Four score and several Yoncés ago, an album called Artpop had just dropped, and Lady Gaga fans were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the video for its second single, “Do What U Want,” which featured a guest verse from R. Kelly. Released on October 16 as a “promotional single,” critical response and digital sales were so good that it was decided the follow-up to “Applause” would be “DWUW” instead of “Venus,” which had originally been announced as the sophomore single. Gaga performed “DWUW” on Saturday Night Live, executing a horizontal Fred-and-Ginger routine with the pied piper of R&B, and then again at the American Music Awards. Terry Richardson was announced as the video’s director, and on December 13 he posted a still on his website that showed a black panties–clad, barefoot Gaga crawling on the floor between R. Kelly’s legs with the leather-hoodied Kells clutching a cigar.
Something else happened on December 13 too. Beyoncé dropped a surprise fifth album with unique music videos for 14 new songs, changing not only the stakes but the actual game. Suddenly Gaga’s promise that she’d make a video for each song from Artpop seemed a lot less ambitious, especially considering the month-long lag time between the announcement of “DWUW” and the first video still. Then some other things happened: Jessica Hopper wrote a very well-researched article for The Village Voice about journalist Jim DeRogatis’s experiences investigating R. Kelly’s history of sexual predation toward underage girls. Hopper questioned the pass that music journalists routinely gave Kelly for his behavior; they were apparently willing to overlook Kelly’s long and well-documented history of having sex with underage girls, going back to his marriage to 15-year-old Aaliyah.
Hopper’s piece ignited a firestorm of reevaluation among the music writers and cultural journalists who had indeed been willing to turn a blind eye to Kelly’s behavior as long as it meant there would be more “Sex in the Kitchen.” Writers asked why other famous men with a track record of sexual-abuse allegations were so often allowed to keep working, and why their accusers were routinely dismissed. One of the people whose name came up in conjunction with R. Kelly’s was Richardson, whose highly sexualized photography often involves young (and young-looking) models, and who has been accused repeatedly of abusing his power to force models into sexual acts for which they did not give consent. A series of tweets by Lena Dunham about the R. Kelly article led to fans questioning a photo spread in which she’d posed for Richardson, who had been dating Dunham’s friend Audrey Gelman for several years until breaking up sometime in late 2013. Dunham said that fame had been a learning process, and that she would not necessarily make the same decisions if she had to do it all again. She suggested that in the future she would ask tougher questions herself, and not just accept the status quo, especially one that rewards powerful, evildoing men and silences their female victims.
Suddenly the publicity machine surrounding Gaga’s video went mysteriously quiet. There was no word of the “DWUW” video, and the outrageous tone of the project suddenly drew a lot of well deserved side-eye from critics of Kelly and Richardson. Why would a self-avowed feminist like Gaga work with two men whose track records were shady at best, no matter how many hit singles they had written or iconic magazine covers they had shot? A remix was put out on December 20 featuring Rick Ross, who had come under fire in 2013 for a lyric that implied he was down to commit date rape. Less than a week after Richardson posted the photo on his blog, Gaga performed “Do What U Want” on The Voice, replacing R. Kelly with Voice judge Christina Aguilera. It was a smart move for Gaga in terms of spin, showing that she was not so stubborn that she wouldn’t listen to legitimate criticism, while patching the longstanding rift between Gaga and Xtina with a rousing “sisters are doing it for themselves” makeover for the duet.
The Gaga-and-Aguilera version of the song was released as an official single on January 1, with fans split as to whether it was an improvement over the original. The song had been a Gaga solo jawn initially; the addition of R. Kelly turned it into a sex jam; but the inclusion of Aguilera transformed it into a body-positive anthem from two women whose bodies are regularly scrutinized and slammed in the media. While both versions of “DWUW” are jams, the press cycle for Artpop had slowed to a crawl as music critics and pop fans abandoned it for all things Yoncé. (Beyoncé also enlisted Richardson on her album as a director for the “XO” video, but hasn’t commented publicly on the recent controversy.)
Yesterday, Gaga put out a statement on her website, albeit an incredibly oblique one, suggesting that the video’s delay was not exactly her fault. She said she was “given a week to plan and execute it” and that the same fate had befallen “Applause.” She called out the bait-and-switch on the swapping out of “Venus” for “DWUW,” wherein she had to scrap her plans for “Venus” to put out a video for a song that was selling more copies and therefore had the label’s support. The letter was an extended apology to her fans, implying that she had not been well since her hip surgery last year and that she was “too sick, too tired, and too sad to control the damage” done to Artpop’s promo campaign, whether that damage was because of label mismanagement, the public’s reevaluation of R. Kelly based off of the Village Voice piece, or just the all-encompassing impact of Yoncé easily surfing off with the crown for the 2013 pop wars that Gaga had been pegged to win.
According to Gaga, “The next few months of Artpop will truly be its beginning.” There is no clarification as to whether the R. Kelly and Richardson version of the “DWUW” video will be scrapped, whether there will be a video for the Aguilera version instead, or whether it was all shade toward her ex-manager Troy Carter, whom Gaga fired right before the release of Artpop. There is just the vague message that “those who did not care about Artpop’s success are now gone, and the dreams I have been planning can now come to fruition.” She begs fans to forgive her for fucking up the promo campaign and things grinding to a halt, but it’s not an acknowledgement that some fans found Artpop underwhelming as an album.
Does this mean there will be more new songs from Gaga, like when she released The Fame Monster as a companion piece to The Fame? Or just that the remaining songs from Artpop that become singles will be promoted in a more orderly fashion? She writes, “Millions of dollars are not enough for some people. They want billions. Then they need trillions. I was not enough for some people. They wanted more.” No matter what you think of Gaga as an artist, there’s something very sad about all this. She put out what she thought was her best product, but it was received with a shrug. Whether you think she is sincere or just being a martyr and baiting her stans into giving her the artistic validation she feeds off of, I do hope she’s doing OK. For an invincible goddess from the planet of love, she seems very weak, insecure, and depressed in this unexpected missive. Something is rotten in the state of Artpop; we’re just not sure what exactly it is yet. Surfboart.