This summer, pop music flowed like Pellegrino: Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, and Daft Punk immersed us in retro-R&B grooves that were effervescent, sophisticated — and only a tad more adventurous than tap water.
Come fall, though, America’s divas will step in with higher-proof stuff. Katy Perry and Lady Gaga have already poured the first two shots: After announcing release dates for their respective albums, Prism and ARTPOP, the two unleashed massive first singles within the same 24 hours. Both women vow that they’ve reinvented themselves — Perry’s determined to stay dominant following a record-breaking string of No. 1s, and Gaga is fighting back from a major case of over-the-top-itis. (So far, this mostly seems to mean they’re both wearing fewer wigs.) First, Perry delivered ”Roar,” an earnest empowerment anthem with an organic feel and some well-placed winks. Then Gaga rushed out ”Applause,” a relatively streamlined, club-ready rumination on fame.
Miley Cyrus, meanwhile, has been reveling in her fame rather than puzzling over it. Right now she’s music’s primo provocateur, the wild child outgunning all the ”older” stars. The onetime Hannah Montana has genuinely remade herself, deep-sixing her Disney past so she can twerk with rap stars and conjure up a smash like ”We Can’t Stop.” Her delightfully named Bangerz should make a fascinating comparison with the album expected from fellow Disney seedling Britney Spears, whom Cyrus recently called the ”one person in my life who gets” her kind of fame. That Spears has graduated to pop godmother at 31 shows just how fast the years flip by on the diva calendar.
If Rihanna seems unchanged, it’s because she hasn’t taken a breather since her 2005 debut, turning out hit-packed albums every year. She’s one of three powerhouses with still-unconfirmed albums that, diva willing, we’ll see later this season: Beyoncé’s people have denied rumors that she threw out 50 tracks intended for her long-anticipated fifth effort, and Mariah Carey delayed The Art of Letting Go after releasing the underwhelming ”Triumphant (Get ‘Em)” and the much better ”#Beautiful.” Carey in particular can’t be heartened by the success of Ariana Grande, a big-voiced Nickelodeon talent with a ’90s-R&B fixation: This summer Grande broke into the top 10 with the very Mimi-esque ”The Way,” and her debut, Yours Truly, is due in September.
Need some Y-chromosome counterprogramming? Nine Inch Nails will revisit their deliciously gloomy ’90s heyday with Hesitation Marks, and Kings of Leon, one of the few non-boomer arena fillers in rock, will return with Mechanical Bull after three years away. Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake already has a sequel to March’s The 20/20 Experience. (The first single, ”Take Back the Night,” even sounds like intermission music.) Finally, Drake’s on deck with Nothing Was the Same, which has produced two stellar tracks so far: ”Started From the Bottom” and ”Hold On We’re Going Home,” a cream-puff jam that separates suavity from anonymity — and a lesson for the boys of summer 2013 that smoove needn’t be safe.