A critic, presumably with balls of steel and a shortage of sensitivity, once opined to Joseph Heller that he had never again written anything as good as Catch-22. Heller’s response was that neither had anyone else.
Even assuming Heller was tacitly agreeing with the critic’s appraisal of his work post-1961, it would not preclude a serious approach to that body of work. Just because the stars aligned at the time of the publication of one novel doesn’t mean they won’t be at least favourable in the future.
I’ve been listening to Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP for the last week, an album I have been looking forward to for some time with a mixture of dread and anticipation (“It was love at first sight,” as Heller had it..)
Gaga’s Catch-22 was surely the track “Bad Romance,” which is one of these one-offs that a few pop musicians are lucky enough to pull off – a magnificent, hook-laden track of exactly the right length which someone manages to stay fresh over many, many repeated listening (and God knows I’ve done that…)
“Bad Romance” was the lead track of The Fame Monster, conceived at the record label’s request as an addendum to Gaga’s first album The Fame, which remains as good a pop/dance album as I have heard. The Fame Monster was intended to eke a few more sales out of its predecessor, but instead comes on as a distillation and strengthening of the work we heard on The Fame; humour, fun, great songs and performances. There was even a defining new image for its sleeve.
This was, and may remain, Gaga’s greatest moment, vividly portraying the point where the artist realises just how good she has become. It is not uncommon in pop musicians’ career arcs to notice this; first there’s a blush of precocity and a certain confident brashness (if not, why even make a record or perform?) which is sometimes gratifyingly followed by the golden moment of realisation that the confidence was well-placed and “Good God, I am as good as I thought!” This is the window in which the great music is made.
When the window closes, as it must, we can still see through it and the view may be great, although it’s never as sweet as when the sweet breeze of spring was blowing in. Heller gazes back at Catch-22, Rufus Wainwright remembers the chutzpah of Want 1, Lady Gaga can still catch the wind of her moments of pop perfection, although she may no longer want to take a ride on our disco stick…
The point of all this preamble and rickety metaphors is…I didn’t expect ARTPOP to be a collection of tracks at the level of “Bad Romance,” that’s impossible, Gaga is no longer at the stage of her development where that could happen. But because of the singularity of her work until this point and its frequent excellence, I will always tend to take her music releases seriously and enjoy her pronouncements in the press and on the Internet with the appropriate portion of salt.
The Born This Way album, from its horrid sleeve onward, was a disappointment, only the title track and the great “Government Hooker” living up to expectations; some of the rest of the album was as bad as the sleeve, a pick’n’mix rabble of Eighties rawk and AOR. Gaga’s strong suit, loosely, Eurodisco, seemed to have been abandoned or outgrown…
ARTPOP, meanwhile, has a striking Jeff Koons image for its cover. When the artwork was made public a few weeks ago, I was hoping this would augur well for the musical content of the record, although tempering this with self-conscious bonkers-ness of Gaga’s recent obsession with nudity and self-exposure (hung on the Marina Abramovich peg) and her desire to “bring ARTculture into POP in a reverse Warholian expedition.” Yes.
ARTPOP is a fine record in many ways. It lasts a crisp hour and is not hot-mastered, it is mainly in the pop/disco idiom which Gaga does so well and I’ve eagerly listened to it umpteen times. Happily, the much-vaunted mission statement of ARTPOP to be a new hybrid of art and pop doesn’t seem to have been been carried out as there’s no evidence of the Art Pop of which Jimmy Webb was king here. In fact, on the title track, Gaga tells us “my ARTPOP could mean anything,” so who knows what all the bluster was about…
On the positive side, “G.U.Y,” “Sexxx Dreams” and “Fashion!” are as good as Gaga does now – “Venus” is pretty good too, but as with a lot of the lesser tracks here, the verses and choruses don’t seem to have met each other before…”Donatella” is funny, and it’s good to hear Gaga being funny again – although if this is a song of praise to Donatelle Versace, as it would appear, both women must be a lot more open to self-mockery than one would have thought.
“Swine” is the most out-there experimental track, bordering on hard techno; and “Mary Jane Holland” is creeping up on me as a good thing.
What could have been the best track, and maybe still is, “Do What U Want” is compromised by R. Kelly singing a verse – not that I’ve got anything against R.Kelly’s autotuned tones, it just would have been better as a Lady Gaga track. As the biggest pop star in the world, surely she doesn’t need to court whatever demographic R. Kelly appeals to? Context and previous form tell me that the “do what you want with my body” refrain is an invitation to lasciviousness, but in the city of Burke and Hare there may be some sniggering up at the back of the class. All the same, there’s some pretty great singing in the last minute or so; Gaga doesn’t often get credit for that or indeed any facet of her musicality.
I can only hear “Gypsy” as a caricature of a parody of a gay disco song – mentioning “Dorothy on the yellow brick” and how well one treats one’s mother in the same song (about an outcast loner) is indeed laying it on with a trowel. And “Dope” rolls around in ghastly pathos and serves to highlight the fact that Gaga has yet to come out with a convincing ballad.
The album kind of peters out with the last two tracks I’ve mentioned; first single “Applause” is seemingly tacked on as the final track after them and it seems to be mastered more quietly than what has gone before. Which is either significant or sloppy, probably the latter.
To sum up, ARTPOP is a lot better than I expected, not as good as I would have (unreasonably) wanted and consistently interesting. As to what it all means, well, I don’t believe there is anything very deep about any of this. Nothing wrong with making a good pop record though; I would even argue that there is nothing more noble.
I wonder what will happen next.