A Ranking Of The 33 Greatest Pop Divas' Debut Singles

A salute to the greats.
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Lady Gaga’s recent Super Bowl performance confirmed that halftime shows are most dynamic with pop divas at the center. In fact, life is at its most dynamic when pop divas seize the spotlight, which is as good a reason as any to rank the best of the best’s debut singles.

The rubric is simple: I’ve selected the 33 greatest female pop stars ― including mainstream crossovers whose roots belong to genres like country and R&B ― and ranked their grand entrances based on each song’s quality and ability to vault its singer into superstardom. Here we go.

Dolly Parton, "Puppy Love" (1959)
Dolly Parton began as a child star performing on radio and television programs. At age 13, she took a Greyhound bus from Tennessee to Louisiana to record her first song, this cutesy honky-tonk joint. It was another eight years before RCA signed her to a record deal, by which point a smidgen of the country was already acquainted with Parton's signature pep. It's for the best that she had time to mature before her big break.
Ariana Grande, "Put Your Hearts Up" (2011)
It's easy to see why Ariana Grande loathes this childish track. Catering to young fans who knew her from MTV's "Victorious," it lacks the nimble hooks that would spur her music career two years later. Grande omitted "Put Your Hearts Up" from her debut album's tracklist, letting the superior Mac Miller collaboration "The Way" act as an unofficial do-over. It worked. Today, she's got us walkin' side to side.
Katy Perry, "Ur So Gay" (2007)
Seven years after releasing a Christian album under the name Katy Hudson, Katy Perry rebranded herself a bubblegum hitmaker with two queer-themed oddities. Before 2008's titanic "I Kissed a Girl," there was "Ur So Gay," a trip-hop curiosity in which she encourages a metrosexual boyfriend to try autoerotic asphyxiation. Perry's record label dropped the track online, hoping to amass a cluster of fans before servicing "I Kissed a Girl" to radio. Had she started with the latter, Perry would place much higher on this ranking. Regardless, we should credit her and Lady Gaga, who both broke out months before Barack Obama's election, for steering pop away from the crop-top and blue-jeans homogeneity of the early 2000s and back toward the theatrical spectacle that saturated the 1980s. All it took was cherry Chapstick.
Aretha Franklin, "Never Grow Old" (1956)
In the 1950s and '60s, artists didn't rely on neatly packaged singles to kick-start their careers. The once-prolific Aretha Franklin released a few dozen songs before landing a proper hit with 1967's "(I Never Loved A Man) The Way I Love You." In no world was this Southern-gospel standard going to launch a pop career, even if it does flaunt Franklin's pipes. No one belts it like Aretha.
Shania Twain, "What Made You Say That" (1993)
Like all the country items on this list, this song was hardly an indication of its singer's eventual preeminence. Shania Twain enjoyed a steady ascent to stardom with her second album, but her initial outing was a sprightly, forgettable ditty about falling in love. Twain's work would later incorporate hints of rock, which might be why this more traditional country croon stayed on the sidelines. That didn't impress her much.
Tina Turner, "Whole Lotta Love" (1976)
Tina Turner didn't release anything from her first solo album, a 1974 collection of covers. The following year, after sharing the bill with hubby Ike for more than a decade, Turner relaunched her solo efforts with the album "Acid Queen." Its lead was ... an Ike Turner collaboration? Having introduced "Baby Get It On" as "our latest single" during live performances, Turner's next order of business was a guttural cover of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." Despite not being a hit, it compliments her yowling prowess.
Céline Dion, "(If There Was) Any Other Way" (1990)
Céline Dion was known in Canada and France for a decade before she recorded an English-language album. Counting that as her first American release, "(If There Was) Any Other Way" is an adult-contemporary number that makes a pop pageant out of her rhapsodic spectacles. It's a fine introduction to the woman who became the nation's most divisive diva.
Taylor Swift, "Tim McGraw" (2006)
Even though it was the weakest single from her self-titled debut album, this gave Taylor Swift the country clout needed to animate her musical pursuits. It wasn't the sort of globe-shattering premiere that presaged the renown she would later experience, but "Tim McGraw" is a pleasant little buttercup befitting Swift's boy-crazy lyrical proclivities.
Janet Jackson, "Young Love" (1982)
Despite her illustrious family name, Janet Jackson's success did not occur overnight. Hardly anyone noticed her first two albums, which included this brief semi-hit performed on "American Bandstand" and "Soul Train." It's an airy jingle stuck between the disco era and the 1980s' impending synth-pop takeover.
Faith Hill, "Wild One" (1993)
With "Wild One," Faith Hill became the first woman in 30 years to top the country chart for four consecutive weeks. Five years before "This Kiss" forged her mainstream crossover, this picnic of a song saluted the youthful verve of "runnin' free."
Pink, "There You Go" (2000)
Before "Lady Marmalade" and her aerial-silk infatuation, Pink premiered as a pop-rocker with fuchsia-colored hair and motorcycle sass. This song mirrored the girl-power R&B of TLC's "No Scrubs" and Destiny's Child's "Bills, Bills, Bills." Pink's rapid-fire delivery and urban savvy helped to set her apart. In terms of owning her sexuality, she was good at making herself seem like more of an auteur than her teenybopper counterparts. Pink has since disowned her early image, feeling it was micromanaged by her record label. At least she got her coolest song out of it?
Cher, "All I Really Want to Do" (1965)
Two months before Sonny & Cher turned up with "I Got You Babe," Cher released a cover of Bob Dylan's peace-and-love hymn as her stag debut. Inspired to record it after hearing The Byrds' version that same year, Cher found herself a Top 20 hit in Dylan's poetry. Her fame enjoyed a solid escalation throughout the Sonny & Cher years, and long after, because there is indeed life after love.
Gloria Estefan, "Don't Wanna Lose You" (1989)
After relegating Miami Sound Machine to her backup band and rebranding as a solo artist, Gloria Estefan released this yearning ballad about overcoming love's hardships. The track shot to No. 1. She remained a proper soloist for the rest of her career, distinct for her Latin infusions. She later joined Aretha Franklin, Shania Twain, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey in their attempts to out-sing one another on "Divas Live '98."
Miley Cyrus, "See You Again" (2007)
Miley Cyrus would put her raspy articulation to better use in future years, but this raised the curtain on a Disney celebrity whose vocal skill outpaced her tender image. Cyrus sounds just irritable enough to give "See You Again" a dimension beyond its tween-crush foundation, and the track's new-wave influences would maintain a satisfying role on 2013's "Bangerz" and 2015's "Dead Petz." (Miley likes her Z's.)
Mary J. Blige, "You Remind Me" (1992)
There was R&B before Mary J. Blige, and there was R&B after Mary J. Blige. A departure from the polished auras of Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston, Blige was a graduate of the Puff Daddy school of pop. Baggy clothes and street-savvy videos would define her image, especially before Blige's career entered its "No More Drama" phase in the 2000s. "You Remind Me" ate up the R&B charts, blessing a fresh era that also inducted TLC and Aaliyah, and gave way to the likes of Brandy, Mya and Ashanti.
Whitney Houston, "You Give Good Love" (1985)
This isn't the catchiest, but it does a bang-up job previewing Whitney Houston's powerhouse voice. "You Give Good Love" is a warm-up act for the seven No. 1 hits that would follow, including "Saving All My Love for You," "How Will I Know" and "I Want to Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)." She coos instead of belts, using the same crisp vocal eloquence that made "I Will Always Love You" her trademark.
Adele, "Hometown Glory" (2007)
The superior "Chasing Pavements" was Adele's first official American single, but "Hometown Glory" -- her British debut -- netted a Grammy nomination and gold certification nonetheless. In a six-month span, the song was featured on "Skins," "One Tree Hill," "Grey's Anatomy" and "90210," conscripting Adele as the voice of an emotionally fraught generation. "Chasing Pavements" made her a luminary, but "Hometown Glory" was a sufficient baptism.
Aaliyah, "Back & Forth" (1994)
Under the mentorship of R. Kelly, Aaliyah blended hip-hop and dance-pop to foster a sound that many of her peers would ape. "Back & Forth" was a velvety welcome mat for a streetwise R&B revolution, one-upping what Mary J. Blige had already started.
Gwen Stefani, "What You Waiting For?" (2004)
When Gwen Stefani squawked "You're still a super-hot female / You got your million-dollar contract" on this weird and wily song about the pressures of recording, there was no doubt she was destined for solo greatness. The meta aberration and its accompanying "Alice in Wonderland"-inspired video weren't sensations, which is a shame because it's the coolest thing on this list. Stefani took a chance on a piece of bombast without a radio-typical hook. It's still her best.
Madonna, "Everybody" (1982)
It was Madonna's third single, "Holiday," that made her a goliath. But this song offers a time capsule few can claim: It bid adieu to the fading disco epoch and welcomed the synth-y drum-machine frolics that would characterize the '80s. Madonna spent the rest of the decade issuing dance-floor summons, as if not enough people listened the first time around. You don't ignore the queen. Ensuring it's not lost to time, Madonna continues to perform "Everybody" on tour.
Paula Abdul, "Knocked Out" (1988)
Long before becoming a slurring "American Idol" judge, Paula Abdul was Janet Jackson's choreographer and a recording superstar who accrued six No. 1 hits. "Knocked Out" wasn't one of them, but as a debut single, it's a worthy precursor to "Straight Up," "Opposites Attract" and Abdul's killer '80s bouffant game.
Diana Ross, "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" (1970)
Having just left The Supremes, Diana Ross commenced her solo career with the dynamite twofer "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Ushering Motown into a new decade, this gospel-inflected sermon hoped to "make this world a better place," which Ross has certainly done.
Kelly Clarkson, "A Moment Like This" (2002)
"American Idol" handed this single to Kelly Clarkson, the show's first winner. It fit her well: She belted its syrupy chorus with a feel-good charm that would make her follow-up, 2003's grubby "Miss Independent," something of a left turn. "A Moment Like This" toppled The Beatles' record for the biggest leap to No. 1, climbing 51 positions in one week. Others have since beat Clarkson's record, but she reclaimed it in 2009 when "My Life Would Suck Without You" jumped 96 slots. She did wait a lifetime, after all.
Jennifer Lopez, "If You Had My Love" (1999)
Already an established actress, Jennifer Lopez launched a debut single that married silky R&B trends (think "The Boy Is Mine" and "Heartbreak Hotel") to a futuristic music video about cyberstalking. Lopez was older than newbie pop correlatives like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and "If You Had My Love" showed it. Her sensuality was more refined, her dance moves more eclectic. That she would follow it up with the virtuosic "Waiting for Tonight" and the peppy "Feelin' So Good" -- two songs that remodeled her musical persona without seeming inconsistent -- confirms Lopez's throne as the queen of confidence.
Mariah Carey, "Vision of Love" (1990)
Mariah Carey's first five American singles were all No. 1 hits that emphasized her pipes. This one proclaimed that Carey had arrived to challenge Whitney Houston as the world's preeminent pop vocalist. When the beat drops on the first chorus, you're intrigued. By the time Carey leaps into her now-iconic whistle register, you're convinced. "Vision of Life" is a true vision. Future "American Idol" contestants wouldn't be the same without it.
Rihanna, "Pon de Replay" (2005)
Rihanna, sovereign of not giving a fuck, churns out one Top 10 hit after the next. It all started with "Pon de Replay," a clamorous dancehall groove that inducts her as culture's cool-vibes empress. It would be a while before we recognized Rihanna as a good singer, and that's just fine -- her first several hits are designed to allure, and they do a damn fine job of it. Rihanna's superstardom presupposes that you want to be her, so why wouldn't the DJ turn the music up?
Lady Gaga, "Just Dance" (2008)
Lady Gaga's pop prestige has ebbed and flowed over the years, but this inaugurated her legacy as music's primo theater kid. Like many of the best debuts, "Just Dance" is a rousing dance-floor invitation in the vein of Madonna, a musical forbearer if there ever was one. The video read like a rowdy twist on Fiona Apple's "Criminal," with booze-soaked partiers whose quirks previewed Gaga's edgy side. Nine years later, no matter your thoughts on "Joanne," we still heed her bid to "just dance / da da doo doo."
Donna Summer, "Love to Love You Baby" (1975)
A hippie at heart, Donna Summer performed in a Munich production of the counterculture musical "Hair" before releasing her first stateside album. Those influences are evident in "Love to Love You Baby," a serpentine sex canticle that became a defining smash of the disco days. Summer's orgasmic moans are radical even by today's standards. She later became a born-again Christian, but we'll always have this jam's climaxes.
Christina Aguilera, "Genie in a Bottle" (1999)
As hip-hop infiltrated pop music in the late '90s, so-called teenyboppers materialized with one banger after the next. It was hard to keep up with all the Mandy Moores and Willa Fords and Vitamin C's, but Christina Aguilera made certain we knew she was a cut above the pack. A "Mickey Mouse Club" alumna who could belt notes and roll around on the beach seductively, Aguilera gave us a summer anthem with a husky synth that acts as a prelude to her "Dirrty" makeover. Where Britney Spears seemed deceptively wholesome, Aguilera boasted an air of mystery, her face often concealed by dark shadows in the "Genie in a Bottle" video. The song holds up as an absolute rager.
Alicia Keys, "Fallin'" (2001)
You'll hear the phrase "burst onto the scene" in just about every "Behind the Music" episode, but it best applies to Alicia Keys. Drawing comparisons to Aretha Franklin, "Fallin'" spent 34 weeks on the Billboard chart and 16 years (and counting) as a modern blues-pop classic. As quickly as she emerged, Keys outpaced counterparts like Jill Scott, Faith Evans, Macy Gray and India Arie. Without a "Fallin'" of their own (and a notable catalog to follow it), they couldn't match her triumphs.
Cyndi Lauper, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" (1983)
You'd never imagine this as anything but a Cyndi Lauper original. First written and recorded by Robert Hazard, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" morphed into a chipper feminist anthem in Lauper's hands. Her wailing vocals and edgy effervesce made it a runaway hit. Even though Lauper's cachet didn't linger as long as that of her peers, this song is singular enough to subsidize an entire career.
Beyoncé, "Crazy in Love" (2003)
The New York Times declared "she's no Ashanti," but today we can chart Beyoncé's career in two phases: before "Crazy in Love" and after "Crazy in Love." She was still recording with Destiny's Child at the time and had already made the under-appreciated "Work It Out" for the "Austin Powers in Goldmember" soundtrack, but this song's critical and commercial stature made it clear she could thrive as an independent woman. From the kinetic opening loops to the escalating dance breaks, this is about as perfect as they come. In the video, she set fire to a car. In reality, she set fire to the whole goddamn world.
Britney Spears, "...Baby One More Time" (1998)
With its schoolgirl aesthetic and springlike growl, no song has done more to christen a newcomer than "...Baby One More Time." Britney Spears' entire career trajectory is connected to the not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman duality showcased in this single, which channeled the Spice Girls' sensibilities and hit No. 1 for two weeks. It was funky and sophisticated enough to eclipse its bubblegum trappings, bridging a path for the many industry-manufactured pop stars who would loom in Spears' shadow. Compared to her, none of them matter. If "iconic" describes anything on this list, it's this.

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