James Franco and Seth Rogen put out a video called "Bound 3" today, an extended riff on Kanye’s video for "Bound 2" that features Franco as Kanye (too much flannel, wacky arms, face half-obscured by shadow) and Rogen as Kim Kardashian (naked motorcycling, nuzzling, sexy faces). I spent five minutes watching this video at work this morning and promptly forgot about it, but other people sure haven’t: the Twitter crowd’s been tossing it back and forth all day, debating whether or not the video merits serious criticism (sure? who cares) and whether or not it’s racist (not my place to comment) and whether or not it’s homophobic (aha!) I give maybe a tenth of a fuck about this, but you’d be surprised how tiring it gets watching dozens of separate groups of straight people arguing over whether or not some dumbfuck Funny or Die fodder offends gay people, and so I’m taking five minutes to play Better Ask a Gay Person re: “Bound 3”. So, the question: as a gay person, did this video bother me?
It did not!
I thought it was pretty funny, and at no point did I feel like Franco and Rogen were using “it’s two BOYS kissing on a motorcycle instead of a boy and a girl! and one of them is fat and hairy! eww! lol” as a cheap, malicious gag. I thought they were lampooning the hyper-sincerity and schlockiness of Kanye’s original video, not trying to score giggles by replacing a contemporary female sexual icon with a schlubby male Canadian stoner.
I’m sure you’d get a different answer if you asked a different gay person, because we’re not a monolith that just sits on the Internet monitoring social media channels and waiting to get offended by whatever bits of pop culture are floating to the surface that day. But perhaps the problem is that no one’s asking. If there’s a plea anywhere in here, it’s for those of us watching, listening, and commenting to remember that endlessly tossing isms and phobias around without involving any of the groups being affected by said isms and phobias can cause greater suffering than the item invoking comment in the first place.
ARTPOP, and it’s not close. If you had a chance to read the FAQ I wrote about Gaga and the album’s release, you already know I’m really fond of ARTPOP, but I’m happy to go into a little more detail here. In short, I think it might be the best pop album released this year, depending on how you want to classify Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time. Let me give you three reasons to love ARTPOP:
1) It’s a really, really funny record. Gaga pulled double duty on SNL last night and spent most of the show trying to convince people she’s in on the joke after a miserably handled promotional campaign, but there’s humour to spare right there within the album: silly voices, brilliantly stupid lyrics, giggly asides. There’s the absurd tour of the solar system on “Venus,” complete with astro-Gaga squeaking “URANUS / don’t you know my ass is famous?” There’s Gaga leaning over the bar on “Sexxx Dreams,” spilling her drink and spilling the beans to a girlfriend: “I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but I’ve had a couple drinks and ohmigod…” There’s all of “Donatella,” a mediocre Zedd production that blew up Tumblr about five seconds after it leaked. And don’t forget “Mary Jane Holland,” a dud that’s worth it to hear Gaga sneering over spiralling waves of laser synths: “I know that Mom and Dad think I’m a mess / but it’s alright because / I am rich as piss.”
But merely calling ARTPOP funny is a disservice, because it’s also pretty clever, and there’s a difference between the two. One thing I’d change about the FAQ if I had the chance was making it seem like Gaga doesn’t understand the contradiction in nakedly pursuing high-art credibility when her entire discography (especially her insane run of videos c. 2009) took pop music as “art” to the masses, because of course she does. When she sings, “my ARTPOP could mean anything” on the title track, she’s saying it means nothing in the same breath, and the rest of the album is really just her fucking around with weird, silly sounds and fusing genres together and taking the piss and it totally works. She also plays with ideas about sex, gender, and agency in really creative ways all over the album, voicing men and demanding control and telling you to do what u want with her body: “G.U.Y.,” “Sexxx Dreams,” “Do What U Want,” and “Gypsy” all do this well, among others.
