Frequently Asked Questions is exactly what it sounds like, where we have experts guide you through the unknown about people and topics in music and pop culture. Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP is in stores now, the much-hyped and adorned third Gaga album. With many questions as to its art + commerce intentions, here’s a bit of context around the artist herself, her past, and what led her to this high-profile and massive pop-art concept.
By Jamieson Cox
Who is Lady Gaga?
Lady Gaga (born Stefani Germanotta) is a 27-year-old singer, designer, and actress. Born in New York City, Gaga was raised on the Upper West Side into a Roman Catholic family and began playing piano when she was four-years-old and performing only a short time later. A brief enrollment in an NYU musical theatre conservatory ended at age 19 when Gaga decided to focus on a career in pop music. She bounced around the New York City club scene and record label talent development for roughly three years before releasing her debut record, The Fame, in 2008. Her third full-length, ARTPOP, was released yesterday (November 11), and it represents the synthesis of many of the musical and aesthetic ideas Gaga has toyed with throughout her career.
How did that young musical theatre enthusiast transform into the art-damaged diva we know and love today?
After leaving the CAP21 program hosted by NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2005, Gaga (still performing under her birth name) struck out on her own by fronting the Stefani Germanotta Band with some NYU contemporaries. The band recorded a few EPs and gigged regularly in Lower East Side clubs when Gaga was scouted by producer Rob Fusari, who was looking for a female singer to head up a new band of his own conception. She earned the moniker “Lady Gaga” around this time — an apocryphal story involves the Queen song “Radio Ga Ga” and the auto-correct function on Fusari’s cellphone — and got a deal with Def Jam on the strength of their work together in September 2006. Unfortunately, she was dropped by the label after only three months of development, which forced a return to her old Lower East Side stomping grounds and found Gaga plunging into a period of heavy drug use and burlesque show experimentation.
Her career depression didn’t last long: A new partnership with the performance artist Lady Starlight led to positive reviews and a slot at Lollapalooza 2007, and Fusari successfully shopped their work together to record executive Vincent Herbert, who signed Gaga to his label Streamline Records (an imprint of Interscope) that year. She also signed a music publishing deal with Sony/ATV, writing songs for artists like Britney Spears and New Kids on the Block; her work in this sphere earned the attention of Akon — yes, that Akon — who convinced Interscope head honcho Jimmy Iovine to sign Gaga to a joint deal with his own label Kon Live.
So what made her different from any number of potential pop stars out there?
Gaga’s tumultuous development, formal musical training, and her time spent steeping in the New York underground all blended together to give her glossy pop compositions a slight bite, a bit of grit: her performances with Lady Starlight, initially built around challenging electronic pieces, were eventually tempered by melody and glammy flair worthy of David Bowie or the man behind Gaga’s stage name, Freddie Mercury. By the end of 2007, which marked the start of recording for her debut album The Fame with songwriter/producer RedOne, Gaga had filed her sound and image to a sharp edge. She also asserted herself as a singular creative force before gaining anything resembling a commercial foothold, a bold move that set her apart from other artists. This strong creative hand is most evident in her fostering of the Haus of Gaga, a creative squad inspired by Andy Warhol’s Factory, as early as 2008.
Did all this creative hoopla actually work?
I’d say so. After its release on August 19, 2008, The Fame went triple platinum in the U.S. and sold even more around the world, ultimately moving upwards of 15 million copies. The album was anchored by four top 10 singles, including two #1 hits (debut single “Just Dance” and “Poker Face”) that were totally inescapable for several months after their release. The Fame is less notable for its music than its aesthetic coherence and its cultivation of Gaga’s persona as an arty, future-forward party girl. For all their success, the hits from The Fame are mostly generic dance-pop bangers that lack the dramatic flair and vocal panache Gaga would nail with later hits. The brilliant video that accompanied “Paparazzi” exemplifies the record’s style-first, music-second approach: a narrative-driven, hyper-thoughtful (and successful!) clip supporting a song that’s merely decent.
Wow, that’s huge. How did she follow it up?
Gaga wrote her next batch of music while touring in support of The Fame throughout 2009, and the resulting EP marked the moment when her musical output caught up with her image in terms of quality. The Fame Monster jumped wildly from Madonna to Ace of Base and from pop to R&B to country, and most of its songs radiated a conceptual strength and relentless catchiness that made her hits from The Fame sound like they had ridden to the top of the charts on training wheels. The EP was released on November 18, 2009 as both a single disc and as part of a deluxe edition The Fame re-release, and yielded three new top 10 hits for Gaga: “Bad Romance,” “Telephone,” and “Alejandro”.
Is it safe to say she was the biggest pop star in the country at this point?
Well, it’s tough to quantify these sorts of claims, but Gaga’s run of videos from The Fame Monster captured the world’s attention at a time when it was more difficult than ever to do so. “Bad Romance,” “Telephone,” and “Alejandro” racked up hundreds of millions of YouTube views, millions of dollars in sales, and uncountable hours’ worth of airtime, but merely discussing their commercial success doesn’t do them justice; Gaga kept upping the conceptual ante and captivated the world’s pop fans in the process, churning out mini-epics that incited meaningful discussions about product placement, appearance, and pop music as an art form. (It’s Gaga’s success on these terms that made her naked pursuit of high-art credibility with ARTPOP so curious, but we’re not quite there yet.)
