Radio Hits One: The Elusive Superstar Duet (Or Three-Way)


In last week’s breakdown of Lil Wayne’s chart ubiquity, I noted that while Lady Gaga’s Born This Way and its singles seemed to be everywhere, she hasn’t staked out much additional Billboard territory with collaborations. Her only charting collab of late is “3-Way (The Golden Rule),” a little orgy-themed ditty with The Lonely Island and Justin TImberlake that debuted on Saturday Night Live‘s season finale last month. The episode aired after the release of the Lonely Island’s latest album, so the song was thrown out as an iTunes single and spent a week at No. 3 on the Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart (which charts songs that haven’t yet made the big singles chart, but are just scraping its bottom). “3-Way,” like previous Lonely Island/Timberlake viral hits “Dick In A Box” and “Motherlover,” is a catchy R&B tune full of dirty jokes. But it’s also an opportunity for two of the world’s biggest pop stars to make a song together while shrugging off the kind of expectations that would ordinarily accompany such a high-profile duet.

Pop music may be more collaborative than ever, but that’s almost entirely due to hip-hop. The nature of its loop-driven production style and the traditions of posse cuts and guest verses have made it all too easy to cut and paste 16 bars of one rapper into another MC’s song, or use a rapper’s verse as a bridge in a pop song, or let a pop singer belt out the hook for the rapper’s radio-friendly single. As hip hop’s influence has seeped into almost every corner of the pop charts, it’s become increasingly rare to find two pop stars simply singing a song together.

Of course, old-fashioned duets are old-fashioned for a reason; at some point that style of songwriting and performance either became outdated, or we simply stopped seeing performers with the kind of on-record chemistry shared by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, or George Jones and Tammy Wynette. In the ’80s, when a new class of pop royalty ascended to the top of the charts, those singers often occupied their own solar system and rarely entered another’s orbit. Even when superpowers like Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney joined forces, it felt a little goofy and forced. (Compare “The Girl Is Mine” to every other song on Thriller.)

By the ’90s, duets had become so quaint that they were mainly used as a marketing gimmick for aging icons like Frank Sinatra, who could get some easy publicity by recording albums full of unlikely collaborators like Bono. And who could forget Natalie Cole’s virtual duet with her dead father? When Prince declined Jackson’s invitation to appear on “Bad,” it foreshadowed the fact that we’d never see most of the obvious fantasy superstar pairings of the MTV era, and would be disappointed by the ones that did happen. Michael and his sister Janet finally got together for “Scream” in 1995, and it was a good song, but not exactly what anyone was expecting; it peaked at No. 5. Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston united for a heavily hyped diva duet in 1998; “When You Believe” peaked at No. 15, which may as well be considered a flop given their combined collections of chart-toppers. Carey did hit No. 1 with another high-profile collaboration a few years earlier, 1995’s “One Sweet Day” with Boyz II Men, but one girl sharing a track with an entire male group seems more like blockbuster ballad gang bang than a duet. Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy is Mine” provided the ’90s with its defining smash duet, although one could argue that “Boy” was what elevated both to serious pop stardom.

Then came the new millennium, and the era of R&B/hip hop “thug love” collaborations— Ja Rule and Ashanti, Jay and Beyoncé, Nelly and Kelly—pushed traditional duets further to the side. Even 2001’s event remake of “Lady Marmalade” with three star singers, Christina Aguilera, Pink and Mya, shoehorned a rapper, Lil Kim, into the mix. The teen pop era’s biggest power couple, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, never got around to recording a duet during their relationship, although their B-list equivalents Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey were happy to oblige. Timberlake was reportedly planning to collaborate with Janet Jackson before the 2004 Super Bowl put a damper on that idea. A few years later, Jackson’s then-boyfriend Jermaine Dupri eagerly baited the press with the idea of getting her in the studio with one of his other production clients, Mariah Carey, but the vocally mismatched collaboration never came to pass.

Britney and Madonna followed up their live-TV liplock with the 2003 collaboration “Me Against The Music,” but the song peaked at No. 35 and became forgotten as soon as “Toxic” was released. 2004 brought perhaps the decade’s only superstar duet that remotely lived up to its potential: “My Boo,” the fourth chart-topper from Usher’s album Confessions, with Alicia Keys serving as his romantic foil. The same year, Usher sidestepped the potential for a duet with another R&B diva, Beyoncé, by simply playing her dance partner in the “Naughty Girl” video. In 2008 they finally recorded a song together, but it was “Love In This Club Part II,” a drab sequel that peaked at No. 18 (compared to the original’s No. 1) and featured Lil Wayne as a rapping third wheel. If Usher and Justin Timberlake are our generation’s Prince and Michael, then perhaps they’re upholding tradition by not working together; instead, Usher made another white kid named Justin famous and subsequently appeared on the remix to Bieber’s “Somebody To Love,” which peaked at No. 15 last year.

In recent years, hip hop’s influence on pop has manifested itself in even singers using remixes as the de rigueur format for collaborations; they rarely get a separate Billboard entry from the original track, further lowering expectations for it to live up to its participants’ collective starpower. Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé shrugged off what could have been an iconic pairing by tossing out a 2007 remix to “Until The End of Time,” the fifth single from FutureSex/LoveSounds. Chris Brown appeared on a remix Rihanna’s megahit “Umbrella” just as their ill-fated relationship was blossoming the same year. This year, Britney Spears jumped on the remix trend in a big way, awkwardly piggybacking onto Rihanna’s “S&M” and inviting Ke$ha (and an obligatory guest rapper, Nicki Minaj) onto her own “Till The World Ends.”

Beyoncé has distinguished herself as one of the few major stars continually willing to work on new songs with other divas, even if it hasn’t resulted in any chart-topping classics. Both 2007’s Shakira collaboration “Beautiful Liar” with Shakira and last year’s Lady Gaga collab “Telephone” climbed to No. 3, but they were decidedly second-tier hits that existed to promote deluxe editions of already successful albums. The latter came out around the same time as a Gaga-assisted rework of Beyoncé’s own “Video Phone.” And perhaps Ms. Knowles’s best recent collaboration, with Alicia Keys on 2009’s “Put It In A Love Song,” never got a proper push as a single.

Of course, the R&B and country charts both frequently feature collaborations in their respective genres long traditions of duets that don’t cross over to the pop charts—currently Keri Hilson and Chris Brown have a collaboration on the former, while Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood have a duet on the latter. But there’s something about real A-list duets that’s tough to pull off—even when they hit relatively big, like Madonna and Justin Timberlake’s “4 Minutes,” which peaked at No. 3 in 2008, they tend to feel underwhelming. And maybe that’s why Timberlake and Gaga are smart to put Andy Samberg in the middle of their superstar sandwich and play it off as a joke.