Lady Gaga Needs 'Applause' a Bit Too Much

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Lady Gaga's new single, Applause, heralds her forthcoming enterprise, the multimedia album, ARTPOP, which, for some reason is usually spelled with all capital letters.

The project, announced last month, is already in danger of falling victim to the age-old hype-over-substance disease.

Falling in line with the current pop-star trend, the song was "leaked" ahead of its official release date of Aug. 19. Daft Punk's album earlier this year was "leaked" and created quite a stir, so now everybody and their brother is putting out tracks ahead of the release date and claiming they were leaked. Katy Perry's single Roar "leaked" the same day as Applause.

In the case of Applause, low-quality versions reportedly began appearing online last weekend, forcing our superhero singer to the Gaga-phone to save the day for her Little Monsters:

Her tweets, it seems, also have to be all caps. Sort of anti-e.e. cummings.

Mind, I've got no proof that Gaga's track was leaked deliberately. But the coincidence of so many artists claiming the same security problem in the same three-month period and enjoying relatively the same smashing success as a result makes the probability that this was actually "leaked" about a million to one.

That's "a million," as in dollars. ARTPOP in pre-order is selling like hotcakes and Applause is currently aiming for the range of just over 200,000 downloads in its first week, according to Billboard. The same article estimates Katy Perry's Roar at over 400,000 downloads.

"Leaks" work as a marketing strategy because it builds excitement among core fans who feel they're getting a glimpse into the artist's secret world. Curiosity about the music blends with the psychology of being first in line, of taking ownership of a song. As a result, a "leak" gains a few extra headlines, fueled further by the artist's camp feigning outrage.

The notion of the "leak" is popular now, in part, because of WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, et al. Quite literally -- not a marketing gimmick at all -- leaks are a big part of our culture, a global problem that threatens international political stability. When a song is "leaked" it makes the artist seem important. An illusion. The information in a pop song doesn't threaten or liberate anyone. It's a pop song.

Charitably, you can say these artists are building on that common theme, making it an aspect of their work. More realistically, you could call it a scam to sell downloads.

Making her work seem more important than it is, in itself, is an important feature of Lady Gaga's career right now. Her stated goal for ARTPOP, due Nov. 11, is to unite the entire art world behind her at center stage. There will be big-name visual artists, videos, a star-studded opening gala, an app. Lord knows there will have to be a documentary.

Taken at face value, Applause isn't half bad. It has some of the stripped-down, machine-inspired groove that is becoming popular, particularly in the wake of Kanye West's success with that style on Yeezus. And it plays on the growing appetite for late disco.

Most intriguing to me is her voice. One can't read too much into one song -- I need to wait for the whole album. But she sounds here about 20 years older than her previous outings. The song has a lot of attractive anger, not joyless by any stretch, but a boxer's focused resignation: I'm here to knock somebody out.

I live for the applause, applause, applause, she sings, in her driest monotone, comparing it to a heroin addiction. Yup. I think we can all agree on that.

But then she goes further, making herself, Yeezy style, into a vessel containing all the cultural expressions of society. That's the message of ARTPOP.

Pop culture was in art, now art's in pop culture and me, she sings. Um, we're going to run into some disagreement on that point.

As much as I love Gaga, there's nothing terribly new in what she does. She is clever as hell and wraps it all up in a great package. She delivers for her fans. She has even managed to bend the pop world to her will and stretch expectations into the realm of art. I'll give her that. But I'm not cashing in my MOMA and Met Opera subscriptions in favor of ARTPOP tour tickets yet.

Ambition like that has to have a forceful product and flawless execution to back it up. I see all the pieces in place, but the hype is already stilted and rings untrue. If Applause is any indication, I don't see ARTPOP delivering a Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band or a Yeezus experience. I don't see it transforming the culture the way she hopes. Frankly, I don't think Gaga is capable of that.

I hope I'm wrong, but I'm seeing the calculated "leaking" of Applause -- a good song, but not a great one -- together with the shrill ARTPOP sloganeering as an early sign that Gaga may be getting lost in her own hype.

In another tweet this week, after bashing music "bloggers" as know-nothings, Gaga says:

Well, OK, but this music scholar and blogger says you can't have it both ways. You can't represent all of culture and then turn around and say, I'm just here to entertain you. That's not what culture is.

To be fair, that tweet came in a flurry of messages defending Katy Perry, telling her to ignore the blogging critics. Perry can say she's just here to entertain. Despite the activism she may be involved in, she's exhibited few pretensions to anything greater as an artist.

Other artists have been able to successfully act like scoundrels, playing on their own hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement and get away with it. Some have even made a career out of it. ( Cough, cough -- sorry, I've got a little Yeezy caught in my throat.)

But Lady Gaga represents something very personal to her Little Monsters. They need to her be both larger than life and painfully real. She isn't just their star, she's their avatar.

Maybe they'll forgive her if she is dishonest with them or promises them something she can't deliver. Maybe not.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park, N.J.

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