As pop dreams go it was quite banal: Lady Gaga was making me drink seawater – “surfer’s mix”, she called it, a tonic taken by serious surfers to line their stomachs before taking to the waves. The dream was no doubt triggered by the recent story about her using marijuana to soothe the pain of her hip. But more interesting to me was the fact that I knew I was in safe hands with the Garge, looking out at those 30-foot breakers. There’s a select number of famous people you feel warm towards regardless of whether you have any engagement with their product. I know I’d never get serious surfing advice in a dream from Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus, or even Katy Perry for that matter.
Anyway: the word on the street is that Gaga is not as interesting as she used to be, or claims to be. She’s put herself about a bit in the press this month – a chink in the mystique – and her third album, Artpop (which has gone in at No 1), has met with criticism for the distance between its lofty handle and and its apparently ordinary music.
Thirty years ago the music press would try to engineer these stories of disappointment and failure based on an artist’s 18- month cycle of album/tour-image/change. The digital media accelerates the process because consumers themselves get satiated so quickly and all the reaction is on a larger, more public scale. Add to this the fact that Gaga’s biggest followers are already perceived to be a sub-section of teens, freaks and geeks and it’s possible to conclude that in ten years’ time she could be one of those underground franchises that millions of people use but no one talks about, a bit like World of Warcraft.
But I’m baffled by the idea that she may be losing direction, because it suggests she knew where she was going in the first place. Her central premise, nicked from Bowie, has always been that of making it up as you go along: what will I be next? Honey, you know as well as I. Her Born This Way Ball Tour of 2012 remains the best concert tour I have ever seen but not because it made any narrative sense: a hexagonal-faced hologram Gaga chased an earthling version of her round the stage; she turned into a motorbike and later, most impressively, glided by on rollers like a giant, elegant, motorised salt cellar. The fact that you longed to see her stop, sit down and do something normal suggests to me the presence of a big, old-fashioned rock star personality within a consumer environment that does its best to make such mysteries impossible.
Anyway, Artpop’s lyrical content sets you straight about any big ideas. The majority of the songs are about sex: onanism – “Sexxx Dreams”; submission – “Do What You Want” (a duet with the endlessly tittilating R Kelly) and “GUY”, which appears to be aimed at a couple of generations’ worth of girls who’ve been misinformed that being on top is better than the missionary position – and as such is an anthem long overdue. Its chorus includes a melodic phrase that is exactly the same as a melodic phrase in “Bad Romance”. “Venus”, meanwhile, has a Meditteranean-holiday tune reminiscent of Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita”, which Gaga has made good use of over the years; and one line from “Fashion” is a line from David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” (“put on your red shoes and dance the blues”) almost note for note, just with different words.
Perhaps it’s too generous to say that these thefts are postmodern tributes but let’s be clear – there is nothing pedestrian about Artpop. This is a chaotic, creaking, mad juggernaut of a record weighing in at 16 songs and full of the kind of geeky studio tricks you were able to get away with in the 1970s without being called self-indulgent, such as the effect – God knows what it is, a drum? – in “Swine” that whirs like a motorbike throttle and speeds into overdrive dragging your heartbeat with it.
Sometimes this album is like Chinese water torture but mostly it is completely exhilarating. Its lack of restraint suggests one woman hammering away in a studio (in fact, there were tons of producers) but more importantly, the kind of creative energy usually associated with someone rather brilliant at the very start of their career, trying to do too much at once. There is toilet humour and earthiness, and on a couple of tracks – “Manicure” and “Dope” – her voice is a huge, bluesy organ lying somewhere between the Bonnies Tyler and Raitt. Every face in the waxworks of popular music can be found on Artpop – from Elaine Stritch to Meatloaf – wrapped in the packaging of euphoric clubland.
I’m really glad I’m not 15 with those awful mums and dads who try to bond by “sharing” their music with you: there’s a whole generation that has been completely dispossessed of pop by a grabbing parental class who were there the first time round and won’t let them forget it. Gaga is a wild and uncynical repackager of music for people who came along after its glory days; born at the wrong time, she probably decided during her lonely bucktoothed years at school that the only thing for it was to reappropriate the whole shebang for a new generation and lead them, Pied-Piper like into a world where it felt like it was all happening for the first time.