Lady Gaga ARTPOP
Photo: Lady Gaga "Applause"

‘ARTPOP’ Is Good, Actually

On its seventh birthday, we revisit Lady Gaga’s Difficult Third Album, and its impact on her wider career.
Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
November 6, 2020, 11:33am

If you put “ARTPOP” into Google, the first few results are as you’d expect: Wikipedia, Amazon, Spotify. As you scroll down, however, the page will start throwing up articles called “Was Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP Better Than You Remember?” (Frieze, 2019), or “In Defense of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP” (Paper, also from 2019.) The tone of these headlines speaks to a recent critical U-turn on a record that, upon its 2013 release, was essentially – and unfairly – declared a flop. 

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This rethink of ARTPOP was probably provoked by Gaga herself (as well as the record’s 2019 reissue.) Last year, not long after the album turned six, she tweeted “i don’t remember ARTPOP,” seemingly buying into the record’s unfavourable reputation. The one-liner provoked a fan campaign among Little Monsters, #JusticeForARTPOP, and a number of think-pieces, like the ones I’ve referenced, though it remains one of her most heavily-debated records.

Arriving in 2013 as the follow-up to 2011’s commercially astronomical and critically acclaimed Born This Way – an album that both sold over a million copies in its first week, and was described by Rolling Stone upon its release as the “disarmingly great” work of a “pop visionary” – ARTPOP was always going to have a high bar to clear. Seven years on, however, as the shadow of Born This Way looms over it less immediately, and with almost a decade’s worth of extra context on Gaga and her career to consider, now feels like a decent time to consider the reasons why it was thought of as a failure, to examine its place in her now-much larger oeuvre, and to revisit the music, which is largely pretty great.

If you listen to both records side by side, ARTPOP isn’t all that different to Born This Way. While it trades Born This Way’s proclivity towards nostalgic rock for a disco bent, it also, crucially, includes many of the song archetypes that listeners had come to expect from a Gaga record. The Piano Ballad, embodied by “Speechless” and “Yoü and I” previously, manifested as “Dope” – one of the very greatest Gaga vocal performances – on ARTPOP. And it was on this album, too, that her collection of Fashion Bangers – runway stompers with haute couture-referencing lyrics, nodded to on Born This Way by “Black Jesus Amen Fashion” – came into their own, via “Donatella” and “Fashion!” (and this collection, you could strongly argue, was also expanded this year, by Chromatica’s closer “Babylon.”)

But by 2013, fatigue with Gaga’s “whole thing” – her obsession with stardom as a concept and her wacky public antics, like the time she showed up to the Grammys in an incubator – had set in. These days, we’re only too familiar with the concept of celebrity overexposure, an easy trap to fall into via quickly successive album cycles and social media. But seven years ago, we weren’t necessarily quite so au fait. In some ways, Gaga was the blueprint for our contemporary conception of overexposure, always pulling some stunt or another, triggering blog after blog asking “GAGA DID WHAT?”

ARTPOP took on a different aesthetic to Born This Way. The album counted Marina Abramović among its supposed influences, and boasted a front cover by Jeff Koons, embracing the Western art canon over the latex, leather, and religious blasphemy that Gaga had previously claimed. Indeed, she told the Guardian in 2013, “I, in the most metaphorical explanation, stood in front of a mirror and I took off the wig and I took off the makeup and I unzipped the outfit and I put a black cap on my head and I covered my body in a black catsuit and I looked in the mirror and I said: 'OK, now you need to show them you can be brilliant without that’.” 

But while ARTPOP looked different, the album did still flirt with many of Gaga’s previously touched-upon themes – such as her own fame – and relied on the same sort of “kooky” performances as she’d been pulling for the past two years, basically non-stop. Many Little Monsters loved it, but for wider audiences, who can be forgiven for paying less attention to the intricacies of her intentions, the schtick was becoming tiresome, and the new record, essentially, was arriving in a climate that was much less enamoured with the newness of Gaga. 

