Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Hits #1: What Next?

Bigger Than the Sound sizes Gaga's remarkable chart debut up against the year's other event album, Adele's 21.

As of Wednesday (June 1), Lady Gaga officially has the #1 album in the country, after selling 1,108,000 copies of Born This Way, according to Billboard.com. That’s the biggest sales week since 50 Cent’s The Massacre was released in 2005.

None of this should really surprise you, though. After all, no album in recent memory has been promoted to the degree that Born This Way has. You could hear it on FarmVille , in a Google Chrome commercial or through a special version of Tap Tap Revenge. You could buy it for 99 cents on Amazon.com, pick it up with a non-fat double latte at Starbucks (which also hosted an online Gaga-themed scavenger hunt) or get it at Best Buy with the purchase of a mobile phone and a two-year service contract.

That’s to say nothing of the more than 20,000 “non-traditional” retailers that also stocked it … noted musical hotspots like CVS Pharmacies, Whole Foods and Walgreens.

And in the weeks leading up to its release, you seemingly could not escape the woman behind Born This Way, either: Lady Gaga showed up on “Saturday Night Live,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Late Show With David Letterman, ” “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “American Idol” (twice ). She guest-edited V magazine and the Metro newspaper. She appeared in a documentary that aired on MTV and greeted fans at a New York City Best Buy . No word on whether she also went door-to-door handing out samples of the album, but I wouldn’t put it past her.

In short, there was no way you did not know of Born This Way‘s existence. As Newbury Comics’ director of purchasing, Carl Mello, joked to me during the release-week hype, “If people aren’t aware that Lady Gaga has an album coming out, then that’s a problem for Interscope.” So while BTW‘s big first week is certainly remarkable, it was by no means unforeseen. This was an album that, from the time Gaga first announced its title in September at the VMAs, was destined to debut at #1. It was inevitable. The real test begins in the weeks afterward, when we’ll all see whether Gaga’s got legs.

During my conversation with Mello, he noted that while Born This Way was the top seller at Newbury’s 29 locations (by a long shot), holding strong at #2 was Adele’s 21, an album that, in just 14 weeks, has sold nearly 2 million copies in the U.S. alone and snagged the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 nine times. You did not get 21 with the purchase of a Samsung Epic 4G or by rhythmically tapping on your iPhone, and it was not previewed on FarmVille. In fact, about the extent of its promotion has been one official single (“Rolling in the Deep”), a handful of TV appearances and a sold-out tour. And yet, the record has sold and continues to do so. It is, without a doubt, an album that has legs.

In fact, the success of 21 is all the more remarkable when you compare it to the all-out blitz that has surrounded (and, some argue, enveloped) Born This Way. Comparing the two seems almost implausible, if not impossible. But both are genuine phenomena, albeit in completely different ways: 21 is a slow-burning hit; its success is just about as unexpected as it is old-school. BTW is an event; a big blockbuster for which failure was not an option. Adele made the industry pay attention; Gaga had their ear since last year.

And while first-week numbers are all well and good, real success is measured eight to 10 weeks down the road; it’s how we know whether an album resonates, whether the singles have stuck, whether the artist is in it for the long haul. Right now, I wouldn’t bet on anyone catching either Adele or Gaga in the race for 2011′s best-selling album, but the real question is: Can Born This Way overtake 21 for the title? Only time — and some hit singles — will tell. With the promo that led to BTW‘s release, Gaga has proven that she’s willing to work, but now that the album has been foisted onto the world, the real work’s just beginning: she’s going to have to prove she’s got legs too.

How do you think Born This Way will fare on the charts? Share your thoughts in the comments section!