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You could probably count on one paw the number of people who were surprised yesterday when the news came out that Lady Gaga's latest album, "ARTPOP," sold only 258K copies in its debut week.
For those of you keeping score, that's less than the 286K sold by Katy Perry's "Prism" in mid-October or the 270K sold by Miley Cyrus's "Bangerz" two weeks before that. It was still enough to debut at #1 on the Billboard album charts, but it's a huge drop from the 1,108K copies of Gaga's previous album, 2011's "Born This Way" (even if you take away the 440K copies of that album which sold for $.99 through Amazon, "Born This Way" still sold 668K full-price opening week copies). My Yahoo Music cohort Paul Grein has a much more detailed chart analysis in his weekly column.
Here are five reasons we think "ARTPOP" is a flop:
1) It's Too Highbrow
When "Born This Way" (the song) was performed for the first time at the Grammys in 2011, prior to the album's May release, the message behind the music was clear: This was an anthem that catered to Gaga's core audience of disenfranchised teens, the gays, and anyone who feels like an outcast. Rolling Stone called the song an "instant-classic club anthem," which indeed it was (all accusations of similarities to Madonna's "Express Yourself" aside). It was joyous, uplifting, and had an easily digestible concept behind it.
"ARTPOP's" lead single, "Applause," did not have that same widespread appeal. With lyrics like "One second I'm a Koons, then suddenly the Koons is me … Pop culture was in art, now art's in pop culture in me," the song was to date her most Warhol-ian meta-analysis of the nature and concept of fame (it's not an unfamiliar subject to Gaga, see "The Fame" and "Paparazzi" from her debut album).
Sorry, but that's just too much for most people to digest on the dance floor. Most of Gaga's fan base does not even know who artist Jeff Koons is (although many of them do now, so, way to go Gaga in the education department!). Moreover, in the summer leading up to the album's release, Gaga was obsessed with and influenced by the work of performance artist Marina Abramovic, another amazing talent whose work goes over most people's heads. This highbrow content does not stand a chance of translating to mass-market appeal. It certainly doesn't strike a chord with teens the way that, say, Miley's "We Can't Stop" did … let alone how Gaga's previous efforts have.
2) The Music Isn't Top Notch
You remember the old saying from the movie "Field of Dreams" — "If you build it, they will come"? The same goes for making good music. If you make great music, people will listen and buy it. I'm gonna come right out with my critic's hat on for a minute and declare that there are two great songs on "ARTPOP" — and they happen to be the two tracks that she performed on "Saturday Night Live" last weekend — the radio-friendly R. Kelly collaboration "Do What U Want" and "Gypsy" (which sounds very similar to the anthem "Hair" from "Born This Way").
There are a couple of other "decent" songs on the album, including "Applause" and the ballad "Dope." And the rest? Well, I'm rather amazed most of them were chosen for the album at all. That being said, Gaga is to be commended for being an incredibly talented musician who actually writes almost all of her own music (she has a co-writing credit on every track on "ARTPOP"). And her voice is always impeccable.
That being said, she didn't come out of the gate with her strongest track. And there doesn't seem to be a "Poker Face" or "The Edge of Glory" second tier single from the album that's just around the corner ready to blow people away.
The Album Is Inconsistent
"ARTPOP" simply had too many cooks in the kitchen. Gaga worked with top electronic music talent including Zedd, Madeon, and David Guetta, her "Born This Way" musical director (and Interscope Records Latin music expert) Fernando Garibay, as well as her previous hit collaborators RedOne and DJ White Shadow. Her guests on the album were R&B singer R. Kelly, and hip-hop artists T.I., Too Short (where has Too Short been for the past 20 years?), and Twista. This broad spectrum of talent led to a lack of genre consistency amongst the songs. Rather, what emerged was a discordant array of electronic-influenced songs on an album that doesn't know what it quite wants to be.
Take the aforementioned lyric about Jeff Koons from "Applause" and compare it to this profound line from "Venus": "Uranus! Don’t you know my ass is famous?" Or R. Kelly's male bravado when he raps, "You're the Marilyn, I'm the President ... And I'd love to hear you sing, girl."
Now, try summarizing what this album is about to me in one sentence.
It probably didn't help that Gaga broke up with her longtime manager, Troy Carter, the week before "ARTPOP's" release. "She doesn’t take direction anymore," a source told Showbiz 411's Roger Friedman.
Perhaps she should consider doing so again soon?
4) Is Doesn't Live Up to the Competition
This was a crowded fall for big divas. As mentioned, Gaga's album came on the heels of very strong efforts from Cyrus and Perry. Nobody saw newcomer Lorde coming when she positioned herself as the anti-pop star with her hit song "Royals." And Britney's new album is just a few weeks away.
Undoubtedly, Miley — not Lady Gaga — was the story of fall 2013. She came in like a wrecking ball with the best song of the fall and stole all of Gaga's thunder. Bad calendar coordinating undoubtedly hurt "ARTPOP" even further. Ask most teens what their favorite album of the season is and I'd bet most of them would tell you it was "Bangerz"
5) Gaga Fatigue
Lady Gaga has quite simply given off the appearance that she's trying too hard this time around. The gimmicks have become too much for people. Show me someone who doesn't roll their eyes when she steps out wearing a flying dress, or with makeup smeared all over her face, or looking like Gossamer from the Bugs Bunny cartoons, and I'll introduce you to the president of the Little Monsters fan club.
That being said, she's at least been able to laugh at herself regarding her own outrageousness. Her turn on "SNL" this past weekend was solid and was the best PR she could have possibly done for herself. She even addressed the criticism over trying too hard in the "Waking Up With Kimye" talk show skit, in which she played a nerdy Apple employee who comments on people who try too hard with their fashion choices. And in the final "SNL" skit of the night, she made fun of critics who claim that she's all washed up.
Fourth albums are hard (if you count "The Fame Monster" as album #2), just ask Beyoncé or Alicia Keys. But weak sales for them don't indicate the end of a career.
Which leads to …
... the fact that no pop culture enthusiast is going to be able to escape the Gaga deluge in 2014. She just announced that on March 28 (her 28th birthday) she'll be performing the final four shows ever at NYC's historic Roseland Ballroom (which is closing its doors for good). And expect an "ARTPOP" world tour announcement before the end of the year, which will likely launch in April or May. Throw in a couple of more music videos, a huge likely Grammys performance, and at least a handful of jaw-dropping looks between now and then as well.
The bottom line: despite the "ARTFLOP" Gaga is going to weather this storm just fine. She was just named by Forbes as the second highest grossing touring artist of the past year (Madonna was #1), and she'll probably continue to sell out stadiums across the world. "ARTPOP" is a rare slight misstep in what has been a meteoric rise to fame since late 2008, but it's certainly by no means a complete failure. Talent always prevails and in that department, the Lady is well equipped.
Still, it's hard to consider this latest campaign a success. Just listen to "Venus" or "Manicure" again, and then let me know what you think.