a hit in mind. And so, for all of its failures and its damaged legacy, I would argue that ARTPOP is a success. It was a blank canvas upon which Gaga projected her varied, impressionistic ideas. She hoped her fans would do the same and fill in some of the blanks she left along the way. Some of them did. Others weren’t feeling it. It’s fine not to like the album, to find it inferior to her previous works. It’s just not accurate to dismiss it as a total creative and commercial failure. Removed from its context — the sales, the drama, the related projects that would never see the light of day — it’s an album with some pretty damn thrilling highs. Two years later, the least we can do is acknowledge it as more than what her detractors wanted us to believe it was. At the very least, people should stop using it as an excuse to count Gaga out.She’s not out. She’s only just beginning, a blank canvas once again.