2) Gaga is an incredible singer. This simple fact tends to get lost when we’re talking about her music but seriously, holy crap: she’s working with an absolute cannon. Part of the research for that FAQ feature involved going back and listening to The Fame and The Fame Monster a few times, and the difference between those releases and Born This Way and ARTPOP in terms of the quality and prominence of her vocal parts is staggering. She’s capable on the former pair, delivering hooks and simple melodies without much character or force; it’s not really until Born This Way that she lets loose, whether she’s sneering and stomping through power ballads or pretending to be an icy dominatrix or putting on weird accents over German club tracks or summoning Shania Twain c. 1997. ARTPOP is more of the same: hammy, emotive, very powerful performances. Take “Venus,” for instance, where she moves from this airy, retro-futuristic take straight from the astral plane to a chorus that’s as huge as any of her other hits, delivered with palpable authority. (I love the way she tears up the line, “Goddess of love, please take me to your leader!” She spits it out like poison.) “Manicure,” “Do What U Want,” “Dope,” and “Gypsy” are all more of the same. Last night’s SNL appearance really gave her an opportunity to show off those chops: half her sketches were designed to have her singing by the end, and her voice sounded strong even when R. Kelly was carrying her around and doing sex pushups on top of her.
3) The album has the best songs of her career. ARTPOP's highlights fuse the bombast and stylistic breadth of Born This Way with the strict structure and hooks of the dance-pop that shot Gaga to stardom in the first place: the hard-edged Prince-isms of “Sexxx Dreams,” the sharp industrial synths of “Swine,” the Robyn-esque chug of “Do What U Want”. (The synth tones on this record are consistently awesome.) “Gypsy” is basically “Don’t Stop Believin’” written with gay clubs in mind. Gaga spends ARTPOP throwing all kinds of paint at the wall, and when it sticks the result is the most compelling music she’s ever written, pop that moves with abandon and panache.
I find Gaga c. 2013 really endearing, which has probably helped me to get a little more mileage with ARTPOP than your average listener. She wants to be a legend so badly! She has these grand ideas about pop music and aesthetics and style and wants nothing more than to realize them, and I love that ambition. She and Kanye really do make a neat, compelling pair, and I think ARTPOP's commercial performance is going to mirror that of Yeezus: #1 with relatively low sales given her stature, a handful of singles that under-perform. I also happen to love both albums.
So, returning to your original question: definitely ARTPOP, it’s one of my favourite 2013 albums, it’ll probably make an appearance in my year-end top 10, I hope I effectively justified that level of affection above.
It’s definitely an interesting question — I’ll try to answer it in terms of my own experience. I started writing about music because it was a way to grapple with emotions and feelings I wasn’t ready to share with other people. I could take songs and albums and turn them into conduits for lust and heartache and anger, earning the satisfaction of expression while still protecting myself. It made sense for me to turn to writing during that intermediate stage, where I had figured out my sexuality and was starting to engage with it but hadn’t quite found the courage to crack myself open. I don’t think it’s a tremendous leap to claim that many gay men are familiar with this stage, and that many of them find expression through art, and that a percentage of these men are writing about music.
In addition to the emotional component that led me to writing, I relished the opportunity to engage in an enthusiastic dialogue about music I loved without having to worry about appearances or guilt. It’s really easy to lose perspective when safe inside the Internet’s poptimist quasi-utopia, but most of us live in places where Drake fandom is grounds for misogynistic sneers and jeers, never mind other artists that read much more “feminine” to casual observers. The music writing bubble is a relatively progressive, safe space where anyone can talk about and love pop music without fear of abuse or ostracization, and I suppose that safety holds a great deal of appeal for gay music fans — it did for me, anyway.
You asked about the music writing “industry,” which to me implies skill and/or prominence, so I’ll offer a brief thought about that too. Is there anything about the experience of gay men that renders them uniquely equipped to succeed as music writers? I think anyone would be hard pressed to make this argument. Even if sexuality does exert a mild effect on the success of music writers, its weight as a variable surely pales in comparison to that of gender or race or wealth or location. With that said, I think I derive a good deal of my strength as a writer and critic from my experience as a gay man: some sensitivity, an open mind, a willingness to dive into my visceral emotional responses to pieces of music even when it’s uncomfortable. But I’m sure any writer would tell you the same thing — that their worth as a writer is born from their hard-earned wisdom, regardless of sexuality or any other trait — so I guess this answer doesn’t hold much water at all.