“Applause”: Lady Gaga’s Obsession With Fame Gets Boring

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We interrupt your regularly scheduled August music news lull to bring you this urgent announcement from Lady Gaga: “DUE TO HACKERS AN ABUNDANCE OF LOW/HIGH QUALITY LEAKS…WE ISSUE THIS POP MUSIC EMERGENCY…MONSTERS SPREAD THE WORD […] POP MUSIC EMERGENCY #0DAYSTillAPPLAUSE MY NEW SINGLE COMES OUT TODAY. 911 SPREAD THIS MESSAGE.”

This barrage of “911”-filled tweets was how the world found out that Gaga’s new song, “Applause,” would debut today, a full week before its original August 19 premiere date. And here it is, the first official single from her upcoming album, ARTPOP:

“Applause” wears its synth chorus like a ginormous, hairspray-shellacked ’80s updo. Musically, the song is the aural equivalent of a laser portrait taken a quarter-century too late, with the kind of hyperactive beat that makes it a shoo-in for those mall department store playlists specially designed to encourage impulse buys. (“‘Applause’ sounds like something you listen to at the grocery while pushing a cart full of pudding around,” my friend JD Scott observes.)

But for those with high hopes for ARTPOP — this writer cautiously included — the song is even more worrisome thematically. As its title implies, “Applause” is about fame, Lady Gaga’s great obsession. Making its way into the title of her first album and its EP-length follow-up, The Fame Monster, it’s also at the core of what might be her best song, “Paparazzi.” From her elaborate costumes to her worship of Andy Warhol, you could argue that fame — not music — is Gaga’s true medium. So it should be a relief to see her revisit it after 2011’s Born This Way, a mixed bag of styles and ideas that will ultimately be best remembered for the title track’s tepid foray into identity politics.

Unfortunately, “Applause” suffers from many of the problems of Gaga’s previous album. If it’s not quite a ripoff of a specific Madonna track, it’s at least a retro pop pastiche. And, like “Born This Way,” it makes its statement of purpose painfully literal: “I’ve overheard your theory / Nostalgia’s for geeks / I guess, sir, if you say so / Some of us just like to read / One second I’m a Koons / Then suddenly the Koons is me / Pop culture was an art / Now art and pop culture in me.” This is Lady Gaga reciting her manifesto and hitting back at critics in the same breath, with a touch of hubris thrown in at the end to complement umpteen repetitions, at the chorus, of “I live for the applause.”

You have to hand it to her — she’s capable of articulating her artistic objective more clearly than most artists. But everyone with even a casual awareness of Lady Gaga has known for the better part of five years that putting high art in the pop-culture spotlight is what she’s about. That “Applause” plays like a robotic rehash of the fame-obsessed songs that made her famous doesn’t bode well for ARTPOP. As much as I hope it isn’t, it may well be the sound of one of the 21st century’s most promising pop stars running out of ideas.