The Year In Review: Why Did The Big Divas Disappoint In 2013?

Dec 9th, 2013 // 22 Comments
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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 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.

Get an eyeful of even more pop music coverage, from artist interviews to exclusive performances, on Idolator’s YouTube channel.


  1. Ben

    Hilary Duff will redeem the pop game in 2014

  2. um, what about the all-superior group of all groups HAIM!?

    Bey is Queen of the Universe! With her AND Lana AND Kylie releasing in 2014, along with Riri and others, 2014 is gonna SLAY!

    Lorde is an incredible force, and my vote for album of 2013. It’s a shame most people only love/listen to Royals, cause in my opinion there are MUCH better songs on the album (Ribs, Buzzcut Season, A World Alone).

    Katy’s album wasn’t that bad, there just didn’t seem to be a flow or connection between the songs.

    Gaga’s album is actually pretty good, but I think her desire to be herself (aka different) was a bit too much for some. But SWINE is amazing.

    Britney has one good song on her album, and I deem that to be ALIEN.

    Miley focused too hard on the shock-value versus performance, and that’s why her album isn’t that great. Do My Thang is a secret pleasure though, and Wrecking Ball is one of the best songs of the past few years.

  3. um, what about the all-superior group of all groups HAIM!?

    Bey is Queen of the Universe! With her AND Lana AND Kylie releasing in 2014, along with Riri and others, 2014 is gonna SLAY!
    Lorde is an incredible force, and my vote for album of 2013. It’s a shame most people only love/listen to Royals, cause in my opinion there are MUCH better songs on the album (Ribs, Buzzcut Season, A World Alone).

    Katy’s album wasn’t that bad, there just didn’t seem to be a flow or connection between the songs.

    Gaga’s album is actually pretty good, but I think her desire to be herself (aka different) was a bit too much for some. But SWINE is amazing.

    Britney has one good song on her album, and I deem that to be ALIEN.

    Miley focused too hard on the shock-value versus performance, and that’s why her album isn’t that great. Do My Thang is a secret pleasure though, and Wrecking Ball is one of the best songs of the past few years.

  4. sorry, don’t know why that posted twice…

  5. si

    i dont feel

  6. si

    i actually do not feel that they dissappointed. people dont really buy albums anymore but that doesnt even mean that they disappointed. more so their fans disappointed

  7. It’s just YOUR problem who are disappointed. Britney Jean is becoming greater and greater after each listen. True lovers of music are never out-of-date. Because the real value of music doesn’t lie on the state of your expectations – it depends on how you feel the music and accept it.
    ‘Better albums sell more’ – that’s not true. Spears’ Blackout is her greatest but it didn’t sell well..
    Nice try but the main problem comes and rises from the listeners who don’t really know what they want to listen to.

  8. I think the fact here is that these are artists with HUGE budgets for their albums, ample time since their last release and access to just about anything in their disposal and they came with easy albums that didn’t really do what any of them promised.

    I think Miley’s album is the least disappointing though. It had a coherent sound, her voice really shines and it is completely different from her past work and that of her peers. She may have over-shocked us but the music is actually backed up in this instance.

  9. The greatest pop moment of the year (in my opinion) is when Lorde overtook Miley for the #1 position on the Hot 100. With Royals being a song about not partaking in the over-hype of life, it showed that talent alone can get you success. You don’t need twerking or nudity to push you there (if anyone thinks that Wrecking Ball would have been #1 without the VMAs and the controversial video they are kidding themselves).

    And this expresses something. Pop music is ready for something new. And none of the girls mentioned brought anything new to the table.

  10. Probably there was no pop music, or music at all in 2013. Our very own veterans like Britney, Kanye, Eminem, Jay-Z and even Justin prefered to stay in ‘shade’ meaning – they brought the classic of genre – solid modest classic pop (in Idolator words – disappointing pop). And Beyonce didn’t even make a step out of the door ‘feeling that lack of music’ in these times (the wisest choice)…
    Katy, Gaga, Miley also got that way….
    No new proposals of music in 2013. Lorde is like Carly Rae Jepsen – people want a new face each year. The luck was on her side. But was that lucky enough for the music to be saved? NOPE.
    These are such times. The crisis of music. Or the times that pop music must go through.

