LA Pop Music Examiner
Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" was supposed to be the biggest album of the year. It was supposed to be the "voice of our generation," as the pop star herself proclaimed. Now, only eight months after its release, the album's fifth single, "Marry the Night," peaked at a disappointing number 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, breaking Lady Gaga's streak of 11 consecutive top 10 hits.
At the same time, one of the other biggest pop stars around right now, Katy Perry, tied Michael Jackson's record of 5 number one singles from an album, while her sixth single, "The One That Got Away" currently sits at number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at number 3 a few weeks ago. And her album, "Teenage Dream," was released a whoping 17 months ago! So how does an album like "Teenage Dream," that arguably has half the quality and artistic value as "Born This Way," have so much more success? Where did Lady Gaga and her team go wrong?
1) Hyperbole and Over-Hype: Gaga began making extravagant statements about "Born This Way" as early as March 2010, over a year before the album was actually released! She wrote about the album, "It [will be] the anthem for our generation...[with] the greatest music I've ever written. I promise you, that this album is the greatest of my career." In June 2010, 11 months before the album was eventually released, she said, "This new album is my chance to create what in 20 years will be seen as my iconic moment." In September 2010, she teased fans by singing a capella the chorus of the title track when she accepted her award for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards.
At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2011, Gaga announced the release dates of the album and its lead single. While the single was going to be released in February, fans were shocked to learn that the album wouldn't be out until May 23rd. Since Gaga had been talking about the album and how great it was for almost 9 months at that point, it was surprising to hear that it would be another 5 months until the album's release. In the spring of 2011, Gaga revealed the polarizing album cover, which many Little Monsters were not fans of. Gaga also continued to speak in hyperbole when discussing the album in the months prior to its release.
As brilliant as the album may be, there is no way that it can live up to anyone's expectations after it had been hyped up so much for so long. Hype, excitement and anticipation are always important to create buzz leading up to a big album release. However, too much hype turns excitement and anticipation into frustration and annoyance for many. And those who remain excited are often a bit disappointed because even if the album is really good, they were expecting a masterpiece and can end up disappointed that it is not as mind-blowing as they were told it was for so long.
2) Bad Timing: No doubt it was a great strategy to premiere the first single, the title track off "Born This Way," in February at the 2011 Grammy Awards. The high profile performance helped catapult the single to a number one debut on the Billboard Hot 100, and it remained at number one for 6 weeks. The mistake was to wait an additional 3 and a half months after the single's debut to release the album. Usually, in today's current music market, a lead single for an album drops about a month or two before the album does. In 3 and a half months, however, any momentum gained from the single died by the album's release. Sure the title track of "Born This Way" had been number one for 6 weeks, but that was almost 2 months before the album dropped! Not to mention that had the album come out a month or two earlier, there would have been that much less hype and hyperbole leading up to its release.
In the case of "Born This Way" specifically, Gaga and her team chose to wait until May 23rd because that was right after she finished her Monster Ball Tour, so she wanted to have the time to promote her album properly. That makes sense, but at that point, she was already on the third North American leg of the tour. In hindsight, she probably should have cut the tour a little short and had it end in mid-March instead of mid-May so that the album could have been released earlier.
3) The "Judas" Betrayal: The second single off the album, "Judas," turned out to be a misstep in many ways. It was scheduled to drop on April 19, 2011. Please note that the release date of this second single was still more than a month before the album was scheduled to drop. Once again, the timing comes into play: if the second single already seems like old news by the time the album comes out, something went wrong. As mentioned previously, the album should have ridden the coattails of the first single's success and come out much earlier, instead of relying on the second single. Gaga had to release "Judas" because it had already been 2 months since the title track came out and she wanted to remain fresh in people's minds. However, she could have achieved this by just releasing the album around this time instead of just another single.
"Judas," however, was not released on Tuesday, April 19th; it leaked and Gaga was forced to release the song 4 days earlier. The song debuted at number 10 on the Hot 100 chart, but could have had a much higher debut had it come out when it was supposed to. The Billboard charts start over every Sunday, so its number 10 debut only accounted for 2 days of sales. Had it been released on Tuesday, April 19th, the chart would have reflected 5 days of sales.
This wouldn't have been too detrimental had the song been embraced by radio and just climbed further up the chart. However, the song was not played very much on the radio. "Judas" fell off the Hot 100 chart completely after only 6 weeks and became the first single of Gaga's career to not sell over one million copies. Perhaps the song was not played because its religious themes and imagery made listeners uncomfortable or even made radio programmers hesitant to play it. Or perhaps it was an interesting but flawed marketing experiment conducted by Gaga and her team that helped kill it...
