Over a decade ago, Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys coined the term “imperial phase” to describe the period of his band’s career when a sustained level of success opened up the possibility for them to do pretty much anything they wanted. For the Pet Shop Boys, this phase started with the four singles from their 1987 blockbuster Actually, and ended when the followup record Introspective didn’t perform quite as well on the charts. If you look at any pop star’s career, you can usually spot their “imperial phase” — for The Beatles it was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour in 1967; for Madonna it was Like A Prayer and the Blonde Ambition tour; for Michael Jackson it was the Bad era. It’s the time when an artist is so hot that no one will tell them they can’t follow through on their wildest ambitions, and no one would want to because it’s assumed that they have cracked the code of pop and can do no wrong.
Lady Gaga’s entire career to date is basically a meta performance piece about the imperial phase. Her guiding principle as an artist, even back when she was just an unknown upstart, has been to do whatever the biggest, craziest star in the world would do. She essentially willed herself into imperial phase status with her debut single “Just Dance” and now refuses to get out of it, even though her actual imperial phase — her stretch of Top 5 smashes from “Poker Face” on through “Born This Way,” all accompanied by increasingly ornate videos and live performances — is long over. This is a lot of what makes Gaga compelling as a pop star: She caters to the sort of fan who most enjoys pop music when artists take huge risks and are willing to make grand statements without being afraid of looking foolish. She fully embraces the peculiar mix of beauty and ridiculousness that can come from unchecked hubris.
When Gaga first announced ARTPOP last year, it sounded like she was going a bit too far, but not in the good way. The title was a bit too precious and academic, and the promise of the music being tied together by some kind of app was just a little too convoluted. “Applause,” the first single, was catchy but overly self-referential. It looked like Gaga was going to crash and burn from doing too much “imperial phase” stuff at a time when it was unclear whether the broader pop market even wanted new material from her in the first place. But now that ARTPOP is finally here — it’s out in Japan now, and will be officially released everywhere else in the world next week — those concerns have mostly fallen away. It remains to be seen whether or not this album will be a major commercial success on par with her previous records, but the album is proof that Gaga hasn’t become out of touch with her best instincts as a pop musician.
ARTPOP is interesting in that it’s somehow both deeply weird and conventional at the same time. Unlike her last two records, in which Gaga expanded the range of her sound, this album is almost exclusively focused on the sort of thumping straight-up Euro dance pop that made her a star. The lyrics and thematic conceits, however, go way further than ever before. She seems eager to push the envelope of what level of artsy absurdity she can get away with in a pop hit — name dropping Jeff Koons, quoting Sun Ra, sketching out a loose philosophy about “art pop,” having the chorus for one of the catchiest songs be “you’re just a pig inside a human body,” and generally coming off like something from Mike Myers’ old “Sprockets” sketches from Saturday Night Live.
ARTPOP sounds like it was recorded in an igloo made of cocaine and feels like diving headfirst into the most glorious extremes of her narcissism and pretentiousness. It’s gleaming and glamorous and relentlessly ecstatic, as if all the chords were just slamming down the buttons on every pleasure center in your brain at once. If you’re cool with Mother Monster’s excesses, ARTPOP is pure, uncut Gaga-ness and you will loooooove it. Everyone else should just skip it, because Gaga is at the point where she’s not really interested in entertaining anyone but her core fans.
There is a real thrill in hearing a major star be this willing to alienate casual listeners in the name of following her muse and rewarding her diehard fans. ARTPOP is the polar opposite of Katy Perry’s Prism, a bland pop record designed for mass appeal that is too lacking in quirks and character to have much resonance. Gaga’s obsession with fame, fashion, pop history, and her own cult of personality may be off-putting to many, but it results in music that is increasingly distinct and sui generis. Even though she puts up a front of being an untouchable pop deity, her music overflows with the humanity of someone who is unafraid to be vulnerable and ridiculous. Her refusal to compromise and monomaniacal commitment to living in a permanent imperial phase is genuinely inspiring, especially since it’s increasingly disconnected from a need for the market to validate her success. Gaga makes her own reality, and even if this album flops horribly, she has created a world in which she will always be a superstar.