For those of us who follow pop music closely, it seems that Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP has been almost too long-a-time coming. Gaga has never been great at keeping secrets, so while she was practically still in the middle of promoting her last album: Born This Way, she revealed the name of her next album, which at the time, was expected to be released by the end of 2012. An unfortunate and near devastating hip injury, a partially-cancelled (very expensive) tour, a seeming public backlash and a whole lot of delays later, Gaga is back in the spotlight with a new single, and just finished playing an opening slot at the iTunes Festival in London, having played seven never-before-heard tracks from the the much abuzzed ARTPOP, ahead of it’s November 11th release date.
How was her first concert performance, post-injury? How did the newly debuted ARTPOP tracks fare at the gates of Pop Heaven? You’ll have to read on to find out, and you can even watch the performance and decide for yourself!
- Jewels & Drugs
- SEX DREAMS
- I Wanna Be With You
(Song names styled as they appear to be by Gaga, just in case it matters…)
My Recap / Reactions:
Gaga opened the iTunes festival set with the much debated “AURA,” emerging in a sort of samurai quarterback costume and wielding a butcher knife to sing the Kill Bill-esque intro. While wearing an actual burqa would have been likely to cause some eyebrows to raise, she did conceal her face, so it was (at least) referenced. Coming unhinged, she’s captured by some dancers to be hoisted into the sky in a strange, Lady Gaga shaped cage, before being brought back down and released so she can do some choreography. I have no idea what it all means, but I don’t care because the Little Monster inside of me is too busy being in awe. Relatively unchanged from the version that recently leaked, “AURA” is a bizarre, political piece that is carried by the frankness of it’s lyrics and the transcendence of Gaga’s vocal on the hook as she cries “Do you want to see me naked, lover? Do you want a peek underneath the cover? Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura…”
She takes a moment to address the audience at the end of the set opener, and we see that the on-stage costume changes she did on her recent VMA performance are (at least for now) here to stay for the ARTPOP era. She loses the extreme shoulder pads and dons a dark brown wig with heavy fringe, figure hugging black body suit, some frilly stockings and some flashy high heel boots. Truthfully, I’m finding the transparency of it all very interesting; Make-up Artists becoming part of the show instead of just behind the scenes. (Or is it backup dancers, pretending to be make-up artists? I’m not sure.) While these preparatory interludes will continue, this one does work as a nice segue into her first true debut of the set, as she apologizes for forgetting to get a pedicure, but assures us she got a manicure.
“MANiCURE,” at least in this live performance, is an 80’s rock-infused bit of bratty pop where Gaga snarls about making herself sexy for a man who is “the medicine I need to heal” over hand claps and guitar solos. The hook is structured as a chant, which is reminiscent of Icona Pop’s “I Don’t Care” but only a touch. It’s incredibly infectious, playfully aggressive, and only the first hint (of many to come) that Gaga is ready to experiment more with genre-bending. As she finishes the track, dancers (or maybe stage hands) bring out a chair and some mirrors. It’s time for another costume change.
We watch on as ambient music plays and Gaga is, once again, made over before our eyes. Off comes the brown wig, to be replaced by the wild, wavy blonde wig and seashells she’s worn for several parts of the campaign so far. She talks about what “ARTPOP” means, and how when her and her fans come together, they “belong” and that they “make love” and how her hope is that she can help to create a world where art and pop can come together in the same way and “make love.” It all seems very sentimental and cheesy, but because it’s Gaga you just don’t care and you’re nodding your head and thinking, “Yes.. yes.. let’s make love Gaga! Let’s do it!”
And so, she begins to sing the title track from her upcoming album, a surprisingly sexy song with heavy influences in 80’s new wave and vocals that are very reminiscent of Annie Lennox (note those high “hee-heeeee” moments). It seems to hover between a sultry love song, and a manifesto, but in the moments watching her perform this track, center stage at the mic, backed only by a band and a psychedelic backdrop covered in flowers, I am enraptured in it’s vibe and suddenly very aware of how amazing these songs are going to sound through headphones when I get my grubby little paws on them.
Giving us another moment to calm the fuck down, Gaga does the unexpected and pulls on an oversized, red plaid shirt as she talks a little about her Dad and starts to get into discussing how she went about writing this album, when people start throwing pigs at her and she foreshadows a much-awaited song to come later in the set. She gets back to her reveal and says that while she wanted to make an album that her fans would love, she mostly wanted to write an album that set her free from the box of expectations of what a pop star should be. While we’ve already heard a bit of variety, she says that she wanted to do a lot of different genres of music, because she’s a fan, and now we know that the next song is definitely going to be a little outside of our comfort zones.
Those of you who are big fans of The Fame, will probably call that Gaga’s music once had a bit of an urban influence, which has been mostly missing from her last two releases. Despite the very country girl appearance of Gaga in an oversize hunting shirt, and the fact that Gaga joins her band at the piano, “Jewels & Drugs” is a hip hop banger featuring T.I, Too Short, DJ White Shadow & Twista. If you think that sounds completely ridiculous and that I’m joking, you’re wrong about at least one thing.
