“Venus” was supposed to be the second single from “ARTPOP” — until “Do What U Want” was released and quickly changed plans. Inside an unexpected move from one of the world’s biggest pop stars.
At 12:01 a.m. ET on Monday morning (Oct. 21), Lady Gaga released “Do What U Want,” her duet with R. Kelly that was set to appear as a non-single album track on her upcoming “ARTPOP” LP. Less than 40 hours later, at 3:50 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, “Do What U Want” was the official second single from “ARTPOP.”
“Do What U Want” was bestowed to Little Monsters one week before the planned release of “ARTPOP’s” previously announced second single, “Venus”; that under-wraps song will still come out on Oct. 28 and, judging solely by the40-second snippet Gaga posted online on Friday, will be more in line with the singer’s forward-thinking pop oeuvre. So why did “Do What U Want,” a double entendre-laden R&B sidestep, leapfrog “Venus,” a song that Gaga has said will receive a proper music video treatment?
It’s simple: “Do What U Want” throttled the Internet upon its release. “The song hit No. 1 [on iTunes] in 64 countries,” Dennis Dennehy, head of artist strategy and media for Interscope Records, tells Billboard. “Gaga has complete creative control over single picks, and she read what immediately happened — the immediate feedback we got on the song — and got with us, and reacted accordingly. It was as simple as that.” Gaga made the call early on Tuesday, says Dennehy, and posted to Twitter on Tuesday afternoon, “[W]e are overwhelmed by the worldwide response + excitement for DO WHAT U WANT feat. R KELLY & are happy to announce it as 2nd Single!”
Previously teased in a Beats By Dre commercial, the collaboration between the 27-year-old pop superstar and 46-year-old R&B veteran is sonically dissimilar to all of Gaga’s previously released singles — many of which were inescapable smashes. Unlike the durable dance-pop alarms “Just Dance,” “Bad Romance” and her latest Top 10 hit “Applause,” “Do What U Want” is a mid-tempo, dusky sex siren, marked by arpeggios, searing emotion and Kelly concluding his verse with a drawn-out f-bomb. It’s a thrilling listen, intoxicatingly defiant in both arrangement and lyrical sentiment (“You don’t own my life, but/Do what you want, with my body,” Gaga sneers on the track).
Coupled with what Dennehy calls “the immediate and overwhelming worldwide reaction” to the song, the critical response to “Do What U Want” has been blindingly positive. “It’s Official: Lady Gaga’s New Song Featuring R. Kelly Is The Best Thing,” announced a Buzzfeed headline, while the Daily Beast called the song “pure pop heaven,” Slate described it as “surprisingly beautiful” andPopjustice gave the song an 8 out of 10 rating. The song-turned-single zoomed to the top of the iTunes Store’s top sellers list and will likely debut high on next week’s Billboard Hot 100 chart. It’s projected to sell between 150,000 and 160,000 digital downloads by the end of the tracking week on Sunday, according to industry sources. But, it’s still too early to say whether or not “Do What U Want” looks like a smash single with a long radio life — or if it becomes Gaga’s first No. 1 single since “Born This Way’s” title track in early 2011.
Gaga’s “Born This Way” single hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Pop Songs chart, and was the only single from her 2011 album of the same name to top that tally. Before that, Gaga has strung together an impressive six consecutive No. 1 singles on Pop Songs over her “Fame” and “Fame Monster” releases. Similarly, the electro-pop entertainment meditation “Applause” has resided in the Hot 100’s Top 10 for over two months and sold 1.53 million downloads to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But “ARTPOP’s” lead single is also looking up at the sales totals of songs like Katy Perry’s “Roar” (3.24 million downloads to date) and Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” (1.91 million downloads). Both of those tracks topped the Hot 100, while “Applause” has peaked at No. 4 on the chart.
These numbers won’t adjust Gaga’s artistic vision. “I write for the music not the charts,” she posted on Sunday night before the release of “Do What U Want,” referencing the perceived “battle” between “Roar” and “Applause” that stemmed from the singles’ concurrent release periods last August. Although Gaga’s rollout of new music has always been strictly coordinated — artistic statements not to be fussed with by sales projections or media reactions — she is also fiercely plugged in to her fan base, can undoubtedly sense a substantial groundswell around a particular song and call an audible in her game plan when she think it’s warranted. That apparently happened in the 40 hours between the release of “Do What U Want” and Gaga’s “no, wait, THIS is the single” announcement on Twitter.
Reshuffling is nothing new in pop promotion; artists and their labels have changed horses mid-stream before (albeit usually with more protracted periods of data collection), to general success. In 2011, Adele’s “Set Fire To The Rain” became the third single from her blockbuster “21” album because Columbia found that programmers preferred the track to the planned single “Rumour Has It,” and “Fire” ended up at No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart. Last year, Owl City’s “The Midsummer Station” album was led by the single “Shooting Star” — and then the artist’s Carly Rae Jepsen duet “Good Time” started blowing up, and the blueprint was understandably ripped up. And how about Mariah Carey? “Triumphant (Get ‘Em),” featuring Rick Ross and Meek Mill, was supposed to precede her next studio album upon its release in 2012, until it didn’t chart on the Hot 100, and “#Beautiful,” her Top 20 duet with Miguel, was touted as a “lead” single.
And, lest we forget, Lady Gaga took a similar mulligan with her last album. “Judas,” a throbbing, amorphous dance song, was rolled out as “Born This Way’s” second single, complete with a high-concept music video in which the pop star played Mary Magdalene. The track peaked at No. 15 on the Pop Songs chart, and quickly gave way to “The Edge of Glory,” which was released digitally as a promotional single two weeks before the “Born This Way” album hit stores in May 2011. The critically lauded “Glory” eventually became an official single and peaked at No. 3 on Pop Songs. Think of “Do What U Want” as the 2013 version of “The Edge of Glory,” except that, this time, the change-up was put into place before the planned second single was even released.
Shrugging off a proposed single push for “Venus” (at least for now) and betting on the buzz surrounding “Do What U Want” is an unexpected move, and one whose boldness may pay significant dividends. Can a lauded left turn with the pied piper of R&B — one whose sexually charged lyrics remain problematic to many listeners — garner more spins than a club banger? We’ll have to wait and see; “Do What U Want” is slated to impact Top 40 radio on Nov. 4, exactly one week before “ARTPOP’s” release. Needless to say, the last-minute heralding of “Do What U Want” is one of the more intriguing wrinkles in the pop universe’s fascinating final quarter of 2013.