Lady Gaga Takes Slow and Steady Route to the Top

“Lady GaGa Scores Hot 100 Milestone,” a Billboard headline trumpeted yesterday upon the release of the new Hot 100.What could this milestone be? you might ask yourself. Biggest self-aggrandizer since 50 Cent to reach the top slot? Most similar-sounding pair of hits since Rick Astley? Most successful pantsless act? As it happens, Gaga’s achievement has to do with her Billboard batting average: two chart hits, two No. 1’s. This week, “Poker Face” follows January’s smash “Just Dance” into the top slot. She’s the first act to step up to the plate, swing just twice, and hit two homers since Christina Aguilera’s first pair of hits, “Genie in a Bottle” and “What a Girl Wants,” topped the Hot 100 in 1999–2000. That’s nice for the Lady and all, but it masks a more notable achievement: her slowness in achieving those hits. The amount of time “Dance” and “Poker” took to reach No. 1 is literally unprecedented in recent chart history.

In a sea of hits that explode up the charts based on faddish bursts of iTunes sales, Gaga’s chart pattern is contrary to everything going on in pop music promotion right now, recalling the more languid runs by songs in the ’70s through the mid-’90s. It’s almost enough to make an old-school chart geek like me root for her. I’m also rooting for Gaga a little because she’s ended the tyrannical Hot 100 reign of Flo Rida. After six weeks, “Right Round” is ushered out of the penthouse—thanks in large part to the ever-growing digital sales of “Poker Face,” now the country’s top-selling download (199,000 copies, vs. 185,000 for “Round”). Flo Rida’s sales have been so massive since mid-February that no song, regardless of how much radio play it got, had a prayer of topping it. But sales for “Poker” have been up almost every week during the same two-month period, and now her radio spins are catching up with his, too. “Poker Face” reaches No. 1 on the big chart in its 15th week. That’s the longest it’s taken any song to reach the top in the past 18 months, with the exception of just one song. That would be “Just Dance,” Gaga’s first hit, which was in its 22nd week when it topped the chart three months ago. (Now in its 34th week, “Dance” is, remarkably, still hovering in the Top 10. That’s another reason I find myself rooting for the Lady: “Dance” now represents our best hope for a song other than “Right Round” taking the title for all of 2009 and Flo Rida entering the two-time leader board with Elvis and the Beatles.)

When “Dance” reached No. 1 at that unusually poky pace, it was the longest climb to No. 1 by any song since 2000, when Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open” took 27 weeks to ring the bell. (The all-time slowpoke is Los Del Rio’s “Macarena,” which took 33 weeks total over a two-part chart run spanning 1995 and 1996.) A lot has changed on the charts since Creed’s millennial chart-topper, and not just our willingness to listen to Scott Stapp warble about his kid. The Hot 100’s metabolism has both sped up massively on the front end and slowed down considerably on the back end—meaning, songs now tend to rise faster and fall slower than they did a decade or two ago. That’s almost entirely the result of iTunes, which began to be factored into the chart in February 2005 and instantly became the 800-lb. gorilla of hitmaking.

Just for fun, here’s a complete rundown of Hot 100 No. 1’s since the iTunes chart era began in the winter of 2005, and the number of weeks it took each song to reach the top. My apologies for the sheer length of this list (61 songs), but the weeks-to-peak patterns are pretty interesting:

