On Friday, the music-industry bible Billboard released its year-end charts, setting the conversational bullet points for any discussions of pop music in 2011. The stormy British songbird Adele topped both the Hot 100, which charts singles, and the Billboard 200, which tracks album sales, with her vengeful track “Rolling in the Deep” and its attendant full-length 21, respectively; an unsurprising outcome, given the wall-to-wall dominance of her music this year. (Thanks to remixes and reworks, “Rolling” made its way onto playlists representing a wide swath of radio formats—it even made Billboard‘s Latin Pop Songs chart.)
Born This Way, the second proper full-length by the New York–bred pop scholar Lady Gaga, landed at No. three on the albums chart, behind 21 and Taylor Swift’s Speak Now. After selling more than 1.1 million albums in its first week, thanks in part to Amazon deep-discounting digital copies of the album and selling them for a mere 99 cents a pop, Born‘s sales cooled off substantially. (It’s No. 32 on the most recent weekly edition of the Billboard 200, where it rests in between a pair of holiday-season releases.) The highest-charting single from it to make the Hot 100 was Born‘s title track, a paean to tolerance recalling Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and released just in time to debut at the Grammys in February. It has a thumping beat and lyrics about accepting people of all races and sexual orientations; the enterprise had the wide-eyed “let’s get along!” innocence of the ’90s while being clad in a 21st-century sense of self-regard that led to it getting a global radio premiere at 6 a.m. on a Friday.
“Born This Way” ended the year at No. 18, and other singles from its attendant album didn’t fare much better on the radio—even though musically, they were stronger. Gaga’s second-highest-charting single on the year-end Hot 100 was “The Edge of Glory,” an exuberant Clarence Clemons–assisted anthem that sounds tailor-made for a particularly swoop-filled montage in a Top Gun remake. It was No. 29 on the year-end chart. “Yoü And I,” a stomping ballad produced by the pomp-rock architect Mutt Lange, ended 2011 at No. 71; the dizzying confused-catechism love song “Judas,” the album’s second single, missed the year-end chart entirely.
Can a pop artist be the biggest in the world if her successes sidestep radio airplay? Later Friday night, after the year-end charts had made their way through the news cycle, Gaga tested that question when she headlined Z100’s Jingle Ball, the top-40 standard-bearer’s annual celebration of its playlist’s brightest stars. The assemblage of Z100 DJs introduced her as the “most important artist of our time” and “our favorite woman on the planet Earth.” Three years ago, she’d been in the show-opening slot, performing the tribute to getting wasted “Just Dance” for the early crowd: They knew that an arena show with a multi-act bill couldn’t operate on “rock time.” Now she was headlining, and her set was full of material that reached far beyond the bounds of electropop potential hinted at by that single.
Gaga’s set stood in contrast to the night’s other acts who did end the year in Billboard’s top 10. The debauched uncle-nephew duo LMFAO (“Party Rock Anthem,” No. 2), despite missing its younger member Sky Blu, threw down songs about getting drunk and preening for the purposes of attracting women. Pitbull (“Give Me Everything” feat. Ne-Yo, Afrojack, and Nayer, No. 5) had similar lyrical themes, though his swank charm stood in stark contrast to LMFAO’s ramshackle Last Night’s Party vibe. (Pitbull also had a fantastic percussion section that could have dazzled on its own.) With a rigid four-count as their collective base, both artists’ biggest hits were shrouded in synthesizers—put enough of them in a row, and all the thumped-out chords start to act like force fields, drawing in listeners while keeping those songs that don’t fit the formula at arm’s length.
The material from Gaga’s first album, which got a cursory, keytar-assisted nod early on in her set, fits in better with current top-40 trends than do her new tracks. Yet at the same time, her material old and new is wholly Gaga, making sense as parts of her whole despite their inspirations coming from all over the pop spectrum. Perhaps it’s a sign that her unbridled ambition has caused her to be one step ahead of the game. A snippet of the video for her latest single “Marry the Night” played before her show-closing performance of that storming flashback to late-20th-century dancepop; its extended riff on the idea of turning a nervous breakdown into an opportunity for showcasing next season’s fashions caused me to wonder what might happen when, say, the embattled belter Demi Lovato, who had performed her down-with-detractors song “Skyscraper” earlier Friday evening, discovers the idea of situational irony.
There was something a bit off about Gaga’s set, though. Between songs, her banter was giddy and nervous and almost chirpy at times, with her remembering how a “Jingle Bell Ball” was her first concert, at age 11, and ruminating on how much she really, really loved New York City. And by the time she’d hit the stage, the music had been flowing for three hours with little time to breathe. The songs remained potent—”Judas” is “Bad Romance” with added Catholic pathos, which isn’t all that bad since the source material is one of the best pop songs of the last 25 years—but the performances seemed like they were still having their kinks worked out here and there.
Despite the hiccups, the excitement did peak more often than it didn’t, with the crowd screaming along with her lyrics chronicling both self-reliance and self-loathing and obliging her by raising their “paws” (Gagaspeak for “hands”) when asked. At one point, prone on a motorcycle, Gaga engaged in the most outrageously festive behavior of the night: She humped the air while singing the verse she tacked onto “White Christmas.” Yes, she added a verse to Irving Berlin’s Christmas classic for the simple reason that she felt it wasn’t long enough for her liking. Put together with her grinding, the makeover was a doubly masturbatory act that should have made any pop-star-in-wait quiver in their boots at what might be—and that cemented her status as the pop world’s biggest name, no matter what the numbers might say.