Sunday, November 10, 2013

May the Best Diva Win?

That's the title of a Wall Street Journal article about the fact that four of the most popular and competitive female pop artists all have new albums out. They report it as news, saying:
Despite their shared mass appeal, these female stars differ in their sounds, creative approaches and marketing tactics. And they don't appreciate being compared with each other, according to some of their representatives.
Aha! Well, since we here at The Music Salon live to compare, let's see if we can annoy some pop divas by doing just that. After all, it's all fodder for aesthetic theory, right? Here are the four divas in order of age:

Lorde, from New Zealand, who just turned 17

Miley Cyrus, 20

Lady Gaga, 27

Katy Perry, 29

First of all, I think we should give thanks that at least Rihanna and Beyoncé seem, temporarily at least, to have slipped into the background. So let's see what kind of musical offerings these pop stars have for us.

Lorde's clip has, at the moment, just under 69 million views on YouTube.

Just over 300 million views.

Just over 100 million views.

Just over 187 million views.

First reactions: Lorde is about being regular folks and her voice, which is most of the texture. Miley is working with a deeply confused metaphor: is she the wrecker or the wreckee? Both, apparently. Lady Gaga has the most sophisticated imagery and, I'm surprised to hear myself say this, but she is also the sexiest. Katy, ok, I get it, I am grrrl, hear me roar, but couldn't you afford an elephant with two tusks?

Pop stars live in a weird world, which I really know nothing about. But I remember a story a friend told me about a Canadian pop star. He had a big hit, his first, and one day he went to his mailbox and found a check. It was his first big royalty check and it amounted to what you would pay for a house. I guess in today's dollars think $250,000. Now that's nothing to a big American pop star, but imagine this regular guy, he was probably used to getting a couple of hundred dollars a night and suddenly he gets a check for more money than he can imagine! Being a pop star does very weird things to you, to your psychological stability. I think that, of the four divas, Lorde has barely started to sense it, Miley is being swept away and Katy is just going with it. Lady Gaga is the only one who is actually thinking about it.

Lorde's song is about a state of affairs that for her is fast disappearing. Already in her career she is world famous: 69 million views on YouTube counts as pop star royalty. She says:
And we'll never be royals (royals)
It don't run in our blood
That kind of lux just ain't for us, we crave a different kind of buzz
But her check is already in the mail.

Miley, as the daughter of a big country music star, Billy Ray Cyrus, is already savvy in the business. I suspect her view is if she has to get naked and lick a lot of sledgehammers to get those 300 million views on YouTube, then no problem. Eat my dust, Lady Gaga! I have read that her twerking episode on the Video Music Awards was worth $80 million in publicity. Think about it. Pop music is pretty big business and whatever they need to do to come out on top is just part of the job. But, you know, the music isn't very interesting and after you get used to a naked girl swinging around on a wrecking ball, neither is the video. The lyrics too are just a string of clichés:

We clawed, we chained our hearts in vain
We jumped never asking why
We kissed, I fell under your spell.
A love no one could deny

Don't you ever say I just walked away
I will always want you
I can't live a lie, running for my life
I will always want you

I came in like a wrecking ball
I never hit so hard in love
All I wanted was to break your walls
All you ever did was wreck me
Yeah, you, you wreck me

Katy Perry is pretty good, actually. She is a solid professional and has put some good songs out there. I liked "Part of Me" because it was a pretty good pop song and had a different kind of message:

But of all four divas, the real artist is, whether you like her style or not, Lady Gaga. She seems to have matured a lot and has stuff to say. But she also has the best pop song of the four. Dense, compelling imagery and a real driving song with power. She can do pop. Who she reminds me of, with all the personas and sense of style, is David Bowie.

So let's listen to an older tune by Lady Gaga:

Oh, you were expecting the original? Just on cello alone there are dozens of covers of that song out there.

UPDATE: A commentator sends me a fugue version of the above that is really quite good:

But wait, there's more. Here it is on organ:

An incomplete version for string quartet:

Guitar orchestra:

And inevitably, the full orchestra version:


Rickard Dahl said...

I laughed a bit when you wrote:
"Lorde's song is about a state of affairs that for her is fast disappearing. Already in her career she is world famous: 69 million views on YouTube counts as pop star royalty. She says:

And we'll never be royals (royals)
It don't run in our blood
That kind of lux just ain't for us, we crave a different kind of buzz

But her check is already in the mail."

Anyways, you are probably right, Lady Gaga is probably the best of them. I think that one of the issues with pop music, at least to me, is the presentation. It's usually the same old type of sound (beat heavy, electronic etc.) and annoying singing. The cello version of that Lady Gaga song certainly sounds better than the original (although I don't understand why it is supposed to be epic or the whole "epic music" trend, when it doesn't sound so epic) and so does for example this version of the somewhat comical song "The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)":

Since we are on the topic of Lady Gaga, how about a fugue version by artofcounterpoint?

He has also some other contrapuntal versions of pop songs.

Bryan Townsend said...

Just between you and me, most of what I write about pop music is meant to be amusing...

I love that fugue version! Thanks!

Augustine said...

Haha. I think you're being blinded by the fact that you like Lady Gaga. Listen to anything on her current album. Truly terrible, and my theory - all the over-the-top videos and dresses serve to distract from the music itself.

You claim Gaga is self-aware on the fame thing. I wouldn't be so sure - not for someone who's always drawing attention to herself and (on this album) almost singing about her self all the time

Bryan Townsend said...

Augustine, thanks for the counterpoint! Sure, I like Lady Gaga, but only some things by her. But liking someone may or may not be based on something and what I try to do is have reasons for liking certain music and disliking other music. I think I gave some indication of why I liked Lady Gaga more than the other three? Now what you need to do is question, not so much what I like, as why I like it. I would like to know why you dislike Lady Gaga. Sure she has elaborate videos and dresses, but my feeling is that this is simply part of the whole artwork. So why is the music "terrible"?

Actually, the fact that she is singing about her fame and the applause it gains is pretty good evidence that she is thinking about it.

Plus, these things are relative: if I like Lady Gaga you should understand that it is certainly not in the same way or degree that I like Shostakovich. I would spend very little time listening to Lady Gaga. I just think she is more interesting than the others.

Augustine said...

I won't go into too much detail, but for example, you say she has 'a lot of stuff to say'. I don't find any evidence of that on the new record. Correct me if I'm wrong, though. Some of her songs are interesting, sure, but so are some of Miley Cyrus', which do not get a lot of airplay. (Bad Romance is pretty good , yeah, but most of her output is more 'Telephone' than 'Bad Romance')

Initially, I thought she was being critical of the fame industry. You would think so, but there's no evidence of irony or critical sarcasm in the lyrics themselves, which leads one to wonder.

Augustine said...

I do understand, of course, that tastes vary! For me though, this emperor has no clothes.

This parody basically says all I want to say haha:

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't want to take the time to go into whatever other songs the artists may have on their albums. I was doing an apples to apples comparison by simply picking the first song to come up by each artist. When Lady Gaga sings that:

I live for the applause, applause, applause
I live for the applause-plause, live for the applause-plause
Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me
The applause, applause, applause

I don't think it needs to be marked in some special way, through irony or sarcasm, in order to say something. She lives for the applause. OK, that is itself saying something. Now what do we think of that?

On the other hand, Miley Cyrus singing "I will always want you" doesn't provoke any thought.