Oh, Walt Disney, what have you done? From beyond the grave you’ve unleashed a new breed of demented divas, with Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears leading the pack. Britney’s inexplicable music career is summed up in 32 tracks on the double disc The Essential Britney Spears (RCA/Legacy), although the word “essential” anywhere near Spears’s name should raise some eyebrows. With the aid of some of the worst Swedish songwriters since Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, Spears soared to the top of the charts and into the hearts of confused adolescent girls with suggestive tunes, including “. . . Baby One More Time,” “Oops! . . . I Did It Again,” and “Stronger,” to name a few. Britney teamed up with her fairy grandmother Madonna on the pointless “Me Against the Music” and was at her most autobiographical on “Toxic.” Although Britney went out of her way to reinvent herself as more of an urban act in later years—exemplified by “Gimme More,” “Womanizer,” “If You Seek Amy” (get it?), and “Hold It Against Me”—she’ll always be Disney’s trailer-park princess.
Would we have a Lady Gaga without Britney or Madonna? Probably not. In her favor, Lady Gaga can actually sing. Now if she could only have found better material for her third full-length studio album Artpop (Streamline/Interscope). For someone so obsessed with fashion—not only in her personal aesthetic, but in new songs such as “Donatella” and “Fashion!”—much of Artpop already feels dated. On “G.U.Y.,” Gaga sounds like she’s recycling herself. “Swine” sounds great, until you hear the lyrics. Only the intoxicating “Dope” offers a glimmer of hope. A steaming dish of drama, the song indicates a newfound maturity, one that the Lady might consider exploring further on her next effort.
On Prism (Capitol), her third album under the Katy Perry moniker, the teenage dreamer attempts to grow up in public, reconnecting with her spiritual side, while not entirely abandoning her party-girl image. “Legendary Lovers” combines Eastern and Middle Eastern musical influences with references to “scripture,” and Perry picks herself up “By the Grace of God” and calls on truth and “the Universe.” Even a seeker needs to dance, and Perry takes us clubbing on “Walking on Air,” “This Moment,” and the unapologetically suggestive “Birthday” (“Let me get you in your birthday suit/it’s time to bring out the big balloons”). But, like Gaga, Perry has taken to cannibalizing herself—“International Smile” sounds too much like “Teenage Dream” (thanks to the unoriginal machinations of Max Martin and “Dr. Luke”).
Britney, Gaga, and Perry had better keep a collective eye on Sky Ferreira, whose long-awaited full-length debut (complete with controversial cover) Night Time, My Time (Capitol) is one of the best albums of 2013. Edgy and exhilarating, Ferreira, who co-wrote all 12 songs, is an undeniable force, confidently drawing on a range of styles and effortlessly making them her very own. From Suicide-inspired electro on “Omanko” and “Ain’t Your Right” to the timeless retro of “Boys” and “24 Hours” and the modern pop “I Blame Myself,” “You’re Not the One,” and “Love in Stereo,” Sky Ferreira’s time has come.
If you asked Celine Dion, she would probably tell you that she is in a league of her own. But on her new English-language album Loved Me Back to Life (Columbia), Dion comes across as an artist of a certain age trying to appeal to a much younger audience. Her (respectful) cover of lesbian singer/songwriter Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” feels like she’s trying to tell fellow ugly-duckling teens that she’s just like them—and that she transformed into something swanlike. A duet with Ne-Yo on “Incredible” feels like another audience expansion technique, while a duet with Stevie Wonder (on Wonder’s “Overjoyed”) and the Diane Warren drama “Unfinished Songs” are nods to that earlier generation of her longtime fans.
When Ellie Goulding’s second domestically released album Halcyon came out, the public was still digging her first domestic disc and its big hit single “Lights.” That’s probably why the “single version” of the song was one of the tacked-on bonus tracks. Even with a catchy single such as “Anything Could Happen,” Halcyon didn’t catch on as expected. The expanded double disc set Halcyon Days (Cherry Tree/Interscope) builds on the original with a second disc of 10 (!) more tracks, the best of which includes “Burn,” “Hearts Without Chains,” and “How Long Will I Love You.”
This column began with Disney, and it ends that way, too. Zendaya, who can be seen on the Disney Channel series Shake It Up, enters the music arena with her self-titled debut on Hollywood Records. Unfortunately, many of the forgettable tracks, especially “Fireflies,” “Putcha Body Down,” and “My Baby,” sound like the kinds of tunes popular with strippers, pole dancers, and Molly users, both gay and straight. Only “Love You Forever” hints at Zendaya’s greater potential.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.