"Telephone" was destined to be a smash from the moment Lady Gaga's people called Beyonce's people and said, "Let's do this." The superstar summit session tops the 1.5 million mark in digital sales this week, a new record for an all-female collaboration. The song has been listed in the top 10 on Billboard's Hot 100 for four weeks (it's currently #5). It spent two weeks at #1 in the U.K. and is near the top of the chart in many other countries, including Canada and Australia.
It just goes to show what can happen when red-hot divas come together. The female superstar collaboration genre was born in 1979, when disco queen Donna Summer, then the hottest female singer in the business, teamed with Barbra Streisand, already a legend at age 37, on "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)." The song was no "People" (or "Last Dance," for that matter) but the record shot to #1 in just six weeks.
In 1998, R&B crossover stars Brandy and Monica teamed for "The Boy Is Mine," which held the #1 spot for 13 weeks, longer than any other single that year. It received a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year and won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
In 2001, Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink came together for a remake of LaBelle's racy "Lady Marmalade" for the soundtrack of the movie Moulin Rouge. Another top female artist, Missy Elliott, produced the smash, which topped the Hot 100 for five weeks and won a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals. (Aguilera and Lil' Kim teamed again two years later for another hit, "Can't Hold Us Down.")
The formula seems simple: Take two (or more) female superstars, have them record a song and, voila, an instant #1. That's probably what Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey thought when they came together to record "When You Believe" in 1998 for the animated movie The Prince Of Egypt. The two artists had amassed a combined total of 24 #1 hits at that point, but "When You Believe" didn't even crack the top 10. The uninspired ballad stalled at #15 (though it did win an Oscar for Best Original Song).
And that so-so chart showing is a lot better than three other female megastar pairings that really misfired. Aretha Franklin and Houston teamed in 1989 for "It Isn't, It Wasn't, It Ain't Never Gonna Be," which lived up to (or I guess down to) its title when it peaked at #41. Celine Dion and Streisand teamed in 1997 for "Tell Him," which stalled at #58 on the airplay chart. Britney Spears and Madonna joined forces in 2003 for "Me Against The Music," which peaked at #35.
These three records may have languished because they brought together artists who are too similar stylistically. Some of the most successful and memorable all-female pairings have brought together artists of different genres. Streisand and Summer exemplify this dynamic, as do Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink.
The current Beyonce/Lady Gaga smash is also a marriage of opposites, as was Beyonce's pairing three years ago with Latin pop superstar Shakira on "Beautiful Liar," which reached #3.
One of the best examples of female artists crossing genre lines to perform together came in 1985, when Aretha Franklin teamed with Eurythmics, the British duo fronted by Annie Lennox, for the spirited "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves." The song went top 20 and became an instant feminist anthem.
Another unlikely pairing occurred in 2001 when pop star Gwen Stefani joined R&B singer Eve on "Let Me Blow Ya Mind." The song reached #2 and won a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. Eve returned the favor four years later when she was featured on Stefani's top 10 hit "Rich Girl."
Just coming from different worlds, though, isn't enough. The 1984 pairing of Streisand and gritty-voiced Kim Carnes, best known for "Bette Davis Eyes," was certainly unlikely, but it didn't really take off. Their single, "Make No Mistake, He's Mine," stalled at #51.
"Lady Marmalade" wasn't the first time that four female stars joined forces on a hit record. In 1996, R&B stars Brandy, Tamia, Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan teamed for "Missing You." The song, recorded for the movie Set It Off, reached #25 on the Hot 100.
There have been many all-female hits in the worlds of R&B and hip-hop. In 2008, Keyshia Cole invited Missy Elliott and Lil' Kim to join her on her top 10 hit, "Let It Go." Other notable all-female R&B pairings include Eve featuring Alicia Keys on "Gangsta Lovin'" in 2002 and Ciara featuring Missy Elliott on "1,2 Step" in 2004. Both of these singles reached #2.
Country favorites Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris teamed for a pair of Trio albums. The first, in 1987, went top 10 on The Billboard 200 and won a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Trio II, in 1999, wasn't as successful, but also won a Grammy.
Houston may be the queen of all-female collaborations. She has cracked the Hot 100 with five such singles. In addition to the aforementioned duets with Carey and Franklin, Houston teamed with gospel star Cece Winans for "Count On Me" from Waiting To Exhale, with Faith Evans and Kelly Price for "Heartbreak Hotel" and with Deborah Cox for "Same Script, Different Cast."
In 2008, 15 top female stars from various genres came together to record the charity single "Just Stand Up!." The performers, who went under the name Artists Stand Up To Cancer, included stars from pop (Fergie, Miley Cyrus), R&B (Beyonce, Mary J. Blige), rock (Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge) and country (Carrie Underwood, LeAnn Rimes).
"Just Stand Up" peaked at #11. The song should have done better, but the all-star charity single genre is largely played out. The same is not true of the all-female collaboration genre. Given the right casting, as we can see from the strong showing by "Telephone," anything is possible.