As suggested by its all-caps title, ARTPOP is extreme even by Lady Gaga’s bombastic standards. At a time when former goodie-goodies like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez are scoring monster hits with Gaga-eque maneuvers, Germanotta is doubling down. ARTPOP amps up her aesthetic until it towers over both her competitors and her own body of work, combining jackhammer EDM beats, hair-metal choruses, deranged growling and massive fan-rallying slogans into a Eurobeat/dubstep fusion so claustrophobic and nightmarish it verges on seizure. Half-assed it is not.
Indeed, one gets the sense that, having maxed out her chart potential almost upon arrival, she’d now rather leave a bad impression than none at all. Moments on ARTPOP are abrasively, almost daringly ugly, and they position the album as the shadowy flipside to Born This Way‘s positive self-affirmations. On the Rick Rubin-assisted “Dope,” the album’s sole ballad, she caterwauls so hard and with so little adornment that the results are a little unflattering.
Though she’s the hardest-working pop-music exhibitionist since Madonna, Germanotta still reveals her true nature only in code. “Do you wanna peek underneath the cover/ Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura?” she teases in album-opener “Aura,” a collaboration between Gaga, Zedd and Infected Mushroom. It’s a song that fetishizes the burqa, the garment that shrouds some Islamic women’s faces and bodies. Like the Weeknd, she sings of self-avoidance via drugs and rough sex. “Maybe I should have a little more just to stay out of my mind,” she kids herself in “Swine.” “I admit my habit’s expensive and you might find it quite offensive,” she squawks in “Jewels n’ Drugs” between cameos by T.I., Too Short and Twista over a comically haunted track that combines trap music with witch-house. And on the current single “Do What U Want,” she sings of subjugating her body to the wills of R. Kelly, a particularly pointed choice of duet partner, who offers the album’s most succinct line: “You’re the Marilyn, I’m the President.”
While her Britney-meets-Marilyn Manson hybrid hits with all the subtlety of nuclear fusion, her hooks are as supple as ever. “Fashion!” one of the album’s few lighter diversions, follows Daft Punk’s très Chic lead via a strutting bassline, while “Donatella” paints a daffy picture of the Versace matriarch that sounds suspiciously close to Gaga herself. “My art-pop could mean anything,” Gaga declares on the (relatively) calm title track; it’s a sentiment she might have borrowed from the intellectually open-ended, technically masterful kitsch of Jeff Koons, who designed the album’s collage cover. But it also suggests the side to her art that is as resistant to interpretation as a drunken, heavily-coded booty call. Our role is either to reply, or press delete.