The time has finally come and ARTPOP, the new album from Lady Gaga, is upon us! And what an album it turned out to be! While I don’t want to spend a lot of time reviewing the album itself, since the wonderful Luis has already done a great of job doing so here, I do want to try to pick apart this album and analyze it. I’ve read a bunch of reviews of ARTPOP since they’ve started rolling out, and I’ve found the bulk of them to be nothing more than lazy criticism for the sake of tearing Lady Gaga down, which seems to be the trendy thing to do, post-Born This Way.
When details on ARTPOP first surfaced this summer, Lady Gaga promised that this album would be a “reverse Warholian experience,” which most people didn’t seem to understand. That’s fair enough, since I would assume most music critics aren’t also Andy Warhol experts in their spare time (and I don’t claim to be one myself). However, that doesn’t excuse the fact that so many critics simply refused to try to understand this album when the time came to review it. Of course not all pop albums need a thorough analysis and review, but when an album, such as this one, has laid out such an ambitious artistic vision, shouldn’t critics at least feel compelled to try to understand it? So with that being said, here’s my take at trying to understand ARTPOP (although since it could mean anything, according to Miss Gaga, this could be quite the challenge).
To start, I had to ask myself exactly what a “reverse Warholian experience” was. A few of the reviews I have read about ARTPOP have criticized Gaga for not including any references and shout outs to Andy Warhol or any of his famous works. But is saying “Andy Warhol!” or “Campbell soup can!” over and over in a song really what this “reverse Warholian experience” is all about? I don’t think so. In my opinion this reverse Warholian experience is all about the artistic movement that Warhol ushered in and what exactly that movement tried to create. I’m of course referring to “Pop Art.” So then what is Pop Art and how does it relate to ARTPOP?
To put it bluntly, the Pop Art movement created legitimate art out of images of pop culture (therein lies the soup can). ARTPOP, on the other hand, strives to take art and transform it into pop culture (see also this line from Applause: “pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture in me”). So a reverse Warholian experience is much more than just empty references to Warhol and his work, it’s an actual reversal of his artistic idea. So by striving to create pop culture from art instead of creating art from pop culture, Lady Gaga does indeed reverse Warhol’s idea of Pop Art and creates the “reverse Warholian experience” that so many music critics have been looking for.
How does this translate into a pop album then? To answer that, it’s best to start on the album cover itself and talk about Jeff Koons‘ Gazing Ball. While of course the gazing ball can be interpreted in countless ways (it’s art, after all), I like to think that it not only represents the future of art, but that it also juxtaposes the future of art with the past. It’s a mysterious orb that not only affixes itself to pieces of art, but also allows the viewer to gaze into it reflectively and contemplate it’s meaning for themselves (but more on the gazing ball in a moment). It’s also worth noting that the album cover, as well as a few of the songs on the album, are full of references to Greek and Roman mythology, which was, as we all should know, a focal point of the Renaissance. With this album Gaga takes these images of art, both classical and modern, and strives to turn them into pieces of pop culture through her music.
One of the common criticisms of this album that I’ve noticed is the amount of songs that deal with sex. “Venus,” “G.U.Y.,” “Sexxx Dreams,” “MANiCURE,” and “Do What U Want” all deal with sex in different ways. Although some critics have just written them all off as simple, frivolous sounds about sex, I believe that there’s a lot more to them than just sex. Each of these songs tackles the issue of sex, sexuality, and gender roles in a unique way and each should be examined further before being written off as just another song about sex. Ultimately it all comes back to the Koons gazing ball.
If we think of the Koons gazing ball as a piece of art that connects and juxtaposes certain ideas (old art and future art, for example), and also as a piece that is about reflectiveness, then we must also consider where on the album cover it is located: in front of Lady Gaga’s vagina. Why is this significant? I believe it is significant because by affixing the gazing ball to her vagina, it allows us to reflect on sex and sexuality and consider all of the different forms it can take, and how they can be connected and juxtaposed within a piece of art. This is exactly what Lady Gaga does with certain songs on the album that deal with sex. So with that in mind, let’s briefly break down some of these songs:
Venus is a pretty straightforward song. While it combines classical mythology with pop music, it does so in a very simple manner. In terms of its relation to sex, it seems to deal with sex as a form of love (“when you touch me I die just a little inside, I wonder if this could be love”). G.U.Y. delves a bit deeper, which is evident simply by the fact that the song stands for Girl Under You. With lyrics like “I’m gonna say the word and own you, you’ll be my G.I.R.L.” and “I’m in charge like a G-U-Y.,” Gaga reverses traditional gender roles in sex while still maintaining a traditional sexual status quo. So while it isn’t a radical new depiction of sex as an act, G.U.Y. shows a change in the way sex is perceived mentally and emotionally (“I don’t need to be on top to know I’m worth it”).