4) The Two "Promotional" Singles: In order to create more buzz surrounding the album (perhaps this wouldn't have been necessary if, once again, the album was released earlier and the buzz from the lead single was still prevalent), Gaga and her team decided to release two more songs prior to the album's release as part of a "Countdown to Born This Way" promotion on the iTunes store. Two weeks before the album dropped, "The Edge of Glory" was released and one week prior, "Hair" was. While this was an interesting experiment, it ultimately backfired.
"The Edge of Glory" merely killed any momentum "Judas" had left. It debuted at number 3 on the Hot 100 chart, as fans and pop music enthusiasts became more excited about this new "promo" song than the dying single "Judas" single. As a result of its massive amount of digital downloads, Gaga and her team decided to make the song the official third single off the album. By May 17th, only a month after "Judas" was released, "The Edge of Glory" was officially added to mainstream radio. Of course "Judas" fell off the charts quickly: radio now had a newer Gaga song with no religious imagery that was selling a lot better. Perhaps "The Edge of Glory" should have been chosen as the second single, as it has much more mainstream appeal than "Judas" and is much less polarizing.
A day before "The Edge of Glory" was officially added to mainstream radio, "Hair" was released as the second promotional single. This song--which remained a promo only single--debuted at number 12 on the Hot 100 chart from all the digital downloads. There is no doubt that some of these downloads took away from "The Edge of Glory"'s sales and gave non-fans a Gaga overload. More importantly, by the time the album came out, there were already 3 official singles and one promo single released. This is why only 8 months after the album dropped, we are already at the fifth single and the album already feels stale. Once again, the album should have been released shortly after the debut of the first single, not after the release of three official singles and a promo one.
5) The Overwhelming Prevalence of the Album: Another marketing strategy devised by Gaga's team was to make the album as widely available as possible, and promote it as prevalently as possible as well. MSNBC wrote at the time of the album's release, "The social media-powered blitz connected to this week's drop of Lady Gaga's third album...is bordering on epic, with partnerships ranging from Starbucks to FarmVille, and virtual giveaways of the album's 17 tracks." Starbucks, who typically does not sell pop music, launched a "digital scavenger hunt" for Gaga goods; Zynga, creator of the online game "FarmVille," created "GagaVille," which debuted songs off "Born This Way"; Google Chrome debuted a commercial with Gaga. Gaga also appeared on the cover of numerous magazines at the time, including Rolling Stone and Vogue, and had many high profile television appearances including Oprah Winfrey, "Saturday Night Live," "American Idol" and her HBO Monster Ball Tour special. The album was even being sold in airports. "Born This Way" was virtually inescapable; one would have to be living a pretty sheltered life in order to not be aware of Gaga's new album.
Additionally, Amazon.com chose to sell "Born This Way" for just 99 cents as a promotion for their new music cloud service. It turned out that it was completely their decision, not Gaga's or her team's to do so. This created such a demand for the album on their website that it caused their servers to crash for a period of time. At the end of its first week, "Born This Way" sold an incredible 1,108,000 copies, debuting at number 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart. However, about 440,000 of those copies were sold for 99 cents by Amazon. This resulted in many criticizing Gaga for practically giving away her album. She now has to have an asterisk next to her first week sales, as people say, "yes she debuted with over one million albums sold, BUT a lot of them were because of the Amazon sale." Even Billboard changed their rules in November 2011 after Amazon's marketing ploy with "Born This Way." They now refuse to count any albums priced below $3.49 during their first month of release towards the Billboard 200 chart. To Lady Gaga's credit, even if Amazon had sold NO copies of "Born This Way" at all (which wouldn't be the case), 668,000 albums sold in the first week is still incredibly impressive. Yet, no one was saying that--the sole focus was how she and Amazon "cheated" to sell those additional 440,000 copies.
At the time of the album's release, Gaga's manager, Troy Carter, was quoted as saying, "Nobody ever pays attention in the second week. For us it's about being in this album cycle for the next 18 to 24 months." Unfortunately, he completely and utterly failed. In its second week, the album remained at number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, but had an 84% sales decrease with sales of only 174,000 copies. The intense and vast marketing campaign may have succeeded in huge first week sales, but ultimately overwhelmed people and overexposed Lady Gaga. It's one thing to make sure everyone in all walks of life is aware of an album release--it's another to make it so they can't escape it. Additionally, it's a bit sad that Gaga's team did all this in hopes of being in this album cycle up to 24 months from the time of its release, when it has only been 8 months and the album already seems to be dying.
6) The Lackluster Music Videos and Performances: Part of Lady Gaga's rise to superstardom was her incredibly creative and original music videos and live performances. From the epic "Paparazzi," "Bad Romance" and "Telephone" videos to the show-stopping performances, people came to expect thrilling and mind-blowing theatrics from the pop star. Yet, most of her music videos and live performances seemed to be lacking this in her "Born This Way" era.
