Is Lady Gaga's Born This Way the last physical CD anyone is going to buy? Well, not "anyone"—as everything from the sharp jump in wax-cylinder-era scholarship to 78-rpm shellac collector fetishism to the insurgent cassette underground has shown us, no recorded format ever truly dies. But we're not talking about nerds here—we're talking about your mom.
Or, more correctly, we're talking about the marketplace. Aside from delusional Britney Spears fans (her Femme Fatale was released the same week as Gaga's new album), Born This Way's May debut at number one was basically assured. But a million copies? Taylor Swift's Speak Now managed it in November, but she tends to be less divisive than Gaga, a princess rather than a grotesque. (Not for nothing did the Onion just feature the headline "Lady Gaga Kidnaps Commissioner Gordon.") Just to provide the push it needed to reach that magic number, the album was heavily, near-suicidally discounted all over—I got mine at Best Buy for $7, and Amazon sold it for a lousy buck. It sent chart hawks and Britney fans into paroxysms, pushing Billboard editorial director Bill Werde into defending the magazine's policy of counting every sale, however cheap. "I generally regard Billboard's role as being a market archivist and not a market activist," he wrote. "If we set an arbitrary pricing threshold, we are affecting business and not simply reporting it."
The selling of Born This Way is important, partly because Gaga is as much media artist as musician, partly because in some sense it's the loudest gong yet in the physical-media-biz death knell. It's impossible to guess how many fewer copies it would have sold had it not been for Amazon's blitz—surely some of those fans would have snapped it up for a higher price. But it's easy to guess that it wouldn't have sold a million. The music on Born This Way is a highly stylized pastiche of the music biz in its resurgent 1980s glory days—a nod to a last-gasp era that now seems positively innocent, remade for an even more last-gasp era in which innocence has never been scarcer. It only made sense that retail threw a party to match, even if it broke them.
These are trying times for the album as a format. It's also a thriving time for the album as an idea, a mythical construct that acts as the ideal format with which to make a lasting musical impact. And one big reason for that is mainstream pop. The truism that the singles charts rule pop has good reason to exist. But it's not the whole story.
Here's a quick-and-dirty theory. By the time a lot of the current artists came up, the martinet-like string pulling that had been the stereotype of boy-band/girl-singer teen-pop and R&B from the 1950s to the '90s—the kind embodied by Lou Pearlman, the Backstreet Boys' mastermind, sent up the river for a $300 million Ponzi scheme three years back—doesn't apply in quite the way it used to. Yes, impresarios exist. Certainly a lot of what's out there is packaged just so by adults with a sense for what kids want. But thanks to the likes of Making the Band on VH1, not to mention all those damn rockumentaries, the freshman mistakes that plague young performers are more vigilantly guarded against than usual.
Much of pop's ruling elite came of performing age in the late 1990s, just as that kind of programming began to gain favor. Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé, among others, gained their freedom from earlier contracts, but more importantly gained presence in the studio. They had to make hits—that's understood. But they also get to make albums—and because they're ambitious, they want those albums to work as albums, as assuredly as any rock band. They want to be like Michael Jackson and Prince and Tina Turner, folks who made albums out of hit singles and hit singles out of album tracks.
Born This Way does that. It is quite consciously a complete work, full of big, loving homages to the pop icons she takes the lineage of. (Forget about the "Express Yourself" rip that is "Born This Way"—"Bad Kids" flatly apes the untrained, unrestrained, irresistible mid-'80s Madonna, from vocal to track.) So does Beyoncé's new 4, which debuted at number one last week. Like the first half of 2008's I Am... Sasha Fierce, it concentrates on ballads, and unlike that one, 4 is intense rather than slack. Even when the music is relaxed, Be bulldozes it—the airy piano and snarling singing (and lyric) on "Best Thing I Never Had" is the most obvious example. The uptempo stuff tends to be lissome rather than banging, and that helps it all feel of a piece. The singles that preceded both albums feel most alive on those albums, rather than on the radio.
This isn't exactly new for either performer. Both of Gaga's prior releases, The Fame and The Fame Monster, announced their concepts in their titles. So did B'Day and I Am... Sasha Fierce. It's easy to overlook when you're talking about an area in which how the charts move determines everything, but pop fans love albums, too, and they appreciate it when somebody takes the time to try and seriously make one.
In 1966, NBC premiered The Monkees, two years after the Beatles broke through to America. The same year, the Beatles released Revolver, the album that separated their past from their future. They were still the same tunesmiths who had won the world over, but now they would also be studio rats and musos. Someone else could clone their earlier selves to claim the kids they left behind.
I don't think either Born This Way or 4 is up to Revolver's standards, so leave the comments box alone for right now. But I do think a similar shift might be occurring—and not simply because TV drives so much of it. Granted, it has for a while—but with Glee tracks clogging spots on the Billboard Hot 100 (however briefly or at whatever lowly position) that could be occupied by, you know, actual music, not to mention yet another assuredly reliable font of eye-rolling stunt duets thanks to the success of The Voice, it has never done it so reliably, so dominantly.
It doesn't seem coincidental, either, that Born This Way and 4 seem fresh during the most dismal era for pop radio in ages. The most talked-about piece of pop writing in recent months belongs to NPR, which calculated the cost of a hit-single candidate—in this case, Rihanna's "Man Down"—to be roughly $78,000 to write and produce, and around $1 million to promote, priorities that kind of say it all. No wonder so little on the radio genuinely sticks: LMFAO, the undying Bruno Mars, that stupid Voice tie-in song, returns no one was really awaiting from OneRepublic and DJ Khaled and Lady Antebellum, Katy Perry never saying die (please?). Perry's spiritual goddaughter, Jessie J, is the most risible new moppet to date. Chris Brown's reacceptance into pop life resembles Stockholm syndrome. In pop as in anything, when the going gets thin, you hunker down with what you know. And if you're lucky, you get something you can sink into.