Why "Applause" Earns Applause
Lady Gaga doesn't compete against Katy Perry.
Lady Gaga competes against Lady Gaga.
Gaga's debut album, The Fame, arrived at a time when confectionary pop was only starting to resurface as a regular food group at mainstream top 40 and when there wasn't enough "dance pop" to put together a cluster of three representative hits for top 40 stations' music research projects.
Well before The Fame ran out of singles candidates, Gaga proved she could do it again. The Fame Monster had enough new tracks, and viable singles, to effectively head off the sophomore jinx, even before her official second album.
And then, at a time when there were plenty of artists working in the subgenre of edgy, danceable pop that Gaga helped create, she made the decision not to do it again. As a single, "Born This Way" was admirable in its intentions. As an album, Born This Way clearly represented growth. But it wasn't fun or delightful like its predecessors, or particularly trying to be. And while it had respectable chart placings, it didn't have the same easy supply of obvious consensus hits.
As an album, Born This Way was not unlike Paula Abdul's Spellbound—another artistic leap forward that didn't do anything wrong, except to not offer the obvious radio fodder of the previous project. If comparisons to Abdul seem reductive now because of her career arc, the alternative is Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 (had hits, but felt like more of the same after Control) or George Michael's Listen Without Prejudice (a solemn repudiation of everything people liked about him).
Jackson reappeared in 1993 with the fresh-sounding "That's the Way Love Goes," which was gratefully received by a top 40 that was then desperate for product. Abdul returned a few years later, after the new rock revolution, with "My Love Is for Real" to find that time had passed her by. After the even more ponderous "Jesus to a Child," Michael steered back to rhythmic pop—again, well after top 40 had learned to live without him.
If Gaga had taken the respectable-but-not Fame-level success of Born This Way as the impetus to bring back the old Gaga, it would have seemed like a step backwards. (Think of Fleetwood Mac retreating from the provocations of Tusk; the hits returned, the hipness didn't.) And besides, Gaga's old turf would still be plenty crowded. Four years after breaking through with what then could be identified as a Gaga-soundalike, Ke$ha is still firmly planted there, for instance.
Hearing "Applause" for the first time was not like hearing "That's the Way Love Goes," which immediately established Jackson as being back in the groove. That song was in character with what she does. It was not exactly what she had been doing. It was an obvious hit from the first listen. "Applause" only hit on two of those cylinders. And it deliberately veers toward the most dangerous possible territory for an artist in her position, reflecting on her own stardom and the reaction to it.
That said, after two weeks, I'm still liking "Applause" on the radio. I didn't know if it would be No Doubt's "Hey Baby" or Gwen Stefani's "What You Waiting For"—both initially disconcerting at first listen, but the latter sounded better with time. After a few days where being released on the heels of Perry's "Roar" set Gaga up for unflattering comparisons ("only 218,000 sold in the first week"), it's 34-20 and up 2,490 spins at mainstream top 40 at press time. And regular readers will understand that I have a special fondness for anybody willing to rebut the notion that nostalgia's for geeks.
While Born This Way invited a lot of comparisons to other superstar sidesteps, it is encouraging so far that "Applause" is not easily compared to anything. A lot of superstar projects turn out to be only as much as a return to form as the first single. But so far, Gaga has not retrenched, like Fleetwood Mac. She has not squandered our attention, like Michael or Abdul. How long she holds it will depend heavily on the rest of the forthcoming ARTPOP album. But for now, "Applause" earns a big hand.