Katy Perry and Lady Gaga’s comeback singles weren’t meant to come out the same week. Perry’s “Roar” leaked two days ahead of schedule, and Gaga’s “Applause,” originally slated for August 18th, was rushed out after a low-quality mp3 of the song leaked. Or so they say – it’s not hard to imagine that Gaga intentionally jumped the gun to force a competition with her main rival on the pop charts. But regardless of how this came to be, this clash of pop divas has a clear and decisive winner: Katy Perry, whose single has far better buzz and has a firm lock on the top of the iTunes singles chart, while Gaga lags behind in second place. We won’t have a clear idea of how much more Perry has sold compared to Gaga until next week, but the difference in views between the official lyrics videos for their songs is rather extreme. Perry’s emoji-filled video for “Roar” was released two days ahead of the clip for “Applause,” but nevertheless has 7.3 million views while Gaga is hovering just above 500K. (However, the “official audio” clip on Gaga’s YouTube channel is over 9 million.)
It’s hard not to look at this as a referendum on Gaga and Perry’s personas, and their very different approaches to pop stardom. Part of the reason Gaga’s song is leaving audiences cold is because, like most of her material, the song is entirely about being Lady Gaga. To fully enjoy “Applause” you need to buy into her stardom and be invested in her increasingly elaborate mythology. Perry’s “Roar,” on the other hand, is a thoroughly generic song about self-affirmation and triumph over adversity, and though you can map the details of her personal life on to it, it’s just as easy to imagine the song being about you. Perry consistently aims for universal sentiments in her songs, and this is a big part of why she’s had significantly more success on the charts. Her hits have less cultural baggage, and far more utility.
The most frustrating thing about “Applause” is that it sounds so much like Lady Gaga dialing down her excesses, hedging her bets, and aiming for an easy hit because, frankly, she needs one after a year away from the charts. Though the lyrics lay out a vague manifesto for her ARTPOP album and name check Jeff Koons, the song lacks the musical boldness of her previous record Born This Way, and comes off like a retread of her catchy but less sophisticated material from her debut, The Fame. In the hierarchy of Gaga singles it is strictly c-list, but it’s still pretty good. But a song about how you are a pop visionary needs to be more than just pretty good to prove its point, you know?
“Roar” isn’t a better song than “Applause,” but it is far easier to like. Perry’s single bears a striking resemblance to Sara Bareilles’ song “Brave,” but in fairness, it sounds a little bit like dozens of songs. Hearing it for the first time feels like déjà vu. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – a lot of great pop songs have that effect – but it’s hard to shake off the sense that this is a very cynical piece of music. Whereas Gaga is going out on a limb with an elaborate art project that she must know will alienate millions of people, Perry is embracing a safe sound and a safe message. Is that a better business plan? Oh, hell yes. Most definitely. But it’s much less interesting.
That said, “interesting” is not something everyone wants from pop music. Gaga’s entire career is built on the notion that art and mainstream popularity are not and should not be mutually exclusive. This is the crux of “Applause”: “Pop culture was in art / now art’s in pop culture in me!” But the lukewarm response to this song and Gaga in general at the moment may signal that the broader pop audience may be tired of indulging her, or have simply grown bored of her antics. Gaga can go very far on the enthusiasm of her enormous cult audience – truly, second place ain’t bad – but this impromptu chart showdown is a sign that she may have completely lost her grasp on casual mainstream fans.