50 Cent, “Candy Shop” — 5 weeks to peak (WtP)
Gwen Stefani, “Hollaback Girl” — 6 WtP
Mariah Carey, “We Belong Together” — 8 WtP
Carrie Underwood, “Inside Your Heaven” — 1 WtP
Kanye West feat. Jamie Foxx, “Gold Digger” — 8 WtP
Chris Brown, “Run It!” — 14 WtP
Mariah Carey, “Don’t Forget About Us” — 11 WtP
D4L, “Laffy Taffy” — 16 WtP
Nelly feat. Paul Wall, Ali & Gipp, “Grillz” — 10 WtP
Beyoncé feat. Slim Thug, “Check on It” — 12 WtP
James Blunt, “You’re Beautiful” — 18 WtP
Ne-Yo, “So Sick” — 15 WtP
Sean Paul, “Temperature” — 11 WtP
Daniel Powter, “Bad Day” — 7 WtP
Rihanna, “S.O.S.” — 12 WtP
Chamillionaire feat. Krayzie Bone, “Ridin’” — 14 WtP
Shakira feat. Wyclef, “Hips Don’t Lie” — 12 WtP
Taylor Hicks, “Do I Make You Proud” — 1 WtP
Nelly Furtado, “Promiscuous” — 8 WtP
Fergie, “London Bridge” — 3 WtP
Justin Timberlake, “SexyBack” — 8 WtP
Ludacris feat. Pharrell, “Money Maker” — 10 WtP
Justin Timberlake feat. T.I., “My Love” — 8 WtP
Akon feat. Snoop Dogg, “I Wanna Love You” — 8 WtP
Beyoncé, “Irreplaceable” — 7 WtP
Nelly Furtado, “Say It Right” — 14 WtP
Justin Timberlake, “What Goes Around…Comes Around” — 11 WtP
Mims, “This Is Why I’m Hot” — 6 WtP
Fergie feat. Ludacris, “Glamorous” — 9 WtP
Akon, “Don’t Matter” — 10 WtP
Timbaland feat. Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake, “Give It to Me” — 9 WtP
Avril Lavigne, “Girlfriend” — 8 WtP
Maroon 5, “Makes Me Wonder” — 4 WtP
T-Pain feat. Yung Joc, “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” — 12 WtP
Rihanna, “Umbrella” — 7 WtP
Plain White T’s, “Hey There Delilah” — 16 WtP
Sean Kingston, “Beautiful Girls” — 10 WtP
Fergie, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” — 19 WtP
Soulja Boy, “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” — 8 WtP
Kanye West, “Stronger” — 8 WtP
Chris Brown feat. T-Pain, “Kiss Kiss” — 7 WtP
Alicia Keys, “No One” — 11 WtP
Flo Rida feat. T-Pain, “Low” — 9 WtP
Usher feat. Young Jeezy, “Love in This Club” — 3 WtP
Leona Lewis, “Bleeding Love” — 6 WtP
Mariah Carey, “Touch My Body” — 7 WtP
Lil Wayne feat. Static Major, “Lollipop” — 6 WtP
Rihanna, “Take a Bow” — 5 WtP
Coldplay, “Viva la Vida” — 6 WtP
Katy Perry, “I Kissed a Girl” — 7 WtP
Rihanna, “Disturbia” — 8 WtP
T.I., “Whatever You Like” — 3 WtP
Pink, “So What” — 4 WtP
T.I. feat. Rihanna, “Live Your Life” — 2 WtP
Britney Spears, “Womanizer” — 2 WtP
Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” — 7 WtP
Lady Gaga feat. Colby O’Donis, “Just Dance” — 22 WtP
Kelly Clarkson, “My Life Would Suck Without You” — 2 WtP
Eminem, Dr. Dre and 50 Cent, “Crack a Bottle” — 4 WtP
Flo Rida, “Right Round” — 3 WtP
Lady Gaga, “Poker Face” — 15 WtP

Generally, No. 1 songs take less than a dozen weeks to hit the top. For the entire Rock Era, that weeks-to-peak average is pretty consistent. In the ’50s and ’60s, when the music business revolved around the 45 instead of the LP, songs would rise and fall more quickly. In the ’70s and ’80s, they’d rise more slowly, but a big hit act—say, Elton John and the Bee Gees in the ’70s or Michael Jackson and Madonna in the ’80s—could scale the chart in as little as a half-dozen weeks. (Chart patterns in the ’90s were perpetually weird, for reasons we needn’t recap here.)

As for the four-year period shown above, there’s an odd period of slowness from roughly the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2006 (“Run It!” to “Hips Don’t Lie”). But otherwise, a chart climb of more than 10 weeks is the exception, not the rule. That said, as we get closer to the present, notice how the weeks-to-peak numbers drift consistently toward single digits—after 2007 (which ended with Alicia Keys’s “No One”), the trend accelerates. The average climb to No. 1 in 2008 was just five weeks, as opposed to 10 weeks in both 2006 and 2007. So far this year, the average is back up to nine weeks, but that’s only because of Lady Gaga and her two slow-ass hits—remove her from the equation, and the weeks-to-peak average for 2009’s No. 1 hits is just three weeks.

Basically, what we see above is the record industry doing what it has always done: adapting to the new rules of the game. The shift to a Hot 100 dominated by iTunes was seismic, and it took a couple of years for label promotional teams to adjust to the new reality. By 2008, they had it down to a science. In the 1990s to early 2000s, the labels would spend weeks or even months working a song to radio before dropping a single (if they released it commercially at all). Now, the iTunes release date for a hit-bound single is timed much earlier (probably because labels fear widespread file-sharing leaks), well before most radio stations have put the song into serious rotation. In short, iTunes is now the dog wagging the tail that is radio, not the other way around. The result: songs shoot to No. 1 in as little as a fortnight, as gobsmacked program directors belatedly add the song into heavy rotation. Just look at Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You”—it finally enters the top 10 of Billboard‘s Airplay list this week, nearly three months after appearing on iTunes and more than two months after it topped the Hot 100.

