Right from the start, Lady Gaga has been bending pop music to her will. But as her publicity machine burns day and night ahead of the release of her third album, something could be about to snap. She’s long been a champion of damaged outsiders while roaming among pop’s conventional glamourpusses. Now the world looks ready to send her back to outsider status herself.
Third time around, can we really be tired already of the visual circus that explodes into the papers every time she leaves a hotel? In the past week she’s been popping up all over London like a bizarre whack-a-mole game. Here comes the most extraordinary pop experiment ever seen, all scary contact lenses, giant wigs and unsitdownable fashion contraptions. “Ho hum, what’s she got on her head this time?” shrugs the world.
Thus far, in a campaign that began rumbling in the summer with the unveiling of the title, Artpop (and Gaga getting a tattoo of the term on her arm to show she means business), all has not quite gone according to plan. As is now the norm with these big album releases, there’s a slow drip of a track or two, then everything is kept strictly underwraps until the opus is finally unleashed on an eager world. The first track, unveiled in early September when it was released as a single, was the robotic Applause, fast and energetic but also strangely sterile. In a press-fuelled battle for attention with Katy Perry’s simultaneously released Roar, jungle huntress Perry had the stronger tune and deserved the radio love. Gaga, whose first two singles went to number one in 2008, stalled with one week at number five.
Around the same time, she failed to dominate an awards ceremony for once. Her performance as a nun and Boticelli’s Venus at MTV’s VMA Awards in New York was all but forgotten once Miley Cyrus started waving her tongue and backside around. How frustrating for her to find that you don’t need a daring concept referencing art across the ages to win the day, just a suggestively brandished giant foam finger.
The second track we heard from the new album, released on October 21, Do What U Want, was an aggressively delivered duet with R&B loverman R Kelly and did nothing to improve her status in the hit parade. It has been ruled ineligible for the charts because it is the second song to be given away to those who pre-order the album.
And a third, Venus, first heard on The X Factor last Sunday, is just plain bad — a thudding headache-bringer with none of the melody and fizz of indelible earlier hits such as Bad Romance and Poker Face. The rest of the album is still under wraps and subject to a reviews embargo until next Monday, so hopefully there’s a defining hit still to be unveiled.
For this fascinating cultural edifice will crumble if it isn’t built on great songs. The ideas are still interesting — she’s been talking about a “reverse Warholian expedition” intended to bring art into pop culture in a similar way to Andy and gang bringing pop culture into the galleries. Hence the cover of the new album, a waxy-looking nude sculpture of her by Jeff Koons, and her X Factor appearance as Venus in a seashell bra.
Pop music benefits from big ideas but there was nothing highbrow about the rest of her X-Factor performance, which featured her in flesh-coloured underwear, humping a piano and barking “Do what you want with my body”, over and over. It was a bit much for the pre-watershed kiddies (or perhaps their parents), and several hundred complaints to Ofcom soon followed.
Yet as ever with Gaga, her intentions aren’t quite what they may seem. There was nothing titillating about this sex song, her wild eyes and flailing dancing making her look more like a desperate, spurned lover. Equally, when she stripped naked after finishing her surprise spot at Heaven’s G-A-Y club the evening before, her banshee wig gave the impression she was heading off to perform an animal sacrifice. There’s an ever-growing intent to disturb and unsettle — today she’s much closer to Marilyn Manson’s world than Madonna’s.
But as she gets stranger, it becomes harder to drag the mainstream towards her. She may have performed on The X Factor more than once but the talent show’s audition process is still not uncovering alien freakshows in her image. She’s been trounced in the sales department in recent years by Adele, as normal a multi-platinum superstar as you could meet, because Adele has the better songs.
A new acting role, as shape-changing killer La Chameleón in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete Kills isn’t helping matters. The film, out last month, has been panned by the critics — and audiences don’t seem to like it much either.
Even one of her biggest supporters has been critical recently. Elton John, who named her as godmother of his children (imagine the birthday presents!), said: “When your persona begins to take over your music and becomes more important, you enter a dangerous place.”
He also complained: “I’d like to be able to talk to her right now but I can’t get through to her.”
Part of the problem, which affects far more people than just her, is how hard it is today to step off pop’s treadmill and take the time to create something genuinely groundbreaking. Perhaps through fear of another sex kitten from Barbados coming along and stealing her scantily clad thunder, Rihanna released four albums between November 2009 and November 2012. Gaga would have had almost no time at all between wrapping up her Born This Way tour and releasing this album if she hadn’t needed a break for a hip operation in February this year. “I’ve made it my goal to revolutionise pop music,” she has said, but you really can’t do that on a tight deadline.
What could happen now is that she finds her natural level, one more suited to sex clubs than stadiums. Perhaps she’s been a cult act punching remarkably far above her weight for a long time. Pop’s tree will be far more boring without this twisted fairy demon at the top of it. Those who adore her intensely — and there are a lot of them — can sustain her career at a decent height for years to come but less adventurous pop fans will drift away if Artpop isn’t a classic.
O2 customers will find out on Tuesday, when the album starts streaming for them in a lucrative deal, before it becomes available to the rest of us the following Monday (on the Interscope label).
If instead it starts pushing her down to cult status, she can take comfort in the career of the late Lou Reed. Lifelong influence is more precious than more platinum discs — and if all those Little Monsters who worship her do go on to launch pop careers of their own, she’ll win in the end.