Live for the Applause: William Bennett and Lisa Blanning on Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP
The pop star’s third album sees her drawing Jeff Koons and Sun Ra into her orbit. Electronic Beats’ online editor Lisa Blanning and musician/producer William Bennett—of the pioneering noise band Whitehouse and the African rhythm and voudou-inspired Cut Hands—contemplate the record together.
Lisa Blanning: First off, let’s be honest with each other about what our previous engagement with Lady Gaga has been. I have to admit that I’ve never really engaged with her before this. After going through her discography, I realized that there were only two or three songs I’d even heard and registered before. What about you?
William Bennett: I remember—and it’s not a program I watch, believe me—Jonathan Ross had her on, and I quite enjoyed how confrontational and provocative she was with him. She did a live performance on the show, “Poker Face” or something, and I was intrigued to see that she didn’t do it in a normal, big-production dance style. It was a very “basic rock” kind of approach. Around the same time, I remember reading a review in The Guardian where she’d played for an hour or so in London. Now this was before she had her big explosion with fame. So they were complaining that she performed these songs, which were already hits, in this kind of rock style rather than what the kids—if we can call them that—were expecting. Ever since, I’ve thought that musically she’s quite interesting because I think the big dance, big production thing isn’t really her. I did some research about her pre-Gaga years, and it’s so different! It seems much more her, funnily enough. She’s playing keyboard, and she has these weird, rather inaccessible lyrics, but it’s just a basic rock band. They’re called the SGBand, the Stefani Germanotta Band, and how rock can you get?
LB: That’s a good point, for two reasons. When you listen to all of her albums, there’s a consistency to the songwriting, no matter how it’s produced. That implies that she has a lot to do with her own songwriting, as opposed to relying on a stable of writers. The other thing is that—and I think that this is the case through all the records, but I feel like it’s the strongest in the newest record—to me, listening to the songs themselves, they sound like rock opera music theater. I actually thought to myself about The Who’s Tommy and Hedwig and The Angry Inch. The theatricality of her persona as well as the actual music itself really does remind me of something like that.
WB: I always have difficulty listening to music and not thinking about production technique. As a general comment about all three of her albums, especially this last one, it sounds to me like the original songs would be something you’d expect on an album by Heart or Cher or Stevie Nicks. But she’s given it to these young whiz kid producers, and they’ve basically just gone crazy with their remixes. You can still hear that kind of eighties, AOR-style underneath it. Even the way she sings reminds me of that. It’s almost like she hands her songs over to these new producers to do whatever they want.
LB: I totally get that vibe. What this ultimately means to me, though, is that you have to divorce Lady Gaga the entertainer from the music. I think that this is really evident in the same way that although I had never really engaged with her music, I knew quite a lot about her as a personality. This, to me, is almost more significant than the music. I guess that’s something a musician would hate to hear about themselves.
WB: I think that, underneath all the hype and the presentation, and you really notice this when you see videos of the SGBand, you can see that she loves singing and playing the keyboard, and it’s pretty impressive. It reminded me of the Queen songs when Freddie Mercury would get behind the piano and start singing. She seems to really enjoy that the most. But since then, of course, all of her fame has really depended on these big-production electronic dance songs. There’s a tension between the two things.
LB: I agree that she’s gone further along that route with this last record. Basically there are maybe three songs on the new record that couldn’t be classified as EDM—and those are actually my three favorite songs on the record. To be perfectly honest, they’re the only songs I actually like on the record.
WB: There are three or four of the electronic songs on the record which I think are absolutely outstanding. “G.U.Y.” I think is a great dance pop song, and “Swine” is absolutely brilliant. The way it marries the lyrics to the bass synth and the harmonies works incredibly well. It’s a much more focused song than others on the record as well. I remember Skrillex did a brilliant remix of “Bad Romance”. He did a remix of “Alejandro” as well. I thought that was really a defining moment for her. There was no turning back. For the sake of her career, the best thing she could do would be to have Skrillex produce her new record. What’s interesting is that he’s nowhere to be seen on ARTPOP, but it’s almost as if she said to all her enlisted production team, “Listen to this remix Skrillex did and please emulate that.” But, not for want of trying, none of them have his genius.
LB: Skrillex is definitely really important to American pop music because he’s the artist that really signifies a change in terms of popular music there. He was the turning point for EDM that made it massive. Now there are lots of artists who make EDM, but he’s the one who took it to the charts. I think your point applies to the broader pop landscape of America as a whole as opposed to just Gaga. I do think that she actually does sometimes write interesting music, but I think that it’s the whole theatricality of it all—to be cynical, you could call it marketing—that has made her the pop star she is today. She’s not just in the charts. She doesn’t have the longevity to yet compare her to Michael Jackson or Madonna, but the fact is that in terms of sheer numbers she’s approaching their territory. We’re not talking star, we’re talking mega-star, someone who for several years has been one of the biggest pop stars on the planet.
