It seems as though Lady Gaga has reached a crossroads of sorts in her career without her even realizing that’s where she was. It’s hard to really say that “Applause” is underperforming, but considering the hype, the promotion, and the anticipation, the fact that it didn’t storm the charts all the way to #1 is quite shocking. Sure, she had Katy Perry’s “Roar” to battle with, but that’s far more of an excuse than it is a reason. She has no control over the fact that the public is going to be far more interested in cheap, fabricated pop (a la Katy’s hit du jour,) but Gaga didn’t even put up a fight! Now, while “Applause” is comfortably hovering around the top-5, “Roar” has inched its way up to #1 after impatiently having to spend a pair of weeks in the the runner up position as Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” just refused to go away. These two pop icons went head-to-head in an overhyped, largely irrelevant “Pop Battle for the Ages” (read the truth HERE) when the tracks were unexpectedly released just a day apart. Within hours, it seemed, the competition was completely lopsided; Katy’s “Roar” outside Gaga about 2-1. Once again, this was always going to happen simply based on the public’s thirst for less-challenging, watered down pop to get them through their school dances, road trips, and drunk outings. It’s not about the music at all.
Nonetheless, Lady Gaga has really got an uphill battle on her hands here. She’s going into this project with something she hasn’t had since back in 2008 when she unleashed The Fame. Time. I think we all look back and remember a whirlwind of success for this eccentric pop star, but it wasn’t that easy. It took some time before “Just Dance” was able to properly catch on internationally, and she catapulted herself to superstardom when she was able to follow it up with “Poker Face,” one of the greatest pop records of the last 25 years. She carried out the project with two more international smash hits, and bled it directly into its follow up, the flawless kind-of-EP-kind-of-mini-album, The Fame Monster. There was absolutely no down time between the projects, almost to the point where it was positioned as a continuation of the same one. All in all, Lady Gaga released 7 singles from two separate releases at the same pace that Katy Perry did with one (her Teenage Dream project.) However, she furthered the progress even more when she carried it into her second proper studio album, Born This Way. The project overlapped, once again, almost seamlessly. “Alejandro” was finishing up its radio tenure at the same time “Born This Way” was beginning its own! She was even still on her ambitious Monster Ball Tour, adding in tracks from her new record along the way. There was, once again, zero downtime. Despite the Born This Way project being a little botched, it still worked out in her favor.
However, things are different this go-around. I think that people would like to blame it on her hip injury, but this was always how it was going to go down. Lady Gaga has been out of the spotlight for quite some time. Her Little Monsters might not see it that way, but that’s because they follow her every move. When an artist is on tour, it’s easy for a fanbase to view them as “active” or “relevant,” but the public was taking a much-needed breather from Ms. Gaga. Only the people going to the shows found relevance in her existence. Without a single on the radio or a new video on YouTube, she was taking a break from the public eye for the first time in years, and it was right on time. Breaking your stride can be dangerous for a pop star, but overstaying your welcome can be completely detrimental, so she was making the right move by focusing on the tour and taking her time to craft her next album. All her hip injury really did was prolong the wait, and it should have been a beneficial break for her. This allowed her to further distance herself from the public, but also from her fans. There was nothing to follow in the world of Lady Gaga for months on end, and it was glorious. She wasn’t active on social media, she was barely seen in public, and there was nothing in the news about her other than a few odds and ends anecdotes. She was beyond prepped for what could actually be considered a “return,” and it became an exciting notion. For the first time in almost half a decade, Lady Gaga felt exciting again, and not so “business as usual.”
So what happened? What went wrong? Again, it’s hard to really say she’s suffering, but she’s not at the level she should be considering this is bordering on a “comeback.” This is Lady Gaga! She’s one of the most important pop stars to emerge in the last 25+ years, so we should be hanging on her every move, but we’re not. We are right back to business as usual, and that’s a damn shame. Well, for one, the song wasn’t the right one to kick off a project with. “Applause” is a good tune, and it’s certainly a grower! As time goes on, it does settle in and become quite endearing, but it isn’t the kind of song that would ever help her reinstate her reign as a pop megastar. If anything, it’s a buzz single. It should have been streamed live on YouTube with remixes sent to clubs, but that’s about it. A proper single would have to be a big “moment” much like “Bad Romance” was. There was no way to deny that song’s brilliance, and therefore it became an instant classic. No matter what she did, everything was going to cut through the pack and turn to gold. “Applause,” conversely, is lackluster as a single. It’s the slightest bit edgy, but there’s nothing user-friendly about it. The song has some catchy moments, but its charisma feels forced, or at least recycled. As a song in its own right, it gets a big thumbs up, but as a comeback single, it was a bad move.
