Ten Years Later, Lady Gaga’s ‘ARTPOP’ Is Still Misunderstood


Upon its release 10 years ago today, Lady Gaga’s third studio album, ARTPOP, largely divided critics and fans of the then-ubiquitous pop star. With its eclectic amalgam of electronic sounds, and its markedly frank and occasionally absurdist exploration of fame, sex, and technology, most criticized the album for its lack of thematic coherence and sloppy production.

One reviewer called it “a farce,” accusing it of being “both dry and ridiculous, vaguely utopian but overly confident in the liberating power of technology.” Another lamented that it’s “hard not to feel underwhelmed,” calling it “a bizarre album of squelchy disco,” and “sexual but not sexy.” Another critic similarly opined that Gaga’s “robotic” vocal delivery made the project’s most sexual moments “seem grimly denatured.” Even this very site insisted that ARTPOP “wants to be everything but is nothing at all.”

Before continuing, I must admit that ARTPOP is my favorite Lady Gaga album, to the point that I not only have listened to it more than any of her others, but that I have become a bona fide ARTPOP stan. An insufferable troll, I’ve been known to start arguments at parties attempting to convince people that ARTPOP is a masterpiece and Gaga’s magnum opus—knowing full well that no one will agree.

I also concede that none of the negative critiques cited above are “wrong,” per se. ARTPOP indeed lacks coherence and is a mess of a production. Even so, I will continue to insist that ARTPOP is great—not in the sense that it is a “good” album musically speaking, but rather in the sense that it is deeply important. It has indispensable cultural significance, as it prophetically shed light on the social realities of the 2010s and the repercussions they would come to have over the course of the ensuing decade.

As a work of high camp, ARTPOP points to truth “obliquely,” as writer Susan Sontag would say, opening our eyes to reality by means of inversion—via artifice and lies. And thus, while her critics are technically “correct,” they also massively misunderstand Gaga’s genius in presenting ARTPOP to the world at the time she did.

When I first got hooked on ARTPOP, I thought of it as a guilty pleasure, not fully understanding why I was so captivated by songs that made me feel like I was being tugged back and forth between oscillating planes of existence. At one moment I was envisioning myself at a debauched rave, and the next ascending to the height of cosmic transcendence, teetering toward the verge of a mental collapse. It wasn’t until much later that I understood the immense power of what Gaga had accomplished through ARTPOP—and it was thanks in part to my realization that maybe her critics had been right all along.

Ironically, it was one of Lady Gaga’s most vehement detractors that helped me most fully appreciate ARTPOP’s significance. In the U.K.’s Sunday Times, Camille Paglia wrote a scathing profile of Gaga in 2010, saying that despite seeming “comet-like, a stimulating burst of novelty,” she was “a ruthless recycler of other people’s work.” “How,” Paglia wrote, “could a figure so calculated and artificial, so clinical and strangely antiseptic, so stripped of genuine eroticism have become the icon of her generation?”

Paglia wrote that Gaga’s hold over younger millennials and Gen Z is emblematic of the discombobulated cultural paradigm they were born into. Her “fragmented and dispersed personal expression” represents “the exhausted end of the sexual revolution.” she wrote.

Our experience of reality, Paglia wrote, has been largely mediated through screens, rendering our world one “of blurred borderlines” and loss of touch with the carnality of real life. “Generation Gaga doesn’t identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages. Gaga’s flat affect doesn’t bother them because they’re not attuned to facial expressions,” Paglia argued, adding that Gaga’s army of “Little Monsters” don’t have experience with performers who have “huge personalities and deep wells of passion” like Tina Turner and Madonna.

ARTPOP—released three years after that profile—is guilty of all the things Paglia accuses Lady Gaga of. And yet, the pop star is refreshingly self-aware of her absurdity. The album’s ironic, self-deprecatory tone makes for a compelling commentary that gurgles up from deep inside the technocratic, artifice-addicted culture that spawned it— much like all good feats of camp.

