"Applause" and "Roar" are strong pop singles. But with all the pre-release buildup, is that enough?
Is it possible for two sky-high-profile, sure-to-be-smash pop songs to both be undervalued? Lady Gaga's "Applause" and Katy Perry's "Roar," two of the most anticipated singles of the year, happened to arrive on roughly the same day earlier this week (various Internet leaks of "Applause" swayed Gaga to push the single to digital retailers six days before its announced Aug. 19 release date). Little Monsters and KatyCats have lavished praise on the new songs from their respective idols, but in conversations I've had with objective pop obsessives since their releases, the response to each song has been rather lukewarm. I've read "Applause" be called "forgettable" and "nondescript," while "Roar" has been described as "sadly lacking in minor chords." Part of the basis for such criticism is that Gaga and Perry have deep catalogs of singles to abide by and live up to -- no matter what singles were going to lead Gaga's "ARTPOP" album and Perry's "Prism" LP, those songs were going to be measured next to "California Gurls" and "Bad Romance," among many others.
To be sure, "Applause" and "Roar" are both very good singles with wildly dissimilar intentions. The biggest knock against them, however, is that they don't live up to the hype -- imposed partially by fans and the media, sure, but mostly by the artists themselves. As "event" singles, "Applause" and "Roar" were bestowed with gaudy expectations in the weeks prior to their respective releases; these songs weren't set up to be perfectly fine pop songs, but life-affirming, genre-shifting and artist-defining compositions. With superstars like Gaga and Perry, perception can sometimes deliver a blow to reality, even if reality contains a pretty fantastic hook.
While Gaga still issues physical albums, releases radio singles and films music videos like any "traditional" contemporary artist, she has repeatedly made a point of distinguishing herself from her pop star peers by unleashing boundary-pushing peripheral material to supplement her verses and choruses. It's the reason why the "Applause" single artwork shows Gaga literally becoming part of her canvas, why "ARTPOP" is being released alongside an app that Gaga has described as combining "music, art, fashion and technology," and why her completely nude appearance in performance artist Marina Abramovic's "long-duration" experiment last week was really not all that shocking. On Tuesday, Gaga released a short video with a link to buy her new single… and said video was called "Lady Gaga Is Over," with text that claimed the singer was "no longer relevant" and a "flop." Simply put, Gaga loathes straightforwardness, and that mindset spills over to the promotion of her music. "IF I HAD TO GO ANOTHER MONTH WITHOUT PLAYING THE NEW MUSIC I THINK ID CHEW MY ARM OFF," she posted on Twitter on Aug. 8, after a press release promised in mid-July that the "ARTPOP" album "musically mirrors Gaga's creative process as she passes through the medium of each artist she collaborates with, scoring a blueprint on her journey." The message seems to be that Gaga is going to bowl over anyone describing her as "no longer relevant" with a pop opus unlike any other.
Gaga's ambitious declarations could be read as overhype, but she's also proven herself capable of raising the bar within the pop music idiom. Was "Applause" the next game-changing work of a singer who had already blown our minds a few times? The short answer is no -- "Applause" is an awesomely upbeat puff of synth-pop with a daring lyrical premise that doesn't quite hold together. Whereas Gaga's "Born This Way" single successfully amplified its message of individuality from a personal standpoint to an all-encompassing decree in the span of four minutes and change, "Applause's" statements on fame, pop criticism and specialized interests like reading (?) don't effortlessly segue into the chorus' comparatively commonplace calls of "Turn the lights on!" and "Make it real loud!" "Applause" is more effective when appreciated solely as a great dance cut, with throbbing rhythms that never quit and a multi-layered hook that ranks among Gaga's best. It's just that Gaga makes it difficult to appreciate such a single at face value when there's so many other assets spinning alongside and within it.
Unlike Gaga, Perry does not project herself as an artist that views the advancement of pop music as a matter of life and death. The California girl is comfortable with being better than anyone at delivering what the masses want to hear on the radio: her last eight singles, all from her 2010 "Teenage Dream" album and its 2012 "Complete Confection" re-issue, have peaked no lower than No. 3 on the Hot 100 chart. When "Roar" leaked in full two days before its intended release, the singer did not take to Twitter to bemoan what had happened. Instead, the Twitter outcry came from music fans criticizing "Roar" for two primary reasons -- the song was either charged as a rip-off of Sara Bareilles' recent single "Brave," or it was deemed too similar to Perry's "Teenage Dream" output. The series of video teasers Perry posted in the week before "Roar's" release hinted at a darker musical direction for the bubblegum-leaning artist, who was shown torching her iconic blue wig or gazing upon a funeral service for her past self. Perry was making clear that her KatyCats were about to hear their favorite singer, er, roar.
As a lead single, "Roar" is fairly bulletproof. The team of Perry, Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee and Henry "Cirkut" Walter has become the '90s Bulls of pop songwriting at this point, exploiting every hook for maximum impact and making sure the listener can sing every word of the refrain after a single listen. The comparisons to "Brave" are far-fetched -- "Roar" is cleaner, more precise, with a similar message of empowerment but with an arena-rock sensibility. However, listeners are absolutely correct in pointing out that Perry's latest anthem could very well have fit in on the "Teenage Dream" track list. The suggestion that "Roar" is the sonic equivalent of Perry setting a match to her best-selling image is essentially like Will Smith promising fans that "Men in Black" would be a total change-up from "Independence Day." All of Perry's usual production and songwriting collaborators have returned for "Roar," and the song carries the same sing-song style and sticky-sweet lyrics that have defined her career. Here's the thing: if Perry had preceded the song by calling it a close cousin to "Firework" that will appeal to her fans and beyond, would anyone have objected? Perry prepared fans for an evolution that doesn't come on "Roar," and no matter how great the song is, one gets the vague whiff of a bait-and-switch.
"Don't focus on ANY blogger criticism," Gaga wrote on Sunday, after snippets of "Applause" had reached the Web. "I have been a producer/songwriter/musician for over 10 years. Trust the artist bloggers are not critics." Indeed, thousands of pop fans are trusting the artist, and the scattered negativity toward "Applause" and "Roar" hasn't hampered sales. Both singles are angling for huge starts on Billboard's Digital Songs chart next week, and could become the first songs to debut with more than 400,000 downloads sold in the same week. These songs will likely become inescapable in the coming months, and I think that the naysayers will gradually let go of their immediate reactions. "Applause" and "Roar" may not match the amped-up reputations that Gaga and Perry put forth ahead of their releases, but that doesn't mean that they're not worthy additions to each artist's canon of hits. It also doesn't mean that "ARTPOP" couldn't become this year's most jaw-dropping pop project, or that "Prism" won't push Perry into thrilling new territory. These singles are just the appetizers for Gaga and Perry's next endeavors, and our perception of their tastes may very well change once given the full courses.