The pop world is cyclical -- Madonna, to cite the canonical example, has fallen in and out of favor in a manner resembling a sine wave for the past three decades or more. But the changes in Lady Gaga's fortunes have begun to seem like the sort of thing the pop star needs to address, and something she's only continued to make worse.
Lady Gaga's seemed, since the release last fall of her album "Artpop," increasingly reaching for the attention she used to command easily. She may well have hit a new low-water-mark with a performance at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, during which a woman onstage induced herself to vomit all over the pop star.
Lady Gaga's never been shy about a certain sort of grotesquerie; at the very pinnacle of her career, when collecting the Video of the Year trophy at MTV's VMAs, she wore a dress made of meat. But the entire South by Southwest set, which streamed online, felt like a misjudged attempt to shock. It seemed, for all that it incorporated elements that other artists wouldn't have gone for, too obvious.
The pop singer's "Artpop" rollout has been particularly cursed. The songs themselves have failed to connect on the level of past hits like "Poker Face" or "Bad Romance"; second single "Do What U Want," one of the most radio-friendly songs on the album, bore the weight of an unfortunate association with R. Kelly at the precise moment his past legal battles over his sexual conduct had come under scrutiny. Rather than release a new single, Gaga dithered for months -- a level of indecision perhaps due to the fact that, for good or ill, there simply aren't obvious breakout hits on the album.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with an artist choosing to release an album without the sort of obvious, on-trend songs that can hit number-one on the charts. Lady Gaga contemporaries like Rihanna and Katy Perry have both recently released albums (respectively, 2012's "Unapologetic" and 2013's "Prism") that lean relatively heavily on slower, darker, or less immediately catchy material. But both, too, spun off at least one number-one single from among the more accessible tracks on their most recent albums.
To produce a self-proclaimed art project is all well and good, but Gaga has, for months now, been trying to have it both ways -- to put forward more alienating material and to stay as famous as she was back when she produced straightforward dance music. "Artpop" strains under the weight of Gaga trying to do way too much, ideologically, and the music is spiky and sometimes unpleasant on the ears.
The great secret of Lady Gaga's hyper-fame (during the period between, say, 2009 and 2012) was that she never really had much to say. The idea underpinning her career was that fame is fun and interesting -- and she summarily allowed outlandish outfits and awards-show stunts to take a backseat to solidly produced pop music that perfectly suited prevailing disco-revival trends. Her music wasn't About anything but itself, but it was a vehicle to fame.
Music that is About Fame is -- or at least this particular music is -- much less interesting. Lady Gaga's experience of her own public profile would have to be put in a far more appealing framework in order to really catch on. And so it is that, without the tunes to keep the public interested, Lady Gaga allows a collaborator to vomit on her in public.
The setting, here, is meaningful; Lady Gaga performed at a small venue in a set sponsored by Doritos, one whose audience had agreed to draconian terms in order to attend. She played only one pre-"Artpop" hit, and told the audience she was only doing "Artpop" lead single "Applause" because she'd been ordered to. At the moment she's most disconnected from the conventions of pop music, Lady Gaga is compelled to obey corporate diktat more than ever.
If producing more self-consciously "artistic" material is what Lady Gaga wants, then good for her. But her increased stunting for attention -- the sort she used to get for far less -- and her public discussion of the depression she felt at the end of 2013, following "Artpop"'s release, indicate that she really does want mass approval. So, too, does the lengthy apology she gave the audience before performing substance-abuse ballad "Dope," documented here. In all, the months after her art project was met with a shrug seem an extremely difficult time for one of the most fame-addled contemporary stars.
The lesson that you can't simultaneously disregard what the public wants from pop and get them to love you is turning out to be a hard one, but one hopes the next stage in Lady Gaga's evolution is towards something that sates her, and away from bodily fluids.