“My artpop could mean anything,” sings Lady Gaga, soon justifying her robotically delivered boldness with the invitation, “Come to me/ With all your subtext and fantasy.” A question immediately follows: who are we to disagree with her? Really — who are we to disagree with someone savvy enough to name her third album ARTPOP and therefore reiterate the post-Duchampian, post-Warholian observation that the status of the object as art is determined solely by factors external to that object? She knows that all we have to do is slap the word “art” onto any old bagatelle and — hey presto — we have enough to incite furious debate; if she knows this, then she must be right when she claims that her art is limitless in the possibilities of its semiosis, since it should only be a matter of projecting a limitless number of labels and interpretations onto it. Well, she is right, completely right, and she deserves nothing less than for her rectitude to be substantiated in the most exhaustive way imaginable. Moreover, her music — in its surround-sound 3D technicolor neon phantasmagoria IMAX electrified profusion — demands an equal measure of promotion and support, because it’s every bit as infinite and all-encompassing as the lyrical bottomlessness it transports. So sit back, and disengage your brain, because Gaga has this “art” shit down to, well, a fine art.
Take “Sexxx Dreams.” Between the narcotic throb of its verse and the glitzy spasms of its chorus, Gaga confesses, “When I lay in bed, I touch myself and think of you.” Duller minds would suppose that this verse is about sex/masturbation, or, if we’re feeling slightly less torpid, about how fragmented images of someone can be cathected into a full-blown infatuation via their association with instances of base gratification. But this is to dilute the inexhaustible resonance of the song and its bipolar disco, because clearly it can also be taken to signify apoptosis, also known as preprogrammed cell death, where the individual cells of your body commit suicide for the greater good of your body as a whole. Yes, really, because in the chorus, over those slanting, jolted keys that buzz and sway at oblique angles, we’re fed the line, “Damn you were in my sex dreams/ Doing really nasty things.” Here, the “you” must surely represent mitochondria, which, residing within biological cells (the “sex dreams”), instigate the activation of the so-called caspase cascade via its release of cytochrome c (this release being the meaning of Gaga’s “nasty things”). This cascade effectively causes the nucleus to fracture and ultimately destroys the cell, a death that’s subtly eulogized and celebrated by the use of the omni-semic term making love that appears in the electro-funk closing of the chorus.
This protean adaptability and hospitableness to any idea imaginable is present throughout the album. With its second single, “Venus,” it uses the otherworldly euphoria of “futuristic” synths to introduce the plea, “I can’t help the way I’m feeling/ Goddess of Love please take me to your leader,” an agitation that becomes only more dexterously profound with deeper contemplation. Because you see, quite apart from its hinting at a frustrated inability to attain a relational or romantic ideal, the song also involves a very sophisticated allusion to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, in particular its implication that, because of the ultimate indeterminacy of an electron’s position and momentum, the modern elementary particle is inherently more abstract than any ancient or classical conception of the atom. In other words, it transcends our everyday ontological conceptions, and this fact is complemented by the space-station vibe of the track’s bobbing, thrusting verse and a vaguely melancholic chorus that avows, “When you touch me I die/ Just a little inside/ […]/ Cuz you’re out of this world/ Galaxy, space, and time.” Obviously the “out of this world/ Galaxy, space, and time” talk is an ingenious affirmation of how the elementary particle of quantum physics subverts the regularities and truisms of the mundane order of things, and so in this respect, Gaga’s imagery is both incredibly well-implemented and incredibly rich.
And this all-too easy round of exemplification could continue indefinitely, because almost every cut of ARTPOP has an internal coherence and integrity, a multi-layered confluence of sonic and vocal elements, that guarantees not only a multiplicity of significances, but also a unity in how these significances are conveyed by the plethora of hi-fi sounds, motifs, melodies, and harmonies that ripple and engorge from track to track in the hi-NRG realization of Gaga’s unlimited vision. Yet taken as a single piece, the album in its plastic friskiness and silicon pizzazz embodies a much more universal and penetrating conceit, best encapsulated by Badiou’s dictum, “the one is not.” In its skitting through digitalized balladry (“Dope”) and bellicose hip-hop (“Jewels N’ Drugs”), in its multifarious treatment of a diversity of subjects ranging from Sartrean existentialism (“Do What U Want”) to the 20th-century mass-migrations of the Romani (“Gypsy”), the album holistically echoes Badiou’s assertion that concepts of oneness and unity are merely convenient heuristics and navigational/computational tools, which don’t actually refer to anything extra-perceptually unified and whole, and which in many respects serve only to obscure the categorically innumerable abundance that inheres in the world. Lady Gaga understands that her “artpop could mean anything” precisely because there is no impermeable separation between one object and another, implying that if she indignantly berates male chauvinism (the rampant agit-house-cum-drill & bass of “Swine”), she also opens up the floodgates to critiques of advanced neo-capitalism and to mini-histories on the advent of agriculture and human civilization. And it’s because of this meta-lingual interpenetration that the album is so indefatigably powerful, so polyvalent, and that, ultimately, Lady Gaga is now the Pandora of our post-internet age.
