It’s already known as ARTFLOP.
On Nov. 6, amid the kind of hype not seen since Michael Jackson floated a statue of himself down the Thames River, Lady Gaga released her third studio album, “ARTPOP.”
And not since Jackson has such a globally famous, white-hot pop star had such a rise and precipitous fall: “ARTPOP” is on track to lose $25 million for her label, Interscope, prompting rumors of imminent layoffs.
But it’s not just album sales. When Gaga opened this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, her performance was eclipsed by the twerking Miley Cyrus. Gaga’s work as both host and performer on a recent “Saturday Night Live” was underwhelming, and her recent ABC special, “Lady Gaga & The Muppets’ Holiday Spectacular,” had a dismal 0.9 rating among viewers ages 18 to 49, with just 3.6 million viewers total.
“That ‘Applause’ Gaga is hearing these days has been reduced to a polite golf-clap,” said The Wrap, referring to the title of her first single from the album.
Just five years ago, Lady Gaga exploded on the scene with her debut album, “The Fame.” She had an invented backstory as an art-school freak (in reality, she was a rich private-school graduate from the Upper West Side), a raft of witty, sophisticated pop songs and an ever-changing visual presentation that pulled from the greatest eccentrics of the 20th century, from Schiaparelli to Leigh Bowery — all thanks to a small, tightly knit team of stylists, collaborators and advisers that she called the “Haus of Gaga.”
“I don’t feel that I look like the other perfect little pop singers,” she told Rolling Stone in 2009. “I think I look new.” Indeed, Lady Gaga felt like the first pop star since David Bowie to approach every aspect of performance sideways. In a landscape populated by earnest, business-minded, on-brand idols like Taylor Swift, Alicia Keys, Carrie Underwood and Katy Perry, here was this glorious freak show with mass appeal, a kook with genuine talent.
And, as suddenly, it seems the public at large is now exhausted by Lady Gaga. Even she admits it: “People think I’m finished,” she told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in September.
What’s gone so wrong?
The inner circle flees
When Lady Gaga released “The Fame” in August 2008, she insisted the album — full of songs about boys and booze — was much deeper than the average pop record. It was, she said, a meta-commentary on a culture obsessed with celebrity as the ultimate validation, and the masses loved it all: “The Fame” ultimately sold more than 12 million copies.
“I operate from a place of delusion — that’s what ‘The Fame’ [is] all about. I used to walk down the street like I was a f–king star,” she told Rolling Stone. “I want people to walk around delusional about how great they can be — and then to fight so hard for it every day that the lie becomes the truth.”
She credited the Haus of Gaga — her version, she said, of Warhol’s Factory — with engineering her rise. There was Troy Carter, the brilliant and loyal manager who signed her in 2007; Laurieann Gibson, her choreographer and creative director; and Nicola Formichetti, the visionary stylist who refined her catchall approach to eccentric dressing, turning her into a high-fashion obsession as well as a regular in tabloids, newspapers and gossip blogs. Within months, Gaga was the rare global superstar to toggle high and low.
“I don’t want to take any credit for Nicola’s work,” she told CNN in 2010. “He’s really, really an amazing designer; he’s an amazing creative.”
Formichetti quit this past summer. “I’ve done two albums with her, it’s been like five years, and you know . . . I cannot do it every day,” he told WWD. “She changes like five times a day; it’s insane.”
Formichetti’s absence is keenly felt; since he quit, Gaga’s looks have become crude, obvious, off-putting. Most recently, she wore a grotesque, disfiguring grill to the YouTube awards, turned her face into a Picasso-inspired funhouse reflection and wrapped herself up like a burn victim.
“She doesn’t know how to do this as well as [Formichetti] did,” says celebrity stylist Robert Verdi. “People think it’s just so stupid and easy to come up with a meat dress — but it’s such a unique way to approach branding talent. The synergy between the music and the way she presented herself actually lets people know how hard the styling was. I think she needs to find partners that understand her the way Nicola did. She’s falling short now — it’s hard to keep up at that level.”