The problem with the "Born This Way" music videos can be traced to one problem specifically: lack of professional direction. Lady Gaga's now classic videos like "Paparazzi" and "Bad Romance" had professional directors at the helm. No doubt Gaga had heavy creative input, but there was a professional there to harness, contain and--direct!--her ideas. None of the videos from "Born This Way" were directed by professional directors, except for the title track's video, which was directed by professional photographer Nick Knight. It is not surprising that this therefore is probably the strongest video from the album. "Judas" was co-directed by Gaga and her now ex-creative director/choreographer Laurieann Gibson (who may be a creative director but is by no means a music video director), "The Edge of Glory" was directed by Gaga's creative team, the Haus of Gaga, "You and I" was directed by Gibson and "Marry the Night" was directed by Gaga alone.
It is important to note that "The Edge of Glory" should be put in a different category, as this was supposed to be directed by a professional director, Joseph Kahn (who had directed 2 of Gaga's early videos), but he and Gaga parted ways in the middle of filming. Perhaps this was because Gaga thought she knew how to direct better than a professional. Obviously, judging by the videos she has co-directed or solely directed, she was mistaken. The end result of "The Edge of Glory" was one of Gaga's most simple videos ever. It just features Gaga dancing and singing on the street, the fire escape and the steps in front of an apartment building, with late saxophonist Clarence Clemons appearing in some shots. Gaga also wears only one outfit the entire video. Indeed, it was refreshing to see such a simple video from Gaga for a change, especially when other pop stars like Katy Perry began making their videos into "short films," similar to how Gaga had done so successfully the past couple of years. Yet, how much credit can Gaga get when this video was likely the result of artistic differences and a last minute solution after Kahn and her parted ways?
The other 3 videos from "Born This Way" ("Judas," "You and I" and "Marry the Night"), all have very interesting visuals and themes but lack cohesion. After watching any of them, one comes away remembering images, scenes and choreography but wondering why these images were there or how they related to each other. If they all were full of fantastic imagery and themes but just lacked structure, this is a simple problem that could be solved by just using a professional director. Gaga and her team are very talented. She is also a very modest person who does not let fame go to her head. Yet, when it comes to her artistic creativity, she seems reluctant to admit a weakness and ask for help. She can be a talented vocalist, songwriter and pianist and come to terms with the fact that her mind is simply too creative and all over the place for her to be a good director, as well. The key to the success of her past music videos was the creative imagery combined with a clear storyline that explained to the viewers why these images were being presented. Most of her "Born This Way" videos lacked this.
As far as the live performances, except for her performance of "You and I" as her male alter ego Jo Calderone at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards (which was also met with mixed reviews) or her debut performance of "Born This Way" at the Grammy's, there have not really been any stand-out memorable performances as Gaga has had in the past. People remember Gaga bleeding to death and being hung while performing "Paparazzi" at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. People still talk about Gaga and Elton John emerging from the Grammy stage covered in ash to perform "Speechless" in 2010. Her spark-spitting brassiere from her 2009 performance of "LoveGame" and "Poker Face" from the Much Music Awards is quite memorable, as well. Yet there are not very many performances from the "Born This Way" era that have become engrained in popular culture as these other performances have. Sure, Gaga tried hard, such as performing "Hair" on an English show with a bald head in front of a piano shooting flames. Or covering herself and her dancers in black 'birthing' goo during her "Born This Way" performance on "Saturday Night Live." But it almost seemed like she was trying too hard. Her past performances were memorable, creative and shocking. These performances just seemed shocking, and were not very creative or memorable.
7) The Serious Undertones and Lack of Fun, Carefree Songs: The "Born This Way" album is a great album, filled with many deep messages and commentary on current issues and topics like immigration, gay rights, feminism, religion and embracing individuality. However, this is a far cry from the more simple "Just Dance" type of tunes that made her famous. Many fans as well as the general public have complained that they want the "old, fun Gaga" back. While every artist grows and matures and Gaga should not have to just release mindless dance tunes to stay relevant, it is clear from Katy Perry's slew of hits off her album that a catchy song with no deeper message is what constitutes a hit at the moment (see every single of hers aside from "Firework"). Gaga, therefore, must be able to strike a balance between the two.
An album can have both fun, carefree songs as well as deep and loaded songs. Radio, as well as the general public, felt like most of the songs on "Born This Way" were too weighty to be played alongside the mostly mindless and mundane pop on the radio today. Gaga should by no means become mindless and mundane. Older hits of hers, such as "Poker Face," seem at first like they may be mundane and mindless, but she really wrote the song about a girl who is having sex with a guy but has to put on a 'poker face' because she is fantasizing that she is with a girl. A song like this can satisfy the mindless taste of the general public, but also have a deeper meaning for Gaga and her big fans. A song like "Government Hooker," on the other side, has a blatant meaning that can be abrasive. Songs like this are not bad and should be included in the album, but alongside songs like "Poker Face" as well.
