'ARTPOP' 10 Years Later: The Misunderstood Genius of Lady Gaga
"This album is a celebration. My pain exploding in electronic music. It's heavy, but after I listen to it again, I feel happy—I feel lighter" is how Lady Gaga described the album that nearly destroyed her career—her third studio album, ARTPOP. Upon release, Rolling Stone blasted it as "a bizarre album of squelchy disco," NME described Gaga as a "...joke I just don't get," and within the general public, "Artflop" was an utter embarrassment in comparison to her previous album, the illustrious Born This Way. This failure was made more evident by the fact that its predecessor achieved 1,108,000 sales in its first week, while ARTPOP only managed to debut with a much lower figure of 258,000. The once shining star was seemingly done for.
It's been a decade since the ARTPOP hate train, and since then it has gained a massive cult following. You don't have to do much of a social media deep dive to stumble upon think-pieces and discussions about how "ARTPOP deserved better," "#justiceforartpop," or pleas for the release of the mysterious ARTPOP: Act II that was promised a decade ago.
Personally, ARTPOP is the album that led me to discover Lady Gaga (as seems to be a requirement for almost every gay adolescent journey of self-discovery). I've been absolutely obsessed with her artistry and entire message ever since. I vividly remember being 11 years old and the daily tradition of morning news being on the living room television before school. That morning broadcast was special: Gaga's takeover of Good Morning America for the premiere of her new single "Applause." As an 11 year old, I wasn't able to grasp any of the artistic references throughout the video, but it still left me hooked.
"Applause" was the comeback for Gaga after an almost career-ending injury, breaking her hip, that left her unable to walk and caused her to cancel the remainder of her widely successful "Born This Way Ball Tour." One could argue that ARTPOP's failure can be linked to the utter oversaturation of Lady Gaga within the media. Born This Way had her face everywhere and within the media; whether they declared her a gay icon or blasphemous Madonna rip-off, she was on the public's mind. The album had one of the biggest marketing campaigns ever, with her face even being plastered on the New York subway and entire faces of buildings; the entire world was Gaga. This can be compared to the level Taylor Swift is at now; though, with a much more controversial figure like Gaga, the public was tired.
Born This Way world takeover
Her intention behind ARTPOP was to deliver what she deemed a "reverse Warholian expedition," like how Andy Warhol brought Campbell soup cans into the fine art world. She wanted to deliver classical art to the general public. This is seen in the genius of the album cover by Jeff Koons, showcasing Gaga within Botticelli’s "Birth of Venus" (1486) by turning Venus into a pop star—Lady Gaga.
Within the era, she incorporated classical art into everything; the music, the visuals, and the fashion were all inspired by timeless pieces through her modern creative lens. Whether wearing the Mona Lisa as a dress, emulating the brush strokes of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí within her outfits, or simply the entirety of the "Applause" music video, she created an entirely new creative concept no artist had ever thought of. ARTPOP wasn't just an album; it was a lifestyle that transformed her entire life throughout this time into visual performance art in the streets, on the stage, and in the music.
Gaga didn't solely rework classical ideas of the past; another side of ARTPOP was the incorporation of modern technology. While aspects such as the "flying dress" she created didn't take off in the fashion world, the short-lived 'ARTPOP App' was truly a musical innovation. In a world before AI (artificial intelligence) it provided a GIF/Still Image maker that allowed users to generate images with numerous moving shapes and backgrounds. It also allowed fans to stream the album together whilst simultaneously chatting in the app, in-app countdowns, and behind-the-scenes videos of everything ARTPOP.
The most incredible feature that never got to come to fruition due to the collapse of the era was a digital audio workshop called TrakStar that would allow fans to remix and compose music (Note: This was 2013, AI generated music wasn't even on the horizon). 10 years later these aspects that Gaga was already trying to create are now becoming mainstream; for example, virtual concerts (Roblox, Fortnite, Meta, etc.) and AI music/art in general being born.
On the surface level, ARTPOP's harshest critics from 2013 are correct; it isn't completely coherent, and from the musical production viewpoint, it offers sheer chaos; however, that is the intended beauty of the album. The cultural significance behind ARTPOP is what makes it an extremely important body of work that shared important insights and discourse within the cultural realities of the 2010s and the consequences they would lead to in the future within the world of celebrity, social media, and creative expression. So while her critics may have some reason in pinpointing ARTPOP as "shallow," "ingenuine," or "unlistenable," these gripes showcase just how massively they misinterpret Gaga's genius.