In November 2011, Gaga also parted ways with choreographer Gibson. “No judgment, but it just got a little dark for me, creatively,” Gibson told “Entertainment Tonight Canada.”
The most shocking defection from Gaga’s camp came last month: Carter, the veteran manager who guided her ascent, quit less than a week before ARTPOP’s release. As Page Six reported, Gaga’s label was concerned that the record had no hits and asked her to tweak some of the tracks, or release the record as an EP. She declined, and Carter attempted to intervene, to no avail.
Gaga, according to one source, said she refused to “adulterate my art,” and Carter quit.
“I have a lot of experience in this area,” says one longtime label executive and producer. “Artists have a lot of help on their first albums, and they’re open to a lot of help, and they are very smart collaborators and make great work.”
Once that work results in great success, he says, the artist invariably believes they are solely responsible. “Time and again, they feel like they could have done it themselves, and if they had done it their way, it would have been even bigger,” he says. “So they jettison the people who helped them get where they are and hire people who are less powerful, who let them do what they want. I think that may be where Lady Gaga is.”
And without anyone formidable to guide her, Lady Gaga, for the first time in her career, seems culturally tone-deaf, releasing an album that’s ostensibly about modern art — a “reverse Warholian expedition,” as Gaga so loftily describes it — to a public that doesn’t care.
The release party, dubbed an “artRave,” was held at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and included installations by Jeff Koons (who did her album cover), Marina Abramovic and Robert Wilson. Members of Gaga’s audience defaced several sculptures by Koons, whose “Balloon Dog (Orange)” just sold at Christie’s for $58.4 million.
Once a master at spectacle, her artRave entrance, strapped in a gargantuan hovercraft that lifted her about three feet into the air, fell flat. When she performed, she wept for no discernible reason. She declared the event was no mere record-release party, but about something larger than herself: “the youth of the world.”
She did not elaborate. She then rambled about her struggles with sobriety and said that by collaborating with her, Koons was “giving a gift to young artists all over the world,” her convoluted logic belying self-congratulation.
“Never before,” said Pitchfork’s Amy Phillips, “have I felt more like I was living a scene from ‘Spinal Tap.’ ”
‘In a dangerous place’
Perhaps the best analogy to Lady Gaga’s trajectory is the rise and fall of the Showtime series “Homeland.”
When it debuted in late 2011, “Homeland” was a wild and unlikely hit, a thriller about a brilliant, bipolar CIA agent who falls in love with the Marine-turned-sleeper terrorist she’s tracking. Like Gaga, “Homeland” was a surprise: culturally relevant and super weird, electrifying in its warp-speed approach to burning through story.
But after that first season, it became clear that the writers had no idea where to take their narrative, and the show’s once-organic outrageousness curdled into patronizing gimmickry.
With her first record, Lady Gaga, too, burned through story — the outsider artist who crashed through popular culture, the “Mother Monster” to all the world’s freaks — and she clearly had no sense where to go next.
She spoke of addiction issues with pot and alcohol, but that narrative never gained traction — perhaps it was too pedestrian, or perhaps no one believed such a dogged careerist would ever lose that much control. Nor did her alleged hip injury, which put her out of commission for months, capture public sympathy or imagination. She didn’t even use it to go away — instead, she commissioned a gold wheelchair, and she began to feel like the guest who just wouldn’t leave.
“She had this incredible origin story emblematic of underdogs everywhere, but she’s no longer that,” says the exec. “She hasn’t found another thing that she can represent. She has to write another great story about where she is in her life — Eminem is really great at that. But when you come out and your new single is called ‘Applause’ and it’s about how you need it — you have to be about more than that.”
The most critical problem, says the exec, is quality control. None of the singles Gaga has released since “The Fame” has reached the same level of critical and commercial success. “I don’t think she’s made groundbreaking music since her first record,” he says. “It’s not enough to be a larger-than-life personality and have marketing muscle behind you.”