It used to be that when the holidays came around, I’d wait in anticipation to hear the new music of Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houtson, Madonna, and Celine Dion – there’d be articles about how the divas would be duking it out for the title of pop diva supreme.
Ah, the early 90s.
Those times are done, and it’s interesting to see how the pop landscape has changed. Whitney Houston has since passed away and it looks like Janet Jackson has decided to quit music (or has music quit Jackson?), and Madonna seems content earning billions touring around the world like some bionic showgirl.
And so listeners are left with a new batch of pop divas – two of whom released albums this year – Lady Gaga’s Artpop and Katy Perry’s Prism. Both ladies’ lead singles were released at the same time, Perry’s anthemic “Roar” and Gaga’s self-referential “Applause” and though Perry’s song was more successful, Gaga’s still managed to peak inside the top 5.
Katy Perry’s Prism is a perfect 2013 pop record – which isn’t to say the music is perfect, far from it. But it’s exactly the kind of album that manages to succeed nowadays when people have abandoned full-length albums. Perry has always been more of a personality and performer than an actual musician. While having a hand in the songwriting, Prism is put together by a large and vast team of engineers, producers, and songwriters. The end result is a pop album that will hit every conceivable market Perry is aiming for – you look clubby dance music? Well, then you’ll be pleased as punch with her neo-disco numbers including “International Smile” which tells the story of a jet setting celebrity (sounds a touch autobiographical, doncha think?); How about a dramatic ballad? “Unconditionally” which wouldn’t sound out-of-place on the Hunger Games soundtrack; flashback new romantic synthpop is your cup of tea? The thumping “This Moment” will satisfy 80s retro-lovers. The breadth and professionalism of the album is breath-taking, but it also feels like it was plotted and created by a focus group.
That’s not to say that there aren’t genuine moments of inspiration on Prism – when Perry and company hit their peak, sometimes the music is just fantastic. “Birthday” is a wonderful tribute to Prince’s Minneapolis sound with some excellent funky guitar licks. And when Perry shakes off her snarky persona and allows for her vulnerability to show, she’s comes off very appealing as heard in the lovely, brisk “Love Me” that feels positively acoustic due to its low-key and understated synths. And Sia (“Breath Me”) pens a beautiful ballad “Double Rainbow” that takes full advantage of Perry’s pretty, if limited, voice.
With a record as sprawling as Prism, some missteps are expected – her bizarre and dated early 90s house number “Walking on Air” is a glaring mistake that sounds like a cast off of a C+C Music Factory album – but these minor bumps are easily forgiven, when assessing just how competently assembled Prism really is. There’s little room for spontaneity, but Katy Perry is a pop star graduate from the Madonna School of Pop Singers: every move, every sound, every haircut must be planned ahead of time. I don’t think Prism will date all that well in ten, fifteen years – it’s fallen prey to the same trap that every big-budgeted pop record has – a claustrophobic, hermetically sealed sound that is solely reliant on pop music trends of its time. Still, for the moment, Perry’s a consistent presence on radio.
But as carefully planned out as Perry’s career feels, Lady Gaga’s career is the epitome of pop commercialism and calculation. Not since the aforementioned Madonna has a figure on radio taken so much care and thought into mapping out a pop persona. That’s not to say that Lady Gaga’s sound or look is better than Perry’s – the two are comparable – but there is at least the pretense of something deeper to Lady Gaga. Note, I said pretense, but underneath all her art school foppery, what is left is a surprisingly conventional pop singer.
Artpop just by its name tells listeners that this is more than just a pop record. But the truth is, it’s just a pop record. Not a bad one, but not as creative as Lady Gaga would like you to believe. She reaches for Yoko Ono heights, but only manages to attain post-80s Cyndi Lauper. And while the album screams artifice, her audience won’t care, because artifice and playacting is a big part of Lady Gaga’s appeal. The meat dresses, the bumps on her face (something she swiped from French artist Orlan), entering a stage in an egg – all of this just adds to Lady Gaga’s zeal to be seen as more than just a pop star, but something closer to a performance artist – music being just one aspect of a larger work.
All of that can make her music seem incidental, but thankfully, like Perry, Lady Gaga has assembled a small army of collaborators. And because her songwriters and producers are sympathetic to their boss’s eccentricities, they’ve put together an album that’s just weird enough to satisfy her self-indulgence, without alienating a wide audience. And let’s be honest, Artpop isn’t all that different from Lady Gaga’s other albums – loud, gaudy dance-pop with inflections of rock or cabaret.
The album’s lead single “Applause” is the album’s strongest song, too. It’s a perfect metaphor for Lady Gaga – it’s a very honest song that shows just how clever she can be, despite the naval-gazing aspect of the song’s lyrics (though, points should go to the singer for referencing pop artist Jeff Koons who did the album cover art for the record). Like Lady Gaga’s hit “Born This Way,” “Applause” does sound sneakingly like a Madonna song – but at this point, who cares? Lady Gaga has been purloining much of Madge’s work and sound for years (and Madonna herself has been stealing stuff from Debbie Harry, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Jackson, the whole of black/Latino gay culture), and that’s just what pop music has evolved into: work that is a pastiche of other influential art.
“Applause” is buried in the end of the album, but there is a slate of good-to-excellent songs before it. “Aura” opens the record with some interesting surf guitars that will recall Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. And even though her choice of duet partner for “Do What U Want” will give some pause (R. Kelly), the song itself is a great pop number with a killer hook and hypnotic melody. “Donatella” is a funny tribute to Donatella Versace and the related “Fashion!” is an intoxicating mindless catwalk soundtrack that owes its sound to RuPaul’s classic “Supermodel (You Better Work)”.
Like Perry, Lady Gaga’s actual vocals seem to be just a part of the general soundscape – which is a shame because the lady’s got a decent set of pipes, and is able to belt impressively. It’s when her voice is left alone from all the studio trickery, manipulation and distortion, that we can find the genuinely gifted singer underneath all the distraction and noise – in “Gypsy” we get a sense of that – as well as in her live performances, especially when she slows down her club bangers to jazzy ballads.
Ultimately what gives Perry’s Prism the razor-thin edge over Artpop is that the latter clocks in at over an hour, and the high gloss electro beats and strident vocals start to feel a bit monotonous. If Lady Gaga had trusted some of the musical instincts she demonstrates on stage, she would have been able to put together a stronger, more listenable album – she should mix up her records with some piano ballads or some straightforward rock numbers – after all, as was proven in her respectable debut as host of Saturday Night Live, she’s just a showbiz gypsy at heart, a Broadway tyke who grew up to become a self-important “creative” artist. It’s her forced maintenance of this theme that keeps her from landing completely on Artpop – it also keeps the album from being completely enjoyable, because every ounce of sweat is palpable through my headphones. Artpop is the result of a lot of hard work, but the key to pop music is that it should appear effortless. You’ll admire Lady Gaga, but that admiration doesn’t necessarily translate to enjoying her music.