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More ‘POP’ than ‘ART’

New Gaga effort catchy but hardly groundbreaking

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Artpop, Lady Gaga, gay news, Washington Blade
Artpop, Lady Gaga, gay news, Washington Blade

(Image courtesy Interscope)

Lady Gaga’s new album, “ARTPOP,” dropped in the U.S. this week. Her LGBT following is substantial enough that any new release from her is noteworthy, but if you’re looking for something fresh and unexpected, look elsewhere.

Taken merely as a series of instant dance hits, “ARTPOP” is perfect. The album sounds like a compilation of songs that almost made it onto her previous albums. Not surprisingly, it explores themes of fame and vanity, as her music has done countless times. Despite the lack of originality, as Gaga says herself in “Mary Jane Holland,” “It’s all right, because I am rich as piss.” Why change a working system?

Many songs from “ARTPOP” can and will be heavily featured on the radio, and there’s no shortage of new material for DJs to play. “MANiCURE” is one of these tracks, and, as the title suggests, it’s about how getting dolled up for a MAN can CURE insecurity. When the song comes on, finish your drink, hit the dance floor and ignore the lyrics. It’s one of several toe-tappers.

Most tracks use synthesizers and auto-tune liberally, making the album sound too robotic and over-produced, notably in the second single “Do What U Want” and in the title cut. “ARTPOP” is one of a few tracks that reference the album title, an effort to take as many opportunities as possible to remind listeners that pop music is art, a narrative Gaga has been pushing for years.

The first track, “Aura,” is a techno song with a flamenco-inspired guitar riff. Lyrically, the song compares Gaga to women who wear burqas, though she claims to wears one as a fashion statement, the first of many references to fashion on the album.

Another example is the track “Fashion!,” the second song in her discography by that name. In defense of “Fashion!,” it’s one of the few songs from “ARTPOP” where Gaga is singing rather than yelling into the microphone, albeit with a healthy amount of auto-tune. “Donatella” is simultaneously a critique of and an ode to the haughty lifestyle of models and Donatella Versace herself.

“Venus,” the first promotional single, is a dance track that alludes to the eponymous Roman goddess of love and sex. The cheeky bridge lists the planets and includes the line “Uranus, don’t you know my ass is famous?” It’s one of the more memorable moments from the album and is sure to incite giggles. For its music and lyrical themes, “G.U.Y.” may as well be called “Venus Part II,” as they’re almost indistinguishable to the casual listener. Together, they carry a Madonna-esque message of sexual empowerment.

Because the previous two tracks about sex were apparently too subtle, “Sexxx Dreams” is sure to be banned from all high school proms and be a club staple for the next year.

“Jewels N’ Drugs” features T.I., Too Short and Twista, and is a surprisingly catchy hip-hop track and a more refreshing part of the album. However, the hook’s lyrics are reminiscent of Ke$ha’s “Your Love Is My Drug,” while Gaga’s verse is yet another chance to emphasize her obsession with fame.

First single “Applause” may be the album’s worst offender. It’s the epitome of Gaga’s aforementioned fame obsession, even more so than “The Fame” from her debut album of the same name. The song actually features sounds of a cheering crowd. The pop-dance track hit No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, but fails to do anything more than beg her fans to keep loving her.

The album’s concepts may be tired, but it’s not without some great moments. A true gem is “Dope.” It’s very similar to her 2009 song “Speechless,” but for the best reasons. It focuses on Gaga’s vocal performance and piano skills and reminds fans of the talent underneath the spectacle.

If “Dope” is a callback to “Speechless,” “Gypsy” will remind fans of “The Edge of Glory,” as they’re both dance numbers with some of Gaga’s better vocal performances.

“Swine” is a change of pace for Gaga. It’s electronica without being a dance hit, but what’s most stunning is the intimate subject matter about a dark part of Gaga’s past. It’s angry almost to the point of being un-Gaga, but it’s a well-executed standout piece.

Ultimately, this new album fails to introduce fresh sounds the way Gaga’s first two full-length albums (“The Fame” and “Born This Way”) did. Revisiting the fame concept five years later feels tired and the new music does little to distinguish itself from previous efforts.

Does Gaga have enough good ideas to sustain a decades-long career or will she end up a late ‘00s/early ‘10s trivia question in the years to come? The jury’s still out on that, but revisiting concepts and musical styles this early in the game doesn’t bode particularly well.