On one of the hooks, Gaga moans “Don’t want your jewels, I want your drugs!” and she coos another hook like Mariah Carey (in an alternate universe where she would be brave enough to actually come off badass). Suddenly her wig takes on new iconic meaning as I contemplate the slight Mariah-ness of it all. I love you Gaga, and I may eat my words when I get the studio version, but I think many of us would say we can do without this one. That being said, I appreciate the balls you have to take a risk with a hard hip hop song, my dear. Those are some big balls.!
A wisely-timed intermission is next, as Gaga leaves the stage so that all of us can process what we just witnessed. The music the band is playing for us as we sit quietly continues to echo sultry Brit pop from the 80’s. If the song that will result from this is in the same vein, I already know that I will love it.
I suddenly realize that this is definitely leading up to the muffled-ly-previewed “SEX DREAMS” and my anticipation is suddenly GRAND. Gaga emerges, in leather and fishnets from a fur-covered, egg-shaped (see also: kinda vaginal) chair with a giant magnifying glass, cooing “When I lay in bed I touch myself and think of you, last night, damn you were in my sex dreams.” This track is everything I hoped it would be, and blends musical vibes of Janet Jackson with Kylie Minogue. I have no idea who produced this, but the music sounds fucking beautiful and once again, I’m drooling at the thought of a studio version in my headphones. Gaga’s vocals seem to go to a lot of places, and it will be interesting to hear a studio version as I think the vocals were a bit more aggressive than I would expect on such a throbbing track.
Now comes the really raw, emotional part. Continuing to talk about what ARTPOP is about, she addressed her naysayers who want to know why she hides behind her over-the-top theatrics. She alludes to a very dark past that we have only seen tiny glimpses of, which is speculated to be drug use, pre-fame. A very modestly made up Gaga strips off the wig and the hair net, pulls all of the the bobby pins from her head and reveals her own hair, handing the mess to a couple of muscle hunks to take care of. She shakes her hair out like a Joan Jett style mullet and pulls a white tank top over her head and off of her shoulder. A glittery silver pig-faced mask around her neck, she talks about how when she was young she thought she was a grown up, so she started surrounding herself with grown up people who stole away her innocence and her spirit, and made her feel empty. The next song would be one she wrote to deal with the pain she suffered at the hands of those people.
The resulting track starts off very dark, with moody piano and Gaga’s vocals dripping with vulnerability as she sings “I know, I know, I know you want me… you’re just a pig inside a human body” and we know that this is “SWINE” (or is it “SWiNE“) which we have heard so much about. Before you know it, this very dark and bitter track becomes a pounding, empowerment/revenge anthem with Gaga channelling her best punk diva (think Courtney Love more so than Madonna). The staging in this performance is genius, as men dressed in pig-faced gas masks emerge in white body suits and proceed to spray paint the cloth covered set and later, defy the ridiculousness of the old saying “when pigs fly”. The beat on this track is RELENTLESS. It’s brash and angry and while a natural progression from tracks like “Scheiße” from Born This Way, this is a Gaga we have never heard before.
After all of that energy and anger, it’s time to slow things down. Gaga talks about how depressed she felt when she started to realize that the hip injury she suffered last year was going to mean the premature end of her Born This Way tour, and how she wrote a song about how much it hurt to know that she would need to be away from her fans for so long. The resulting piano ballad is “I Wanna Be With You.” She sings the verses with a Judy Garland wobble, and hits some impressive highs on the chorus and in the climax of her very intimate and simple performance. The song is pretty and touching as a tribute to fans or a straight up love song, but also a bit too saccharine and sticky sweet in some of its lyrics. That being said, I have always adored the piano ballad side of Gaga and I suspect that the studio version vocals are going to be stunning, and that I’ll love it despite my slight criticisms here. After all, she wrote it for us!
She walks off the stage, waving, and the lights get very low as some more ambient music creeps in. It’s obvious that we’re meant to get hyped up for the finale and what they want to hear is what we want to hear: “Applause“.
After several minutes of the iTunes Festival audience getting not quite hyped up enough, Gaga emerges over the opening synths in her bizarre magician garb from the “Applause” video, complete with alligator coat. She now dons a short-ish blonde “mom” wig, which she actually pulls off nicely. (Is there a hair shape that doesn’t look good on her?) The performance is simpler than that she put on at the VMA’s, with only one costume change that seems to hit a bit of a snag as a dancer struggles with (or perhaps just takes his good, sweet, time) unzipping her coat. Still, ever the professional, Gaga sings the verse through and catches up with her dancers on the chorus and no one is the wiser. It’s a simple performance to end an otherwise intensive set, and it ends with Gaga soaking up the applause she so loves, as she brings out everyone involved with the show for a bow, hands entwined.
I have to admit that though I have never stopped loving Gaga, in the time we were waiting for her to emerge with a single and a release date for ARTPOP, I was starting to doubt the project and that Gaga still had the spark that drew me to her. I have to say I’m completely ashamed of myself for letting myself lose faith. Aside from “Jewels & Drugs” I was rather impressed with all of the ARTPOP tracks that she debuted in this performance, though standouts for me are “MANiCURE“, “SEX DREAMS” and “SWiNE” thus far. Truly an event, this performance was extremely well-executed and I’m more excited for this era than I ever thought I would be. Can it please be November 11th, now?!!
Obviously, we won’t truly know until we hear the album, but as far as the Pop Gods are concerned, Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP is looking and sounding like:
If you missed the performance, check it out below:
Tell us, what did you think?