However, Lady Gaga took songs like “Paparazzi” and “Alejandro,” two difficult songs to push on the public, and made them international superhits. The difference there was that, both times, she had momentum on her side. They were the respective final singles of The Fame and The Fame Monster, both of which were preceded by a series of radio-friendly, genius pop tunes. “Applause” would fit in a category with these songs, but it is, instead, the lead single; there’s no momentum to carry it to the top, and it’s suffering as a result. Therefore, the presentation needed to be completely spot on for it to work, and it just wasn’t. Can we realistically blame it on a premature leak (a “pop emergency,” if you will?) Not really. The song was hyped to be debuted at the MTV Video Music Awards, and released in a big way, but, instead, was brought out under distress, almost nonchalantly. If anything, it should have been completely abandoned when it leaked, or at very least scrapped as a proper single and demoted to “buzz” status. There was still enough time to pick a new single and put together a new performance for the VMAs that would have ignited some interest. The video, as a result, was pushed forward, so when we actually got to the awards show, we already had a visual point of reference; it backfired. “Roar” was still going to be clobbering what Gaga released in the popular realm, but she would still have been putting up a fight.
Realistically, Lady Gaga’s biggest flaw right now is that she fell back into her same habits. These were things that worked when they were new and exciting, but they’re not fresh. The imagery is far too predictably farfetched and confusing, and it’s not creating an air of curiosity anymore. It’s not that the reinvention factor wasn’t there, but it’s far too overabundant. Lady Gaga is known for reinventing herself every 10 minutes, which has resulted in her flattening out. Because she changes so often, everything ends up blurring together and looking the same. Going from blonde to brunette isn’t exactly enough to make us feel like something new is happening. She needed a complete overhaul in image, something we’ve never seen before from her, but one that matched a complete reinvention in sound and content. The music so far is different, but it’s not different enough. There’s the wrong kind of consistency there. The consistency she needs is, after a fresh start, one she can carry throughout the ARTPOP project and completely abandon at the very end. This all feels like she’s picking up where she left off, and that is incredibly disappointing. Her and her fans can say that everything is new all they want, but that doesn’t make it reality. Art’s relevance is always relative. For her first three projects, she was creating relevance out of thin air, but now that time has passed. Lady Gaga needs to literally start from scratch. She can still make dance pop records, but they can’t be in the same train of thought if she wants to remain a driving force in the world of pop music.
So what does Lady Gaga need to to do stay relevant? Quite simply, she needs to burn herself to the ground and rise out of the ashes like a cliché phoenix. She needs to fail. Going away and coming back is only going to get you so far if you don’t have the freshness and genius in you upon your return. Lady Gaga needs to be scared into starting over altogether. We know she’s an incredible musician, we know she can write iconic pop songs, and we know she can push boundaries like no one else in today’s climate can. We need her to feel like she has nothing to lose because she’s lost it all. Her fanbase is going to be loyal through thick and thin, but that’s not going to translate into success in the public. Bribing your fans to purchase multiple copies of your single, or posting links to continuous loops of your video isn’t the way to be going about this. Fabricating success doesn’t work out well. Hell, her fans have been been offering to give oral sex to people who buy “Applause.” C’mon now, that’s pretty messed up. Lady Gaga is in no position to go the Katy Perry route and make bad songs that will be popular; she’s set herself up as a proper artist and only when she lives up to that will she regain her iconic status. For the time being, she’s just going to be popular, but that doesn’t seem like enough. Lady Gaga needs to walk the tightrope of caring too much and not caring at all. She needs to take herself seriously, but not seriously at all. That’s how “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance” became legendary. Maybe ARTPOP has some surprises for us, but so far it’s everything we’re expecting. For an artist like Gaga, the expected is dangerous territory.
LISTEN TO “APPLAUSE:”