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Photos

PHOTOS: Baltimore Pride in the Park

Annual celebration featured vendors, performers

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(Washington Blade photo by Linus Berggren)

Baltimore Pride in the Park was held at Druid Hill Park on Sunday, June 16.

(Washington Blade photos by Linus Berggren)

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Photos

PHOTOS: “Portraits”

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington performs at the Kennedy Center

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A scene from "Portraits," as performed in a technical rehearsal at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, June 15. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington performed “Portraits” at the Kennedy Center on Sunday, June 16.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Theater

Sophie Zmorrod embracing life on the road in ‘Kite Runner’

First national tour comes to Eisenhower Theater on June 25

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Sophie Zmorrod (Photo courtesy of Zmorrod)

‘The Kite Runner’
June 25 – 30
The Kennedy Center
$39-$149
Kennedy-center.org

Newly single, Sophie Zmorrod is enjoying life on the road in the first national tour of “The Kite Runner,” Matthew Spangler’s play with music based on Khaled Hosseini’s gripping novel about damaged relationships and longed for redemption. 

“It’s a wonderful time for me,” says Zmorrod. “I’m past the breakup pain and feeling empowered to explore new cities. A lot of us in the cast are queer, so we figure out the scene wherever the show goes.” 

What’s more, the New York-based actor has fallen in love with the work. “I love how the play’s central character Amir is flawed. He is our antihero. He has faults. As a privileged boy in Kabul, he bears witness to his best friend’s assault and doesn’t intervene. He lives with that guilt for decades and gets that redemption in the end.” 

“He does what he can to right wrongs. For me who’s regretted things, and wished I could go back in time, it resonates. Watching someone forgive themselves and do the right thing is beautiful.” 

Via phone from Chicago (the tour’s stop before moving on to Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on June 25), Zmorrod, whose background is Lebanese, happily chats about sexuality, ethnicity, and acting. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Looking at your resume, I see you’ve been cast in roles traditionally played by men. And have you played queer characters? 

SOPHIE ZMORROD: Oh yes, both. Whether or not they’re written on the page as queer, they sometimes turn out that way. And that holds true for this show too.  

With “The Winter’s Tale” at Trinity Rep, I played Leontes — the king who banishes his wife — as a woman. So, in that production it was about two women and touched on the violence that women sometimes inflict on other women.

And there was Beadle Bamford in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” also at Trinity Rep; I played him as a woman who was masculine and wore a suit. It was a great opportunity to explore myself and gender expression. That was a really good experience. 

BLADE: Are you an actor who’s often be called in for queer roles? 

ZMORRAD: Not really. I’m what you might call straight passing. Sometimes I’ve had to advocate for my queerness. To be a part of something. 

Similarly with my ethnicity. I’m called in to audition for the white and Arab roles. It gets tricky because I’m not the exactly the white girl next door and I’m not exactly Jasmine from Disney’s “Aladdin” either. 

This is one of the reasons, I really want people to come see “The Kite Runner,” Audiences need to experience the reality of the wide diversity of Middle Eastern people on the stage. We’re all very different.

And not incidentally, from this 14-person cast, I’ve met some great people to add to those I know from the Middle Eastern affinity spaces and groups I’m connected to in New York.

BLADE: In “The Kite Runner” what parts do you play?

 ZMORRAD: Three characters. All women, I think. In the first act, I’m an elderly eccentric pomegranate seller in the Afghan market, waddling around, speaking in Dari [the lingua franca of Afghanistan]; and the second act, I’m young hip and sell records in a San Francisco market; and at the end, I’m a buttoned-down American immigration bureaucrat advising Amir about adoption.

BLADE:  Your training is impressive: BA cum laude in music from Columbia University, an MFA in acting from Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company, and you’re also accomplished in opera and playwrighting, to name a few things. Does “The Kite Runner” allow you to flex your many muscles? 

ZMORROD: Very much. Playing multiple roles is always fun for an actor – we like malleability. Also, there are instruments on stage. I like working with the singing bowl; it’s usually used in yoga as a soothing sound, but here we save it for the dramatic, uncomfortable moments. I also sing from offstage. 

We are creating the world of the play on a very minimal set. Oh, and we do kite flying, and I’m able to use the some of the languages I speak. So yeah, lots of challenges. It’s great. 

BLADE: It sounds like you’re in a good place both professionally and personally.

ZMORROD: It’s taken a long time to feel comfortable. My being gay was never something I led with. But I’m on the journey and excited to be where I am, and who I am. 

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