I’m pretty sure this is all David Bowie’s fault.
Showbiz personas certainly existed before Bowie, but he’s the first worldwide rock star I can think of who brought drama school character-playing to popular music. Bowie wore costumes and face paint to play Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, among others, erecting a wall of artifice between himself and his audience. And he made it look cool. He infused his work with theatricality, rarely if ever playing himself, and his conceptual play-acting got under the skin of those who believe all art should be “authentic” and “real.”
I’m not even sure it’s possible to see true authenticity in art. We’re seeing whom the artist wants us to see at all times. Even the most naked and raw art I know is subject to that same filter – we can’t read an artist’s mind, or live an artist’s life. We can only experience what they want us to. Image-conscious myth-making has been part of pop music since the very beginning, with Elvis’ sneer, Mick Jagger’s pout and the Beatles’ moptops as much a part of their appeal as the music. (Hell, you can go back to Frank Sinatra’s suit and whiskey glass.) Bowie just kicked that up a few notches.
The advent of MTV made theatricality almost mandatory. Younger readers may not believe this, but there was a time when MTV aired music videos, almost exclusively. The best and most popular of them were the most dramatic, with costumes and characters. The ‘80s were a decade in which Bono was considered one of the most authentic rock stars in the world. Think about that. And even he decided to dress up and step outside himself in the ‘90s. U2’s “lost decade” was all about the notion of finding art within the artifice.
I think you can draw a straight line from Bowie to Madonna to Lady Gaga. All three use their natural theatricality to try to get at something real, and all three use their fame to comment on their audiences. But as the latest iteration of the costumed character pop star archetype, is Gaga actually saying much? She’s called her third album ARTPOP, all caps, as a mission statement – she believes she is melding artistry with popular culture like no one else. On the strength (or lack therof) of the album, I’d say she’s delusional. But she’s certainly trying.
ARTPOP is a blindingly ambitious mess that holds Gaga’s audience at arm’s length, promising insights but delivering shallow commentary on mass popularity. About half of it works, including the first four tracks, so for a while, it seems like Gaga has taken the next step forward after the validating Born This Way. This is certainly more of a deliberate pop record – the longest song is 4:29, and all 15 tracks are done in less than an hour. That seems a direct response to criticism that Born This Way was bloated and overstuffed, but it’s also in line with what she’s trying to do here – meld her artistic ambitions with our singles-driven culture.
Her best musical moments here come awfully close to pulling that off. On opener “Aura,” she works with Israeli EDM duo Infected Mushroom, and the result is dazzling. An Ennio Morricone intro gives way to some Middle Eastern shimmying on guitar, which then slams into a KMFDM-style industrial stomp, which in turn blossoms into a pure pop chorus. That’s all in the first two minutes. Gaga offers a convincing Euro-pop dancefloor strut on winners like “G.U.Y.” and “Sexxx Dreams,” and she resurrects her sweeping piano anthem side on “Gypsy.” None of these songs skimp on melody, and at their best, they’re as good as she thinks they are.
Too bad she has to sing over them. The lyrics on ARTPOP are generally insipid – shallow, banal, barely counting as commentary. “Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura,” she asks in the first song, but then never shows her to us. The character Gaga is playing here is obsessed with pop culture, and has nothing to say about it. I certainly hope she doesn’t think that devoting an entire (admittedly catchy) song to calling Donatella Versace a spoiled bitch counts as cogent commentary. We come out of ARTPOP knowing only that the Gaga character loves sex and attention – a line like “love me, love me, please retweet” could be seen as satire, but she delivers it straight. This is what she thinks a melding of art and pop is – glittering, head-spinning songs about fame culture.
That works up to a point, but when the songs falter, the album follows suit. After the swell opening quartet, Gaga shoehorns in “Jewels ‘n Drugs,” an uncharacteristically awful tune that seems to exist just to give Twista, Too Short and T.I. space to rap about nothing. “Do What U Want” is an interesting idea – it’s about separating sex from intimacy, and image manipulation from truly knowing someone. But the music is earthbound, and R. Kelly offers nothing except to rhyme Gaga’s “do what you want with my body” with “in the back of the club, doing shots, getting naughty.” “Dope” is the sensitive piano ballad this time, but it gets all Meat Loaf, and when she sings “I need you more than dope,” it’s hard to suppress the laugh reflex.
You can’t say Gaga isn’t trying to make this character work. But I’m wondering if it’s worth it. Even more than last time, Gaga is all artifice on ARTPOP. The album ends (somewhat awkwardly) with “Applause,” the first single, and it sums up the record – she’s all about the attention and validation. I’m pretty sure she’s satirizing people like Paris Hilton, but she feels lost inside this character, and it’s tough to find her on this album. She’s naked on the hideously designed front cover, but she’s airbrushed into something plastic, something inhuman. This is probably what she’s getting at, but she’s such a promising artist that making that point over and over again seems like a waste.