What direction did she pursue for her next record?
After stretching her brand of dance-pop to its musical and conceptual breaking point, Gaga pivoted towards stylistic breadth and profoundly unfashionable sounds for her second full-length LP. Born This Way embraced the excesses of ‘70s cock-rock, ‘80s hair-metal, and sharp-but-cheesy techno, welding a genuine passion for said genres to the synths and titanic choruses of her earlier work. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Def Leppard, Kiss, Pat Benatar, Queen: they’re all aesthetically present on Born This Way, and sometimes actually present, as Clarence Clemons’ saxophone and Brian May’s guitar make appearances on multiple tracks. Gaga also amped up her vocal presence to unprecedented levels, unleashing her booming, hammy cannon on nearly every song. The album’s go-for-broke hyper-indulgence and musical diversity divided critics and consumers, but the final product was undeniably Gaga’s.
Does that mean Born This Way wasn’t as successful as The Fame and The Fame Monster?
That’s right — while still very popular (double platinum in the U.S., 6 million copies sold worldwide, four more top 10 hits), Born This Way didn’t quite match its lofty predecessors in terms of commercial success or cultural penetration.
Okay, back to the present: What exactly is ARTPOP, and what zany high concept is Gaga pursuing with this album?
ARTPOP hangs on two key concepts, one musical and one aesthetic. The former is Gaga’s attempt at fusing the incredibly successful dance-pop hooks and structure of her early releases with the broader palette that marked Born This Way; the latter has to do with her grasp for high-art credibility, an effort best represented by the conceptually audacious promo campaign surrounding the record’s release and Gaga’s comprehensive creative partnership with the artist Jeff Koons.
Well, is it good?
Yes! ARTPOP is her best album yet. It doesn’t fully realize Gaga’s grand vision of a thematically rock-solid, conceptually rich, musically ruthless magnum opus, but it doesn’t make her look (completely) ridiculous for trying. EDM-pop nuggets, Prince-ly light funk, electro-R&B, glam-rock hockey arena stompers, torch ballads worthy of Meat Loaf, industrial-strength techno, and “traditional” dance-pop all have a home on ARTPOP, and they’re all distilled into hooky, powerfully sung packages that are immediately identifiable as Lady Gaga songs. It’s thrilling to watch her attempt to realize her wildly ambitious musical dreams, and while she doesn’t always succeed — her stab at trap-pop is orders of magnitude worse than Katy Perry’s, and her song about weed reeks of earnest theatre-kid cheese — ARTPOP flows with a surprising coherence and accessibility given its wild track-to-track variance.
What are the best and worst songs on ARTPOP?
There are a few candidates for the best song on ARTPOP, depending on your mood. Are you interested in winking, filthy funk-pop that explodes into a glitchy, synth-spazzing chorus? “Sexxx Dreams” is waiting just around the corner. How about Robyn-esque electro-R&B with a divisive feminist message and an assist from R. Kelly? Second single “Do What U Want” will hit the spot. Perhaps you’ve settled down for the evening, and you want to cry into a cup of tea over a heart-wrenching piano ballad? The Rick Rubin collaboration “Dope” is yours to keep.
The worst songs on ARTPOP are a little more clear-cut, and they hang with the lowlights of Gaga’s career to date: the wannabe trap-pop banger “Jewels ’n Drugs” and bombastic, ultra-weird pot anthem “Mary Jane Holland” could both soundtrack a demented, C-rate carnival, though Gaga’s readings of “This family is stupid attractive” and “I know that Mom and Dad think I’m a mess/ But it’s alright because/ I am rich as piss” will have you laughing before you hit the skip button.
What’s the best song of her career?
ARTPOP provides a few worthy challengers, but the answer is still The Fame Monster’s “Bad Romance” — contemporary dance-pop with vocal flair, indelible attitude, and an incredible sense of style and stakes, this song (and its unforgettable video) is still Gaga’s finest moment.
And the worst?
Though there are some stinkers scattered throughout The Fame and Born This Way, ARTPOP flop “Jewels ’n Drugs” might just be Gaga’s low point to date. She has a flexibility and light touch that normally suits her well when skipping between genres, but her shoehorning of T.I., Too Short and Twista and a trap beat into her dance-pop world is awkward, ill-fitting, and utterly skippable.
After ARTPOP, what’s next for Lady Gaga?
Gaga’s next year or so is already fairly packed: she’ll undoubtedly tour heavily behind ARTPOP, she’s prepping a collection of jazz standard duets with legendary crooner Tony Bennett called Cheek to Cheek, and she’s referenced a potential ARTPOP sequel that would dive even further into experiments with sound and genre than its predecessor. She’s also planning a trip to space in 2015, where she will deliver the world’s first interstellar concert via a commercial spaceport. But in terms of sonic direction for future releases, Gaga’s next move will likely be determined by the commercial and critical success of ARTPOP. It’s tough to say whether or not she’ll double down on her current fusion of dance-pop bosh and genre dilettantism or move in a brand new direction, but one thing’s certain: Gaga will attempt to realize whatever goal she dreams up next with admirable ambition, flamboyance, and drive.