What's the angriest place on the Internet? The comments section of Rolling Stone, which recently did an exhaustive analysis of album sales, single sales, airplay, YouTube hits, social-media likes, critical approval, and anything else that can be crunched into a number to crown Lady Gaga the Queen of Pop for 2009-2011, and which has provoked the ire of anyone who's ever appended "God" to a pop star's name. (Can we all stop that? It's weird. Nobody wants to be turned into God. Haven't you seen Bruce Almighty?)
It was inevitable that things would get nasty, but come on. I've been following this comment quagmire for hours, and I'm already up to one homophobic slur against the author, several accusations of mental illness or drug use and countless people with obvious agendas. (If your Facebook name has "Germanotta" in it, then really now.) Putting aside the fact, which shouldn't ever be put aside, that these are only an Internet connection above dumb kindergarten taunts, this is pointless. Virtually every comment comes from either a fan or hater, turning what's supposed to provoke discussion into hand-waving freakoutery. So consider the rest of this article an impartial defense.
Yes, impartial. Here's something you might not know: in the past two months alone, I've been accused of being a mindless Britney fan, a mindless Christina fan, a mindless Gaga fan, a mindless Beyonce fan, nothing but a casual Beyonce fan, a mindless Kelly Rowland fan and probably lots of other things. These things cannot all coexist. One, more or all of them have to be wrong. As for Lady Gaga, here's a little Internet scavenger hunt: Find the places where I've called Gaga insufferably pretentious, a Mary Sue, confused about theology, confused about which words are in fact mild racial slurs, etc. They're out there! Then find my reviews of her singles, some of which are positive and some of which aren't. If you're going to hunt for bias, might as well hunt for it all!
(One disclosure, though: The author of the Rolling Stone piece, Chris Molanphy, has contributed to Popdust in the past, as you can see in our archives.)
First, a note about Rolling Stone's concept. The key word isn't "queen," which just leads to all sorts of misconceived royal metaphors. (Queens only reign so long! And besides, you want monarchs being only a few years old? Check out English history! Or French! Or basically any country that's instituted a monarchy, divine or otherwise!) The key word isn't "pop," although we'll get into that later. No, the key words are "first" and in "index," as in "Here is the first Rolling Stone Queen of Pop Index." Take the Dow Jones index, for instance--it's not measuring the state of the economy since measures were instituted. It's a snapshot of how things look right now. Similarly, Rolling Stone's list is a snapshot of who--right now, practically-July 2011--is the most prominent solo female pop performer, right now. As the article says:
Our goal here was to crown the current tiara-wearer. And the hard-working, culture-dominating Gaga more than earned the title.
(That's the U.S. landscape, by the way, which explains Shakira's position. A global list, at any rate, would possibly have to figure out what to do with Alexandra Stan.) If you want a sweeping panorama, you'll have to factor in multiple indices--and those don't exist yet, because this is the first one in what Rolling Stone will presumably make a series. Which brings us to the first objection:
Choosing 2009 was unfair! That's totally when Lady Gaga got big and all.
The last page addresses this--if Rolling Stone had widened or narrowed the scope, the rankings wouldn't fluctuate much--but there's more to it. Pop's been a female-friendly realm for some time, but 2009-2011 is particularly interesting, because almost all the really big performers are solo female artists. Take the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 as of noon today: five out of ten are solo women, miles more prominent than the likes of LMFAO or Jason Aldean. The No. 1 spot is much the same--Katy Perry, Adele, and Rihanna have dominated it this year, with only scattered exceptions.
In fact, the landscape hasn't looked like this since 2000 or so, when Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore and Jessica Simpson were pop's undisputed set of princesses. We're not speaking for Rolling Stone, of course, but we'd be surprised if this didn't affect their choice of year. As for the alternative, that Rolling Stone's staff are rampaging Monsters? Sure, OK, now find evidence outside this list. We'll wait.
Why isn't Rolling Stone covering music that matters?
It's a bit silly to criticize an article about the "Queen of Pop" for focusing on pop artists, but this is the same criticism Rolling Stone and every other publication has fielded for decades. Look at the numbers. Numerically speaking, more people are listening to these artists than to anyone else. They're the ones shaping the culture. Thus, they matter.
Why are R&B/country artists in the list?
At first, this seems like a contradiction of our last point, but when Taylor Swift can do a rap song with T-Pain, when Nicki Minaj gets the featured spot on a Britney Spears remix (if that isn't pop, what is?), when Lady Gaga can duet with Beyonce and Beyonce can duet with Shakira and Britney can duet with half the list (Nicki, Rihanna, etc.), it's pretty clear that "pop" is a wide-reaching term.
What about Madonna/Janet/Whitney?
Again, this article isn't trying to crown the historical queen of pop from when pop first popped; it's assessing 2009 through 2011. From 2009 to 2011, Madonna and Janet have done nothing musical in particular, and Whitney's done nothing but be accused of getting kicked out of Prince shows. It makes sense--what's Madonna's greatest song ever? Janet's? Whitney's? They're probably either from the 1980s or 1990s. Even fans have to admit this.
What about Michael Jackson/Prince? I bet if you made this for guys you'd anoint Justin Bieber the King of Pop and lose all credibility.
It's silly to even bring male artists into a discussion of solo female artists, but the same argument applies--even more so, because come on: everything Michael Jackson released in the 2000s was terrible, and Prince's wasn't great.
As for Justin Bieber, the thing about this is that there aren't many prominent solo male artists right now. Look at the scramble to replace Usher once his hits temporarily petered out, then the even more frantic struggle to replace Chris Brown, who was supposed to be the new Usher's replacement, once he turned out to be an abusive jerk, causing countless Jay Seans and Jason Derulos and Iyazes to score fleeting hits. And look at the still-ongoing struggle to find a new Justin Timberlake while he hits golf balls and buys shares in MySpace. Could you name fifteen solo male artists without roping in in newbies like Joe Jonas, and when you eventually have to, pick fifteen solo male artists whose collective popularity is anywhere near the ladies' list? If you can, we'd love to hear from you.
What about _______'s sales numbers?
This is like marveling about how everything cost a quarter back in the 1930s. In case you haven't heard, record sales have plummeted in the past few years thanks to digital distribution, pathetically easy piracy, the recession and a ton of other factors that people are still trying to figure out. There's just no fair comparison.
Why's Robyn in the list?
Finally, a simple one that can be answered just by reading the article! Let's turn it over to page 10:
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.
So there you go. Hey, it's the author actually admitting bias! Where's the complaining about that?
Where's my say?
And here we are, the crux of every argument. Paul Ford has said that the "fundamental question of the Web" is "Why wasn't I consulted?." Why wasn't I consulted? But I'm such a big fan of _________!
The problem is, you already had your say. Even ignoring all the albums or singles you bought--one way that you had your say, or didn't--two of Rolling Stone's categories were YouTube views and social-media likes/friends/followers, which are the best mathematical ways to gauge fan sentiment. They're even better than the article says, too, as past a certain number of millions, YouTube video views turn into a contest of who can refresh enough times to help Lady Gaga beat Justin Bieber or vice versa, and follower counts grow thickets of spam accounts, duplicates, and fansite accounts whose mains are also followers.
There you have it. Got an argument we missed? Disagree with something? Let us know. But we'll have you know that we haven't done crack in years!