Upon its November release, just over 18 months after Born This Way, ARTPOP received reviews which were just OK – one demonstrative, three-star Guardian review called it a “mixed Gaga outing with some ludicrous highs, questionable digressions […] and plenty of not-unpleasant filler.” The record’s sales followed suit: it shifted 258,000 copies in the first week, which landed it the number one place on the Billboard 200, though Born This Way had sold almost quadruple that figure in the same amount of time. As Chris Molanphy pointed out for Pitchfork at the time: “The problem for Gaga, perception-wise, is she isn’t supposed to be measured by the same yardstick as other starlets.” In the context of Lady Gaga's much-lauded career so far, then, "just OK" looked like failure.

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As such, ARTPOP has always been somewhat tarnished, despite the fact that many of its tracks are very good indeed. “Dope,” as I’ve mentioned, hosts one of her most emphatically affecting vocals outside of her later work on A Star Is Born, while the Botticelli-if-he-painted-alien-fembots anthem “Venus” is the same flavour of delightfully batty Gaga as her lyrics about “ear condoms” on “Judas.” “Sexxx Dreams” switches up its grimy disco chug halfway through for a satisfying laser-beam chorus, while “Gypsy” throws back to Born This Way tracks like “Hair” and “Edge of Glory” for a moment of guitar-led sincerity.

Though the album’s duds bring its overall effectiveness down (“G.U.Y.” is convoluted and messy, and despite Gaga’s gusto, “MANiCURE” doesn’t come off), quite a lot of ARTPOP is prime Lady Gaga, and much of it – not least “Donatella,” with its opening refrain of “I’m blonde, I’m skinny, I’m rich… and I’m a little bit of a bitch” – has remained desperately underrated until the last year or so, as the album has come to be reconsidered.   

Now that we know how things turned out for Gaga, though – the generic shapeshifter she became, and the choices she made following ARTPOP – it is interesting to consider how a perceived flop might have been a necessary part of her narrative. One of the most compelling things about Lady Gaga’s career is the self-consciousness with which she has constantly approached it. It's very clear that she is preoccupied with stardom as an artistic subject, as she continued to be on ARTPOP at a textual level. But even when she’s not singing about fame, Gaga is always engaging with it at a meta-level – she has self-consciously worn so many of its guises, after all. Her A Star Is Born moment, for example, felt as much like Lady Gaga playing the role of the winsome Hollywood ingenue, lobbying Oscar voters and emulating Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand on red carpets, as it did Lady Gaga playing the role of Ally in the movie. 

But it was only after ARTPOP that she began to seek out roles other than The Bombastic Popstar, or The Bombastic Popstar But With Some References To Art, in earnest. It’s possible that, for better or worse, the response to the record drove her to change tack, and to embody her subsequent, more supposedly earthy and "authentic" roles – the Lounge Singer; the be-stetsoned Down Home Songwriter – as she tried on different types of fame. 

While these experiments did not always work out (Joanne, for example, tends to be viewed as Gaga’s biggest career misstep, and the status of that record as a flop prompted many to look more kindly on ARTPOP), it’s Gaga’s chameleon-like quality which has ultimately become her calling card. Her latest about-turn saw her going from soundtracking a movie, to becoming  Vegas resident, to returning to her full powers as a popstar, with the house-inflected, all-killer Chromatica, released earlier this year. And indeed, via Chromatica, it seems that Gaga may well have made her peace with ARTPOP: its most recent music video, for “911,” heavily referenced the work of the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. 

Everything comes full circle, and ARTPOP, while it may not have been Gaga’s greatest commercial success, more than served its purpose, pushing her to explore her own artistry – rather than seeking to make the influence of others’ her main creative statement – and giving us the multi-hyphenate star she is today. And this, notwithstanding the lyric “You’re just a pig inside a human body,” is the album’s best and most important legacy.