There’s a gorgeous piano ballad called “Battlefield” on Lea Michele’s debut album Louder that is perhaps more apropos than even she realizes—because truly, in so many ways, she’s dropping this record into one. A battlefield, that is.
Before we get into the songs themselves, let’s start by taking a look at the field, and just how much was working against Lea Michele before the album even came out of the gate. First, there’s the competition—the other, already established female pop artists in this market—whose ploys for public attention include tongue-wagging and twerking antics with Robin Thicke, clothing-optional appearances, boy bashing, and being Bieber’s ex. Michele’s claim to fame? Other than her dominant role on Glee (perhaps not a plus in itself), she’s mostly remembered as the girl left behind when her boyfriend Cory Monteith passed tragically last year. Which means people will be initially interested in what she sings about on her record, but that isn’t necessarily enough to keep them interested for long.
Add to this the simple fact that it is difficult enough to make a stand-out pop record in a flooded market to begin with, and you see what Lea Michele is up against. To break out as a pop star in her own right means she can’t just get away with making a “good” debut pop album—she has to start by making the record of her career. That’s a lot to ask of even the most talented of musical artists.
And so, when I say that Louder doesn’t quite meet that bar, I say it with the utmost respect, because the truth is the stakes were way too high coming into this battle.
Let’s take away the context for a moment, and look at the album itself. As far as pop albums go, honestly, Lea Michele couldn’t have done much better than she did. It’s basically got all the stuff we look for in good pop records—good production value, great vocal performances, solid hooks, catchy beats, tender emotional moments, and yes, even lyrical honesty. Opening track lead single “Cannonball” dives headlong into processing the inevitable emotions that accompany tragedy: “Breakdown—I was scared to death I was losing my mind…I couldn’t find the truth, I was going under / But I won’t hide inside, I’ve gotta get out.” Themes of love and processing pain continue throughout the record, never so clearly as on “Thousand Needles,” which is an apt description of what lost love feels like, and the pathos-filled closing ballad “If You Say So,” a song written in direct response to Monteith’s passing. There are also tunes about coming out of the dark, including the catchy title track “Louder.” Some might criticize these songs as being too on-the-nose, but in my view, it’s the best move Lea Michele could have made. Instead of trying to avoid the elephant in the room, she wrestles it head-on and lets the grief feed into the emotion of the album. It could have been more subtle, but guys, this is pop music. Let it be. If Michele makes more albums—and she should—she’ll move on. Trust the process.
That being said, the unfortunate reality is that the bigger battle here isn’t the private one she’s fighting publicly on the record—it’s the simple fact that she has to release this album in an already-crowded field, filled with both catchier songs from legitimate artists and the unfortunate bigger-than-life antics of those who really have no business being in the business. The end result is that true Lea Michele fans will no doubt love Louder, but it will have a hard time getting the broader attention it actually deserves.
But as Lea Michele already knows, life is not fair. This isn’t a level playing field; it’s a battlefield, and others had field advantage before she ever stepped onto it. Kudos to Lea Michele for giving it her best, nonetheless.