Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Lady Gaga and Beyoncé are two of the biggest names in pop music. By any measure they are among the best-selling and most acclaimed female pop singers in recent years.

Yet, they both appear to be faltering with their latest singles. Gaga's "Judas" debuted at #10 and then began to plummet on the chart. At top 40 radio, it looks set to level out at about #15, a very poor showing if you consider that seven of her nine singles to date have hit #1 (only "Alejandro" missed out, peaking at #4). Beyoncé seems to be doing even worse. "Run the World (Girls)" debuted on the Hot 100 at a rather lousy #33 a couple weeks ago before falling out of the top 40 last week. At top 40 radio--where Beyoncé has had 11 top 10 hits--the song has barely climbed within the top 40 with a rather unimpressive weekly spin gain.

From a PR perspective, some record execs have to be sweating right now. Both of these singles were intended to launch their upcoming albums. Despite a robust sales market for singles, albums are struggling, and it's clear from the way they are promoted these days that they're expected to perform well right out the gate. Long-term sales are no longer a guarantee.

In both cases, I chalk this up to pushing the envelope just a bit too far. The religious imagery of "Judas" has turned people off, and the edgy beat-driven tune of "Run the World" lacks the kind of pop hook we expect to launch an album on. It's not a question of playing it to safe, but rather the opposite. This is an example of risk and risk doesn't always pay off.

On the one hand, that's what makes them a cut above the rest of the pack. Katy Perry and Rihanna are big too, but their music is pretty conventional by comparison. Lady Gaga and Beyoncé are pop music leaders--a role that can reap both accolades and derision. Madonna, for example, was similarly risky with her music, which generally served her well...until it didn't (see Erotica).

When you're on top, unfortunately, your choices are to stay there or fall, and everyone falls a bit eventually. For every "One Sweet Day" there's a Glitter Soundtrack; for every "I Will Always Love You" a Just Whitney; for every "Baby One More Time..." a "Do Somethin'." You get the picture.

If I had to choose between them launching their albums with something different that doesn't quite catch on or something conventional that sounds like everything else, I'll choose the former any day. Besides, I imagine both of these albums will have plenty of surprises before all is said and done.

Even the PR guys can be assured this story isn't over. Beyoncé has the chance to make up for it by putting out something more conventional between now and when her album is due for release this summer. And Gaga appears set to release a new single each week, and this week's release "The Edge of Glory," looks like a winner.

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