[15 August 2013]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Oh it’s a catfight, ladies and gents.
Much like Blur vs. Oasis, Kanye vs. 50 Cent, and Justin Bieber vs. common sense, the media is more than ready to hype up a battle of the pop divas, as Katy Perry’s remarkably hackneyed sing-by-numbers anthem “Roar” was unleashed to radio just days before Lady Gaga decided to debut “Applause”, both of them lead singles from their hugely anticipated albums.
While there is a lot of similarities between the singer-songwriters (and to their credit, they do have a hand in writing their own songs despite what you may hear), their objectives are remarkably different: Katy Perry loves big broad pop music and enjoys making a litany of #1 hits. Even the most jaded of critics would have to acknowledge that Perry is capable of some truly transcendental moments, but that also means suffering through such base, surface-level throwaways like “Last Friday Night” and “The One That Got Away”. There’s nothing complicated about Perry’s music, and there never will be, even as she stows her best songs away as album cuts (“Hummingbird Heartbeat”) or gives them away to other singers (her co-write of Kelly Clarkson’s “I Will Not Hook Up”).
Gaga, meanwhile, has let us know well, well in advance that her new album is going to be called Artpop, and the title alone lets you know everything you need to know about Gaga’s aesthetic: she truly believes that it’s possible to create great, smart, and deep art while also making it as broadly appealing as possible (hell, Prince’s Purple Rain is the de-facto blueprint for that fine line between being groundbreaking and commercial all at once). Yet, as is often the case with Gaga and divas of her ilk, the need to be important, smart, and self-aware has lead her to be meta, deliberately complicated, and sometimes downright confusing even among the most devout of her Little Monsters. As Born This Way proved, Gaga has more ambition than a dozen of her peers, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get overwhelmed by her own creations.
Thus, we are greeted with Artpop‘s first single, “Applause”—and, surprisingly, it sounds like a step backwards for our crazy pop queen. That being said, a “step backwards” might actually be a good thing.
Working once again with one of Born This Way‘s chief sonic architects, DJ White Shadow, Gaga has veered hard into third act Madonna territory by gunning straight for the clubs, broad mainstream acceptance be damned. The opening synth, were it not so rooted in modern production, would fit right at home with too many ‘80s synthpop maestros to name in one go. Her chorus is simple—she lives for the applause, and then gives you instructions on how to applaud!—but her numerous statements about pop, art, and the critic’s role in it (“I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong / To crash the critic saying: ‘Is it right or is it wrong?’”) show that she isn’t even saying anything about art as much as she talking about what art does to herself personally and what it means in the broader sense (“Pop culture was in art / Now art’s in pop culture in me!”—what?) There’s a lot to dissect, but if her lyric sheet proves anything, it’s that she’s not gonna play outside of her wheelhouse anytime soon.
The actual song structure by itself is perhaps the most interesting aspect of “Applause”. There’s no massive pre-chorus, no huge sing-along moments akin to “Edge of Glory” or even “You & I”, no. Instead, this is a club-banger: a direct synth rush that is all momentum all the time always. It hews closer to “Just Dance” in style over any of her Born This Way-era hits, but in a much more aggressive fashion, catering to the gradual EDM-stranglehold of pop radio.
Yet, in that melody she found, Gaga actually sounds a little generic, the chorus feeling like a faint ghost of (ugh) David Guetta & Nicki Minaj’s “Turn Me On”, of all things. Were it not for her heady lyrics and warped lead-in synth line, “Applause” wouldn’t stand out all that much in radio, which makes it an even more curious choice as a lead single.
Then again, Gaga isn’t known for following convention, even if the song feels like it’s chasing chart trends a little bit. Thus, due to club-centric appeal and typically Gaga-ian lyrics, Katy Perry’s “Roar” will definitely be the bigger hit, but Gaga’s, as is oft the case, the more interesting, even if both don’t provide the same giddy pop thrills that both ladies have been known to deliver in the past.