Lady Gaga wants people to take pop music seriously.
Her new album, ARTPOP, was conceived as an exploration of what happens when high-brow art meets low-brow pop and if there’s really any difference between the two. It’s a theme broached in her previous albums—and touched on by Kanye West in his oil-painting-turned-music-video for Power—but with ARTPOP, Gaga is trying to position herself as the second coming of Andy Warhol. Pop artist Jeff Koons designed the album’s cover, which features a naked sculpture of Gaga cupping her breasts while giving birth to a shiny blue ball. It’s art that could be easily mistaken for a slapdash Photoshop (ADBE) job.
Considering Gaga’s massive following of “Little Monsters,” as her fans call themselves, and the fact that her last album, 2011′s Born This Way, sold over 1.1 million copies during its first week (with a boost from a 99¢ promotion on Amazon (AMZN)), ARTPOP could’ve been the year’s biggest hit. Interscope Records (VIV:FP) spent about $25 million promoting the album, culminating in an over-the-top “artRave” event at Brooklyn’s Navy Yard on the night of ARTPOP‘s Nov. 11 release.
During the event, Gaga exhibited Koons sculptures, Maria Abramović videos, and a Benjamin Rollins Caldwell installation made up of old computer parts. She performed new songs while wearing a white space-suit-inspired leotard, her bleached hair cut into a severe, triangular bob. At one point, she even unveiled a hovercraft that she insisted was “the world’s first flying dress.” Watching artRave, it was as if everything in The Jetsons had finally come true.
Despite all the fanfare, ARTPOP isn’t selling. The album sold just over 250,000 copies in its first week, putting it behind Katy Perry’s Prism (286,000 copies) and Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz (270,000 copies)—far below the expected 350,000 sales touted before its release. Interscope may lose so much money on the album that unconfirmed rumors of layoffs are circulating.
To be clear, ARTPOP isn’t a total flop. It made its debut at No. 1 in the U.K., and while the Billboard charts haven’t yet been released, the album remains in the running for a No. 1 U.S. debut. But for someone who once seemed able to churn out hit songs in her sleep—Bad Romance has sold over 10 million singles since it came out in 2009—ARTPOP feels more like a fizzle.
So Gaga’s new album came in third among current female pop launches—possibly fourth, depending on how Britney Spears fares with Britney Jean, which will reach the public at the end of the month. Given her artistic ambitions, it might be better to compare Lady Gaga to someone with a similar mindset—perhaps Kanye West, who released an off-the-wall album of his own this year. Yeezus had similarly lofty ambitions of becoming an art project that explored race, religion, and power. It moved 327,000 copies in its first week, or 30 percent more than ARTPOP.
Interestingly, Yeezus didn’t come with a big promotional push. When it came out on June 18, there was no single already on the radio as ARTPOP had with Applause. It wasn’t even available for pre-ordering. The music on Yeezus was percussive and erratic, with such song titles as New Slaves and Black Skinhead, which has since gone on to be used in a commercial forMotorola (GOOG). After that first week, sales of Yeezus dropped significantly.
Still, there’s a difference between artistic and commercial success, and Yeezus has been widely hailed by critics as a great album. Kanye tempers his most narcissistic declaration (“I am a God”) by rapping about massages and French restaurants, even shouting at one point:”Hurry up with my damn croissants!” On ARTPOP, however, Gaga never seems to have fun with her persona. On Donatella, which is about the jet-setting life of Donatella Versace, she seems totally unaware of how vapid the chorus—”She’s so thin/she’s so rich/and so blond/She’s so fab/it’s beyond”—makes her sound. (Weirdly, she did understand this in 2008′s Beautiful, Dirty, Rich, which is basically about the same thing) As a result, ARTPOP feels conceptually shallow, as if Gaga were too focused on flying dresses and crazy spacesuits to bother with the actual music.
During a listening party before the Yeezus debut, Kanye laid out his personal strategy for selling music: “I’ve got an idea on how to sell more music, it’s called make better music,” he said. He didn’t mention anything about flying spacesuits.