But let’s go back to Lady Gaga: What accounts for her unusual success? Honestly, I can only theorize—compared with other circa-2009 pop hits, “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” are outliers on so many levels. I’m not just talking about her slow rise, but also her sound. Her brand of blippy electro-dance with minimal R&B overtones has been pretty unfashionable on the charts for the last decade. This, all by itself, probably explains the slow climb of each of her hits. We’ve seen some Eurodance crossover hits in the Top 10 this decade, but they’ve basically been one-offs—DJ Sammy’s “Heaven” in 2002, Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch” in 2006. Somehow, Lady Gaga has managed to break this pattern, but it required persistence: it took America half of 2008 to warm up to “Just Dance” after it debuted last summer. It took us a little bit less time to latch onto “Poker Face,” but, at nearly four months, still longer than average. Maybe her third single (expected to be “LoveGame”), will catch on even more quickly.

All of this is my way of explaining my oddly mixed feelings about Lady Gaga. I find her hits, as songs, to be mildly diverting to faintly annoying. But I find her slow march up the charts charming, almost nostalgic. (She’s even fulfilling the record industry’s old-school dream of selling albums; The Fame has been in the Top 10 for months.) I once described her to a friend as “the bastard child of Stacey Q and the Real McCoy,” and that image is starting to feel more apt all the time: Lady Gaga seems to have entered the pop Zeitgeist through a space-time wormhole from 15 or 20 years ago.

Here’s a rundown of the rest of this week’s charts:

• Gaga shouldn’t get comfortable at No. 1, because she’s going to be ousted quickly. Next week’s chart-topper will almost surely be the comeback/reunion single from the dreaded Black Eyed Peas, whose latest makes “Poker Face” sound like “Vogue.” The, Fergie-fronting “Boom Boom Pow” landed at iTunes this past Monday, and it’s already the top-seller there by what I’m guessing is a huge margin. It’s also been at radio for a month and already ranks 15th there, a remarkable showing for such a new song. Currently ranked at No. 39 on the Hot 100 in its third week, “BBP” will inevitably make a 38-spot leap next week, bringing the 2009 weeks-to-peak average even lower.

• Early prediction for a hit summer jam, if it doesn’t peak too soon: Ciara’s “Love Sex Magic” with Justin Timberlake, the leadoff single to her third album, which drops in May. “LSM” is the biggest mover in the Top 10 this week, up 17 spaces to No. 10. It actually made a bigger leap last week, vaulting from No. 86 to No. 27; it had been charting on radio airplay alone but then it made that 59-point leap thanks to a partial week of iTunes sales. In its second week on sale, those sales more than double to 113,000.

• The rock breakout act of the year is indisputably Kings of Leon, who return to No. 1 on the Modern Rock chart just 10 weeks after they left it. It took 16 weeks for “Sex on Fire” to reach No. 1 in December (to say nothing of the five-plus years it took the Tennessee-based band to break in America; even while they scored numerous hits in England, nothing they’d released prior to “Sex” even made our Modern Rock Top 20). By contrast, “Use Somebody” took just 11 weeks to make it to the top. How can you tell the Kings are on a roll? They oust Pearl Jam’s fast-rising fluke hit “Brother,” which still earns a bullet from Billboard—meaning, PJ’s hit is still gaining spins, but KoL’s is gaining even more.

• There’s a fun tidbit of country trivia over at Billboard‘s Chart Beat column (now written by committee after last month’s sad departure of beloved chart-trivia demigod Fred Bronson). The latest hit by Carrie Underwood is a remake of Randy Travis‘s 1988 Country chart-topper “I Told You So,” on which Travis himself duets. Thanks to an American Idol performance by the duo, the song made a brief appearance in the pop Top 10 last week (No. 9, now down to No. 25). This week, it enters the Country Top 10. Because the original version by Travis alone topped this list 21 years ago, Travis becomes the first artist to take his song into the Country winners’ circle twice, with two different recordings, since Dolly Parton. And I’ll bet you’re familiar with the song she did it with: “I Will Always Love You,” which she first took to No. 1 in 1974 and again, with a rerecording, in 1982.

