‘ARTPOP’: The forgotten Lady Gaga album

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I turn 22 approximately three months from today. As I look forward to my 23rd year on this God’s green earth, the absolute unknowability of what the rest of my life will look like often feels like a crushing weight pushing my chest and stomach deep into the pavement of the sidewalks all over the Bay Area. When Lady Gaga was 22, she released The Fame, an electro-dance pop explosion that launched her into superstardom. Before she was 24, Gaga had two Grammy awards. 

In 2011, Gaga released her junior album, Born This Way. At this point, Gaga’s celebrity was inarguable. The titular track, which was also the lead single from the album, sold more than 1 million copies in less than a week, becoming the fastest-selling single in history on iTunes. Upon the release of Born This Way, Gaga earned her third consecutive Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. The album is stuffed to the brim with songs destined to be number one hits, easy fodder for “Glee” covers and catchy slogans to screenprint on T-shirts. “Born This Way,” “You and I,” “The Edge of Glory” and “Marry the Night” are several of the biggest songs to come from an album packed with radio hits. 

While the public screamed for this kind of Gaga — the Gaga that bottled her songs into digestible packages for radio DJs to bob their heads to — the release of Born This Way was also the end of an era. Never one to remain stagnant, the album closed the book on pop diva Gaga and heralded in a new era of self-discovery. In 2013, Lady Gaga released ARTPOP.  

I’m not going to lie and say I was a “forever Gaga gal” by any stretch. After Born This Way, her radio airplay fell off significantly. ARTPOP was inaccessible — the merits of experimentation in music was entirely lost on me. At 15, I didn’t get it. The young feminist version of me believed Lady Gaga was glorifying eating disorders as I watched the video of her singing “Swine” at South by Southwest. In the performance, Millie Brown vomited green paint on Gaga’s chest over and over again. Gaga gyrated violently on a mechanical bull, screeching about the disgust of sexual assault and fame’s degradation. 

My true introduction to ARTPOP came two years ago. I was an immediate fan of 2016’s Joanne, as the elements of country and instrumental simplicity lent themselves easily to the part of me brought up on Joni Mitchell and Dixie Chicks. ARTPOP, however, was a different story. When my friend played “Aura” for me one night on a drive, I felt the need to hold my hands over my ears and squeeze my eyes shut, afraid of some jump scare that may have been lurking at the end of the pre-chorus. No other song has ever had that effect on me. I insisted that it be turned off because I was so absolutely unnerved by the track. 

This unease is the genius that lurks behind every track in ARTPOP. Far from trying to depict fame as some sort of beautiful trauma, ARTPOP instead shows fame at its most vapid and constructed, leaning on heavy mechanic beats and a discordant noise underlying each song, which brings a desperate yearning to each track. 

In my younger and more vulnerable years, I too was prone to interpret the antics of Lady Gaga as some sort of grab for attention. The meat dress, the vomiting girl, Jo Calderone — I interpreted Gaga in her many forms as an artist desperate for any scrap of attention that she could get. This is why something like ARTPOP, something so self-indulgent and personally meditative, felt at first like a terrible misstep toward this aim. Gaga’s celebrity was enough to get ARTPOP out of the gate, debuting at No. 1 on Billboard 200 upon its 2013 release.

In her “Enigma” Las Vegas residency show —which was cut short — Gaga regularly performed just two songs from ARTPOP, while The Fame and Born This Way each got six tracks. For those in the “Justice for ARTPOP” camp, this neglect felt in some ways beyond Gaga’s control. ARTPOP was not commercially successful and if people are going to shell out hundreds of dollars to see Gaga, they probably didn’t want to see a stripped-down version of “Sexxx Dreams.” Before Gaga ever whispered about “forgetting” her misunderstood third album, those who stood by ARTPOP could always see the artist’s indifference. 

In 2013, just before the album’s release, Gaga had a different take on the album.

ARTPOP was the apparent boiling point for Gaga, the supersaturated explosion of all that we wanted from her — a gluttonous display of sex, art and fame followed quickly by an entirely new side of the artist. The criticism that Gaga’s ARTPOP was met with was seemingly based on the assumption that her goal was to create another Born This Way. This overindulgence with all that excited people about her first two albums, however, allowed her to rebrand herself entirely.

With an artist as multilayered and complex as Lady Gaga, it is important to see each album in the context of her greater body of work. With ARTPOP, Gaga overindulged in the vapid, popcrazy element of her catalog, which gave her space to spring in the opposite direction. Gaga changed from the “Gaga for the people” to a Gaga for herself, recording an entire jazz album with her long time hero, Tony Bennett. She also performed the song “The Sound of Music” at the Oscars in 2015, revealing herself to be something far more than a diva in a meat dress. Gaga proved herself to be a true artist, something she was from the beginning but was now in a way that was nonthreatening. 

It’s heartbreaking to think that some bad sales numbers could be enough to entirely change Lady Gaga’s feelings toward the album she once considered an “album of infinite.” But maybe I’m just misreading. There are parts of me that believe this tweet is yet another piece of Gaga’s performance art. By tweeting “i don’t remember ARTPOP,” Gaga has gotten the album that hardly made headlines upon its release back into today’s culture. 

After Gaga’s recent tweet, “i used to collect trolls,” a friend suggested to me that maybe Gaga was just tweeting lies and that her next album was going to be called something along the lines of “Liar.” It’s impossible to know. But what is for sure is that when the sixth Lady Gaga album drops, whether it be a stripped-down acoustic album or 72 hour recording of the time she was in that egg before the Grammys, people will listen and people will remember, even if she doesn’t.  

Contact Kate Tinney at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.