A Decade in the Radio Life of Lady Gaga
In October 2008, it was clear that Top 40 music was on an upward swing that had begun a few years earlier with “Get the Party Started,” “Hollaback Girl,” and “Since U Been Gone.” On this day a decade ago, the supercharged hit music dubbed “Turbo-Pop” in this column was already pulsating across CHR radio — Pink, “So What?”; Britney Spears, “Womanizer”; Katy Perry, “Hot & Cold”; Rihanna, “Disturbia.”
On this week in 2008, Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” was already six months old. I’d liked it enough to rip it into my iTunes right away. And for a while, it was just another song in my iTunes that should have been a hit.. But after becoming a hit in Canada, always friendlier to all things Euro-gummy, it was up 73-67 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, while still waiting to make the radio airplay chart.
Then “Just Dance” exploded and touched off a string of seven hits over the course of an album (The Fame) and a half (The Fame Monster). The moment when a “Just Dance” is followed by a “Poker Face” — even better and bigger — is the real moment when a star is born. And it kept happening. It was almost like having Thriller as one’s debut album.
Top 40’s comeback was going to happen either way. But Gaga gave the genre a consumer press star of the sort that always marks an upswing for the format. She was playful in the way that Kelly Clarkson was earnest and Pink was angsty. And she made bubblegum okay. Americans might have caught the Abba reference in “Alejandro,” but who here caught that both “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance” both contained shout-outs to the ‘70s Eurodisco of Boney M?
If the first two years of Gaga’s career seemed effortless, the ensuing years were as frustrating as trying to follow-up “Thriller.” On “Born This Way,” Gaga seemed to want to do something more dignified but less delectable. Over the next decade, there were attempts to give radio what it wanted, there were other moments when that didn’t seem like a concern at all. Movie reviewers have expressed astonishment at the singer’s ability to leave “meat dress Lady Gaga” behind in A Star Is Born. I wasn’t in any way surprised. As a recording artist, she’d shown plenty of growth and versatility, even when it wasn’t the right thing for a radio career.
A decade after her initial splash, A Star Is Born has returned Gaga to the pop culture epicenter. The movie’s centerpiece duet with Bradley Cooper, “Shallow,” not even intended as a single a week ago, is now a force of nature. And now seems like a good time to talk about Gaga’s place at radio over the last decade, because where she fit (or didn’t) says a lot about the state of the format itself. So let’s flash forward at yearly intervals, starting with:
October 2009: Top 40 radio is exploding now, as second and third stations start to pop up in market after market, driven by a belief that PPM favors the format, but also by the availability of so many up-tempo hits. Gaga is on her fourth hit now, “Paparazzi.” The previous single was “Love Game,” even bolder, even gummier, even more suggestive than the first two. At another time, CHR might have blanched. Now it’s along for a ride on the disco stick. Kesha’s “Tik Tok” is a hit now as well. At first, it sounds like a Gaga copy, but the genre expands so quickly that you can’t keep track of who is influencing whom.
October 2010: The singles from The Fame Monster have already run their course, but haven’t disappointed. “Alejandro” was Gaga’s goofiest hit single yet. By any other act, without Gaga’s momentum or acknowledged playfulness, it couldn’t have been a hit. “Bad Romance” was received with no such hesitation. “Telephone” is on the charts at the moment, but by the Glee Cast. Turbo-pop is at its peak: “Dynamite,” “DJ Got Us Falling in Love,” “Only Girl in the World,” “I Like It.” Kesha is now an established artist herself with multiple hits — now just one of many having hits in the genre.
October 2011: The Born This Way album came out in May, and by October is already on its fourth single, “You and I.” That ballad should have been the clean-up hitter, but two of its predecessors, the title track and “The Edge of Glory,” have been perfunctory near-hits (regardless of chart peak), while “Judas” disappeared quickly. “Born This Way” is well-intentioned but bewildering. After becoming Madonna for a new generation on the last project, why does Gaga feel compelled to nod to the original, if it means going backwards musically? Besides, the competition is thick (“Moves Like Jagger,” “Last Friday Night [T.G.I.F.]”) and even teen punk has gone turbo-pop with Cobra Starship. “You and I” is visible now as a precursor of the versatile Gaga on display now, but at the time, it faced early PPM-era resistance to ballads, along with the second album’s loss of momentum.
October 2012: Gaga is between projects this October. Turbo-pop is, by turns, becoming meaner (Pink, “Blow Me One Last Kiss”), sludgier (Maroon 5, “One More Night”), and/or more EDM-flavored (Justin Bieber, “As Long as You Love Me”; Ellie Goulding, “Lights”; Psy, “Gangnam Style” — also the beginning of hit music as meme). The artists who helped revive CHR are starting to falter; Kelly Clarkson’s latest hit streak is fading, and her current single is “Dark Side.”
October 2013: “Applause” is up 11-7 at CHR this week. It is a return to a familiar sound for Gaga, but not quite a return to form. CHR radio deals with it dutifully, but without brio, and when controversy erupts over the follow-up duet with R. Kelly, “Do What U Want,” radio moves on quickly. And yet, one of the things that “Applause” contributes to the charts this week is tempo and energy, as pop music becomes more ethereal or meandering, depending on your viewpoint. Lorde, “Royals,” is No. 1 this week. Even bubblegum is becoming sludgy. Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball,” is a hit this week. Katy Perry is still mid-to-up with “Roar” but “Dark Horse” is waiting to explode.
