Lady Gaga’s new album ARTPOP has become a commercial flop for the history books: opening-week sales were down 75% from the debut of 2011’s Born This Way, and sales dropped 81% in the second week.
How did this happen? With Zedd as her producer, the fresh young talent who had a big hit in the hyper-emotional “Clarity“–and with a $25 million marketing campaign managed by the pop star herself, culminating in a host-and-musical-guest turn on Saturday Night Live–awareness of her new product must have been sky high.
And yet, while I find the music some of her most palatable yet–even quite solid if you cut out some duds and filler (more on that later)–the album came nowhere close to snagging as wide an audience as before.
While I’m no insider, there are some big differences one can discern between the pop music landscape in 2011 and 2013. These five seem like the most obvious reasons why ARTPOP has failed to live up to expectations.
1. New technology.
Only a month after Born This Way went on sale, America received Spotify, an a la carte audio streaming service akin to Netflix–but without the mandatory subscription fee. If users were curious about ARTPOP, they could check it out for free, and that playback did not count towards Billboard’s sales figures.
In contrast, the best option to check out Born This Way on its release date was a deal from Amazon’s mp3 store priced at 99 cents for the whole album. It infamously caused a customer service nightmare as unexpected demand throttled the site’s servers and delayed downloads for hours.
So far, ARTPOP has sold somewhere around 310,000 copies in two weeks, compared to Born This Way‘s first-week haul of one million copies. It’s easy to see Gaga has retained sales from her hardcore fans, but the merely curious listener has likely drifted to a new, non-committal platform in Spotify.
2. Album is too long.
At 15 tracks, ARTPOP clocks in at just under an hour–a huge time investment for dance music. When casual fans, not fanatics, see a tracklist that big, they know subconsciously it will test their patience.
If Interscope had cut four obvious b-sides–ill-fated genre exercises like rap cut “Jewels N’ Drugs” or stadium rock attempt “MANiCURE,” plus the four-chord snoozefests “Dope” and the title track–the LP lasts around 45 minutes. That’s a far less daunting run time, signaling that more than Gaga completionists will find satisfaction in the full album rather than just the singles.
3. This one’s not for the kids.
The only mass audience left in music is that of tweens. Born This Way, for all its double entendres, knew this and masked its occasional cursing, but ARTPOP more than earns its Parental Advisory. Opener “Aura“‘s first lines describe Gaga murdering a woman and leaving her in a car trunk, and from then on, it’s wall-to-wall sex talk.
I, personally, don’t find it offensive; it’s nothing that would sound out of place coming from Madonna at the same age or Prince, even post-Jehovah’s Witness conversion. However, I don’t have kids, and if I did, I wouldn’t let them anywhere near these lyrics.
Rather than pull up a laundry list, single “Do What U Want” serves as a terrific example. Gaga sings to duet partner R. Kelly, “I would fall apart / if you break my heart / So just take my body / and don’t stop the party.” These are hardly the words of a well-adjusted, monogamous adult, and most parents aren’t going to let them be an early frame of reference for their tween daughters.
4. Crowded market.
Industry analysts are comparing ARTPOP’s sales to Katy Perry’s Prism and Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz–all three of which came out in about a month’s time. When Born This Way was released, Perry and Cyrus’s latest albums had been available for almost a year, leaving the field wide open for Gaga to dominate.
While I doubt many of their fans lack $30 to buy all three albums, the ones who only wanted to spend the money (and time) on one or two of these pop princesses would probably go with the more inspirational choices. Perry’s “Roar” and “Unconditionally” are some of the laziest, most pandering songs you’ll ever hear, but they give their target audience fantasies of grrrrl power and romance. Cyrus’s antics aside, “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball” similarly give their target audiences fantasies of youthful abandon and romance. Gaga’s singles don’t offer anything similar–more on that later.
The music isn’t the only crowded market, either. Remember, Gaga showed more skin at MTV’s Video Music Awards than Miley Cyrus, yet nobody remembers a second of her performance. She’s lost some of the spotlight, replaced by a younger, wackier starlet.
What can Gaga do to push the envelope–to reclaim “it” girl status? She’s already worn all manner of gaudy outfits. She’s gone nude, both in professional shoots and amateur Twitter photos. She’s already regaled us with drug confessions. She’s already unveiled sizable tattoos. She’s gone political. She’s admitted to eating disorders. Beyond elective amputation, not much could top her old publicity stunts–and if she doesn’t jump on that train soon, Miley might beat her to it.
5. This isn’t the same Gaga the public bought in 2011.
Roger Friedman of Showbiz 411 sums this up nicely: “Gaga tried to shove the art world down the throats of the fans. They didn’t want it, and they were confused by it. What had they related to was Gaga as champion of the underdog, the gay kid, the bullied kid, etc. Jeff Koons was not in their realm.”
In her history, Lady Gaga’s bestselling singles have had some level of connection to a large swath of the population–casting a wider net with each new album. “Just Dance” targeted partygoers in clubs. “Bad Romance,” anyone who’s ever dated a jerk. “Born This Way,” anyone who thinks they’re special.
However, ARTPOP‘s first single, “Applause,” is little more than a celebration of fame from a performer’s perspective. It’s not so much an appreciation of fans as it is an appreciation of noise. It’s high-energy but emotionally cold, going out of its way at one point to take an elitist jab: anyone who’s not impressed by nostalgia doesn’t “like to read.” The song is catchy, and it makes you sing along, but it doesn’t capture the imagination, and it deliberately doesn’t inspire.
As for the rest of it, who is the target audience? Horny people? As any teenager who gawked at a Lords of Acid CD cover can tell you, that’s not enough to make you spend money and take it out of the store. Most people have far more immediate concerns than getting off, and for those that don’t, there are tons of free alternatives to shelling out $9.99 to Universal Music Group. Further, most women won’t see a message like “do what you want with my body” as tasteful, much less empowering.
Lady Gaga’s last album, I said at the time, put Importance before entertainment, and the listening experience suffered greatly for it. It’s sad, then, that ARTPOP is a huge creative rebound but just as big a marketing failure. If you’ve always hated Lady Gaga but like EDM, you’ll likely find something to enjoy here. However, while it’s our gain, it’s Gaga’s loss, as that ultimately sticks her in more of a niche market while her competitors snatch up the lowest common denominator crowd.
This is her first big flop, which could be the start of a final downward spiral, or it could force her to learn some lessons and come back more savvy next time around. The label will certainly demand a tour or two to recoup some of these losses, so I can imagine we’ll be able to gauge how well she’s taking it by how desperate her stage act gets.