It wasn’t a bad year for pop, after all was said and done: At the very least, 2013 was the year that Justin Timberlake returned to the charts with not one, but two albums (one of which was pretty great!), and the One Direction album proved those kids’ mettle as one of the most unexpectedly solid acts cranking out pop-rock tunes, and there were sleeper hits from artists like Lorde and Icona Pop that demonstrated great songs can always triumph on radio, even without a Pitbull radio remix or production from Dr. Luke. But the big divas I love most of all failed me this year with their expensive, hotly tipped albums: They didn’t deliver, plain and simple, and it’s clear to see I’m not alone in that take by how the albums sold and how the critics received them.
Consider four of the biggest pop divas who dropped records this year: Katy Perry, with her Michael Jackson-besting track record as a singles artist; Miley Cyrus, whose reinvention dominated headlines all year long; Lady Gaga, who had heralded ARTPOP as an epoch-defining release; and Britney Spears, who actually didn’t turn out to be up to much after all was said and done but who’s still, y’know, Britney Spears.
Perry notched solid sales with Prism, selling 286,000 copies in her first week of release, while Cyrus trailed close behind with Bangerz, shifting 270,000 units, and Gaga managed 260,000 copies sold. (Poor Britney Jean limped in with just 115,000 copies — the current estimate at the time of this writing.) By comparison, this year, Timberlake sold 968,000 copies of The 20/20 Experience in his first week; One Direction’s Midnight Memories shifted 546,000. Meanwhile, in 2012, Taylor Swift had the best first-week sales of the year with her chart-smashing opus Red, moving a jaw-dropping 1.2 million copies, while Gaga’s Born This Way sold 1.1 million in 2011.
Unsurprisingly, the critical receptions to each of these albums follows in a pretty straightforward way: Metacritic, that reliable aggregator of reviews, shows that Prism, ARTPOP and Bangerz — which sold in the same approximate range — all have a score of 61, while the dismal Britney Jean has a 50. Red has a score of 77, The 20/20 Experience scored 75, Adele’s colossus 21 (which was the best-selling album of both 2011 and 2012) scored 76, and Born This Way came in at 71. (One Direction’s not-particularly-well-received Midnight Memories is the lone outlier with a score of 60, but that’s only because Directioners can move mountains.)
In short? Better albums sell more copies. This year, pop’s queens didn’t.
You can certainly chalk a lot of this up to promotion (or a lack thereof), or sales stunts (or a lack thereof), or an increasing emphasis on singles over album sales, or a lot of other things, but I think it’s about something subtler and a little trickier than that. One of the things that characterized how big solo female pop fared this year was a reaction to real or perceived inauthenticity, as the music-listening public wised up to being fed something that didn’t actually ring true, even if it was true. That is, the problem with the year’s big albums from the major pop divas was that they were honest albums that, despite their honesty, lacked the pith and substance needed to really grab the public.
After the darkness of her separation from Russell Brand, Katy Perry’s commitment to “letting the light in” on Prism resulted in a product that felt too tepid to really rally behind — where was the pain, the anguish, the pathos? — and while the sheer hook factor of “Roar” was enough to buoy it to #1, the one-size-fits-all inspirationalism of that single soured the album campaign — for me, at least. Certainly there was nothing there to rival the sentiment packed inside “Teenage Dream,” all that wistful longing and nostalgia.
Britney Spears promised her “most personal album yet” with Britney Jean, and yet — her affinity for pedestrian Will.i.am beats aside — it’s tough enough to endure the 36 minutes of the album sonically, let alone to feel like it moves you in the direction of knowing the singer any better. How sad to think that, especially after, once upon a time, releasing an album as brazenly and bleakly honest as Blackout, the most personal Spears can get now is this album, as she claimed co-writes on songs that felt — as the critics agreed — churned down the assembly line, more faceless than ever before.
Miley Cyrus had a pair of damn excellent singles with “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball,” but Bangerz was overshadowed by her stunt antics, the petulant insistence on putting provocation front and center while her often-impressive musicianship was obscured. To follow Cyrus this year was to end up feeling that she cares more about being discussed than being respected; it was off-putting, even when the songs were, and remain, solid. I was left wondering what she really wanted, after all was said and done — did the music even matter, or was it just one cog in the machine of her mega-celebrity?
Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP was perhaps most frustrating of all; it was maybe the only big pop album of the year that had moments of true genius, but her self-indulgence, as ever, kept it from being as spectacular as it could, and should, have been. The metanarrative of approval-seeking on “Applause” breaks the fourth wall in a way that’s uncomfortable; rather than seeing the spectacle of Gaga as a viewer, you’re invited in as a participant, giving her exactly what she wants. Was “Applause” an honest self-evaluation, a commentary on celebrity culture, Gaga parodying herself, or all of the above? It felt at once transparent and disingenuous, from the heavy-handed imagery to the nail-on-head title; rather than understanding what she was saying, you were always left trying to figure out where she stood, what was sincere and what was a joke.
That’s not to say there weren’t great songs — Perry’s “By The Grace Of God” is some of her most honest songwriting yet, as is Gaga’s heartbreaking “Dope,” which is delivered with as much raw feeling as anything recorded this year. Spears’ “Work Bitch” will likely remain a gay anthem for years to come, and between “We Can’t Stop,” “Wrecking Ball” and “Adore You,” Cyrus is doing so well with singles that it’s almost enough to redeem Bangerz. Generally, the singles have been well-chosen, and there are standout tracks across the board. But with each album, I was craving something I didn’t get.
That’s why this year belonged to the pop divas who were different, truly different, whether their commercial performance reflected their critical acclaim or not. The most obvious example is Lorde, of course, whose “Royals” topped the charts, proving that you can be as cynical and antiestablishment as you please and still get a #1 hit; her Pure Heroine didn’t sell particularly well, nor did it need to for everyone to find her fascinating. Ariana Grande‘s extended Mariah Carey tribute act proved more musically gripping than Carey’s own stab at contemporary relevance, the gorgeously featherweight, “#Beautiful,” a song so good that you can actually forgive the hashtag in its title; even with Scooter Braun‘s big-money backing, there was a sincerity to “The Way” that made it a delight.
Charli XCX and Sky Ferreira, those bastions of small pop, both finally dropped fine, distinctive albums that were as heavy on hooks as they were on integrity. Long-running performers like Avril Lavigne and Ciara released killer pop albums that hardly anyone noticed. And there are too many up-and-coming female solo acts to mention well worth watching next year — from Betty Who to Tove Lo to Foxes — who are exciting, with unique visions and a lot of mainstream potential.
Of course, a lot of the most reliable pop queens were absent this year. Beyonce‘s fifth album never surfaced, despite a whole lot of buzz; Adele and Taylor Swift, who between the two of them have sold more albums in the last few years than most of their competition combined, are both back in the studio with releases expected for 2014; Rihanna and Lana Del Rey were missed, too.
And maybe Katy Perry is all about love and light; maybe Britney Spears is devoid of personality; maybe Miley Cyrus does just want to be a trending topic; maybe Lady Gaga does just want your attention. But those qualities didn’t translate in a musically compelling way, at least not for me. Perry and Spears came up short, and Gaga and Cyrus were a little extra.
The divas disappointed me this year. There was an absence of tension and depth, on Perry’s shallowly inspirational Prism and Spears’ confused Britney Jean, and a deficit of cohesion and clarity on Bangerz and ARTPOP. And pop — that most readily dismissed genre, my favorite genre of all — demands all those qualities to feel anything but disposable.