And so the battle begins. Just one day after Katy Perry had to drop her single early due to internet leakage (review HERE,) Lady Gaga has seemingly been dealt the same hand. “Applause” is the first lifted from her upcoming third studio album, ARTPOP. Since her emergence back in 2008, this is the first lull we’ve experienced from the flamboyant pop star; the break was much needed. It just seemed like she was cranking out hit after hit (after hit) with no real break in the action. After having to cut her Born This Way Ball tour short due to a hip injury, Gaga became an uncharacteristic recluse, only making brief public appearances (always in character.) Instead of having to ride the momentum wave she was on, one that was obviously dying, she instead had to basically start over, and that actually worked in her favor. We’ve all had our break from the Lady, and we are all more or less ready to hear some new music without having to hold back our “again?!” eye-rolls. The scene is perfectly set for what can actually be considered a comeback after her last single, “Mary The Night” failed to crack even the US top-20 (her only single not to go top-10 to date,) and there’s reason to believe that while she’s still just as polarizing as ever, her return is welcomed.
Now, we are seeing the ultimate head-to-head battle with Katy Perry, one that was not meant to happen (or was it?!) Katy’s “Roar” is off to an expectedly good start, despite being a complete disappointment of a track. So the question really now becomes, “how does ‘Applause’ fair?” Realistically, it doesn’t matter if it’s better or worse than “Roar” (although it would have to be pretty abysmal to be worse.) The winner of that battle will only be determined by who has the bigger, more enthusiastic fanbase, as the general public is hardly going to even get a word in edgewise. The real focus should always be on how the song is when completely isolated from any context outside of what Lady Gaga has created for herself. Now, there’re some pretty big expectations surrounding “Applause.” Her previous lead singles have all been massive successes, and each has more or less found a cultural niché all to their own. “Just Dance,” (especially) “Bad Romance,” and “Born This Way” were all landmark moments in modern pop, and it would almost be shameful to not live up to her previous achievements. At this stage of the game, the song is going to be successful even if it’s just four minutes of belching (which would clearly be defended to the grave as “art,”) so it’s much more pertinent that the song is actually good. Pop music is often held under the microscope, yet rarely really looked at. If anything, Lady Gaga has reignited hope that this genre can still contain some credibility and artistic integrity. She is seemingly unwavering on her stance, especially with a title like ARTPOP (it kind of drives the point home, wouldn’t you say?)
So what’s the verdict? That’s actually rather difficult to answer. “Applause” isn’t this cosmic alignment of pop perfection the way “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance” was, but what’s to actually complain about? Dance music is pretty much the gold standard right now, and the conversion rate is dropping by the second. Remember, though, Lady Gaga was a major catalyst for that movement. There was very little on the radio like the music she was making when The Fame first came out, and now it’s pretty much all you’ll hear no matter where you turn. It would be hypocritical for her to abandon the sound she so boldly owned, but it would almost be an injustice if she didn’t take it somewhere new. “Applause” feels very much like a “Lady Gaga single.” At first listen, that’s a pretty disappointing thought. “Same old, same old” is 100% of the time never what you should ever hope to think when listening to a song. With that said, Lady Gaga’s “same old” is very different than, say, Katy Perry’s “same old.” The difference here is that it’s Gaga’s natural DNA that comes pouring out, not necessarily the same sounds or ideas. It’s just not as exciting as it was during her breakout era when she was still this enigmatic creature who would dress up in lampshades or whatever. We’ve all just gotten a little too comfortable with the World of Lady Gaga, and that is unfortunately going to work against her for the time being.
Casting that initial reaction aside, though, “Applause” is very different from much of where pop music actually is at the moment (outside of the blanket “dance pop” realm.) Just because it’s dancy doesn’t make it contrived, and this track isn’t. There’s a noticeable lack of the nonsense hooks that have become her claim to fame (“ma-ma-ma-ma,” “rah-rah-ah-ah-ah-ah,” “ju-da-ju-da-ah,”) but, once again, it still reads very “Gaga.” The chorus is expectedly catchy, but not as ingenious as some of her previous works, and there’s nothing particularly playful or challenging about it. Lyrically, it’s actually very refreshing to see a little bit of ego come seeping through instead of the whole “martyr” thing. Gaga, you’re famous and we know you love it! It’s time you admit it! However, considering the rest of us aren’t famous, it does eliminate a bit of that relatable connection her previous tunes have strived for. Finally, one conclusion that is pretty apparent is that “Applause” isn’t very radio-friendly. Catchiness aside, it just doesn’t have that spark radio would look for. Oddly enough, that’s the song’s biggest asset! It’s easy to write it off in the context of what we expect from Lady Gaga, but in the context of this large and ever-changing microcosm that is “pop music,” it is a damn bold move to send a song to radio that radio probably won’t like. She gets my round of applause for that.
So the final conclusion is that “Applause” isn’t the best thing we’ve heard from Lady Gaga, but it is a solid track with loads of things to praise about it. The song is a noticeable step forward in terms of maturity and awareness, but (and it might just be, once again, how used to her we’ve gotten) it isn’t mind-blowing. This is an anthem that will light-up the club scene for months to come, and will no doubt go on to be a huge hit. Of all the dance pop songs out there right now that could actually be viable hits, “Applause” is the best one so far. The little quirks that are definitive of her artistry may feel like second nature to us now, but good luck finding any of her peers that could get away with them. The song is a little easier to swallow than “Born This Way” was, which works both for it and against it. Taking a little break from the themes and “artistic decisions” that need to be explained thoroughly before we actually get what she’s doing is much welcomed. That was quite an exhausting trend that we need to be glad she has seemingly ended. Here we have a song that doesn’t require any further thinking, and that’s what made her famous in the first place. “Applause” is smart, catchy, and just daring enough to be acknowledged. If this was her debut single, we’d probably all be a little gobsmacked, but we can’t grant her that context. This is a new era; it feels like one, and it’s still exciting. Lady Gaga just still feels like Lady Gaga… and that’s always going to come with a yin and a yang.