In the endless cycle of pop music, we love a repeating theme. And one of the best ones is the game—the competition. And when pop stars keep getting beat down and insisting on standing back up and putting records out, it’s both hilarious and charming to watch them, in equal parts, fail and succeed. Like Britney, for (prime) example: She just keeps putting in a solid effort, but effort does not always equal sales. …Baby One More Time (’99) was a big debut, we’ll give her that. Fast forward to 14 years later and we get “Work Bitch,” a fascinating, shiny turd that’s both a powerful hit and a stunning(ly expensive) video. Put this up alongside two other giant pop anthems from the late summer/early fall, and we’ve got ourselves a clear and nasty brawl bubbling up—a perfect fourth installation of our occasional blog series, DIVA DEATH MATCH.
You know who the others are, right? It’s Katy and Gags. Their singles, “Roar” and “Applause,” are perfectly poised as combatants. “Roar” came out Aug. 10, “Applause” Aug. 12 and Britney’s video hit the webs Oct. 2. First, a little analysis on each tune—then we’ll just officiate the nasty.
Let’s start with KP’s “Roar,” a charming little anthemic statement of purpose: I’m going to be fierce and you can’t stop me. She even uses that cutesy “I stood for nothing / So I fell for everything” didactic. We enjoyed a fairly charming Video Music Awards performance (she is blessed/cursed with giant boobs and a sports bra may NOT have been the best choice in this boxing context), and then we were floored by how stupid and basic the video turned out to be. Still, it’s got 115 million views.
Gaga has emerged as a potentially more viable pop artist than we ever imagined she would be. And with the impending drop of Artpop on the horizon, “Applause” became a controversial divining rod of Gaga fandom: If you love it, you’re a monster; if you hate it, you hate life (say said monsters); and if you’re ambivalent, you’re too intellectual. Actual essays have been written about this song and its referential oddities. But the video’s bananas—a very art-directed and Beetlejuicey affair. Let’s be real: The song’s a grower. As one queen once asked me: “Have you danced to it at Voyeur at 3:15am?” Point taken.
Now, in swoops Britney with her bold appropriation of a gay culture -ism, not even second-thinking a wholesale shopping trip through an alternative culture’s lexicon and vocabulary but just owning it and making it pop. See, in Gay World, we use the word “work” a lot. Work means a lot of things—a lot of different things to a lot of different gays (see Shangela’ “Werqin’ Girl”). Most often it means, “Slay them,” “Kill it,” or “Keep making them gag.” But Britney managed to brilliantly turn it into a hybrid of consumerism and fierceness: “You wanna live in a mansion? / Party in France? / Then get to work, bitch.” TRUE! I DO want a mansion and party in France, and I suppose you’re right, I better keep on showing up to my paying job on time so that I can afford to one day seek out the luxuries, baubles and travels I desire for myself.
But these singles are just a little too close together for it to just be coincidence, right? I smell a FIGHT.
Well, this one’s a wash. In the past, like when I put Beyonce against Jill Scott and then against Rihanna, this was a solid point-earning category for all involved. This one’s just sad with one white girl (Gaga) blowing away two other white girls because she grew up in New York City. Britney: 1, Katy: 0, Gaga: 2.
The beautiful nebulous and subjective je ne sais quoi of a diva’s fierceness is often what we love most about them. Whereas some fierceness comes from being on top of your game, or for functioning as a sickening fashion plate, or for nailing choreography, some just comes from being a potent product. Like Katy, for instance: total idiot as far as I’m concerned, but she plays the innocent pop star role SO WELL. And Britney’s new video is, if anything, fierce in its imagery, budget, production, attention span captivity and execution. Gaga’s fierce, I guess, but in a certain kind of trying-to-be-avant-garde arty and severe pop stardom kind of way. Britney: 4, Katy: 1, Gaga: 3.
This should be and is often the great equalizer. Doesn’t matter if you can dance or hire stylists and video directors—if the tune doesn’t get carried, it won’t make it to the charts. Of course, in 2013, that’s vaguely debatable; more and more, a production team can make any ol’ gal with a nice body and empty mind into a chart-dominating starlet. But vocals have never been Brit-Brit’s strong suit. And while Gaga can actually sing sometimes (especially when it’s just her and a piano), her pipes are not the main attraction; it’s a strong section of her art-girl package but not the focus. Katy, sadly, can pretty much mop the floor with these girls, at least in the studio. Watching Katy sing live is a little painful because she wants to dance because she’s supposed to, but also seems like if she dances too enthusiastically she won’t be able to keep singing. Britney: 2, Katy: 4, Gaga: 4.
SINGLES AND SALES
Let’s look at some numbers, shall we? Charts-wise, Katy’s currently in the lead with a #2 spot for “Roar” in the Billboard Hot 100 (”Applause” is #9, “Work” is #13). Should be interesting to see how those chart positions flip-flop and alternate. In the YouTube department, Katy’s got 117 million views and it was published on Sep. 5, but, whoa, Gaga’s got less than 75 million views and it was viewable on Aug. 19. Tough blow, Gags. And then look at Ms. Spears, whose video’s been watched 25 million times in less than 10 days. Looks like we have a clear winner here. Britney: 5, Katy: 4, Gaga: 3.
This could be one of the toughest to make numerical. They are, all three, HUGE pop stars in their own way, and appeal to the tons of teens out there that really want to identify with one pop queen more so than any other. Katy gets the wholesome Christian vote, while Gaga gets the weird girls who seek a hero. The thing about Britney is that she’s the clear veteran with her eighth record on the way. Plus she’s got tons of fans who’ve been crazy about her since she was 17. And remember how Brit and JT and N’Sync were all family? That happened. Looks like Britney wins by a hair! Britney: 5, Katy: 3, Gaga: 4.
TOTALS: Britney with 17, Katy with 12, and Gaga 16.