Top 10s
Last week’s position and total weeks charted in parentheses (Digital Songs chart includes total downloads/percentage change in parentheses):

Hot 100

1. Lady Gaga, “Poker Face” (LW No. 2, 15 weeks)
2. Flo Rida, “Right Round” (LW No. 1, 9 weeks)
3. Soulja Boy feat. Sammie, “Kiss Me Thru the Phone” (LW No. 3, 14 weeks)
4. T.I. feat. Justin Timberlake, “Dead and Gone” (LW No. 4, 17 weeks)
5. Jamie Foxx feat. T-Pain, “Blame It” (LW No. 7, 11 weeks)
6. All-American Rejects, “Gives You Hell” (LW No. 5, 20 weeks)
7. Kelly Clarkson, “My Life Would Suck Without You” (LW No. 6, 11 weeks)
8. Miley Cyrus, “The Climb” (LW No. 11, 4 weeks)
9. Lady Gaga feat. Colby O’Donis, “Just Dance” (LW No. 10, 34 weeks)
10. Ciara feat. Justin Timberlake, “Love Sex Magic” (LW No. 27, 3 weeks)

Hot Digital Songs

1. Lady GaGa, “Poker Face” (LW No. 2, 199,000 downloads)
2. Flo Rida, “Right Round” (LW No. 1, 185,000 downloads)
3. Soulja Boy feat. Sammie, “Kiss Me Thru the Phone” (LW No. 3, 153,000 downloads)
4. Miley Cyrus, “The Climb” (LW No. 5, 141,000 downloads)
5. All-American Rejects, “Gives You Hell” (LW No. 8, 120,000 downloads)
6. Asher Roth, “I Love College” (LW No. 9, 120,000 downloads)
7. Jamie Foxx feat. T-Pain, “Blame It” (LW No. 10, 114,000 downloads)
8. Ciara feat. Justin Timberlake, “Love Sex Magic” (LW No. 26, 113,000 downloads)
9. T.I. feat. Justin Timberlake, “Dead and Gone” (LW No. 6, 113,000 downloads)
10. Kelly Clarkson, “My Life Would Suck Without You” (LW No. 7, 100,000 downloads)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs

1. Jamie Foxx feat. T-Pain, “Blame It” (LW No. 1, 16 weeks)
2. Keri Hilson feat. Lil Wayne, “Turnin’ Me On” (LW No. 2, 19 weeks)
3. The-Dream, “Rockin’ That Thang” (LW No. 3, 17 weeks)
4. T.I. feat. Justin Timberlake, “Dead and Gone” (LW No. 4, 12 weeks)
5. Soulja Boy feat. Sammie, “Kiss Me Thru the Phone” (LW No. 6, 14 weeks)
6. Ne-Yo, “Mad” (LW No. 5, 24 weeks)
7. Keyshia Cole, “You Complete Me” (LW No. 7, 17 weeks)
8. Ne-Yo feat. Jamie Foxx & Fabolous, “She Got Her Own,” (LW No. 12, 20 weeks)
9. Yung L.A. feat. Young Dro & T.I., “Ain’t I” (LW No. 9, 38 weeks)
10. Rick Ross feat. John Legend, “Magnificent” (LW No. 15, 9 weeks)

Hot Country Songs

1. Darius Rucker, “It Won’t Be Like This for Long” (LW No. 1, 24 weeks)
2. Taylor Swift, “White Horse” (LW No. 2, 18 weeks)
3. George Strait, “River of Love” (LW No. 3, 21 weeks)
4. Jake Owen, “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You” (LW No. 4, 33 weeks)
5. Rodney Atkins, “It’s America” (LW No. 5, 20 weeks)
6. Jason Aldean, “She’s Country” (LW No. 8, 19 weeks)
7. Tim McGraw, “Nothin’ to Die For” (LW No. 7, 15 weeks)
8. Rascal Flatts, “Here Comes Goodbye” (LW No. 9, 10 weeks)
9. Carrie Underwood feat. Randy Travis, “I Told You So” (LW No. 11, 11 weeks)
10. Sugarland, “It Happens” (LW No. 12, 7 weeks)

Hot Modern Rock Tracks

1. Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” (LW No. 2, 11 weeks)
2. Pearl Jam, “Brother” (LW No. 1, 6 weeks)
3. Anberlin, “Feel Good Drag” (LW No. 4, 26 weeks)
4. Papa Roach, “Lifeline” (LW No. 3, 11 weeks)
5. The Airborne Toxic Event, “Sometime Around Midnight” (LW No. 7, 34 weeks)
6. Incubus, “Love Hurts” (LW No. 6, 24 weeks)
7. Rise Against, “Audience of One” (LW No. 9, 13 weeks)
8. Kings of Leon, “Sex on Fire” (LW No. 5, 32 weeks)
9. Blue October, “Dirt Room” (LW No. 11, 13 weeks)
10. Shinedown, “Second Chance” (LW No. 8, 28 weeks)

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