By Mikael Wood
4:47 PM EST, November 11, 2013
The offer comes early and, of course, in the form of a provocation.
“Do you want to see me naked, lover?” Lady Gaga asks in “Aura,” the first song on her new album, “Artpop.” “Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura?”
Wait, no -- hold on. Do we want that?
More than any of her A-list peers, Lady Gaga makes a spectator sport of the entire pop-star experience, from her music to her pronouncements on social issues to her determination to wear the wackiest outfit possible every time she steps in front of the paparazzi.
No one plays the mass media as cleverly as she has since she emerged in 2008 with “The Fame,” the smash-hit debut that foretold its own success. And over the last five years, she’s used it to construct a persona that purposely reflects our complicated, contradictory relationship with celebrity.
But now here she comes on her third full-length -- several months after a hip injury forced her off the road and out of the tabloid panopticon she’s happily called home -- promising to drop the veil (or the burqa, as she puts it somewhat troublingly in “Aura”).
“I just love the music, not the bling,” she tells us in “Artpop’s” title track, and if you can remember the last time that sentiment paid off on a pop record, you’ve got a longer memory than I do.
But don’t underestimate Lady Gaga: Though “Gypsy” might do sincere Bruce Springsteen-style rock more effectively than the Boss himself has lately, it turns out that authenticity is just another pose.
“My artpop could mean anything,” she sings at one point, no more willing than ever to align herself with a single viewpoint. It’s a mind-set borne out by the rest of the album’s shifts in tone and perspective -- which doesn’t mean she’s equally convincing in all her guises.
In the lengthy promotional run-up to “Artpop,” Lady Gaga described her plans for a “reverse Warholian expedition” in which she and collaborators such as performance artist Marina Abramovic and Jeff Koons (who designed the album’s cover) would “bring art culture into pop.”
Yet as presented in the title track and “Applause,” that might be the least exciting idea she has here, not to mention the most familiar at a moment when the barrier between art and pop has never been more permeable.
Wasn’t that Jay Z inviting Abramovic to appear in a music video just this summer?
There are other duds, including the clunky arena-rock goof “Manicure” and “Donatella,” an excruciatingly lame homage to her friend Donatella Versace. (“Fashion!,” with a plush soul-funk groove, more effectively communicates her belief in the transformational potential of clothes.)
And in “Jewels N’ Drugs,” a toothless attempt at the clattering hip-hop variant known as trap, she comes off like a tourist; it makes Katy Perry’s recent trap experiment, “Dark Horse,” sound positively thrilling.
But Lady Gaga approaches other fresh modes with more spirit, particularly in a handful of songs that pull deeply from R&B: the throbbing “G.U.Y.” (short for “girl under you”); “Do What U Want,” a sleek duet with R. Kelly; and “Sexxx Dreams,” which proposes a tryst with a lover whose boyfriend is away for the weekend.
Sex is hardly a new topic for Lady Gaga, who memorably sang about a disco stick in “LoveGame.” Yet bodies have often seemed to serve a kind of allegorical function in her songs; they’ve represented freedom or passion or adventure.
Here the music is appealingly carnal, even when Lady Gaga works a metaphor outright, as in “Do What U Want,” which doubles as a rejoinder to her critics. “Do what you want with my body,” she sings, but “you can’t stop my voice ’cause you don’t own my life.”
She takes an opposite tack in “Swine,” finding a kind of horror-movie disgust in desire. “I know you want me,” she snarls, channeling Courtney Love. “You’re just a pig inside a human body.” It’s a sharp counterpoint to the steamy sex talk, as is “Dope,” a stripped-down piano ballad near the end of “Artpop” in which she uses her most unvarnished singing to deliver pained lyrics about “hurting low from living high for so long.”
Is that the soul-baring she threatens at the beginning of the record? In a way, sure; “I need you more than dope” feels pretty honest. But as the song builds toward a Broadway-sized climax, her voice cracking in practiced spontaneity, you can hear Lady Gaga mainlining her real drug of choice: our attention.
She’s not ready to tell all yet.
Two and a half stars (out of four)
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