Sunday night, Lady Gaga celebrated the release of her new album ARTPOP inside of a massive hanger at the Brooklyn Naval Yard packed with fans she calls "Little Monsters," although many were well into adulthood and some were decidedly not little. It was called the artRave, and pop artist Jeff Koons was the co-headliner. Like all things Gaga, it was a blend of the high-brow and the trashy, depth and superficiality, the thoughtful and the impulsive, and lots of other contradictions that make you think about the nature of philosophy and life and art, or maybe just make you say "fuck it" and enjoy it for its colorful, entertaining ridiculousness. For Gaga, the pretentious and the populist are intertwined, inextricably.
It was quite a production. Ferries took partygoers from 35th Street and FDR in Manhattan across the water to the Brooklyn Naval Yard, and ran back and forth all night long. Lines snaked from the first ferry, as costumed concertgoers tried to sneak past the harried security teams through a VIP line.
Packed with outrageously-dressed Gaga fans, the first boat left around nine, as passengers bought booze from the boat's bar—the last time they'd pay for anything except (one presumes) drugs, as food and drinks at the actual show were free of charge throughout the night. When the boats disembarked, fans were greeted by massive speakers blasting club music, before being ushered past the red carpet area, where Twista—who is featured on Gaga's new song "Jewels N' Drugs" alongside T.I. and Too $hort— was being interviewed by a scrum of photographers.
As security pushed the crowd past the red carpet and toward a massive hanger-like structure in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, it became apparent how much money had really gone into this project. Seated at the entrance to the space, facing the back of the huge room, was a Jeff Koons-designed statue of Lady Gaga, naked and cupping her breasts, with a massive blue sphere between her legs, as if giving birth to the earth, or maybe "art." It also happens to be the same statue that appears on the cover of her new album, although Koons' actual statue is much bigger in person than one might expect having seen it on a record cover. The rest of the hanger was scattered with additional Koons sculptures, gleaming, colorful statues covered in flowers.
The hanger was, again, enormous, with complex lighting set-ups and bars full of free beer, wine, and liquor on tables along the sides, underneath massive TV screens that alternated between the words GAGA, KOONS, the ARTPOP cover art, and a stream of social media posts and tweets related to the artRave. One kid saw one of his own contributions to the crowdsourced pastiche, and ran across the floor to capture the moment on his camera phone. Perhaps this set-up was an intentional commentary on the nature of fame, engineered to create memories for attendees, memories of that moment when a famous person drew attention to their attention to the artist's fame, making them (the attendees) momentarily famous. Perhaps the snake is eating its own tail. Perhaps thinking about this stuff makes it feel more purposeful than what it really is, which is a party designed to promote a product. A product that is very self-aware about its status as a product.
The first DJ—a woman unidentified in the intial party fliers—stuck to '80s and early '90s dancefloor fillers, electro (Strafe's "Set It Off") and house (Joey Beltram's "Energy Flash"). Once Gaga's DJ—a bearded white guy in a Public Enemy t-shirt who vaguely resembles Complex sneakers writer Russ Bengston and spins under the name White Shadow—hit the decks, the sound shifted to a more contemporary post-dubstep/EDM/"Trap" sound. Chief Keef dance remixes into Zedd's "Clarity" acted as a kind of emotional climax. Which is to say, it sounded a lot like the context Gaga's latest album has emerged from, all jagged synthesizers and distorted, aggressive dancefloor sounds.
One highlight was the driving "Gypsy," a refreshingly direct anthem with a narrative about escape which feels like a theater kid's version of Bruce Springsteen.
Gaga opened her theatrical performance near the statue of herself at the entrance to the hanger, surrounded by a small circle of security and a larger circle of fans. This circlular mass slowly made its way toward the stage at the other end of the building. Gaga was clad in all-white, wearing a mask and what appeared to be water wings. She ascended a stage that spiraled upwards, and was joined by dancers in all-white and a band dressed in black leather.
The performance covered most of ARTPOP's 15 songs, and employed an incredible sound system in which songs that seem distorted on regular speakers came to life. One highlight was the driving "Gypsy," a refreshingly direct anthem with a narrative about escape which feels like a theater kid's version of Bruce Springsteen. Meanwhile, solo ballad "Dope" was a strangely literal song about the dangers of drugs and alcohol that included an opening monologue explaining that it was a song about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
The best moment of the night, though, was her performance of "Do What U Want," Gaga's rare slow disco song—think the more deliberate tempo of Drake's "Hold On, We're Going Home." The song's chugging groove and guest-star R. Kelly (sadly, Kelly didn't make an appearance at the artRave) make it stand out on an album full of more aggro EDM sounds.
Relative to the sights/sounds/smells/tastes of the entire event, though, the music felt more like a roleplayer than a centerpiece. Gaga is now a collaborative multimedia artist, popularizing the oblique art world, exchanging noteriety for cachet. To her credit, it's likely doing more to make the art world accessible.
Compared to 2009's The Fame Monster, Gaga's best overall release, ARTPOP is thinner, less audacious, more slight. When performed, it gained dimension. But Lady Gaga's music is no longer the focus of her celebrity; it's just a single aspect of the overall experience.
Much like Kanye West, Lady Gaga sees popular music's forward momentum in the evolution not of the music, but of the artist him-or-herself.
Perhaps this kind of ambition is music's future, at least for a certain breed of artist. Although ARTPOP doesn't sound retro per se, Lady Gaga's project as a whole does feel like a reaction to the idea that as far as the music goes, there's nothing new under the sun. Much like Kanye West, Lady Gaga sees popular music's forward momentum in the evolution not of the music, but of the artist him-or-herself. The artist's exploration of new avenues of creativity, an increasing reliance on collaboration, and drawing on different historical and artistic reference points to create a postmodern quilt—this is how these artists see "progress."
And who's to say this is wrong? Five hours before she performed onstage last night, Lady Gaga was in a big warehouse, nearby on the Navy Yard's industrial park, demonstating a different project she's been putting her energy towards. The world's first flying dress—the Volantis: a personal hovercraft that she envisions human beings will be zooming around with in the future. It's a little ridiculous, but even a little exciting. There's something about the audacity of it that is truly entertaining. But who will make the music to play on its stereo system?