For me… my favorite song on the record is “Fashion!” because it’s a pop version of a classic disco number, which by the second half becomes almost a different song. I wish that they’d gone back to the lyrics and the chorus, as opposed to making it a different song. Another thought I had about this record is that it’s so full-on on so many levels. I think the Queen reference is incredibly apt because there’s this very prog element to her songwriting. Even though there was a time when prog was popular, as pop music is was short-lived, and even as underground music it has an aura of being shunned in a lot of circles and by myself as well. I’m not into prog, which is why I don’t like a lot of what this record is about. It’s so thunderous and overbearing, and prog in the sense that there’s a lot going on.
WB: The funny thing is that it’s proggy, yet the songs are so short. There are enough ideas and content in, for example, “Aura” and “Venus”, the two opening songs, that could be eight to ten minute prog epics.
LB: So these ideas are compacted into pop song length.
WB: Absolutely! They’re packed with hooks and choruses. It’s a bit overwhelming at times. “Aura” ends before you’ve even appreciated that it’s begun, before you’ve got your head around what the song involves in terms of chorus and structure. One thing I actually appreciate, one small detail, is the intent of the album to sequence an overall narrative; in other words to encourage you to listen from beginning to end. A lot of music in the current iPod era is designed for people to have on shuffle, or to pick their favorite songs from the whole.
LB: I actually noticed the same thing. That’s what reinforced the whole idea of Lady Gaga as rock opera. It does feel like there’s a narrative arc. In terms of production, The tracks I liked stood out because they’re different. “Jewels N’Drugs”, for example, is basically a trap/rap production…
WB: I think that was a bit of a mistake. It’s the one song on the album—and I’m including other songs I don’t like—where she loses her identity. All the other songs make you think immediately, “Oh, this is a Gaga song,” which I think is a great compliment. You couldn’t say that about Katy Perry’s album, for example. It could be anyone, it’s incredibly generic. Whereas Lady Gaga, love her or hate her, has a real individualism to her. Whereas “Jewels N’Drugs” sounds to me generic, not her.
LB: You have a point, but one of the things I like about it is—besides the fact that I like trap and do not like EDM—while Gaga doesn’t full-on rap, you get the hint that she could. Another thing I like about Gaga as a whole, and in this record particularly is that she has different voices. If you listen to M.I.A. or someone like, I don’t know, Vybz Kartel, for example, those two seem to have one voice that they use for almost every song. It’s very boring listening to an entire album of that one thing. Whereas Gaga, and this is partly due to the recording process as well as other factors, but her voices doesn’t sound the same in every song. I do think you’re right about her being very individual. For me, I really like “Jewels N’Drugs” because I like trap and I liked “Do What U Want” because of R. Kelley being featured, and I liked “Fashion!”
WB: In terms of the sequencing narrative, she’s got “Donatella”, then follows up with “Fashion!”, and she also married the two drug songs “Mary Jane Holland” and “Dope”.
LB: I like “Dope” because it stands out; it’s a piano ballad. But it’s a rock piano ballad.
WB: To me that’s the real Lady Gaga. I’m sure if she were left to her own devices, she would love to make albums like that. She’s probably not quite good enough to sell, to be honest. This was the same with the SGBand; you watch it and you think, “My god, this girl is talented, she’s got so much stage charisma.” However the songs just aren’t good enough.
LB: Let’s talk about the art element. Obviously the record is called ARTPOP, and this brings me back to what I think Gaga is truly brilliant at, which is marketing flamboyance and theatricality. She perhaps raises it to an art form itself. This collaboration with Jeff Koons on the cover art… on the one hand, the cynic in me wants to think that Koons is a starfucker and that he’s raising his own profile, while Gaga is trying to gain credibility by collaborating with this established, respected artist. But I really like the cover art, and I really like that sculpture. It makes me think that she actually has taste in that she could have gone for a more famous but more shit artist. Koons is famous, but I don’t think the average Gaga fan would necessarily know who he is. Maybe that’s not giving credit to people, because he is famous; but if you don’t already have an interest in art, maybe you wouldn’t know who he is.
WB: I don’t like him personally, but he’s certainly a shrewd choice on her part, if we’re judging her by her choices rather than her productions. I read somewhere that she was already familiar with his work before she met him at some event. It certainly didn’t come across that he came to her first.
LB: I wouldn’t have envisioned that. But he said yes, as opposed to turning her down. We don’t know anything about him; maybe he’s a big Lady Gaga fan. But one presumes that he did it because she’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world. But there used to be an element of scandal to what he does, and where he’s gone from that fits very well into the pop sphere. If you don’t like his work, what were your thoughts on the sculpture and cover art?