So what's next for Gaga?
Without learning any lessons, Gaga seems to be hyping her upcoming tour with the same hyperbole she hyped her "Born This Way" album. Being that she began talking about it shortly after her Monster Ball Tour wrapped in May, with no dates announced yet it seems like this could be another exercise in prolonged hype before the event actually arrives.
Perhaps, however, the tour announcements have been delayed because she and her team are rethinking their strategy. At this point, the album has had five singles, and there aren't very many viable options left for a sixth single. Of all the most radio friendly songs left on the album, "Heavy Metal Lover" is the most progressive and unique song, but is probably too progressive and unique for radio. "Scheiße" is extremely catchy but may be deemed too "weird" by radio and audiences (plus is the fact that the title is a curse word in another language too offensive to be played on the radio?). "Bloody Mary" is also a great song but is too different for radio, which may shy away from it because of the religious themes alone (as they did with "Judas"). Finally, "Hair" is a bit polarizing (some fans love it, while others hate it) and seems to take awhile to grow on people, as it is not as outright catchy as the songs dominating the radio today. Therefore, "Americano" would probably be the best choice for a sixth single because fans and non-fans alike have all liked the song on first listen. It is incredibly catchy and different from most of the other songs on the radio now to help it stand out--but not too different that the radio would not want to play it. If there has to be a sixth single, it should probably be that (or "Scheiße" if radio will actually play it).
However, Gaga is a bit overexposed at the moment. Chris Booker, a TV and radio personality (he has an afternoon show on contemporary hit radio station Amp in Los Angeles), responded on to a user on Twitter who asked why the station doesn't play Gaga very much anymore. "She was a little overexposed. She's getting a lil break. we still love her," he replied. Therefore, it is very likely that no matter what song is picked as a sixth single--especially ones that are not very radio friendly to begin with--will not be played much on the radio and may do even more poorly on the charts than "Marry the Night" did.
Therefore, if Gaga embarks on her tour soon to promote an album that is dying and likely won't have any more hits on the radio seems a bit counter-productive. Although she seems to be overexposed and the general public needs a break from her, a 1-3 year break that would be required for a full world tour and then to promote and release a new album seems like a bit much. It is not good to be overexposed, but it also isn't good to be forgotten.
The best plan for Lady Gaga at this point is to forego anymore singles from "Born This Way." She always says how she is constantly recording new music, and even has some recorded already for her next album. There have even been rumors that she WILL be releasing new music this year. Therefore, she should follow the model she used for her Monster Ball Tour and a release a 8 or 9 song E.P. or album just before embarking on her tour. She should also wait until the summer or fall to do this so that people can have a bit of a break from her.
"Born This Way" has been nominated for 3 Grammy awards and it has not been announced if Gaga will be performing at the awards or not. She should end this era with a kick-ass performance at the show and maybe even win an award (although doubtful, as Adele will most likely go home with all pop awards that night). Gaga should take the next few months to write, record and revamp her creative juices before releasing the new music. Once it is released, the E.P./album should be promoted and marketed like normal, not to the extent with which "Born This Way" was marketed.
If the first single is a more "fun, carefree" type of song like the ones that made her famous, and has an amazing video WITH professional direction, she can once again be at the top of the charts easily. Then she can begin her world tour shortly after with a more enthusiastic fan base, and a general public that is craving her rather than sick of her. If so many feel she is overexposed now, will she even be able to sell out as many dates as she was on her last tour? If not, she will be even more embarrassed and people will have even more ammunition to say that she has already reached her peak and is heading downhill. She can continue to release singles and videos from new album/E.P. while she is on tour (just as she did with the singles from "The Fame Monster" while she was on the Monster Ball Tour).
Lady Gaga is one of the greatest pop artists of all time, and it would be a shame for her career to not be as long and incredible as it should be because of these mistakes that are easily fixable. Sure, "Born This Way" is not held in as high regard as it should have been by the general public, or even portions of her fan base (although it is important to note that an album that has sold over 8 million copies worldwide and has yielded 5 top 40 singles--4 of which were top 10 hits--is not by any means a failure). Perhaps after time has passed, those in our generation will look back at the album and will feel like it indeed was the voice of our generation. History is always written by the victors who win the battles--if Gaga rejuvenates herself and her career and is even bigger in the future, people will probably have a lot more favorable recollection of "Born This Way" than if she just keeps going downhill from here. "Born This Way" should be considered the Lady Gaga album that was indeed her "iconic moment," but due to poor planning, was not embraced as much it SHOULD have been at the time. It should not be considered the Lady Gaga album that marked the beginning of the end of her reign as the new queen of pop.