In this regard, ARTPOP is nothing like Lady Gaga’s previous albums. It triumphs in its lack of earnest self-seriousness and moralistic self-righteousness. Whereas The Fame was mired in conventionality and Born This Way peddled socially responsible sloganeering, ARTPOP refuses to “try to be” something. It lets artifice be artificial and chaos be chaotic, without attempting to package it up in more palatable (and thus, truly artificial) wrapping. It forgoes the naive optimism that would hold that “everything is fine!” (to borrow from the image of hell as presented by NBC’s The Good Place) because we were “born this way,” and that we are “superstars, no matter who [we] are!” Instead, with ARTPOP, Gaga held up a mirror to our solipsistic postmodern moment, opening our eyes to what we really are: quite literally, little monsters.

Her uncannily candid depiction of the monstrosities born of postmodern technocracy rings especially true in ARTPOP’s most sexual moments. She brings to light the grimmer side of our sex drives, which is only exacerbated by technology’s hold over our psyches. In songs like “Sexxx Dreams,” “Venus,” and “G.U.Y.,” she speaks of sex in “the most mythological way,” hinting at certain universal and even eternal cosmic forces in which sexuality is enveloped. Her allusions to ancient deities, combined with lyrics about twisted sexual fantasies delivered robotically over choppy electronic production, speak to the deep-seated need for transcendence—to reach toward “the beyond”—which is tragically stifled by the all-encompassing hold technology has over our lives.

The Jeff Koons-designed album cover comments on this by juxtaposing fragments of art which depict the transcendent charge of sexuality (Boticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne”) with Gaga looking like a dehumanized mannequin in the center, legs spread wide open, presenting us with a gazing ball where we would expect to find her genitalia. Whereas sexuality may have once hearkened us toward the sacred, global technocracy has rendered sex merely masturbatory, a sad exercise of narcissism.

At ArtRave, a two-day event hosted in Brooklyn in 2013 to promote the release of ARTPOP, Gaga presented fans and critics not only with live performances of the album’s songs, but also with a display of performance art installations by none other than Koons and conceptual artist Marina Abramovic. Among the event’s highlights was “Volantis,” the “world’s first flying dress,” which despite (unsurprisingly) malfunctioning at her press conference, was a success in Gaga’s eyes since “the important thing is about the possibilities.”

And such is life today. “My ARTPOP could mean anything,” she sings on the album’s title track. And yet, the infinite possibilities made available to us by technology very often amount to meaning “nothing at all.” Conventional categories used to make value judgements have been rendered null by our “liquid modern” age, where nothing is sacred, let alone stable. “I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong / To crash the critic saying ‘Is it right or is it wrong?’,” she sings on the album’s closing track, “Applause,” as if chiding the person who attempts to make such a simplistic evaluation of her work—as if anything can be deemed “right” or “wrong” anymore.

And herein lies Gaga’s ingenious contribution to the seemingly endless proliferation of content. “I live for the applause,” she starkly admits, refusing to sugarcoat her psyche’s dysfunction. The song’s video aptly emulates the work of Andy Warhol, whose legacy of truth-telling through glorifying lies—and whose self-aware exaltation of consumer capitalism and the cult of celebrity served as an ironic critique of those very phenomena he immersed himself in—Lady Gaga carries on.

Warhol’s work had a polarizing effect: While some received it as a provocation to recover a sense of the sacred and the real, others got distracted by the hype surrounding it. Gaga’s career seems to have had a similar effect on audiences, on which ARTPOP offers a complex metacommentary, and perhaps also a warning. Listening to Gaga can incite us to take a more frank look at the culture our technological age has spawned and, as she sings, to “free my mind,” or to let our minds be carried away by the overly manufactured aura of fame in which her persona is enshrouded.

Ten years later, that’s a challenge ARTPOP still asks of us.

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