Hard candy shell, chewy gooey center: That's always been the Lady Gaga recipe. She named her new album Artpop — the title is a mission statement — but Tootsie Pop is her M.O., too. What you see on the outside (flighty prankster in a meat dress, super awkward nekkidness, a star poking fun at stardom) is often not what's tucked lovingly inside (affable hooks, wordplay a la the larynx-aerobics of Bad Romance, a satirist who still really, really likes to dance).
When the blend works, as on 2008's winking debut The Fame and 2009 EP The Fame Monster, Gaga is unstoppable, eccentric enough to stand out, musically playful enough to be devoured by everyone.
Madonna 2.0 is not far off the mark.
But a constant need to reinvent herself has taken its toll, a creative tightrope starting to wobble. Gaga has become a lot of work leading up to Artpop. No longer puckish or whimsical, her performance-art side has become obtuse, tedious. (Ever see that promo vid where she was clothes-averse and making weird noises?) The pop has lost a certain pep. Neither side of Gaga, 27, is all that charming these days.
The new album is an identity crisis. Playful ideas give way to rote dance beats; invited guests (R. Kelly, T.I.) aren't as inspired compared to past cameos, such as having Brian May play on the Queen-like stomp of You and I (awesome) or Beyonce call in on Telephone (awesomer).
Album opener Aura has headphone-cool vocal effects and chilly 'tude — Gaga chuckling from the pits of Hades — but then turns into a dull synthy disco spin. Venus ("Take me to your leader") and Manicure ("Manicure! Manicure!") settle for rote beats, "this could be love" lyrics; neither could crack the lineup of The Fame Monster.
G.U.Y. is inexplicably cookie-cutter, almost too chaste. But when she gets randy — on Sexxx Dreams — it's not that sexxxy at all. Hip-hop banger Jewels N' Drugs wants to journey into the 'hood; instead, it sounds like Gaga lost a bet.
You have to dig through a lot of so-so stuff (Swine might be the worst thing she's ever done; sooey, is that bad) to find something shimmering. Buried deep on the second side is the ballad Dope. The words are still clunky ("I need you more than dope"), but her caterwauling like Stevie Nicks feels honest, perhaps the first time on the album where she's relaxing and just letting it fly.
Not too long ago, Lady Gaga was in control of her creative schizophrenia. Now she seems dizzied by it. The album is arduous, forced. Where are the smiles, the laughs? Where's the besotted hijinks of Just Dance?
When Artpop's first single Applause came out a few months ago, I didn't love the track, although I appreciated the layering of the chorus, the jetstream production. Her tweaking of celebrity wasn't as cutting; where once she was mocking the quest for fame, now she was dealing with the repercussions of fame, a far less universal stance. I figured Applause was just a taste, that a smart pop star had bigger things in store.
But let it be known that Applause is the best thing on the album, and the catchiest single. Lady Gaga, once a refreshing tasty Tootsie Pop, is now dusty old Halloween candy. Let's hope she finds that recipe again soon.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter and Instagram.