Susan Sontag describes it perfectly in her 1964 essay Notes on 'Camp', where she states, "Camp is art that proposes itself seriously but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is 'too much.'" As a body of work, ARTPOP offers these serious introspections on modern culture that are thus inherently impossible for the general public to take seriously while being delivered through Gaga being vomited on, performance art pieces with Marina Abramović, a Muppets Holiday Special, RuPaul, and just utter artistic extravagance. Lyrically, to casual listeners, it may sound simply humorous and ingenuine: "Check out, I'm blonde, I'm skinny, I'm rich... and I'm a little bit of a b*tch." "Last night, damn, you were in my sex dreams." "Uranus... don't you know my a*s is famous!" Yet on a deeper level, the album offers self-reflection on drug addiction, the tortures of the "manufactured blonde popstar," and a feminist viewpoint of a woman's divine sexual power. All of these aspects prove ARTPOP to be a masterclass of camp in the eyes of Sontag; however, that sheer excellence itself is what led to its vast misunderstanding.
Sonically ARTPOP offered a glimpse into the pop music of the future. The album is often times cited as a trailblazer within the popularization of the hyperpop genre and ushered the normalization of genre-mixing within pop music especially. Before ARTPOP, pop music was made to be squeaky clean and streamlined with a bubblegum pop sound (i.e., the soundtrack of the 2010s, Teenage Dream by Katy Perry) of catchy hooks and choruses, which Gaga offered the complete antithesis for. It's undeniable that the hatred and sonic revolution of ARTPOP allowed the path for artists like SOPHIE, Charli XCX, and Caroline Polachek to be taken seriously today.
It prioritized Gaga's creative integrity as an artist over trends, charts, and sales (the bread and butter of pop music). “Really, it’s about freeing yourself from the expectations of the music industry and the expectations of the status quo,” Gaga stated at SXSW, the infamous music festival where her performance art included her being vomited on whilst riding a mechanical bull—obviously she wasn't kidding with this quote. She explained further in a tweet, "I was desperate, in pain, and poured my heart into electronic music that slammed harder than any drug I could find." This album wasn't about the catchy hooks and choruses I mentioned above, but healing through intense sound rather than the drugs and alcohol she had so heavily relied on to cope with the pressures of fame, mental illness, and extreme trauma.
This is quintessentially seen with the release of "G.U.Y. (An ARTPOP Film)" that resulted in Gaga paying millions herself to produce an extravagant 8-minute-long short film to deliver fans a fraction of her true vision for the album—a vision that was ultimately crushed by her entire creative team (including her longtime manager) abandoning her and an extremely disappointed record label. Despite being one of the most creative and visually stunning music videos ever released, the song peaked at #76 on the Billboard Hot 100 and fell off after a single week. This was the second and final music video released for the album, ending Gaga's ambitions to create music videos for every song on ARTPOP.
Despite being released a decade ago, ARTPOP remains a culturally significant body of work. There has been numerous fan campaigns attempting to persuade her and Interscope Records to release the infamous ARTPOP: Act II, the promised part two of the album. Gaga had promised to release it before the detrimental failure ARTPOP faced. Previously confirmed and teased collaborations with Azealia Banks ("Red Flame"), Beyonce & Rihanna ("RATCHET"), and tracks such as "Tea," "Onion Girl," and "Brooklyn Nights" have never seen the light of day. In 2021, a fan-made petition garnered over 60,000 signatures vying for the follow-up release and caused ARTPOP to reach #3 on iTunes, 8 years after its release. It even caught Gaga's attention to write a love letter to fans and to the album, though she did not make any sort of promise for an Act II release.
Die-hard fans remain hopeful that Gaga will release the sequel to ARTPOP on the album's November 11th tenth anniversary. However, with the date arriving, it seems that it will remain locked away in the vault, maybe for another 10 years.
ARTPOP is an album that not only almost singlehandedly ended Lady Gaga's career as pop music's brightest star, but almost made her give up on her music career altogether. Whilst her most recent releases haven't included life-size Jeff Koons sculptures, vomiting performance art, and wearable Renaissance art; she has evolved toe and town with her mental health evolution. With 2016's Joanne she would go into the recording studio immersing herself into a persona of herself that wasn't famous. This extended into 2020's Chromatica where she sought happiness through dance music. ARTPOP had such an extreme impact on her life that everything following it has been seen as a comeback, redemption, and against the odds from 2013–2015, when her career fell apart from her Born This Way peak.
With ARTPOP, Lady Gaga ended up facing the exact same criticisms her very muse, Andy Warhol, did. While many, including myself, view Warhol as a creative visionary, many dismiss his work as simply a shallow promotion of uninspired consumerism and commercial art. The persona of Lady Gaga herself offers this very discussion within many listeners. One that ARTPOP offers insight into by pushing the audience to take a moment to look at the culture that the age of social media and technology has spawned. Rather than being misguided by the ingenuine sense her detriment of celebrity provides, "free my mind" or ours to see what ARTPOP can truly mean.
And just as she sings on the album, it "could mean anything."