Do you remember what pop stars were like before Lady Gaga? It seems like a stupid question to ask just five years into her career, but her aesthetic and attitude spread so quickly upon her rise to fame that it’s easy to forget how different she was from most of her predecessors at the turn of the millennium. A meta-pop star whose career has been marked by carefully orchestrated spectacle, she ended an era when women in music were widely characterized as out of control. But in the past few years — and especially with the release of ARTPOP — Lady Gaga’s meticulous image policing has begun to get in the way of her music.
For the first several years of the 21st century, we watched pop stars — and particularly female ones — fall apart in front of us. In the same year that Mariah Carey hit her creative nadir with Glitter, she was hospitalized after a plate-smashing incident that was widely characterized as a “breakdown.” Britney Spears was in rehab every other week, losing custody of her children, eventually being put under the conservatorship of her own father, and (most dramatically, if not most alarmingly) shaving off all her hair in an episode reminiscent of Divine’s rampage at the end of Female Trouble. And then there was Amy Winehouse.
It wasn’t that even most of the women on the radio were in crisis; Beyoncé and Taylor Swift and Rihanna (whose private life wasn’t positioned as a public tragedy until Chris Brown assaulted her in 2009) all emerged before Lady Gaga. But when you throw in daily headlines about the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton (both were also releasing albums in the mid-’00s) into the mix, there was a general, tabloid-fueled sense that young female celebrities, and pop singers in particular, were out of control. It wasn’t just that their drug abuse and eating disorders and love affairs were killing them; the larger problem was that the gossip rags had become so obsessed with tracking these women’s every move that it was impossible for them to retain even the tiniest shred of privacy or control over their own narratives.
As tempting as it is to assume that celebrity culture is an uninterrupted downward spiral, hitting new lows with each passing year, the state of the female pop star as public figure actually became a whole lot less tragic in the late aughts. And it was Lady Gaga who both signaled and influenced the shift. The image most closely associated with her debut single, 2008’s “Just Dance,” was a closeup of Gaga’s face with David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane-cover lightning bolt reproduced in electric blue under her eye. In retrospect, the reference reads as an announcement that she was a different kind of pop star: one whose music, style, and public persona would provide more spectacle than her private life. By the end of 2009, this had both proven true and become the prevailing model. Katy Perry (whose “I Kissed a Girl” premiered just three weeks after “Just Dance”) transformed herself into a cartoon pinup to follow Gaga to the top of the charts; Ke$ha was next, selling a party-girl persona so over-the-top that what she called her “steeze” couldn’t help but overshadow her real life.
The amount of thought and hard work that Gaga put into her image was palpable, and like Bowie (well, except for during his terrifying cocaine years in the mid-’70s) and her other major influence, Madonna, she’s been able to exercise an impressive amount of control over it. Even during her earliest years in the spotlight, the real Stefani Germanotta provided so little gossip fodder that the tabloids resorted to fabricating a stupid rumor that she had a penis — one that, perversely enough, only ended up adding an extra bit of intrigue to her androgynous appeal. These days, her outfits consistently occupy more column inches than her romances, and if we talk about her marijuana use, well, that’s because she flaunts her pot-leaf pasties and just generally won’t shut up about it. When the press seized upon her weight gain last year, she immediately turned their attacks around on them, using their pettiness to start what she called a “body revolution.”
From the perspective of celebrity culture, it’s hard to dispute that this Era of Gaga has been healthier and saner and just generally more positive for pop music’s largely young, female audience than the slut-shaming, gossip-driven, misery-porn Era of Train Wreck that preceded it. But Lady Gaga’s entirely defensible control complex — and the guardedness about her personal life that sometimes clashes with her supposedly open embrace of the fans she dubbed Little Monsters — aren’t limited to how she conducts herself in public. It also bleeds into the music she makes, with mixed results.
Like Beyoncé, who acknowledged her as a peer by exchanging guest appearances on “Telephone” and “Video Phone,” Gaga’s longing for control can manifest itself in her songs as vague empowerment rhetoric (“I’m a free bitch”). More often, though, it shows up as a curious undertone of detachment or disingenuity that worked to her advantage early in her career. On the best songs from Lady Gaga’s first album, The Fame, she plays it up: “Poker Face” is a witty manifesto of emotional unreadability, and her sneakily distant vocal performance on “Paparazzi” (a song that demonstrates Gaga’s comprehension of the tabloid system that devoured her predecessors) shades the lyrics’ straightforward tale of obsession with irony. She even managed to use her typical detachment to offset real emotion once or twice. The most powerful moment on “Bad Romance,” from 2009’s The Fame Monster EP, comes when Gaga breaks through the song’s stylized, production-number surface, wailing “I don’t wanna be friends” in a voice that sounds ready to break.
