When Ke$ha's debut, Animal, hit Number One in January, only two artists in the Top 10 were men — and one was a chipmunk. Three weeks later, the Grammy Awards earned a 35 percent boost in TV ratings with a show that opened with Lady Gaga and included performances by Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and Pink. And last year, five of the 10 bestselling artists on Billboard's album charts and six of the Top 10 digital-single sellers were women.
Women periodically dominate the music business, from Alanis Morissette and Lilith Fair in the Nineties to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera in the early 2000s. But this time, there's a female star for every demographic-from teen princess Swift to middle-aged crooner Susan Boyle. "It's pop, R&B, country, dance," says Sharon Dastur, program director for New York Top 40 station Z100. "It's not a single sound listeners would get tired of." The new wave of female megastars began with Swift, whose Fearless was last year's bestselling album. "iTunes has a lot to do with this: Teenage girls are starting to own that chart," says Monte Lipman, president of Universal Republic, which partners with indie Big Machine to put out Swift's music. "I'd bet every thing I've got that the majority of Taylor Swift or Ke$ha fans are girls."
Gaga built a massive online presence into her overall artistic vision — selling 15.3 million digital tracks in 2009, according to Nielsen Sound Scan. "She's one of those rare people, like a David Bowie or Elton John or Freddie Mercury," says Jimmy Iovine, head of Gaga's label, Interscope. "When you're fortunate enough to have an artist where the creative and the marketing is one and the same, it's unlimited to what you can do."
Boyle represents the opposite trend — Gaga's fans have streamed her songs 321.5 million times on MySpace, compared to just 133,000 for Boyle. Yet the 49-year-old sold 3.1 million albums last year, 300,000 more than Gaga. "These are two different worlds — kids and grown-ups," says Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne.com, which tracks online music. "It's easier to sell CDs to people who have been trained for decades to buy them."
Ke$ha's marketers learned from Lady Gaga's example — after she appeared on Flo Rida's smash "Right Round" a year ago, her label, RCA, flooded her website, MySpace and YouTube with free MP3s and videos. The saturation paid off just after Christmas, when "Tik Tok" unexpectedly sold 610,000 downloads, a single-week record for a female artist. "What I did was try to play on the strengths of Ke$ha — which is that she's not Lady Gaga," says producer Dr. Luke, who discovered the singer and has worked with top female stars from Katy Perry to Miley Cyrus. "She finds her clothes in a Dumpster and finds a way to make it great. She shows the world that this can be you."
And even Lilith Fair is returning this summer, starring Sarah McLachlan, Mary J. Blige, Miranda Lambert and Ke$ha. "[Female superstars] have always been there," says Lilith organizer Terry McBride. "Our business only notices it when it's so frickin' obvious." Adds Troy Carter, Gaga's manager, "I'm sure the mandate at every other record company is 'Find me a Lady Gaga.' But it boils down to good music. Maybe women are making better records than guys right now."
This is a story from the March 4, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.