Lady Gaga Applause
Credit: Screengrab

It may seem strange to say that it’s not too late for Lady Gaga. After all, her third album, ARTPOP, isn’t even out until Nov. 11—and we’ve only heard one song, “Applause,” which is selling decently and actually has a pretty neat video. But of course, the promotional cycle’s in full swing. And it seems like any minute, Gaga might go over the handlebars.

Her main problem—we won’t say mistake, because this wasn’t entirely up to her, and anyway, we’re loving it—is having fallen into competition with Katy Perry, whose Prism arrives Oct. 22. Perry gave us “Roar”; Gaga came back with “Applause.” Perry made some fun promo videos; Gaga made a serious promo video with Marina Abramovic.

Once it became clear “Roar” would outsell “Applause” in their first week out, Gaga did something truly tacky: Enticed her fans to buy multiple copies of the song—and then asked them to game up the pageviews on her video. Meanwhile, she jumped into an ugly grudge match with her old friend Perez Hilton.

Right now, Lady Gaga doesn’t just look desperate—she’s actually begging her fans to pump up her numbers. And don’t forget: she’s the highest paid celebrity under 30. Of course, she’s not doing it for the money. She’s doing it for the—grits teeth—applause. Which is beginning to translate as “the struggle to stay relevant.”

In the worst-case scenario, Gaga’s fan base has shrunk to a (still huge) core of rabid Monsters—the type who won’t blanche at threatening Perez Hilton—and is winding down from here. But take into account what made Gaga a star in the first place: She’s proudly weird, an arty agent of change. Gaga’s not a winner so much as someone who triumphs against the odds. And now that the odds seem to be against her, she’s got to put her empowerment superpowers to use.

For starters, Gaga needs to cut out the cynical Monster Mobilizations. Instead of manipulating the narrative, she needs to seize it. The best way for her to do that? With her music—and not wishy-washy concepts. Forget the meta-101 stuff about “stardom,” and speak directly to her fans.

Of course, music’s just the core of what Gaga (or any pop star) does. Don’t ask me what she should do about her hair or fashion get-ups—although I will say that I’m intrigued whenever she shows her actual face, and the sense of humor she shows in the “Applause” video costumes (that hand-bra and hand-choker!) was a tremendous relief.

The obvious opportunity for redemption will be at Sunday’s Video Music Awards, where Gaga will perform in the opening slot. (Let’s pray, by the way, that she limits her performing to the stage—the last thing she needs to do is come off stiff or sulky while seated next to Katy Perry.)

The (potentially) good news is that she’s planning her most “physically challenging performance … ever,” which means there will be more to watch than a bunch of dress-up. The bad news is she’s promising that the show will be a “giant metaphor.” But as she (sort of) explains, it’s a metaphor for herself. Which we hope means representative of her hopes, dreams, etc., and not the vagaries of fame, fans, and the rest.

In other words: Stay positive, Lady Gaga. And don’t forget to pass it along.