October 2014: The most Gaga-esque single at Top 40 this week is Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap.” That song has ties to a lot of the aggressive mid-tempo pop now populating radio, but it also recalls the early Gaga audacity. Lady Gaga herself is missing from the Mainstream Top 40 chart. If you want her, however, she’s topping the Billboard 200 with the Tony Bennett duets album, Cheek to Cheek.The Bennett LP seems more like a sidebar that shows the artist’s versatility rather than a forced retreat from the pop mainstream, but it’s interesting to note that when Linda Ronstadt did just that with What’s New, she was at roughly 15 years into her career — twice Gaga’s tenure. Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” is a hit this week, but the next group of female artists is represented, including Ariana Grande and Meghan Trainor.
October 2015: Gaga is away at the moment. The year has belonged to Taylor Swift, and her current hit is the airy “Wildest Dreams.” The No. 1 pop single is R. City f/Adam Levine, “Locked Away.” The No. 2 and 3 songs are by Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato. The No. 4 single is the Weeknd’s “The Hills,” and Lana Del Rey is a phenomenon as pop music is drawn further into the ether. Time and TV appearances will quickly prove that Del Rey is not Gaga, but they are, in a way, sisters in performance art, and when the up-tempo “Summertime Sadness” hits, it definitely has its Gaga-esque aspects.
October 2016: I’ve known from the first spin that it was going to be me against the world on “Perfect Illusion.” The month-old song is still climbing the charts this week, buoyed by the recent announcement of Gaga’s upcoming Super Bowl halftime show, but it’s about to peak at No. 20. The real hits at CHR are bouncy but dense mid-tempo EDM — “Closer,” “Cheap Thrills,” “Cold Water.” I appreciate “Perfect Illusion” for its energy and multiple climactic moments. Radio programmers hear only stridency, and besides Gaga used up her first-single goodwill at CHR on “Applause.” CHR ratings are not yet on an obvious downswing, and I’m finding myself wondering if maybe nobody misses tempo except cranky old guys. I like “Perfect Illusion” for its faint echoes of the Grass Roots’ “Midnight Confessions” — a propulsive legitimate candidate for my favorite “radio record” of all time. But that clearly couldn’t be a hit in this day and age either.
October 2017: By October, two more Gaga singles have run their course. The Super Bowl triumph has nudged “Million Reasons” to No. 15 at CHR in March. “The Cure,” not part of the original Joanne album, got to No. 20 in May. “Million Reasons” should have at least become an AC staple, but at this moment, the format is taking its cues from CHR; even an AC-sounding ballad struggles to become a real AC hit without making it to power at Top 40.
“The Cure” generated initial CHR excitement, then petered out, although as is now typical, it is now on its way back to power rotation at stations like WHTZ (Z100) New York. I have mixed feelings about “The Cure” — a clear attempt to give CHR what it wants after the willfulness of the previous two singles. A Star Is Born gives Gaga’s character several deliberately insipid hit songs that parody today’s pop. “The Cure” is a better-crafted song, but sonically, it’s of a piece with them. Meanwhile, even Taylor Swift is fighting her own battles with radio, which is grudgingly running “Look What You Made Me Do” to No. 1 on the way to dispensing with it as soon as possible afterwards.
A week before I first published this column, it seemed possible that “Shallow” might be just another one of those songs where Edison Research’s Larry Rosin and I bemoan radio’s unwillingness to seize a cultural moment. It landed at No. 1 on iTunes immediately, a few days ahead of the release of A Star Is Born. It was already known to people from an unavoidable movie trailer. And yet, there were only a handful of stations that recognized the event value in its first few days. That there are too few women programming pop music for a female audience is an article unto itself, but it’s worth noting that two of the early supporters were among the most prominent in those ranks, WTMX Chicago’s Mary Ellen Kachinske and WKSE/WTSS Buffalo, N.Y.’s Sue O’Neil.
On Friday of opening weekend, it was still “I’ll Never Love Again” that was being positioned as the emphasis track. Once A Star Is Born opened, it seemed unlikely that anything besides “Shallow” could be a single. At this writing on Wednesday night, “Shallow” is at the very beginning of a groundswell. Fifteen months ago, I wrote about Kesha’s “Praying” about two weeks into its development and turned out to be spectacularly wrong about the timing of its chart trajectory. But not the eventual outcome. And regardless of how the radio story takes shape, for the audience “Shallow” is a hit already, and likely to remain that way until Oscar time.
(Update: Two weeks later, “Shallow” is 25-17 Adult Top 40 and +1177 spins; the Greatest Gainer by more than a 2:1 margin over anything else. At CHR, it’s up 53-38, +830, which still makes it only the eighth fastest-growing song. It’s not Post Malone & Swae Lee. It’s not yet at a point of inevitability and even some supporters like Z100 New York are spinning it conservatively. But it’s an exceptional story for any song that is not typically what CHR 2018 plays. And there’s one especially meaningful story in San Francisco, where one Hot AC supporter has turned into both Hot ACs and both CHRs.)
At this time in pop music history, I don’t often find myself advocating for ballads. “Shallow” will not fix pop music’s tempo crisis. As Gaga succeeded Madonna a decade ago, the next artist who makes fun, up-tempo, provocative-but-playful records is going to have to do that. Gaga is still capable of making great singles. She might again have multiple hits, even from this movie. But all the evidence from A Star Is Born shows that she’ll never be frothy pop Gaga again. That’s okay. In the natural order of things, it’s time for a new Madonna/Gaga, and radio needs one.
Then again, “Shallow” doesn’t have to fix the tempo crisis. Like “Endless Love” in the doldrums of 1981, being a phenomenal, real hit is enough. “Shallow” address other problems—the song-to-song sameness and the lack of galvanizing “real hits.” If it changes the notion of what constitutes a hit single in 2018, that will be a significant accomplishment, too. And if the second weekend of A Star Is Born is anywhere near as buzzy as the first (update: it was), it also gives radio a chance to share another cultural experience with listeners, not just the Song of Summer.