Is there ever room for cleverness in pop? Surely pop is supposed to be bubblegum for the brain, the three minute distraction that elevates you from the dingy drudgery of real life. The glitter on an eyelash, the crush of a dance floor, the heart scorching lust and joy crammed in between every verse and chorus. Pop is not supposed to be intelligent (this goes some way in explaining the popularity of Pitbull and that zipper-headed idiot WILL.I.AM) but pop can be genius, it can be as thoughtful and dark and aching as anything from the cannon of Cave and Cohen.
This half-crazed brilliance and daring darkness reverberates through Madonna’s chemically drenched Bedtime Stories, it’s Prince’s desolate, rage-filled Sign O’ the Times, it’s Alison Goldfrapp and her Strict Machine and it’s Lady Gaga. Post the glossy, almost uniform thrills of ‘Just Dance’ and ‘Poker Face’ she became filled with the sticky molasses of pop at its most strange and exciting.
The Fame Monster begat ‘Born This Way’, which in turn birthed Gaga Phase II. She was a ghost robed in McQueen, a Cronenberg robo colossus, issuing a pop blitzkrieg, colouring the musical landscape with perfectly formed glitterbombs in the shape of the peerless ‘Bad Romance’, the Mad-Woman-in-the-attic anthem ‘Dance in the Dark’, the furious ‘Scheibe’ and its blissfully barmy sister, ‘Government Hooker’. This period not only pushed Gaga into a dense, throbbing Europop phase of the kind last heard in dodgy Berlin S&M clubs but it also forced into another kind of evolution. It was an escape route that moved her further away from the hyper girlie, anonymous sounds of her contemporaries and into the arms of ARTPOP.
ARTPOP may sound like yawnsome pretentious twaddle that only someone as acclaimed and serious as Bjork could get away with, sending Guardian readers into orgasmic overdrive, but in fact it’s not as po-faced as all that. What ARTPOP is more about is the performance around the album rather than the contents of the album itself. Yes, we’ve all seen the nakedness with Marina Abramovic and heard the post-Warhol waffle Gaga is spouting but surely it’s more vital and compelling than The Wanted bleating on about chlamydia on Twitter again. It’s injecting the truly silly and bizarre back into the mundane, baseless fuckfest pop has become of late. Plus, as an album ARTPOP is surprisingly fun.
With introductory single ‘Applause’ mixing the icy coolness of no-wave queen Cristina’s ‘What’s A Girl to Do’ with whooshing and pushing ’90s euphoria, it wasn’t the scary brave new world most were dreading. The album is more of a welcome amalgamation of Gaga’s former output, the shiny disco ball treats with the heavy, twisted themes of Born This Way. This cross fertilisation hybrid breeds some of the most giant, exhilarating earworms of Gaga’s career.
The prospect of a Gaga and R.Kelly hook up may have in theory sounded like some kind of waking nightmare but the resulting electro thriller ‘Do What U Want’ manages to marry her anti-media trolling stance with his own special brand of lyrical madness, creating a late bid for song of the year. This dance-floor worrying stance lives throughout ARTPOP from the sizzling Janet meets Prince romp of ‘Sexxx Dreams’, the dreamy intoxicating ‘G.U.Y,.’ the frivolous joy and giddiness of ‘Fashion!’ (with its born to be bellowed hook) and the bruising, trashy ‘Swine’. It’s head down straight forward pop at its most addictive.
Alas it’s not all pristine perfection; ARTPOP like its predecessor suffers under the weight of Gaga’s will. Where Born This Way dragged with the inclusion of the pointless idiocy of ‘Highway Unicorn’ and the bloated embarrassment that was ‘Electric Chapel’, ARTPOP has the unnecessary padding of the lazy ‘Mary Jane Holland’ and the truly awful ‘Jewels n’ Drugs’ – tracks that should never have made it to the final cut.
Ultimately ARTPOP is a flawed beast that never quite manages to morph into the bewitching animal it purports to be. But what it does provide is hope, hope that the future of pop will not just be straight lines and geometric patterns but will still be somewhere that the abstract and the dynamic can call home.