It's easy to pinpoint when Lady Gaga could have been a reigning queen of pop.
It was sometime in 2011, after the release of her sophomore album Born This Way. A home run after 2008's breakout debut The Fame, it was an album that not only minted a brand-new gay anthem but hinted at the singer/songwriter eclipsed by the wigs, the garish makeup and the meat dress. Born This Way managed to make a bigger statement than her media-baiting outfits; it was, at its best, about the music -- even if it wasn't necessarily about her music.
The album sounded like a joyful celebration of influences that almost, but not quite, redeemed her various thefts -- be they from drag-queen culture or Bowie or Madonna or Cher or Warhol or Springsteen. It was like she was owning being "the diva of déj vu" -- a title bestowed on her by culture critic Camille Paglia in an eviscerating 2010 profile. In many ways, Born This Way was like fan art, a pastiche in the truest sense. The artist born Stefani Germanotta takes pop music seriously -- and she wants us to take it seriously, too -- but she isn't afraid to have fun with it.
Despite a Uranus joke, there is little fun in her latest album, 2013's humourless Artpop, which she is supporting with the Artpop Ball tour that lands at the MTS Centre on Thursday night.
The record's a disappointing 180-degree turn -- a point that will only be highlighted Thursday night when she plays the new songs alongside hits such as Poker Face (which she usually strips down to a piano ballad) and anthems such as Edge of Glory. Gone is the self-awareness and the winking tongue-in-cheekiness; instead, it's mostly collection of soulless club-bangers, not to mention an icky collaboration with R. Kelly.
"Artpop can mean anything," Gaga sings on the title track, but the problem with things that can mean anything is that they also can often mean nothing.
For an album that's supposed to send up vapid celebrity, it comes out sounding like a celebration of it. Born This Way was all about letting your freak flag fly. Artpop sounds like music for moneyed mannequins.
Lady Gaga's honeymoon is over, it seems; "Artpop? More like Artflop!" was a common burn on the Internet. Her shock value/novelty has worn off. People are still talking about her, but they're talking about her less. And it's clear she reads her own press; she starred in a 45-second promo video called Lady Gaga Is Over: A Film By Haus of Gaga.
But is Lady Gaga over?
If anything, the public is certainly over Gaga's well-documented riddle-wrapped-in-an-enigma persona, which was the source of much fascination and criticism when she first arrived on the scene. She is a study in contradictions. Gaga fancies herself an avant-garde performance artist, but she's also a capital-P Pop Star. She wants to exist both on the fringes and the mainstream. She poses on magazine covers in bare-faced make-unders in an effort to show how human she is; then she'll posit bizarre things in the press about how those Toblerone cheekbones she was sporting during the promotional cycle of Born This Way are her real bones. She's never really been the marginalized artist she so desperately wants to be; her blond ambition matched that of another Italian-American pop star who came up through the New York scene.
Musically, however, Lady Gaga has more to say. Perhaps Artpop was disappointing because she's capable of so much more. After all, it's hard to deny Gaga's raw talent, work ethic, creativity and business savvy. When she sings that she lives for the applause on Artpop's best (and most redeeming) track, she's sincere. Her loyal legion of Little Monsters is what sustains her. That's why she will always keep one six-inch heel in the public realm -- even while she's figuring herself out.
Lady Gaga isn't over. She's just getting started.
Her latest album doesn't sound like the last gasp of a dying career -- rather, it sounds like the final breath of a conflicted, conflated persona that Gaga is (hopefully) outgrowing.
It's easy to forget that she isn't even 30 yet and this is only her third album.
"It's a comedown for Lady Gaga, to be sure -- but that's the thing about pop demigods who have Imperial Phases," wrote Pitchfork's Chris Molanphy of the record. "After the phase ends, you're left navigating a career as a run-of-the-mill pop star, proving yourself song by song."
Maybe. But she's at an interesting crossroads creatively; Artpop could also be the artflop that frees her. And she can be secure that no matter what direction she heads in, we'll be watching to see what she does next. Death to Lady Gaga. Long live Lady Gaga.