Earlier this week, Lady Gaga officially farewelled the ARTPOP era with the last show of her 'artRAVE' tour in an emotionally charged, high energy performance which many believe bested even her highly acclaimed 'The Monster Ball'. Love it or hate it, Gaga's latest era has certainly been a bumpy ride, even more marred by controversy than her first couple of projects. From early song leaks by Gaga herself, to emotional onstage breakdowns over the loss of her manager, to confessions of both drug and sexual abuse, to scrapped duets and music videos, and some of the whackiest outfits that have ever been rocked, the one thing that can be said for the era was that it was never dull. And yet, ARTPOP was always marked - even pre-emptively - as the first time in Gaga's career that she'd truly "flopped". Despite the fact that the album hit #1, featured an early hit in the form of 'Applause' as well as two moderate successes in 'Do What U Want' and 'Dope', and emitted more "YASSS"'s than had ever been heard in pop music before, critics were quick to bash the album as underwhelming, criticizing the "bizarre album of squelchy disco" and describing it as "sexual but not sexy".
And they may have had a point. We couldn't help but feel slightly let down when, after promising a third part to the trilogy established with 'Paparazzi' and 'Telephone', Gaga delivered a pretty basic music video in the form of 'Applause'; when, after the amazing, energetic new sound she debuted with a remix of Zedd's 'Stache', she returned to safer electro-pop with her lead single; and when the ARTPOP app, which had always been promised as a key part of the album experience, turned out to have about ten minutes of excitement in the whole thing. But how does ARTPOP live up to the hype a year later on? Detached from the excessive fan anticipation, the ridiculous bandwagon of negative criticism, and the endless publicity stunts, what is ARTPOP?
A pretty good album, if you look at it as a whole. With ARTPOP, Gaga traded in the fresh-faced enthusiasm of The Fame, the dark industrialism of The Fame Monster and the synth-pop cheesiness of Born This Way for a sound which, if not revolutionary, was new and exciting for her. There may be a few sprouts of genericism in songs like 'Donatella' (which, if it fails at everything else, always managed to get an audience on their feet at artRAVE) and 'G.U.Y.' (whose rather interesting lyrics and a fantastic headbanging section at the end was overshadowed by a somewhat lacklustre chorus), but the majority of the album does a pretty good job of offering something fresh yet still mainstream. 'Applause', our first taste of the album, was an electro-pop stomper, but the synths and effects used were different to anything else on the radio at the time; and 'Do What U Want' (which we maintain is probably the best song of the year) offered a throwback vibe that no one had heard in a Gaga album, or on pop music charts, before. Then there's the relentless experimentation in one of the album's highlights 'Aura', whose absolute flawlessness was dulled somewhat by an early leak and some last minute vocal changes; and the rousing, yet creepily detached screams of 'Swine', an angry rejection of rape culture. 'Dope' provided us with a twist on the classic Gaga ballad, with a haunting, raw production and intensely personal lyrics; while it's counterpart 'Mary Jane Holland' worked as a nevertheless somewhat uncomfortable ode to marijuana given Gaga's current circumstances. There's an absolute plethora of experiments with genre and sounds on the album, which explains in part why everyone's favourite song is completely different.
So why didn't the album work? Part of it almost definitely has to do with the impossible amount of hype placed on the project - with a lot of it, in all fairness, coming from Gaga herself. Promising a "lack of maturity and responsibility" on the album confirmed, for a lot of fans, a return to the The Fame era, as did the blonde bob Gaga brought back for the album - yet the majority of the album lacked that carefree nature, trading it for a colder, more detached comment on a variety of social issues. The album was also under an insane amount of pressure to sell better than her past masterpiece Born This Way, which controversially shipped a pretty incredible six million copies and set up an almost impossible standard. The majority of the songs were also released, in one way or another, before the album, which destroyed some of the fun of hearing them all on release day; with 'Applause', 'Venus', 'Do What U Want' and 'Dope' understandably released as (promo) singles before the album's release, but other songs, such as 'MANiCURE', 'Jewels 'N' Drugs', 'ARTPOP', 'Sexxx Dreams' and 'Swine' being played live, and 'Aura' leaking way before it should have. Even 'Dope' was precursed by 'I Wanna Be With You', which turned out for a lot of fans to be a better song; and the final version of 'ARTPOP' lacked a few qualities that made the live version truly pop. But the main issue with ARTPOP was it's initial concept: one which, while at first sight appearing to be all-encompassing and broad enough to build a project around, turned out to be a little too simplistically pretentious for the tastes of many fans. Gaga claims that everything she's done in her career has been ARTPOP, and it's probably true; but the album had a little too much pop, and not quite enough art; and those art projects promised to revolutionize, like Volantis, failed and sank quicker than a Mariah Carey album on the charts. Gaga's personality, too, was a turn-off for much of the general public; with the fun-loving girl of yesteryear replaced by an intensely serious, often stoned, drunk or high musician who waxed lyrical about an album that possibly didn't quite deserve the praise she herself was bestowing on it.
Luckily, the album seems to have had little of a lasting impact on Gaga's career. The majority of her core fanbase appears to have stuck by her, and she's tapped into a new market with her top-selling Cheek To Cheek album with Tony Bennett, which provided a much-needed reiteration of her natural vocal prowess. While some of the general public may have jumped ship, we can tell by past comebacks from artists like Rihanna (post-Rated R) and Britney (post-Femme Fatale) that all they really need is a catchy hook to get them excited again. And if it was good for anything, ARTPOP seems to have pushed Gaga to try harder and strive for more, in a more determined, direct way; the meticulously planned 'artRAVE' album launch party has now been replaced by spontaneous, fun live performances with much less anticipation building up for them. Maybe it's true that ARTPOP was a disappointment, as it could never have been the album that Gaga promised; but maybe, just maybe, it was the one she needed.
Here's hoping for that long-promised Act 2.