By Andy Rudolph and Jesse Warkentin of Mahogany Frog
To be fair, we were suspicious from the start. Neither of us knew what to expect, having never heard Gaga before (at least not consciously). We were curious and open, aching to have our lives thoroughly changed. Would the long anticipated Artpop reveal to us that we’d been living our lives in woeful ignorance? Following two thorough sessions, these were our impressions:
Aura: The album starts with an ambiguous music of the Middle East meets Ricky Martin vibe. Gaga’s vocals are heavily downsampled and there’s a definite nod to Justice as the song progresses. Actually, it’s more than a nod. Is DJ White Shadow actually Justice by another name? Let’s look it up! … Nope.
Ultimately, this track is well representative of the most positive elements of this album. It’s heavily produced and filled with all manner of cool digital manipulation. Bells and whistles abound but beneath it all, there’s next to nothing in the way of song writing. All of the melodies and chord progressions found in this record were already well used by the time Gaga bought them at a little vintage store in the East Village. That said, the songs would be enjoyable if it weren’t for Gaga’s often trite and histrionic vocals.
Venus: Gaga doesn’t seem to be feeling this song. Her vocals seem pretty lack-luster, especially when chanting the title of the song (a little trick which will play out from here on in). In this particular case “venus (venusvenus)” could easily be misconstrued with “weenus”, or even “anus” (depending on the extent of the listeners’ distain). This number also introduces the reoccurring “down-tempo soaring minor-key R&B ballad interlude tactic” which as we all know has, over the course of recent history, contaminated otherwise perfectly acceptable pop, hip-hop and dub-step numbers alike. There’s some pretty heavy Madonna/Janet Jackson referencing here… I’d like to point out the lyric, “When you touch me, I die just a little inside. I wonder if this could be love.” Gross. Interestingly, the Wikipedia notes heretically cite Sun Ra as co-writer for this number. Cosmic.
G.U.Y.: Not much stands out in this track. Wait, there’s an ultra-dirty synth- bass that sounds like Jaco Pastorius making love to a robot wearing sandpaper lingerie and the brief keyboard turnaround at the end of each chorus is pretty satisfying. The chorus itself, however, is bad… like the worst moments of a Metric album. “She’s in charge like a G.U.Y.” There’s some silly rapping that reminds one of that groovy section in “This is Me in Grade 9” off Barenaked Ladies’ Gordon.
Sexxx Dreams: Again, Gaga’s vocals aren’t terribly good and this track showcases that. She has a nasty habit of heavily nuancing her singing (like swooping into every phrase and making emphatic words all growly). It makes one think of ambitious Karaoke sang poorly by people whom you thought you appreciated. Thankfully, there’s a fair amount of canned strings in here to help offset that. In this number, Gaga attempts a call-and-response with herself. One personality: a sultry whisper; the other: an operatic diva a-la Lazerblade circa 2006. She is undoubtedly aiming to inspire sexual arousal amongst repressed juveniles. “I think of you when I touch myself at night” may indeed lift the spirits of many a confused adolescent. Heck, it worked for us when the Divinyls did it. Also, we’re digging the very brief, generic funk bass fills that pop up periodically. The chorus harkens Buffalo Stance, which is too bad for Nina Cherry. During the breakdown she whispers into a lucky microphone, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but I’ve had a few drinks, and… (giggle giggle)”. We wonder what she had hoped to share…
Jewels N’ Drugs: Here we have a pretty run of the mill trap song. The canned strings are epic. The rap is fast. The beats are slow and glitched out, the bass drops: seizure-inducing. Welcome to Atlanta. Gaga sort of sounds like a confused Miss Kittin with she tries to rap. Royal Canoe will perform this tune one day to writhing hordes of kids from Transcona.
Manicure: Here we go folks, the big rock number! Yeah! Alright! Right? Guys? Okay, so here the album earns it’s “artpop” branding by offering us this innovative fusion of a hair metal ballad, house and trap. The choruses sound like ABBA giving Poison a root canal. The cream is found floating somewhere around the guitar solo at the end.