WB: I think it’s a good cover, as album covers go. It’s interesting how it’s merged with the Botticelli. I read that the idea behind that was so Gaga wouldn’t be lonely, so that she would have some company. I think that’s a curious comment. I have no idea what her life is like outside of music, but I see her as a lonely sort of character.
LB: Maybe fame makes you lonely. But we can assume that Gaga is invested in art because of all these collaborations she’s priding herself on…
WB: It’s interesting to note this collaboration with Marina Abramovic where she went to her exhibition The Artist Is Present and sat opposite Abramovic. She’s obviously into art on some level. However, that aside, there’s remarkably little art reference in the lyrics and music itself. I can’t find anything, really.
LB: There’s only one, in “Venus” where she’s talking about seashell bikinis and imagining herself as the Venus on the half-shell.
WB: That’s pretty much lifted from the Sun Ra song, isn’t it?
LB: Lady Gaga listens to Sun Ra?
WB: He’s credited on the track. They’re his lyrics. The connections are very tenuous; Venus doesn’t have much to do with the painting, in my opinion. The song, I think, focuses more on Venus the planet as opposed to the painting. You could argue that it’s the same metaphor, but I think it’s more like a space disco thing going on there.
LB: To me, it’s both. There’s the reference to Venus on the half-shell, and obviously she’s the goddess of love. I didn’t even pick up on the Sun Ra reference.
WB: Apparently, Sun Ra was reinterpreted by this electronic French band Zombie Zombie, who do these sort of John Carpenter-style songs, and if you listen to their version you can tell it’s where she got the idea from—the chorus from her version is basically lifted from theirs. To go back to the original point, all this leaves us with really is the title track, “Artpop”—and it’s remarkably bland.
LB: “Artpop” is one I forgot to mention as liking specifically because it stood out from the EDM-ness of the album. The production sounds more futuristic, less of the bombastic rock dynamic of EDM. Do you find it bland in contrast to the rest of the album?
WB: As the title track, you expect it to be more dynamic; this is your manifesto that identifies the album. “Free my mind, ARTPOP/You make my heart stop.” To me this is one of those classic rhyming dictionary moments: “Wow, heart stops rhymes with ARTPOP!” and you build your song around a corny rhyme rather than representing anything more meaningful. It gets even blander in the chorus: “We could, we could belong together.” That’s repeated four or five times. It’s a remarkable vacuum of ideas. Though there’s one line in it that’s notable, I suppose, in this context: “ARTPOP could mean anything.”
LB: Yes, though I would say more that that’s just the standards of pop music in general. I remember I once had a conversation with an A&R guy from a major label, and he was talking about how pop music needs to have lyrics that are easy enough for people around the world to understand while still conveying something.
WB: I think that’s interesting, because if you read it as opposed to listen to it, it reads like one of those J-Pop or K-Pop songs where they do it in English even though it’s not for English speakers—it’s for a home market who enjoy these snippets of English thrown in.
LB: I worry that we’re saying the kinds of things that two people who aren’t very invested in pop music would say.
WB: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. Were ARTPOP ten songs long as opposed to fifteen, it could be a great album that would be fun to come back to. There are just too many duds for my liking. The problem with Lady Gaga is that when she’s great, she’s really special. “G.U.Y.” and “Swine” are both incredible, and “Applause” is a great song too. The problem with the songs you don’t like is that you don’t like them so much that they actually spoil the other songs. They’re not just bland, like with the Katy Perry album. Those you can just ignore. On ARTPOP, the bad songs really grate on you, and they spoil everything.
LB: It does actually make listening to the record a bit of a chore.
WB: One thing I saw somewhere was, a Gaga Theory of Art, I’m not even sure who wrote it. It’s got these six rules, and the first one is, “You have to live for criticism. Every time you release something, someone will say it’s awful, or not original, or too long, or too weird. Instead of shying away from this, being an artist means you welcome feedback, await it, even, with a smirk on your face.” When I read that, Gaga actually made a lot more sense to me. In one sense, if we follow rule number two: “You must love being famous,”—assuming that the tenet she’s following is art for fame’s sake—that as much as she tries to be vacuous she’s giving meaning to art, despite herself! That’s what makes her more intriguing than many other pop artists.
LB: In a way that’s a real sort of meta-level; fame for the sake of art, art for the sake of fame or fame as art. Which goes back to what I was saying, her theatricality as art. Then the part about art having no meaning, which would be an existential explanation for fame. Swap out the two words: if art is fame, then fame has no meaning.
WB: Yes! That’s the interesting thing; because if she’s made some Faustian pact, she herself is betraying that pact. ~
Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP is out now via Interscope Records.
Published November 19, 2013. Words by Lisa Blanning.