More recently, though, a hint of unintentionally artificial-feeling earnestness is often either heaped atop of or entirely replaces that original knowing coldness in her songs. Becoming one of the most famous people in the world put Lady Gaga in touch with an audience of millions — maybe billions — and in her post-Fame Monster work, she’s become hyper-aware of needing to convey important messages to her army of little monsters. And, of course, the meaning of these messages must also be tightly controlled. The title track of Born This Way is a bad LGBT liberation anthem not because Gaga’s heart isn’t in the right place, but because it’s too pedantic to feel truly liberating. “I Will Survive” and “I’m Coming Out” and even, more recently, Scissor Sisters’ “Take Your Mama” contain a frisson of freedom, of triumph over adversity or secrecy. “Born This Way” never thrills us because it’s too busy telling us what to do (“Give yourself prudence / And love your friends”; “Don’t hide yourself in regret / Just love yourself and you’re set”) and think (“A different lover is not a sin”). Whatever else it aspires to do, pop needs to exude some element of fun, a quality Lady Gaga’s music has begun to lack.
Her preachiness is more of a problem then ever on ARTPOP, an album whose release she announced in a manifesto claiming that the project was her attempt to “bring ARTCulture into POP in a reverse Warholian expedition.” But ARTPOP doesn’t find her using Warhol’s approach in service of bringing high art into pop culture so much as simply repeating Warhol’s philosophy ad nauseam. While he created art based on mass culture that took its meaning almost entirely from viewers’ interpretations, and thus empowered his audience, she pays lip service to Pop Art while denying listeners of the power to draw our conclusions. On bland lead single “Applause,” she sets out her stance (and hits back at critics, another control-freak move aimed at preemptively dismissing negative reactions to this new material) with all the poetry of a Twitter rant: “I’ve overheard your theory ‘nostalgia’s for geeks’ / I guess sir, if you say so, some of us just like to read / One second I’m a Koons, then suddenly the Koons is me / Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture in me.” The breathy, disco-flavored title track announces, “My artpop could mean anything” — again, it’s a decent summation of Warhol 101, but there’s an unavoidable irony to Gaga being so deliberate in instructing us to make our own meaning out of her work.
The line is one of many moments when Lady Gaga tries to cut loose, get real and wild and expressive, access that sense of fun, but only ends up sounding more constricted than ever. Since her lyrics privilege explanation over imagery, references to her inner life can come off as robotic and pat. On ARTPOP‘s opening track, “Aura,” she tempts us with the question, “Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura?,” then fails to follow through on the invitation in subsequent songs. It’s all fun and temptation on the hook-ridden bad-girl fantasy “Judas,” from Born This Way, until Gaga jumps in at the end to make sure we’ve correctly processed all her biblical imagery: “Jesus is my virtue / And Judas is the demon I cling to.” No one’s expecting true subtlety from pop lyrics (although they can be transcendent when they achieve it), but this is a bit much.
As the “Judas” quote suggests, there’s also something artificial about the way Gaga uses badness and vice in her recent songs. Her onstage smoking and flashy pot paraphernalia laid the groundwork for ARTPOP songs like the assaultive “Mary Jane Holland” (“I think we’d have a good time / If you’d meet me and Mary Jane in Holland tonight” is destined to become Craigslist code for “I need a hookup”); hip-hop masquerade “Jewels N’ Drugs” (“Don’t want your jewels / I want your drugs”); and “Dope,” a disarmingly effective piano ballad in the “Speechless” mode falters a bit at what is supposed to be its emotional high point, when Gaga all but swallows the last word of the “I need you more than dope” chorus. It isn’t that I find it unbelievable that Stefani Germanotta the person smokes weed; it’s the cold primness with which Lady Gaga the personality sings about it that rings false.
The good news is that ARTPOP isn’t totally devoid of the self-aware fun of The Fame and The Fame Monster. In that sense, it’s an improvement over Born This Way. There’s “Do What U Want,” an R. Kelly duet that dilutes Gaga’s self-righteousness with R&B sensuality. ARTPOP‘s best song, “Venus,” is a synthpop, sci-fi skin flick that shakes its hips to the B-movie refrain “Take me to your leader,” and even throws in a double entendre that simultaneously evokes orgasm and emotional blankness: “When you touch me I die just a little inside.” Both songs are a little bit witty and a little bit goofy, just like “Poker Face” and “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance.” I think this is the “real Lady Gaga” — the kernel of personality at the core of Stefani Germanotta’s music-making alter ego.
Or, at least, I hope it is, because everyone who isn’t a die-hard, critic-burning little monster is going to grow weary of this pedantic control-freak stuff soon enough. And aside from the fact that I think she still possesses the potential to have one of those brilliant, decades-long careers she so admires, this is worrisome because with the tabloids turning their attention to Amanda Bynes and Miley Cyrus (who, for what it’s worth, seems far less tragic than the gossip press makes her out to be), the pendulum may well be swinging towards another Era of Train Wreck. If anyone has the potential to interrupt that narrative again, it’s Lady Gaga.