Sexxx Dreams can be interpreted in a few different ways, and I think there is an underlying political message in the lyrics. While it’s an undeniably fun song, there are still political undertones of forbidden sexuality that can be seen in society today (just look at what’s going on in Russia). With lyrics such as “We could be caught / we’re both convicted criminals of thought,” it’s easy to see the parallel to situations like that in Russia, where homosexuality is, for all intents and purposes, illegal. I think that’s what makes it such a great song: it conveys both serious and not-so-serious ideas in a catchy, fun way. MANiCURE is a bit different, since it doesn’t really deal with sex or sexuality. It does, however, deal with getting over someone and being “man cured,” so it’s worth talking about in this context. Similar to Sexxx Dreams, it gets an important message across in a fun, slightly ridiculous way. The entire message of MANiCURE is that Gaga wants to be healed from being addicted to love, and she does so in a very superficial way: by getting a manicure and hitting the salon (“salon’s enough for her not to feel so insecure”). In a way, this song is very Warhol; just like Warhol strived to make something substantial (art) from something superficial (pop culture), Gaga is also trying to do something substantial (heal herself from being in love) through something superficial (altering her appearance through a salon trip). It might seem a little ridiculous, but it’s supposed to.
That brings us to her current single Do What U Want, which, like Venus, is a pretty straight forward song that has been talked about through and through already. But in case you’ve (somehow) tuned all of that out, the song is essentially about being sexually passive and submissive without compromising the emotional and mental state. This applies to sex as well as it does to what critics say about her (“write what you want, say what you want about me”). So in terms of sex, this song can be seen as sex as an action that is detached from emotion, which is the opposite of how it was depicted in Venus.
So as you can see, it’s foolish to write all of these songs off as simple songs about sex. While they might sound like fun and frivolous pop songs, they go much deeper than that when you examine them. Thus the Koons gazing ball being affixed to her vagina on the album cover serves a great purpose, as it allows her to explore all the different possibilities of sex throughout the album, and just like the gazing ball juxtaposes different ideas in it’s original display (classical art and the future of art), it also juxtaposes several different depictions of sex throughout the first half of ARTPOP.
Then we get to the title track, ARTPOP, and once again the Koons gazing ball comes into play. After hearing her debut this song at iTunes Festival, I was really skeptical about why she put this song in the middle of the album. When I really thought about it I realized that this song acts as a Koons gazing ball within the album itself. It’s a slow, hypnotic song that reflects on the idea of ARTPOP itself (“my ARTPOP could mean anything,” in case you haven’t heard that lyric a million times). While it contemplates all of the possibilities of the artistic movement Gaga is trying to create, it also, like a gazing ball, juxtaposes two different general ideas that are present in the album: the possibilities of sex and a celebration of immaturity and irresponsibility.
The idea of immaturity and irresponsibility, which comprises most of the second half of the album, can be seen as a parallel of pop culture, which is usually seen as being superficial. Gaga embraces and celebrates the idea of sexual indulgence on Swine (which can easily be seen as a song about her being taken advantage of), references pop culture icon Donatella Versace in the song Donatella (arguably one of her greatest songs ever), the fashion industry in a general sense in Fashion! (where I would say she sounds more Bowie than ever), and plays with popular conceptions of marijuana on Mary Jane Holland.
It’s easy to write Donatella off as a superficial pop song if you don’t get what Gaga is trying to convey with it. The song itself embraces the seemingly superficial and vapid lifestyle of Donatella Versace without actually taking itself too seriously. In a similar fashion (see what I did there?), Fashion! embraces a materialistic lifestyle in a very tongue-in-cheek way. Both tracks have lyrics that are pretty ridiculous, but they’re aware of the fact. Mary Jane Holland fits in the same way; Gaga takes popular conceptions of marijuana, namely that it’s sometimes referred to as “Mary Jane” and that Holland is known as a weed Mecca, and turns it into a grinding pop song that, like Donatella and Fashion!, embraces an immature and superficial idea without taking itself too seriously (just look at the lyric “I know that mom and dad think I’m a mess, but it’s alright because I am rich as piss”). So ultimately, yes, these tracks are completely absurd, but don’t write them off as frivolous, because they’re in on the joke.
Dope and Gypsy can then be seen as the consequences of embracing a life of irresponsibility and immaturity. Dope is all about “feeling low from living high” and dealing with everything that comes along with living irresponsibly. It’s heartfelt and honest, and fits nicely next to the previous few songs. Similarly, Gypsy is all about wanting to pursue a dream, but not wanting to be alone, which is clearly a consequence of fame and pursuing life as an artist (or a pop culture icon). I don’t think we need to go over Applause, since it’s been analyzed from here to Hell and back.
Am I looking too deep into this album? Possibly, but I don’t think so. When an artist of Lady Gaga’s caliber releases a work like this, with a very strong artistic vision, you have to look deeply into it and look for all the hidden meanings. You wouldn’t just write off Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” as simply a painting of a naked woman, would you? Of course not. And while it’s trendy to bash Lady Gaga for trying to be an artist, it’s not only idiotic to do so, but also rude and unnecessary. Whether or not you like how the album sounds is, of course, a matter of personal preference, but to write it off as a shallow, bad album without trying to understand it is just poor journalism. So while I think this is easily one of her best pieces of work, and one of the best pop albums in recent memory, it will fare critically like David Bowie’s Lodger album. That is to say, mixed reactions initially, but over time, as people listen to it over and over, they will realize what a truly amazing piece of work this is.