Lady Gaga's Pop Radio Crossroads: What's the Superstar's Future at Top 40?

Courtesy Photo
Lady Gaga in the video for "Perfect Illusion."

Since she debuted eight years ago by commanding unfamiliar audiences to “just dance,” Lady Gaga has had an extraordinary run at Top 40 radio, with multiple pop hits spanning across several different albums and styles. With “Perfect Illusion,” however, that run has come to an end.

The lead single to Gaga’s new album Joanne quietly fell off the Billboard Hot 100 this week after five weeks on the tally, following a No. 15 debut, on the chart dated Oct. 1. After a worldwide launch at radio on Sept. 9, “Perfect Illusion” has been summarily dismissed by Top 40, only mustering a No. 49 peak on the Radio Songs chart, after Gaga had previously notched ten top 10s at radio.

Even Gaga has seemingly moved past the single: on Saturday Night Live last Saturday, she performed the uptempo “A-YO” alongside producer Mark Ronson, and the ballad “Million Reasons” on piano. “Perfect Illusion,” meanwhile, was untouched during the week of Joanne's release.

After a year-long winning streak outside of Top 40, “Perfect Illusion” was supposed to herald Gaga’s triumphant return to radio. Now, as her Super Bowl halftime show quickly approaches, Gaga has to win back the format that made her a superstar.

"I don’t know why Top 40 didn’t respond to it,” says Ally Reid, program director of WFLY-FM in Albany, of “Perfect Illusion.” "There are a lot of variables that go into the success of a song, and my assumption is that the instant research wasn’t there. More and more, with many artists, radio will just step away. We’re not giving artists the time they need to fully establish.”

Reid says that she noticed “Perfect Illusion” falling off in other markets in the first week of October — weeks before Joanne’s Oct. 21 release date. While she liked the song more than her audience did, Reid admits that Gaga may have been hurt by the presumption that she would return to the uptempo dance sound of past hits like “Poker Face,” “Bad Romance” and “Just Dance.” Co-produced by Gaga, Ronson, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and Bloodpop, “Perfect Illusion’s” disco-rock could have simply been too left-of-center for a format currently embracing EDM acts like The Chainsmokers and Major Lazer.

“She’s certainly at the point where she is entitled to try something different,” says Charese Fruge, VP of Programming/Operations Manager at CBS Radio in Houston. "As to whether or not it will catch on with the kids, I’m not sure.”

The disappointment of “Perfect Illusion” particularly stings for those that had been keeping track of Gaga’s return from 2013’s ARTPOP, which was met with mixed reviews and only spawned one Top 10 hit on the Billboard Radio Songs chart (“Applause,” which peaked at No. 7 in October 2013). Since then, Gaga scored a No. 1 album and a Grammy for her Tony Bennett duets album Cheek To Cheek; earned a Golden Globe for her work in American Horror Story: Hotel, and delivered show-stopping performances at consecutive Oscar ceremonies, with a Sound of Music tribute in 2015 and with her Best Song-nominated single “Til It Happens to You” earlier this year.

"All that stuff felt like it was such a great setup for her to come back with ‘Poker Face 2017’ and just kill it,” says a program director in a major metropolitan market, who wished to remain anonymous. "And it just felt like such a miss.”

The PD also says that the underwhelming performance of “Perfect Illusion” sets up Joanne — primed to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart later this week, with 180,000 equivalent album units — for “a difficult path,” ahead of Gaga’s halftime show on Feb. 5, 2017 at NRG Stadium in Houston. A second official single has yet to be named, although “A-YO,” which debuts at No. 1 on the Nov. 5 Billboard + Twitter tracks chart but has yet to receive a radio push, is the most likely candidate following the SNL performance.

"It makes me a little concerned about what she’s going to play on the Super Bowl — is she going to play all these songs that people don’t know, that will tune people out?” asks the PD. "I hope they’ve got some mega-smash waiting in the wings that will be repackaged on the album, that she’ll debut that night, and it will be all over the radio the next day and the streaming numbers will be off the chart. I hope that’s what they’ve got. I’m sure they’re having those conversations right now, because I bet you they’re having to readjust.”

Whether it’s with “A-YO,” another Joanne single or something that has yet to be unveiled, every program director interviewed for this piece agrees that Lady Gaga is too much of a brand name, and too prone to reinvention, to ever be fully counted out at Top 40. If anything, Gaga may have simply come back during a year in which many major pop divas are having a difficult time cracking the mainstream radio code.

"For somebody like Gaga, there’s always going to be the potential for a big hit,” says Reid. "But will radio give her the time that they usually give to a big star? Looking at 2016, when you look at a Britney Spears or a Katy Perry [single], they did well, but they weren’t No. 1 hits. There’s so many elements that go into it, but ... I believe that Gaga is going to remain a big player as we wrap up 2016 and move into 2017.”

Fruge adds, "I have no business questioning the fact that she could come back with a home run or two for Top 40. I think right now she’s just in a different head space. She definitely wouldn’t be the first -- or the only -- Queen of Pop to go through that phase."

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