In summer 2013, Lady Gaga teased an ambitious new album that would combine ‘music, art, fashion and technology’. Most critics greeted the news with tepid enthusiasm. Her sophomore effort, Born This Way (2011), had been a commercial hit, but its success was marred by a crazed promotional tour and silly music videos. The pandemonium that had pitched her into the centre of American High Pop, with her debut single, ‘Just Dance’ (2008), had at last abated and suspicious critics could rest assured: the defeat of the world’s most famous theatre nerd was fast approaching. She announced that the new album would be called Artpop – a word she already had tattooed on her arm.
In early 2012 and 2013, pop music relocated its higher ambitions in a passing interest in contemporary art. Much of it was very bad. Jay-Z released his plodding single ‘Picasso Baby’ on Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013), with a music video featuring Marina Abramović shot at Pace in New York. Christopher Glazek wrote about Lana Del Rey for Artforum, whose Coca-Cola-smooth lyricism seemed to have come from the blue: ‘Call [Del Rey] postironic satire – a Swiftian revival that multiplies the objects of its parody with such reckless guile that it seems challenging and new.’ (Glazek unfavourably compares Gaga to Del Rey, her exact contemporary.) When Kanye West released the eerie music video for ‘Bound 2’ – starring Kim Kardashian – in November 2013, Jerry Saltz welcomed it as a new kind of art-making. He coined the term ‘the New Uncanny’ – work that results from ‘our collective cultural fracturing’. That art, he wrote, ‘is un-self-consciousness filtered through hyper-self-consciousness, unprocessed absurdity, grandiosity of desire, and fantastic self-regard’, tendencies epitomized by Kardashian’s nippleless ‘rack wobbling back and forth, heaving, defying gravity like two great cannonballs’. (We were living in different times.)
Artpop also arrived in November 2013 with a two-day ‘ArtRave’ at the Brooklyn Navy Yard (featuring specially commissioned works by Abramović, Jeff Koons, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, and Robert Wilson). At 15 songs and three music videos, the album was Gaga-as-intensification-of-a-trend and Gaga-as-its-logical-end. Throughout, the singer marries themes of fashion (‘Donatella’, ‘Fashion!’) and art (‘Applause’, ‘Artpop’) to her personal struggle with drugs (‘Jewels N’ Drugs’, ‘Mary Jane Holland’, ‘Dope’). The result sounds as if it might have been hastily copied from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s back pages, a fragmented Bildungsroman of an aspiring Broadway star with a day job at a Chelsea gallery. ‘My artpop could mean anything,’ she sings in the titular song. And in its first single, ‘Applause’, she intones her most mocked line – and the record’s central thesis: ‘One second I’m a Koons / Then suddenly the Koons is me / Pop culture was in art / Now art’s in pop culture in me.’ Most publications gave it middling-to-negative reviews. The Chicago Tribune wrote that ‘Applause’ was ‘like a 3-pm-used-coffee-filter retread of the same material she has spun through before’. The influential online magazine PopMatters called it ‘a step backwards’.
Critics were wrong. Artpop is one of the best albums of the decade, and a still-salient – if gonzo – portrait of shattered contemporary life. The album’s eight-minute, capstone music video, G.U.Y. – An Artpop Film (2014), offers some clues to Gaga’s larger theory of ‘artpop’, understood by few at the time but which now seems prophetic, or at least pre-emptive. Centred around William Randolph Hearst’s Julia Morgan-designed castle, in San Luis Obispo, California, it opens with a bird-Gaga struggling on a dusty field, her chest punctured by an arrow. She is admitted to Hearst Castle – one of the most iconic buildings of early-20th-century American architecture, the basis for Xanadu in Citizen Kane (1941) and a mishmash of soaring beaux-arts ambition – by hooded attendants and ritually baptized in a pool, only to be reborn before a cortège of pop-cultural referents and celebrities.
The video is difficult to follow but, in refusing sense, it positions Gaga as a counterweight to the savvier Del Rey, whose allegiance to the signifiers of US cultural power asserts their continued relevance via her romance with the non-existent past (best summarized by her astonishing 10-minute video for ‘Ride’, 2012). Gaga bets on the underlying emptiness of American culture, with its glut of famous faces and objects, and not on its once and future greatness. This is what I had missed in 2013 – its acid critique of the very genres it attempts to merge into ‘anything’, as well as its disavowal of the percolating nostalgias of the coming Trump era. The shiny totems of American culture that float throughout G.U.Y. can also be found bouncing around the album’s lyrics and two other music videos, seeking to conjoin into a helix of new meanings. They struggle – and fail – to do so coherently. But, listening now, in an era of such extreme, even uncanny fragmentation, I’m not convinced she intended for the record to succeed as either art or pop, or the two combined; instead, she seems to prefer to dwell, however uneasily, in an unstable intermediary space – of meaning and message. In response to our ‘collective fracturing’, Gaga assembled sonic – and visual – broken parts, as only a record of the present can do. A paean to overt theatricality and matchless absurdity, it resembles the curious intricacies and borrowed style of Hearst Castle itself, which towers over California – and the American imagination – but is home to no one.
Back in 2013, I thought the album was mostly unlistenable. I first changed my mind two years ago, during an after-hours party in Brooklyn, when a friend played the live performance of ‘Fashion!’ from the 2013 Muppets’ Holiday Spectacular on ABC, featuring RuPaul. (Imagine our state of mind.) It begins with Gaga strutting on stage, her height greatly improved by towering platform heels, with what looks like a satiny condom draped over her head. She sways and stomps – ‘I own the world / We own the world’ – before introducing RuPaul, who arrives in a belted dress of blue faux fur, several heads higher than Gaga. What more could you need? As a performance, it’s bad, but also brilliant, capturing the two artists at a crucial if campy moment in their respective careers. RuPaul was at yet another rise in his storied career, and Gaga was smart enough to help with his next coronation. As they chant the line ‘looking good and feeling fine’, they are both deeply serious that their ‘artpop’ could mean anything, or nothing at all.
In an 11 November 2019 tweet, Lady Gaga wrote: ‘I don’t remember ARTPOP’. The admission went viral as I was writing this article, with fans responding to how well they remembered the album, with love and admiration for its strange effervesence. The tweet reminded me, of course, of David Bowie’s admission that he couldn’t recall recording Station to Station (1976), the album that accompanied the brief transit of his cocaine-addicted, crypto-fascist persona ‘The Thin White Duke’. Just as that album prematurely called forth the glitzy age of conservative hegemony in 1980s Britain and America, Gaga’s Artpop forecasted our own present moment, where neither art nor culture seem qualified to rescue us from devastation. ‘And what about our future plans?’ she sings toward the end of the album. ‘Does this thing we have even make sense?’ Who knows? The questions hang.
First published in Issue 208