'ARTPOP' Revisited: Arguing the Pros & Cons of Lady Gaga's Challenging Third Album

Inez & Vinoodh
Lady Gaga photographed in 2013.

Lady Gaga fans are understandably focused on Joanne these days, the singer-songwriter's fourth solo album which is on track to become her fourth No. 1 LP on the Billboard 200, following past No. 1s Born This Way, ARTPOP and the Tony Bennett collaboration LP Cheek to Cheek.

The past few years have been good to Gaga, what with her Golden Globe win for acting, an acclaimed American Songbook standards tour with Bennett and not one but two celebrated performances at the Academy Awards. But in the public eye, her recent successes have been seen as comebacks in lieu of ARTPOP, which received decidedly mixed reviews from critics and met with a comparatively lukewarm reaction from the public (sales were not as brisk as previous entries in her catalog).

Whether it was the idea that Gaga had taken her performance art shtick too far (many sniffed disdainfully at her vomit-filled SXSW set and her increasingly elaborate outfits) or just a gut reaction to ARTPOP's challenging sonic palette, ARTPOP was undoubtedly not as successful as many hoped it would be.

Now, three years later, we're looking back at Gaga's most divisive LP -- and we're taking sides. Jason Lipshutz, who gave ARTPOP one of its few overwhelmingly positive reviews when it debuted, is taking up the 'Justice for ARTPOP' mantle, while Joe Lynch -- who didn't hate it but was happy to forget it for the last two years -- goes on the offense against ARTPOP. We're both Gaga fans, so there's no serious ill will here -- just a back-and-forth on what we can agree is one of the weirdest major pop albums of the 21st century.

JOE: So Jason. I'm listening to ARTPOP start-to-finish for the first time in probably 2 years. Yes, there are some great songs here. But remind me why you feel ARTPOP needs defending. People thought the album was a disappointment, and there's no way of getting around it -- ARTPOP is a disappointing album compared to what came before. I mean, the best song is an R. Kelly duet that's as much his sound as hers. For instance, "Manicure" is a highlight on the album, but it really should be just a good filler track on a great Gaga album, not a highlight. 

I have no beef with "G.U.Y." It's awesome. 

JASON: Fun fact, Joseph: I was so pro-ARTPOP when it was released in 2013 that some people thought my review of the album was sarcastic, or some craven attempt for Little Monster support on Twitter. It was neither — ARTPOP is very good! — but I do acknowledge that I’m in the minority with that opinion. Compared to The Fame Monster and Born This Way, casual fans recoiled at its more experimental streak, but I genuinely enjoyed all the proud weirdness that defines this album, and still do. Look, some of these songs simply don’t work (and we can get into specifics), but even they fascinate me with what they’re trying to accomplish; when Gaga does get going on the album (Tracks 4-8, really), it’s among her strongest work to date. Three years later, I find myself returning to its high points way more than Born This Way’s peaks. Some of us just like to read, I guess.

JOE: That's hysterical. My initial response, which I wrote down three years ago after listening to the full thing three times was, "Impressive in scope but nothing sticks with you." Which I think is accurate still. 

Sometimes it's experimental, sure… but the dubstep breakdown on "Swine" (1:29) is just embarrassing trend-chasing. It's like Skrillex meets barnyard noises, and we're all worse off for it. "Sexxx Dreams" is interesting but you can't go to bat for "Jewels N' Drugs," that song is a total swing and miss! Do you really jam to that? 

"Dope" reminds me why this left me cold. "Gypsy" grew on me, it's got great energy and a great build-up, but "Dope" is histrionics masquerading as soul-searching. There's a lot on ARTPOP that doesn't feel quite genuine. 

JASON: Someday I aspire to compose music that can be described as “Skrillex meets barnyard noises.” 

But seriously, listening to ARTPOP now makes me think about our colleague Andrew Unterberger’s recent piece, “How Lady Gaga Raised the Standards for Ambition in Pop,” which did not even mention ARTPOP. He was focused more on her early music and music videos and meat dresses, but if nothing else, ARTPOP was insanely ambitious, a kaleidoscope of ideas that didn’t quite fit together, packaged with an app that didn’t quite work and adorned with a statue on its cover that wasn’t quite Lady Gaga. It’s not perfect whatsoever, but I revel in its imperfections! “Swine” has a clunky breakdown but its hook works; “Jewels N’ Drugs” is completely unhinged but Gaga put a trap song with T.I. and Twista on her pop album and I respect the hell out of that. Lead single “Applause” is the perfect representation of ARTPOP — strange and singular, blemished but with a brilliantly vibrant hook. Suddenly, Joe, the Koons is me.

Also: the “MANiCURE” into “Do What U Want” track listing is the second-best one-two Gaga punch, behind only “Bad Romance” into “Alejandro.” That counts for something.

JOE: I agree it deserves lauds for ambition. 

But counterpoint -- these lyrics.

"Artpop" 

Lovers' kites

Are flown on beaches for public sight

The color palette you choose

Can profit you

"Venus" 

Let's blast off to a new dimension (in your bedroom)

"Applause"

I've overheard your theory

"Nostalgia's for geeks"

I guess sir, if you say so

Some of us just like to read

JASON: I can’t defend two of those, but “Let’s blast off to a new dimension (in your bedroom)” is MAYBE the best lyrical use of a parenthetical of the decade?

I think its perceived failure came down to issues with its timing and execution. Would ARTPOP have been bigger if it hadn’t been released in the fall of 2013, which also included albums like Katy Perry’s Prism, Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz, Lorde’s Pure Heroine and Beyonce’s surprise self-titled LP? Maybe, maybe not. But its proximity to so many exciting pop projects — “Applause” was often pitted against Perry’s “Roar” in terms of chart performance and radio ubiquity — meant that Gaga had to come correct in a crowded field, and the album never produced anything as huge as “Royals” or “Wrecking Ball.”

In terms of “too art, not enough pop”… I mean, ARTPOP does have obvious gems, but they were lost in the midst of a problematic rollout, right? The album era included an ARTPOP app that was confusing from the start, high-concept pairings with Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic that didn’t interest casual fans, performances at the VMAs and on morning shows that were more kitschy than cool, and a disastrous “Do What U Want” video (directed by Terry Richardson, yikes) that never saw the light of day. All of this was punctuated by a SXSW performance in 2014 that featured artistic vomiting — sponsored by Doritos! Even if you (like me) enjoyed listened to “MANiCURE” and digging deep into the weirder moments of the album, the public missteps were more glaring than the underrated hooks.

JOE: I agree with you that much of the "ARTPOP problem" had more to do with what many saw as "too arty" of a publicity push, but for me, at the end of the day, most of the music on the album just isn't as joyous to listen to as the stuff on her first few. And as much as music should challenge, it should also serve as a release – ARTPOP does too much of the former, not enough of the latter. But mad props to Gaga for all the drag queens in the "Applause" lyric video and putting Andy Cohen as God in the "G.U.Y." movie.

JASON: I forgot about the Andy Cohen “G.U.Y.” appearance! Bravo, Andy. Bravo.

Give me the release of “Do What U Want,” “MANiCURE,” “Sexxx Dreams” and the title track any day, my man. I’m not arguing that ARTPOP is a perfect album, but I think we can agree that it’s not nearly the disaster it was portrayed as three years ago. Gaga has hopscotched across styles throughout her career, and whereas some found her most exploratory work to be too confused, I reveled in that confusion, and (ahem) applaud her for leaping down 15 different rabbit holes here. ARTPOP is many things — some of them good, some of them bad. But, to me, they’re all fascinating.

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