Lady Gaga has been a conversation piece ever since she exposed her edgy, fabricated weirdness in the "Poker Face" video and followed that with the infamous blood-soaked "Paparazzi" performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009.
Since then, she has carried the spotlight with her closet of bizarre headgear, meat dress, Grammy egg, Monster Ball, "blasphemous" "Alejandro" video, "Born This Way" crusade, paint vomit, etc. Gaga has stolen the show at every turn while creating catchy -- sometimes annoyingly so -- dance-pop songs in the Madonna/Britney vein and the odd ballad that flashes a legit vocal prowess earned in New York clubs.
But with her third album, "Artpop," Gaga, who returns to Consol Energy Center tonight three shows into her ArtRave tour, has gone from edge of glory to edge of fading. At least among the Top 40 set.
"Artpop," to no one's surprise, became her second No. 1 album when it was released in November, but first-week sales (258,000) were well below 2011's "Born This Way" (1.1 million) and the dramatic second-week 82-percent drop indicated that beyond her Little Monsters, no one was buying into it.
"Artflop" it was declared, because unlike with "The Fame" and "Born This Way" (four Top 10 hits each) and "The Fame Monster" (three), there's been no parade of radio-friendly singles.
So far, "Applause" -- which she swears is not as desperate and narcissistic as it sounds -- is the only one of the three to go Top 10 (at No. 4). "Do What You Want," her Michael Jackson-sounding dance-pop song with R. Kelly stalled at No. 13 and the newly released half-hearted EDM track "G.U.Y." (an acronym for Girl Under You) is wallowing near the bottom of the Hot 100, about where it belongs.
"Artpop" hasn't generated the usual applause among critics. At 61 on metacritic, it's well below "Born This Way" (71) and "The Fame Monster" (78).
Rolling Stone threw her Warholian pop-art ambitions back in her face, declaring, "Gaga wants us to believe the LP was inspired by Marina Abramovic, Jeff Koons and Sandro Botticelli; at its best, it sounds like it was creatively directed by RuPaul, Dr. Ruth, and Beavis and Butt-Head," who, let's be frank, would have made it way more metal and far less danceable.
The UK's Fact magazine sounded the alarm with "This is two albums in a row now that were basically a bit boring, and she needs to sort it out soonish please."
The media pounced on the swirl of negativity -- which included the departure of her longtime stylist Nicola Formichetti, a key player in the Haus of Gaga -- like a German shepherd on the meat dress.
A December headline in the New York Post read "What happened to Lady Gaga?" and noted that with the soft performance of "Artpop" and Lady Gaga getting overshadowed by Miley Cyrus at the MTV Awards, "it seems the public at large is now exhausted by Lady Gaga."
Seeing the first single fail to top the charts, Gaga herself was playing defense before "Artpop" even came out. In September, she told the Guardian, "It gives them a sense of pleasure when they believe that they've destroyed me or taken me down. It's almost entertainment for people to poke fun at Lady Gaga, but at the very same time they have no idea the album I've made. They have no idea what I put into this, they have no idea the work that I've put behind my performances and what I do. In fact, people have no idea what it really took for me to get here. So it doesn't bother me, it's just an interesting observation of where we are as a society."
Gaga has a chance now to seize back the narrative and remind people of her musical and conceptual talents with ArtRave: The Artpop Ball Tour, her first since the Born This Way Ball. That one hit six continents in 2012 and early '13, but was scrapped partway in the States when she suffered a labral tear in her hip that required surgery.
Leading up to ArtRave, she made some headlines: first, for grossing people out at a SXSW appearance in which a performance artist vomited paint on her (angering people sensitive to eating disorders), and then more positively for her residency closing out the Roseland Ballroom in her hometown New York.
ArtRave opened Sunday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with Gaga unveiling a battery of new looks, ranging from giant squid to topless with pasties (Beavis' idea ... both?), and debuting the "Artpop" outtake "Partynauseous."
Tonight's return to Consol Energy Center hasn't generated the frenzy of her September 2010 Pittsburgh debut when she became the second artist to play there (after Paul McCartney). That first show sold-out quickly, and she packed the place again for an encore in February '11.
Even though this one isn't selling out, Mikey Dougherty, morning man for Kiss FM (96.1), which plays Gaga, doesn't see any major Gaga fatigue.
"There will always be a following for Gaga, she's got some diehard fans. She might not have the massive hit singles and album sales of four years ago but you can always guarantee that you'll see something you've never seen before and see a real SHOW when you go to see Gaga."
One of those diehard fans is Anthony Renne, aka DJ Enn Era at Whim, who was a fan of "Artpop" -- "it experimented with a lot of different music genres, which is something I'm a big fan of in the production/DJ world" -- and thinks the sales plunge is more a result of fans streaming music.
"I would by no way say she is fizzling. Lady Gaga is not only a phenomenal musician -- who blew my mind away with her knowledge on music theory -- but a great lyricist who wrote for The Pussycat Dolls and Britney Spears before she was even remotely considered a public figure. So, with those two talents alone I would say Lady Gaga isn't going anywhere."
Richard Parsakian, costume designer and owner of Eons Fashion Antique in Shadyside, went to both Gaga shows so far and will be there again tonight.
"She's among the few superstar icons of the LGBT community who has continued to support anti-bullying issues and she continuously pushes the envelope in the worlds of art, fashion, performance theater and music. Her popularity will always reflect itself in her live shows that are actually live."
Even if "Artpop" didn't make as big an impact as her previous efforts, he says, "we will anxiously await her next reincarnation."
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.