Here’s something I never thought I’d say – if you want to see a pop star who truly has grown, check out Eminem’s new record. The once and future Marshall Mathers made his name playing a particularly irresponsible character named Slim Shady, and his most famous works – the opening one-two of The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP – found him engineering a grand-scale social experiment as satire. Could the world love someone as violent, vicious and irredeemable as Shady? And as he got more and more depraved, would popular culture reject him, or would fans continue to idolize and emulate him?
As the years have passed, Mathers has answered his own question by rejecting Shady himself, and putting him away. His lyrical sleight-of-hand has not faded – he may be the most interesting rapper in the world for a grammar nut like me – but his concerns have matured. He backslid on 2009’s aptly titled Relapse, but on 2010’s Recovery, he sounded like a man reborn. No characters, no shock tactics, just Mathers rapping about becoming a better man and a better father. It was riveting, uplifting stuff.
Which is why I was initially wary of his new project, The Marshall Mathers LP 2. Why on earth would the Mathers that made Recovery want to pen a sequel to his least responsible album? Turns out, though, this is unlike any hip-hop sequel I’ve ever heard – it’s more of a full-length apology for the man he used to be. This is Mathers surveying his legacy, and shaking his head. It’s an album about where he is now, and how much he’s grown. And with all that, it’s still thrilling stuff.
The record opens with “Bad Guy,” a seven-minute psychodrama that throws down a gauntlet. It’s a sequel to the chilling “Stan,” in which a crazed Eminem fan kills himself and his girlfriend while emulating Slim Shady. The first half of “Bad Guy” finds Stan’s brother reenacting that fatal crash, only this time it’s a kidnapped and bound Marshall Mathers in the trunk. Stan’s brother Matthew gives Mathers a lecture on responsibility before crashing and killing them both, and then Mathers wakes up and spits out a dynamite rhyme about self-doubt and shame, taking himself to task for becoming everything he once hated.
Much of this album is about comeuppance. The one skit, “Parking Lot,” follows the heist from “Criminal” to its logical and bloody end. “Asshole” finds Mathers raking himself over the coals for filling that role for too long: “Women dishin’ but really thinkin’ that if anyone talks to my little girls like this I would kill him.” He acknowledges his own hypocrisy when dealing with the height of his success: “Fame made me a balloon ‘cause my ego inflated when I blew,” he raps on “The Monster.” And on “Evil Twin” he works to accept that Slim Shady is a part of him – in fact, that without him he wouldn’t be as good as he is – but works to control him.
The record’s most surprising moment is “Headlights,” the follow-up to “Cleanin’ Out My Closet.” The earlier song was a non-stop torrent of invective against his mother, but on this sequel, he admits that he cringes when he hears that song now, and spends five minutes praising his mother and telling her how much he loves her. It’s unlike any hip-hop song I’ve heard, and I’ll admit to being moved by it. This is real personal growth.
I don’t want to give the impression that Mathers has cleaned up his act. He still uses “faggot” as a pejorative, which is indefensible. He still includes “So Much Better,” an angry breakup song that goes too far into misogyny. (“I got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one, she’s all 99, I need a machine gun…”) He still includes “Love Game,” a terrible piece of shit about “crazy” women. He still engages in oblivious hypocrisy, and still makes every crass joke that comes to mind. No amount of skill – and there are monumental amounts of skill on display here – can atone for that. Mathers has grown, but not enough.
But if you focus on how far he’s come, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is remarkable. “So Far” is a song about growing old, watching the rap game pass you by, and not caring. Check out “Rap God,” six minutes of the fastest tongue-twisting hip-hop boasting you’ll ever hear, full of respect for his betters and complete confidence. Listen to “Stronger Than I Was,” a mostly sung anthem of resilience. And then marvel at the fact that in every line, every groove of this record, Mathers is laying himself bare, warts and all, with the promise that he’s not finished working on himself.
I haven’t even mentioned the music itself. Rick Rubin’s at the helm, so there are many references to classic rock mixed in with the powerhouse beats – see “Rhyme or Reason,” which rewrites “Time of the Season” by the Zombies, or “So Far,” which makes liberal use of Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good.” The hooks are strong, including choruses sung by Rhianna and Nate Ruess of fun. Musically, it’s up to Mathers’ high standard, but the focus is on him. He’s a lyrical master, twisting syntax and even using syllable tenses in ways other rappers wouldn’t even dream of. Fourteen years after we first heard him, he’s still a thrill to listen to.
But most of all, he’s proof that emotional honesty trumps play-acting. With every beat of The Marshall Mathers LP 2, you get a real sense of Marshall Mathers the man, and while it’s not always a pretty picture, you can chart the journey he’s taken, and feel his desire to keep growing. The cover art of this album shows the same Detroit house from the original Marshall Mathers LP, all boarded up. But the album proves that Mathers is still very much alive and vital. It may be the most important album he’s made. It’s certainly the most real.
See you in line Tuesday morning.