Fall Pop Preview: A 'Roar' Of 'Applause' For New Music

This week, Lady Gaga (left) released the song "Applause," from her forthcoming album ARTPOP, and Katy Perry released "Roar," from Prism.

This week, Lady Gaga (left) released the song "Applause," from her forthcoming album ARTPOP, and Katy Perry released "Roar," from Prism. Courtesy of the artists hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the artists

Listen at the audio link to Ann Powers' conversation with NPR's Rachel Martin about the pair of singles that jump-started the fall 2013 pop season.


How do you know autumn is on its way? Turning leaves? Previews of Oscar contenders at the movie theater? The announcement of a new J.J. Abrams project? Pop music fans know the season's turning because the music of the stars begins to leak.

That sounds poetic, but it's really just business. Major artists releasing albums in the fall quarter need to jump ahead of the pack. They stake their claims with singles that drop suddenly — whether by alleged accident or design — and get people talking ("Talking," kids, is an old-fashioned term for what we all do on Twitter.) These attention getters not only quickly claim their places on the charts: they help set the tone for what's to come in the months following.

We're hearing the first sounds of this year's blockbuster season right now — in the past week, we've had new singles from two titanic female forces; a stakes-raising track from a rock veteran; a buzzy new act's debut album announcement (and a new song) and a game-changing verse from rap's shiniest light. As each new song dropped on the heels of the last, this midsummer week quite unexpectedly became the beginning of a new hit cycle. What can we learn about pop's near future from these events? Here's a playlist and some quick prognostication on the back-to-school season of 2013.

Fall Pop Preview

  • Katy Perry, "Roar"

    California's favorite purveyor of whipped cream and other delights has always made music that's splits the difference between inspiration and exploitation. On this made-for-the-car-radio song, she encourages girls to unlease their inner big cats while belting out a tune partly made of other songs' moving parts. The fact that "Roar," which lists five co-writers, contains elements of, say, a Sara Bareilles song shouldn't surprise anybody — all pop, from The Beatles to Daft Punk, is made of other pop elements. What's telling about Katy Perry's new single is the way it incorporates a singer-songwriterly and even folksy flavor into her own template. The speedy rhythms and show-tune pizazz that are her trademarks remain, but like "Who You Love," her afternoon-delight duet with current flame John Mayer, "Roar" is pop with a hint of troubadour earnestness. And it borrows not just from Bareilles, but from The Lumineers. The vaguely celtic melody that make that band's "Ho Hey" so addictive shows up in glossier form in "Roar"'s first verse. Along with the fringed-vest Laurel Canyon vibe of her new duet with love interest John Mayer, the subtle undertones in "Roar" imply that the Top 40 may continue to be infused with campfire spirit, even in surprising places.

  • Lady Gaga, "Applause"

    Perry's diva-rival couldn't squash a leak of this first single from her upcoming ARTPOP, so her team rushed it to radio, where it paradoxically sounds both current and like a throwback. No folk for Mother Monster! "Applause" returns pop's high-minded conceptualist to her club roots with a pulsing beat provided by DJ White Shadow and lyrics any vogue ball queen would be proud to lip-sync. Like most early efforts from Gaga albums, this one isn't immediately arresting: her singles always work best as part of a total package that includes visuals and grand performative moves. Yet as a rejoinder to the rock and roll stance Gaga so vociferously took on Born This Way, "Applause" reminds us that no matter how many thrift store-clad troubadours shout "Hey!," EDM in its many forms remains the dominant sound of the Top 40 in 2013. And that the Jacks who've climbed the pop beanstalk lately, like indie rapper Macklemore and longtime mid-list crooner Robin Thicke, must still contend with the studio-made giantesses who've ruled for the past half-decade.

  • Nine Inch Nails, "Copy of A"

    As the women who rule pop continue to carefully stock their hit portfolios, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor, who found massive fame when alternative rock dudes dripped their hair sweat all over the charts, is making his return the old-fashioned way. This summer NIN has been making waves on the festival circuit with an elaborate and visceral stage show and sharing elements of the new album Hesitation Marks that prove more satisfying with each reveal. "Copy of A," the set's second single, has a tidal quality that's both lovely and sneakily frightening: it's as accessible as any of NIN's '90s hits, but also offers layers of sonic meaning that will satisfy fans awaiting a full album experience. Lyrically, it mines the same obsessions that have always fed Reznor: the fragility of individual identity and fine line between emotional vigilance and paranoia. The real treat, however, is the rich bed of electronics that establishes itself as the song goes on. Songs like this remind us that older musicians prove most relevant by continuing to refine their original passions while engaging with what's new — and that, by engaging with their core fans, they remain commercially and artistically relevant.

  • HAIM, "The Wire"

    Though not a pop crossover act — yet — the Los Angeles sister trio HAIM is earning critical and subcultural cred for its sunny mix of power pop and ingénue soul. The band's latest song gets a lift from its charming video, which will please any woman who's ever wondered if that guy who just wasn't the one shed a regretful tear or two in the aftermath of a breakup. What HAIM has, though, besides onscreen charisma, is that harmony magic — always an important part of pop, but particularly ascendant this year. The folksy revival of which Katy Perry's become cognizant is all about voices raised together in song; so is much of the latest surge in all-female bands, from underground combos like La Luz to mainstream sensations like Icona Pop. That Swedish duo recently announced its new album, which will include its extremely long-legged smash, "I Love It." Its interesting to consider Haim and Icona Pop as two markers on a continuum of joyfully expressive girl power: the culmination of an empowerment movement that stretches back to the riotous days of bands like Bikini Kill, whose own leader, Kathleen Hanna, is also making a triumphant return to music this year in her band the Julie Ruin.

  • Kendrick Lamar's verse in Big Sean's "Control"

    ADVISORY: This video contains profanity.

    Like the seasons themselves, pop turns in ways that are always somewhat predictable. Divas battle; elders reclaim ground; newcomers act cute to make a splash. What's really impressive is when a young talent convinces everyone he's a game-changer, even when his approach is tried and true. That's what Kendrick Lamar did by delivering a brilliantly aggressive, deceptively confrontational verse on his friend and rival Big Sean's newly issued song, "Control." After showing off his mastery of rap's poetic structure with ear-catching internal rhymes and powerfully deployed metaphors — not to mention the interpolations of other rappers' verses that had scholars of the form annotating like crazy — Lamar called out other knights in the fight for hip hop's throne one by one, from J. Cole, who had a hit album earlier this summer, to Drake, who is gunning for one this fall. This classic battle move felt risky mostly because no other young MC has done it with such confrontational largesse. Disguised as a challenge, this was really an insistent declaration that hip hop's new guard is really taking over. After a summer of land grabs by Jay Z and Kanye West, Lamar's verse — which only briefly mentions Jay, in a list of elders Kendrick feels qualified to join — hit like an ambush. A score of other rappers have already responded with verses of their own, and Big Sean's album, debuting later this month, is sure to get a boost, even though "Control" won't actually appear on it. Consider this a sign that rappers in their teens and twenties — with Lamar as their leader — are ready to make this coming season their own.

    Hip-hop's kingpins aren't going quietly, though. The last pop surprise of this week was a new single from Eminem. He's as furious as ever on "Survival," which emerged as the soundtrack to the trailer for the video game Call of Duty: Ghosts. Seasons may change, but pop does have some superstars who've proven evergreen.

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