Lady Gaga recently tweeted that her forthcoming ARTPOP record will be “the album of the millennium.” It’s the kind of earnest bravado that only Gaga can get away with—but could it be true? The singer just released the second single from the album, and we’re still not sold on the lofty promise. But “Do What U Want,” featuring, of all people, R. Kelly, is quite good. More than that, it's the most straightforward pop song the singer’s released in years.
Gaga’s delivery sounds equal parts Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera, with breathy lilts opening the song morphing into forceful growls as the chorus begins: “Do what you want with my body.” The synth-pop backing is tinged with echoes of throwback R&B tracks by the likes of Tina Turner, and is less aggressive and more effortlessly listenable than what we’re used to from Gaga.
Contrasting against the cacophony of the very busy “Applause,” “Do What U Want” rides the same ripple for the length of the 3:48 track. R. Kelly trades steamy verses with a patient groove that reminds us why we’ve sorely missed the “Ignition” singer in the clubs, particularly when he’s singing about the club: “Do what I want with your body / Back of the club, taking shots, getting naughty / No invitations, it’s a private party.”
Is “Do What U Want” Lady Gaga’s best song ever? Or destined to be her most influential? Absolutely not. But it’s refreshingly simple, almost familiar sounding. That’s what makes it remarkable.
Lady Gaga’s obsession with the idea of being a pop star and the act of creating pop music is well documented by this point, but there’s an unappetizing aftertaste of pop pretention that comes with that. There’s a knowingness, sure, in the “Applause” lyric, “Pop culture was in art / now art’s in pop culture in me,” that’s earned—but that’s also a bit insufferable.
Her music videos are pure spectacle, which pop music is all about. But they’re also exhausting. The “Applause” video, for example, is crammed with artistic allusions to Fritz Lang, Ingmar Berman, Andy Warhol, and commedia dell’arte. The result is a visually arresting, but also leaves you feeling ignorant for not understanding the significance of the imagery. Not to begrudge Lady Gaga for challenging herself—and her fans—artistically, but should a pop star really make you feel culturally illiterate?
The remarkable success of “Do What U Want,” is its self-assured straightforwardness. It’s got an earworm of a chorus that will make it a radio hit, and a driving, danceable beat throughout, the resistance to which is futile. It’s not selling itself as high art—or at least as any higher art than pop music.
This is, of course, still Lady Gaga, so a message of empowerment and self-respect somehow manages to infiltrate a flirty club track. The final time she sings, “Do what you want with my body,” she adds the word, “world.” It’s a direct response, it seems, to critics who have taken her to task over the years about her appearance, her music, and her relationships. Turned into a hashtag in a late-night Twitter tirade, “Do What U Want,” then, is not just a good pop song. Lady Gaga wants it to be a movement:
The pop startist strikes again.