Just in case you missed it, the above was sarcasm. Maybe this admission is redundant, but the fear was that some wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the first four paragraphs of this review and what I usually write, an apprehension that is kind of apt because, in all sincerity now, it seems as though Lady Gaga had to explicitly refer to the bright lights and volatile discotheque of her third album as ARTPOP because of a similar misgiving that no one would have done the same without her overt prodding. Yet it’s not so much her insecurity itself that has incited my cynicism here as her assumptions as to what constitutes art. Specifically, she appears to have lapsed into that fallacy where the gravity of an artwork is confused with the enigma surrounding its author qua celebrity, with all the rumors and hearsay that attach themselves to her every movement. Furthermore, she’s effectively attempting to pass these idle whispers off as debate over how her music may or may not relate to wider issues, when in actual fact almost all of them are focused on her shrouded particularity, and not on how this particularity could be generalized.
Evidence of this emerges with the album’s excellent opener, “Aura,” where Gaga uses the slickly restless production of Israeli psy-trance duo Infected Mushroom to tease us with the question, “Do you wanna see the girl behind the aura?” Amidst shape-shifting electronics and stadium-sized keyboard volleys, she admits to being more than aware of the epidemic speculation regarding her personal life (“I hear you screaming, is it because of pleasure or toil?”), a gossiping she interestingly compares to the repressions and limitations forced on women by the burqa. However, this suggestive image isn’t paralleled anywhere else on the otherwise symbolically dry record, and there’s also a kind of minor hypocrisy involved in criticizing the very thing you essentially use to justify the assertion that what you produce is open to interpretation and therefore art, and this hypocrisy undercuts any impact the song might’ve had outside of a purely aesthetic domain.
Her antipathy towards the occupational hazards of being totemic reappears in later tracks, including the R. Kelly-featuring “Do What U Want” and the emotionalized computer bleeps and washes of “Artpop.” It’s during this title track when she boasts about how her music is potentially boundless in its semantics, an instance of bluster that comes across as unusually arrogant in view of the fact that such semantics derive predominantly from her own persona, or at least from the sex- and fashion-obsessed media coverage of that persona. It’s as though she’s claiming that any worthy topic or theme is epitomized in her meagerly typecasted person, that because she could be all things to all people, we need not go anywhere else, even though lines such as “I try to sell myself, but I am really laughing” insinuate that what she’s presenting as a microcosmic personality is actually vacuous, that her music is just a narrow play of entertaining yet empty signifiers, provocative tokens serving primarily to fuel the press and their pro bono marketing work for her.
And this segues into another unflattering observation, which is that ARTPOP’s pretensions qualify it as a nearly stereotypical attempt at what the Situationists referred to as “recuperation,” where the signs of an ostensibly subversive or progressive activity (i.e., art) are annexed and drained of their content by both those with an interest in their neutralization and distracting those who might otherwise have gravitated toward more consequential forms and media. Because Gaga’s/Universal’s invocations of “art,” “subtext,” and “meaning” are hollow, because they fail to deliver on their own promise of representing virtually anything, they fall into this category. So instead of art, it offers up the “spectacularization” of art, its misleading equation with easily decipherable platitudes about the joys of marijuana (“Mary Jane Holland”), sex (“G.U.Y.”) and fame (“Applause”), which themselves are probably already commodified spectacularizations of drugs, coitus/cunnilingus, and notoriety (although a Situationist would probably argue that all music is “spectacular” in this respect anyway). And this is a shame, because regardless of its unjustified aspirations, the album does feature a sizeable portion of well-composed, well-produced pop songs, which run the gamut from summery Eurodance (“Fashion”) to anthemic rock-lite (“MANiCure”), and which do more or less what would’ve been expected of them if it hadn’t have been for the unfortunate title.
Yes, that unfortunate title; it should be mentioned here that its whole underlying concept arose partly out of Lady Gaga’s live act, which weds her music to inordinately elaborate stage shows and visual displays, and which weaves bizarre, theatrical narratives about, among other things, the birth of a new “race within the race of humanity.” And so if it weren’t already enough to cite the Situationists, this review is going to close with the words of Frederic Jameson, who pretty much nailed Gaga’s whole schtick some 20 years ago:
You no longer offer a musical object for contemplation and gustation; you wire up the context and make space musical around the consumer. In the situation, narrative offers multiple and proteiform mediations between the sounds in time and the body in place, coordinating a narrativized visual fragment — an image shard marked as narrative, which does not have to come from any story you ever heard of — with an event on the sound track. Particularly in the postmodern it is crucial to distinguish between narrativization and any specific narrative segment as such: failure to do so results in confusions between “old-fashioned realistic” stories and novels, and putatively modern or postmodern antinarrative ones.
Or put more simply, ARTPOP wants to hide that it doesn’t have much to say.