  11. Nick

    That’s okay. Kylie will be back next year…so there will be no need for any other pop records, ever.

  12. Meghan

    I feel as though you may have listened to the albums of some of our biggest divas with an expectation to hear a certain sound from each and when this sound was not created you became disappointed . I believe if we heard any of these four albums from four unknown musicians we would be raving about them. “Britney Jean” is a great pop album in my opinion .. kooky songs like “Chillin with you” and the bouncy “Tik tik boom” are wonderful. Britney might not have spoken about how she dealt with fame but she does talk in detail about her failed relationship. Just because she did not go overtly deep doesn’t mean the album doesn’t contain good pop music.

    • That’s true. If these were released by unknown musicians people would rave. But they weren’t. They were released by women who, unlike unknown musicians, have million dollar contracts, million dollar budgets, access to the best writers/producers in the business, marketing teams, trend research etc. So yes, disappointing.

  13. Meghan

    at the end of the day the music shouldn’t be reviewed according to how it was billed but according to how it sounds …

  14. I completely agree with what is said in this article. 2013 was supposed to be the Clash of the Divas year. Instead, the better releases were created by new and upcoming people (whether they have been in the industry or not). The only thing here I do not agree with is “the something is missing” bit. True, every album of the aforementioned did feel like there is something missing, but each of them had at least one song on the album that demonstrates what the album could have been like. Katy Perry’s Legendary Lovers, Gaga’s Artpop, Miley’s singles and Britney’s Alien are probably the best examples on how great the albums could have been.

    But as said, 2013 is almost over and we have so many other pop albums to look forward to in 2014.

  15. Sean

    I actually think that ARTPOP is an incredible album. It’s a shame that it’s not connecting with audiences. I think her over-intellectulizing and overhyping on her part really kills the musical genius.

    As much as I am looking forward to Beyonce’s next album, she, too, is the queen of making contrived, generically heartfelt music. Somehow it never quite strikes a chord with my emotions. But I always keep an extremely open mind and I hope she can finally put out something genuine and maybe even let herself be vulnerable.

    Honestly, the only “diva” who consistently releases music that is both enjoyable, relatable and sincere is Janet Jackson. She’s been gone for a minute now – and her last two projects missed the mark due to strange label intervention – but she’s the REAL diva whose release I’m looking forward to in 2014.

    Interesting article!

  16. I haven’t listened to Avril Lavigne or Britney jean yet, but as for ARTPOP, Prism, and Bangerz, I kind of agree. I really do like all 3 of those albums, but they sort of burn out quickly. It’s sad. Meanwhile, Pure Heroine still excites me. I hope these singers really do try something NEW next time. If that means no Dr. Luke or no hits, then so be it. I wanna see something else.

  17. Taylor Swift I think is an exception as she always been sold as more of a singer-songwriter rather than a pop spectacle. Not to mention she is a crossover artist with a strong enough musical identity and audience to fall back on. Katy, Gaga, Miley and Britney have never been marketed as singer song writers, so expecting some purely musical connection with their material is pretty stupid to begin with. I think people are more disappointed in their general presentation and image, which is the whole point of being a pop spectacle. Props to Miley for actually delivering on that front, her music is no better than Katy’s and gaga’s but unlike them she has put some effort into crafting a new and exciting image. Shes embracing what she is instead of toning it down(Katy), being predictable (Britney) or being pretentious and un-amusing (Gaga). Im not even a Miley Cyrus fan , but as a general pop music fan she has been the most fun to watch this year, hardly a disappointment.

    • Lady Gaga writes all of her songs since The Fame!

      • You are not understanding what im saying when I mean singer-songwriter:

        “As opposed to contemporary pop music singers who write or co-write their own songs the term singer-songwriter describes a distinct form of artistry, closely associated with the folk-acoustic tradition.Singer-songwriters often provide the sole accompaniment to an entire composition or song, typically using a guitar or piano; both the compositions and the arrangements are written primarily as solo vehicles, with the material angled toward topical issues—sometimes political, sometimes introspective, sensitive, romantic, and confessional”

        Taylor fits that description, gaga+katy not so much. They pretty much co-write with an array of people on most of their songs and are viewed primarily as pop singers or entertainers.

  18. Sam

    Its funny to read this post after “BEYONCÉ”, the album that made 2013 worthy for pop divas.

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