The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: The Grand Rehabilitation Of Lady Gaga

Less than a year ago I published a post with the headline Watch Lady Gaga Get Doused In Neon Vomit While Riding A Mechanical S&M Pig At SXSW, Brought To You By Doritos. The garish excess of Gaga’s performance-art spectacle was typical of the obscene brand-mania that has infected SXSW to its core, but more importantly, it played like self-parody from an artist who had become better known for her outrageous persona than her awesome music.

And at its best, Gaga’s music is definitely awesome.”Bad Romance,” “Poker Face,” “The Edge Of Glory” — these are timeless, triumphant pop songs, singles that will endure through the ages. They’re in the canon now, and they deserve to be. Gaga’s melodies are bold and unforgettable; my father in law, a marching band director, singles her out as the most reliable source of material for adaptation. Lyrically, too, she deals in the universal concept that has been driving music since before “pop” was even a concept (love and its many maneuvers) and the issues that define this generation (identity politics and celebrity culture). She’s an absolute monster (ahem) where songwriting is concerned. But her songs might never have been noticed had she not accented them with her wild theater-kid persona, donning ridiculous costumes that split the difference between high fashion and a grocery list. The weird outfits simultaneously functioned as an attention-grabbing mechanism for her art and a meaningful component of that art, toying with notions of beauty and ugliness and forging Gaga as a creative wild card. She was not just a pop songwriter, she was a pop star — the Madonna of her era, perhaps to a fault.

At some point, the persona that once served Gaga so well began to overshadow her music. Aside from the on-the-nose “Applause,” her 2013 album Artpop didn’t generate hits like Gaga was used to — a shame, really, because “Do What U Want” would be just about perfect if it wasn’t so bizarrely rapey. The spectacle around Gaga kept growing bigger and gaudier even as her chart success was drying up. By the time she threw a massive album release warehouse party called artRave — one of many elaborate launch strategies superstar musicians were toying with that year before the trend shifted from audacious pre-release promotion to no promotion at all — Gaga had developed a reputation for style over substance. The SXSW Doritos debacle sealed the deal: Gaga’s cultural clout had run out.

It’s hard to believe that was less than 12 months ago. Gaga has bounced back in a big way lately, reinventing herself as a staunch traditionalist with a voice for the ages and nary a meat dress in sight. First there was Cheek To Cheek, her duets album of jazz standards with Tony Bennett, which debuted #1 last fall and re-introduced Gaga as a classically styled lounge singer. Maybe that look was just another costume, but it turned out to be just the jolt Gaga needed. She appeared to exit through the sewage drain and re-enter through the back door, all set for a long career in Vegas slinging retro pastiche. A week ago she got engaged, nabbing tabloid attention for decidedly normal behavior. Then, during last weekend’s Oscars broadcast, she delivered a respectable run through The Sound Of Music soundtrack, inspiring rave reviews and a lot of remarks about how playing it straight was the most shocking thing she could have done. She reminded everybody that she’s a genuine talent, not just a Fame Monster to gawk at.

The glamorous old-school Hollywood version of Gaga probably won’t last for long. News broke yesterday that she’s starring in the next season of American Horror Story, which should give her plenty of opportunity to fly her freak flag in a fresh context. And she’s working with Giorgio Moroder and Diane Warren on her next album, a project she could push in any direction she wants now without the Artpop baggage that would have made further outré gestures feel grating and a move to the middle seem like retreat. Gaga has successfully reignited my curiosity: She’s going into her next album with a blank slate rather than an albatross, and I’m honestly intrigued to see what she comes up with. Just steer clear of the mechanical pigs this time.

Imagine Dragons

CHART WATCH

We live in a country where Imagine Dragons have the #1 album in the land. Smoke + Mirrors hasn’t come close to producing a hit like “Radioactive” yet — not exactly breathing fire amirite? — but albums following smash hits like that almost always go #1 on the strength of anticipation alone. Thus, the Dragons tallied 195,000 units to top the chart and just barely beat out last week’s #1, Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Drake registered 187,000, good for #2, followed by the Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack at #3 with 165,000. Familiar titles from Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Sam Smith are at 4-5-6: Swift’s 1989 with 93,000, Sheeran’s x with 81,000, and Smith’s In The Lonely Hour with 72,000. Maroon 5’s V jumps back up to #7 with 47,000, followed by Meghan Trainor’s Title at #8 with 44,000 and Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint at #9 with 41,000. Hozier’s self-titled debut closes out the top 10 with 40,000.

Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars are on top of the Hot 100 singles chart for the eighth straight week with “Uptown Funk!” with Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” locked at #2 for a sixth week. Ellie Goulding’s Fifty Shades single “Love Me Like You Do” climbs to a new peak at #3. Maroon 5’s “Sugar” is at #4 and Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” is at #5. The Rihanna/Kanye West/Paul McCartney collab “FourFiveSeconds” drops to #6, while Taylor Swift is holding down #7 and #8 with “Blank Space” and “Style.” The Weeknd’s “Earned It,” also from the Fifty Shades soundtrack, rises to #9, becoming Abel Tesfaye’s first solo top-10 hit and second overall (after the Ariana Grande duet “Love Me Harder”). Trainor’s “Lips Are Movin” is at #10.

TRACK CITY

Jodeci – “Every Moment”
Today’s reigning king of hip-hop and R&B, Drake, owes a lot to Jodeci, so the time is right for a reunion album. “Every Moment” is a solid throwback to their signature sound, but I gotta be honest, I’d rather hear it sampled by Noah “40” Shebib and turned into one of Drake’s midnight ruminations.

Nate Ruess – “Nothing Without Love”
If “Love” = Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost, then sure. All joking aside, it’s unclear why Fun. frontman Ruess needed to release “Nothing Without Love” as a solo single and not a new Fun. track because it sounds exactly like I imagined the next Fun. record would sound. The fact that he went solo just to release a song like this suggests to me that there might be some credibility to those breakup rumors even if the band says otherwise.

Zedd – “I Want You To Know” (Feat. Selena Gomez)
Gomez’s last single, teary ballad “The Heart Wants What It Wants,” was about her inability to break up with Justin Bieber. She’s dating Zedd now instead, and she sounds much happier. Both songs are total jams, so maybe Gomez’s next record will be on the level of Ariana Grande’s My Everything? We can hope.

Kelly Clarkson – “Invincible”
“Heartbeat Song” ripped off Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” but “Invincible” sounds like Sia because it was actually written by Sia. It’s a pretty good Sia song, too — not in that “Chandelier”/”Diamonds”/”Pretty Hurts” upper echelon, but a perfect storm of inspirational pop nonetheless.

Nick Jonas – “Only One” (Kanye West Cover)
I don’t think anyone could do justice to such a personal song. Drake didn’t, and Jonas certainly doesn’t. He should’ve stayed away.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Will Smith has recorded eight songs with Kanye West. [The Fader]
  • The latest Dancing With The Stars cast includes Patti LaBelle and LMFAO’s Redfoo. [THR]
  • Zendaya had some harsh words for those who criticized her dreadlocks on the Oscars red carpet. [People]
  • TLC raised $430,000 on Kickstarter. [Popjustice]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME