The last half-decade of popular music has been an era of female dominance: Britney. Gaga. Beyoncé. Katy. Rihanna. But who, we wondered, is the undisputed Queen of Pop?
Here is the first Rolling Stone Queen of Pop Index. We ranked 16 solo female artists, looking at album and digital song sales, Hot 100 rankings, radio airplay, YouTube views, social media, concert grosses, industry awards and critics’ ratings. In alphabetical order, they are: Adele, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, Miley Cyrus, Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, P!nk, Rihanna, Robyn, Shakira, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.
In selecting a time period to cover, we decided to focus on the very recent past: 2009 to mid-2011. (And thus artists like Fergie and Gwen Stefani were not considered, because they haven’t released solo albums during that time period.)
You can probably guess who wound up on top if you’ve wandered past a newsstand or watched an awards show anytime in the last three years. But the breakdown is enlightening – even our lowest-ranked contender overall came within a false eyelash of topping one of the lists.
Let’s start with the yardstick the record industry cares about most: album sales.
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Country-to-pop crossover princess Taylor Swift is the undisputed leader here, and she would have dominated even further if we’d gone back another year or two. No artist, male or female, of any genre, has sold as many albums as Taylor has over the late aughts and early part of this decade. The 9.8 million in album sales Swift has piled up since the start of 2009 include her still-selling self-titled debut from 2006; her 2008 Grammy-winning blockbuster, Fearless; and her latest, 2010’s Speak Now, which sold more than a million copies in its first week last November.
Recently joining Swift in the million-weeker club is our second-place finisher Lady Gaga, whose Born This Way has piled up 1.4 million in sales (a sizable chunk of which went for a buck on Amazon the day the album came out in May). That’s on top of the multiplatinum sales rung up by Gaga’s The Fame and The Fame Monster. In 2011, Gaga’s having a bigger year than Swift, but over our two-and-a-half-year period Swift outsells Gaga by 2.6 million units.
Swift also outsells her Nashville-recording peer Carrie Underwood by a three-to-one margin – a sure sign of the changing of the guard among 21st-century poised, blonde country chanteuses. If we’d gone back to the mid-aughts, Underwood would have fared better: her 2005 debut Some Hearts is seven-times-platinum, higher than any of Swift’s albums has been certified (the latter’s biggest-seller to date is the six-times-platinum Fearless). But Underwood’s sales have eroded with each release – 2007’s Carnival Ride is triple-platinum, and 2009’s Play On is double-platinum. Falloffs like that are precisely why we limited our Queen of Pop coverage period to the recent past.
NEXT: Digital Tracks
But enough about these time-consuming albums! What’s a Queen of Pop about – in our earbudded, attention-starved, put-it-on-shuffle times – if not selling singles?
Appropriately, on the digital tracks list, our top two in album sales reverse their positions, with Gaga taking the top slot over Swift by a huge margin of nearly eight million downloads. A large chunk of Gaga’s margin can be attributed to one hit: her very first, “Just Dance,” which topped the charts in January 2009 and is one of only two songs in digital history to sell more than six million copies (the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” is the other). “Just Dance” is to Gaga what “Get the Party Started” is to P!nk: not her most artistically representative hit – that would be “Poker Face” or “Bad Romance” – but an annuity that keeps on selling as long as people like to party.
Swift is no slouch in the blockbuster-singles department, possessing one of a handful of five million-sellers in digital history: her 2008 hit “Love Story.” Close on its heels is the four million-selling 2009 smash “You Belong With Me.” But virtually every track from her last two albums – more than a dozen songs from each—has made a dent on Billboard‘s singles charts, selling tens of thousands of copies apiece. Compare that with Gaga, whose singles sales are concentrated in fewer than a dozen songs over her three albums.
Our very close third-place finisher, Katy Perry, undoubtedly would’ve edged Swift if we’d done this survey just a month or two from now. And yet, if we’d done the tally a year ago, she wouldn’t have been anywhere near the top – Perry has had an outrageously successful 12 months (including two covers of Rolling Stone). Since the summer of 2010, she’s racked up four straight Number One Billboard hits from her Teenage Dream album, and each has sold major digital tonnage: 4.9 million for “California Gurls” with Snoop Dogg, 3.7 million for “Teenage Dream,” 4.5 million for “Firework” and four million for “E.T.” with Kanye West. Additionally, “Gurls” was the top-selling download of 2010.
One final note, in the she-wuz-robbed department: For numerous technical reasons, we focused the Queen of Pop data entirely on the ladies’ lead performances. (So, for example, Lady Gaga alone is credited for sales of the Beyoncé-supported single “Telephone,” while Beyoncé alone is credited for the Gaga-supported, and much lower-selling, “Videophone.”) No one is hurt more by this rule than Rihanna, who in addition to her lightning rise to pop stardom over the past half-decade has become the go-to hook singer for top-shelf male rappers. Just since 2009, she has been a featured singer on Jay-Z’s “Run This Town,” Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” and Kanye West’s “All of the Lights.” Were we to include such supporting performances on the digital-tracks list, the sixth-ranked Barbadian would have vaulted into the top three. Forgive us, Ri.
Let’s use that as a segue to a list where Rihanna performs much better: YouTube views of our contenders’ official music videos.
Perhaps not coincidentally, both YouTube and Rihanna’s careers launched in 2005. As the video site has come to dominate Internet traffic, Ri’s place in the pop stratosphere has risen along with it. She is a model of consistency: as of June 20th, her top four clips have between 146 million and 183 million views apiece, led by “What’s My Name” featuring Drake, followed by “Rude Boy,” “Only Girl (In the World)” and “Don’t Stop the Music.”
That quartet of solid smashes is what gives Rihanna the top slot on our YouTube survey, rather than relying on a single blockbuster. For example, her top clip “What’s My Name” has been outviewed by three other videos counted in our survey: Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” (390 million), Shakira’s 2010 World Cup anthem “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” (357 million) and Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” (228 million). But in each case, Gaga’s, Shakira’s and Cyrus’s second-place clip (“Alejandro,” “Whenever, Wherever” and “7 Things,” respectively) is off by at least one-third from the leader by that act.
In Shakira’s case, the gap is massive: “Whenever” is off more than 80 percent compared to the global blockbuster “Waka Waka.” Still, our YouTube list is where Shakira performs best – she placed third, giving her a boost in our overall ranking. The World Cup anthem turned out to be the bright spot in the 2009–11 period for the Colombian superstar; she also released both English and Spanish albums during the period, but neither She Wolf nor Sale el Sol went gold in the United States or produced a major radio hit. (Each did better globally.)
Speaking of radio, let’s turn to Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart for our airplay ranking. We took the 75-position Radio Songs list and tallied all of the hits each woman scored there since 2009, resulting in a point system that factors in both peak position and total weeks charted.
Lady Gaga wins this one in a walk, topping second-ranked Taylor Swift by nearly one-third. Over the last three years, radio programmers have spun no artist more than Gaga, with 10 ranked tracks. With the exception of the short-lived flop single “Judas,” every one of those tracks has reached the Radio Songs Top 10; that includes Gaga’s new hit, “Edge of Glory,” which reached the airplay winners’ circle even before the death of guest sax player Clarence Clemons.
Radio peak is important, but so is longevity. Britney Spears, for example, has had a splashy three years at radio since her post-breakdown comeback in 2008. But as well-received as “Womanizer,” “Circus,” “3,” Hold It Against Me” and “Till the World Ends” have been at radio – Top 10 airplay hits, all – each has spent less than 20 weeks on the Radio Songs survey. Compare that to Gaga, half of whose hits spent a half-year or more on the chart. Or consider P!nk, with only three radio Top 10s during our survey (“So What,” “Raise Your Glass” and “[Fuckin’] Perfect”) – but each rode the list 23 weeks or more. On our airplay ranking, P!nk is only a few points below Spears, who had more hits but burned through them more quickly.
NEXT: Billboard Hot 100
BILLBOARD HOT 100
Airplay and song sales are the two components that make up Billboard‘s authoritative Hot 100. We’ve ranked the ladies’ performance on that chart, too.
Our airplay and Hot 100 rankings are broadly similar, but our formula for the latter is a bit different. We downplayed peak Hot 100 position and played up longevity, to underweight songs that only spend a couple of weeks in the Top 40 after a big debut (Taylor Swift’s album cuts often make high-ranked but short-lived Hot 100 appearances).
Even with that handicap, Swift still comes in second, well behind the dominant Lady Gaga but comfortably ahead of third-place finisher Katy Perry. Short-lived or not, Swift’s 28 hits are a staggering total in a 2.5-year period. And a few of those hits have been massive: “You Belong With Me” dominated both radio and iTunes and rode the Hot 100 for 50 weeks, a fortnight shy of a year.
The two acts locked in the tightest competition between our airplay and Hot 100 rankings are Rihanna and Perry. Ri makes third place on the airplay list, outranking Katy; while Katy is third-ranked on the Hot 100 survey, sneaking past Ri. Perry’s blockbuster digital sales give her the edge on the latter list—but generally speaking, the two ladies are evenly matched. Like Perry, Rihanna has scored four straight No. 1 hits since 2010. The only difference was, Ri’s were from two different albums: “Rude Boy” from 2009’s Rated R; and “Only Girl,” “What’s My Name?” and “S&M” from 2010’s Loud.
NEXT: Social Networking
Let’s turn to a realm where Rihanna has a much bigger edge over the competition: social networking. We totaled the ladies’ “likes” on Facebook and followers on Twitter.
Rihanna’s number of Twitter followers, at 5.8 million, is in the middle of the pack, but her Facebook fan total is staggering – at nearly 39 million, it’s less than half a million shy of Facebook leader Lady Gaga.
But Gaga’s status as the queen of tweets gives her the edge overall. Just on the Twitter side, she’s almost three million followers ahead of second-ranked Britney Spears. (Heck, forget the Queens of Pop – among all Twitter users, Gaga has the most followers, period. She tops Justin Bieber by about a half-million and President Obama by more than two million.)
Clicking “LIKE” or “FOLLOW” doesn’t demand a whole lot from a fan. Buying a concert ticket, on the other hand, represents a much greater commitment. Here’s a ranking of each performer’s live grosses since 2009 – topped by a fairly surprising contender.
The top four here makes sense: When it comes to live shows by pop divas, spectacle equals dollars. Lady Gaga’s two-year Monster Ball Tour, recently chronicled in an HBO special, set the bar with elaborate sets, costumes and theatricality. But no one, not even Gaga, topped P!nk, who has gradually emerged as a powerhouse on the road. Her multiyear Funhouse jaunt took her around the world, including Australia, where she played for more than 660,000 fans, the biggest tour in the continent’s history. And what were we just saying about athleticism? P!nk has restyled herself as an aerial acrobat, performing jaw-dropping spins while wrapped in ribbons from arena ceilings – a stunt she introduced to millions of TV viewers at the 2010 Grammys with a mesmerizing performance of her hit “Glitter in the Air.”
Let’s stay focused on the Grammys for a minute. Our awards ranking totals up the ladies’ wins since 2009 at the American Music, Billboard, People’s Choice, ACM, BET, CMA and MTV awards, with bonus points for Grammy nominations and extra credit for Grammy wins.
Taylor Swift takes this contest handily, with wins at literally every awards show we tracked (including a single MTV Video Music Award that Kanye West memorably, and rather publicly, thought should go to one of our other contenders). Because we assigned bonus points for Grammy Awards, Swift gets a sizable bump after dominating the 2010 Grammys, where Fearless took Album of the Year, among other prizes.
In all, eight of our contenders won Grammys during the coverage period; three more scored nominations. The biggest gap between nominations and wins: poor Katy Perry, who was teased with six nods – including, this year, a surprise Album of the Year nomination – and went home empty-handed.
Among the truly empty-handed, Ke$ha has yet to receive a statuette anywhere and has thus far gone completely unrecognized by the Grammys. Miley Cyrus would look stronger if we tracked the Teen Choice Awards, but among the mainstream awards-givers she is a near-no-show, save for a single People’s Choice win. Finally and perhaps most surprisingly, Christina Aguilera, a Grammy favorite in the early ’00s (she won Best New Artist back in 2000), is coming off a tough three years personally and professionally. Despite Xtina’s recent dearth of podium-dwelling, her comeback this year on The Voice could begin to turn her fortunes around by 2012.
NEXT: Album Reviews
While we’re looking at more subjective criteria like awards, let’s look at the most subjective ranking of all: critical acclaim. We blended together the contenders’ average album rating at Rolling Stone with their career average ratings at Metacritic, with slightly more emphasis on the former (hey, it’s our survey). Here are the results; ratings are out of 200 points total.
Finally, a strong showing for Robyn! Critics love the Swedish pop doyenne, who almost tops the survey thanks to strong ratings for her 2010 Body Talk album series.
Interestingly, 32-year-old Robyn scored the earliest Top 10 singles of any woman in our survey, making the upper reaches of the Hot 100 back in 1997-98 with “Do You Know (What It Takes)” and “Show Me Love.” Those were, sadly, her last U.S. Top 10s. Robyn’s modest American album sales and dearth of U.S. radio play over the last decade hurt her on most of our surveys of 2009-11. We included her anyway, in general tribute to her awesomeness and our desire to make her an unofficial, lowercase queen of pop.
There are other surprises on the critics’ survey – not least the fact that the second-youngest starlet, Taylor Swift, is the most acclaimed. (On the other hand, the very youngest, Miley Cyrus, falls near the bottom.)
Shakira takes third place again, thanks in part to the four-star rating earned by her underappreciated 2009 She Wolf disc. Her outranking of Lady Gaga among critics is something of a fluke, likely brought on by the impassioned pro-and-con debate Gaga inspires.
Edging into the top five is 2011’s chart goddess, Adele. Given the acclaim for her 21 album, it’s a bit surprising she didn’t do even better. But then, most critics reviewed the album before she became a capital-P Phenomenon.
NEXT: The Master Ranking
Time for the moment of truth. Let’s bake together all of these data points into one master list.
Surprised? Not likely. Lady Gaga as Queen of Pop makes a lot of intuitive sense.
No matter how we cut the numbers, Gaga was bound to crush the competition. Even if we’d stuck to data from 2010 and 2011, her massive album and singles sales swamp her competitors’ – although that period might have given a boost to later career-starters like Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj. It might also have given an even bigger lift to Rihanna and especially Katy Perry, who were both on fire in 2010.
Conversely, if we’d widened our scope to five years instead of three, Taylor Swift could well have threatened for the top slot. And Beyoncé – with her string of 2007 and 2008 hits – would have made a much stronger run for Gaga’s money.
Don’t judge Beyoncé too harshly for her modest fifth-place ranking. Her I Am…Sasha Fierce album was already aging when 2009 started, and she’s been between album cycles ever since. (We’re confident that when we revisit this survey in a few months, her just-released 4 will propel her higher on the chart.) Named by Billboard as “Artist of the Decade” in 2010, Beyoncé has had so many hits since the turn of the millennium, she’d be anyone’s first choice for Queen of Pop. Besides, an artist who kicked off the Obama Pop Era by singing to the Obamas at the 2009 inaugural ball has reached a whole other echelon of pop success.
Still: Our goal here was to crown the current tiara-wearer. And the hard-working, culture-dominating Gaga more than earned the title. Maybe a year from now, after 4 has spun off a year of radio, digital and video hits, Lady G and Honey B will be more evenly matched, tugging on either end of the Queen of Pop scepter like the demigods they are.