Do What U Want: Here we have another 80’s throwback that is evocative of the Pet Shop Boys, Tears for Fears, Madonna and many others. The lyrics are patently offensive: “You don’t own me, but do what you want to my body”. R Kelly hops into the spotlight periodically, talk-singing to us in the way that we all know and love. Remember when R Kelly sounded more like Aaron Hall? Those were the days.
Artpop: I find it vaguely interesting that the title track on an album called “artpop” is a total non-entity. There’s nothing going on here. I couldn’t hum the melody 4 seconds after hearing the song. Boring! Although, she does rhyme “art pop” with “heart stop”… that’s pretty clever, right?
Swine: This song features the return of the AM square wave bass synth that drove the first few numbers. Love that squarebass. There are some massive dancehall siren build-ups worthy of note. However, I’m officially over this record as of now (says Rudolph… Jesse lasts until “Mary Jane Holland”). This song is bad. Even the Benni Banassi/deadmau5 breakdown can’t save this song from Gaga’s vile Michael Jackson impression. Am I wrong, or is she affecting a British accent? It’s kind of an Oasis accent… or a Billy Jo one. God.
Donatella: Here we have what may be the most conceptually interesting number on the record. At first, I thought that this song was going to be a biting commentary on consumer culture, or perhaps a clever, ironic self-critique. It’s not. It’s more like sports commentary than social commentary: a play-by-play of boring consumerism with no deeper analysis whatsoever. “Check it out: I’m blonde, I’m skinny, I’m rich, and I’m a little bit of a bitch”. “Ask your gay friends for their advice.” “Walk down the runway, try not to puke… you’ve only had a salad today.” The canned strings are pretty good though.
Fashion!: Take a Jackson 5 song and remove the awesome vocals. Next, add some David Foster piano (bad) and some very fast sequencers (good). Top it off with some mediocre vocals with downright bad lyrics. There you go. “Lookin’ good and feelin’ fine.”
Mary Jane Holland: Okay, by this point things are really starting to run together for us. It’s all getting to be pretty homogenous. But wait! The (post-Peter Gabriel, pre-Abacab) Genesis-style synth breakdown is pretty cool. Perhaps she’s trying to sing like Freddy Mercury? There’s an aptly timed sample of a big crowd cheer… maybe we’re not actually in this apartment at all but in a pumpin’ dancehall in Moscow! I’ll check. …Nope. The song ends with a Beastie Boys/Cypress Hill/et cetera lighter and bong-hit sample. I bet Gaga smokes weed, man. I bet this album was DESIGNED for being baked …man.
Dope: This one is kind of a Winehouse meets Elton John ballad/slow-jam. It’s hyper-maudlin. Totally brutal. At certain points, she uses surges of testosterone to her advantage in her vocal delivery, like all Three Tenors simultaneously.
Gypsy: Here we have a full blown Sarah Brightman/ K-Pop song. Visions of sexually indiscernible teenagers waving and smiling over green-screened neon bubbles and toothpaste-like blobs race through my head(ache). I like the really fast sequenced synth that crops up periodically. It sounds like a Van Halen tap solo on autopilot. But in the end, this song sounds an awful (really awful) lot like Cotton Eye Joe. Dig this: at one point she actually says, “Then you’ll be my little gypsy princess. Pack your bags and chase the sunset.” Yes! Please, my love!
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Applause: For the grand finale of this album, we get the hit single, Applause, which was released earlier this summer and met with fair success. I believe it charted at #4 on the Billboard. God knows why. The lyrical content exposes how much Gaga loves and needs the adoration of her devotees; however, she’s going to have to make do with little of that for this effort. It’s boring, like much of what can be found on this album. I have a hard time with the constant chanting of “applause-plause” too. Let’s insist upon an “anti-applause-plause clause”.
“Artpop is like bathing in a sea of Jubjubs, or eating marshmallows for breakfast. It’s like a volume of “Dick and Jane” with a page or two missing, bound in a tapestry of saffron and mermaid hymens. It is Leni Reifestahl directing “Spring Break” or drinking Bud Light Lime from the Holy Grail.” – Jesse Warkentin.
Andy Warhol: I think everybody should like everybody.
Gene Swenson: Is that what Pop Art is all about?
Andy Warhol: Yes, it’s liking things.
Andy Rudolph: Except the new Gaga, it’s mostly trash.
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