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How Unprecedented is Taylor Swift's Popularity?
17 years after the release of her debut LP, Taylor Swift is more popular than ever before. Is that rare or just run-of-the-mill for a global superstar?
Given that this newsletter usually focuses on popular music in all its various forms, it’s no surprise that Taylor Swift comes up somewhat frequently. As of October 2023, the one-time country starlet is synonymous with “pop music”. Her current tour has been such a success that it grew local economies enough for the Federal Reserve to note it in a report. Her budding romance with Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce led to a 400% spike in his jersey sales. A music industry friend of mine went so far as to say that the only thing they could compare her popularity to was Beatlemania.
What fascinates me about Swift’s popularity is not just its intensity but its longevity. Her self-titled debut album was released in 2006. 17 years later, she’s more popular than ever before. My sense is that most artists reach peak popularity much sooner than the 17th year of their career. I decided to sift through the data to find out if my intuition was correct.
Lisztomania, Beatlemania, and … Swiftomania?
Icona Pop’s “I Love It” was everywhere my senior year of high school. In one sense, it was just another hit song, but in another, it felt more ubiquitous than any other pop record from that year.
“I Love It” was not the most popular song of 2013. According to Billboard’s year end chart, it ranked number 28, a bit more popular than Capital Cities’ “Safe and Sound” and a bit less popular than Rihanna’s “Diamonds”.
My perception of its domination was certainly influenced by my social circle. I have vivid memories of my friend Monica screaming the lyrics to the song’s bridge at some social gathering, putting particular emphasis on the final couplet: “You're so damn hard to please, we gotta kill this switch / You're from the 70s, but I'm a 90's bitch”. Regardless, 2013 was undoubtedly the height of Icona Pop’s career.
Beyond just noting that the Swedish duo never charted another single on the Hot 100, a quick way to gauge their popularity is by looking at their Google search interest over time. May 2013, a month before my high school graduation, was the peak of their popularity.
I don’t mean this as a dig at Icona Pop. This chart represents a successful career. If you were to plot search interest in my music on this same chart, it would be zero from beginning to end. And that’s the case for nearly all artists. One hit makes you a huge outlier when you consider the entire universe of people making music. With that in mind, compare the monthly Google search interest of “Icona Pop” to “Taylor Swift”.
First, note that even during the height of their career, search interest in “Icona Pop” was dwarfed by interest in “Taylor Swift”. Second, note that nearly two decades into her career, Taylor Swift is arguably more popular than ever before. In an ideal world, we could see how unique Swift’s situation is by looking at search interest for a sample of the best-selling artists of all-time. But Google has only been around since 1998. We need a different method.
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I first grabbed the all-time top 100 best-selling artists as tracked by the the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). While there are artists who debuted between the 1940s (e.g., Frank Sinatra) and the 2010s (e.g., Justin Bieber), the bulk did so between 1960 and 1999. This makes sense. The record industry and sales tracking grew dramatically during the 1900s. That explains the dearth of artists before 1960. The post-2000 dearth is explained by those artists having less time to accumulate sales.
Marking the beginning of an artist’s career as the release of their debut seems natural enough. But how do we mark the peak of their popularity? I first decided to do so by the year they released their best-selling album, excluding greatest hits, holiday music, and live albums with little to no new material. Sales data again comes from the RIAA.
48 of the top 100 best-selling artists in America released their best-selling album within five years of their debut. This makes intuitive sense. Those albums have had longer to sell. Only six artists released their best-selling album after year 16, the year Swift released her latest smash, Midnights. Those six artists are Barbra Streisand, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Michael Bolton, and Frank Sinatra. Of that sextet, Swift’s trajectory is probably most similar to Streisand or Bolton.
The similarity to the former is that Barbra Streisand was consistently popular between the release of her 1963 debut The Barbra Streisand Album and her hit 1980 collaboration with Barry Gibb, Guilty. Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, and Frank Sinatra all had varying lulls before resurgences later in their careers.
Swift parallels Michael Bolton for a different reason. Though he released his self-titled debut in 1975 under his birth name Michael Bolotin, his career really didn’t take off until he went from a soulful rocker to a power ballad singer 14 years later, with songs like “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You”. Swift’s career has been an unabated commercial success, but her transition from country to pop with her album 1989 cemented her stardom in a Boltian/Bolotian fashion.
So, Taylor Swift’s massive success over a decade-and-a-half into her career does put her in rare company. But this methodology isn’t perfect. As of the publication of this newsletter, Taylor Swift’s best-selling album is Fearless, released just two years after her self-titled debut. In other words, her success is fairly average if we are going by best-selling album.
What if instead we look at the year each artist released their last platinum album (i.e., more than one million units sold)? Given that Midnights, Swift’s most recent album, was released 16 years after her debut and went platinum, it again puts her in the middle of the pack.
I could go on to talk about some other measurements of peak popularity that I researched, but it would be a waste of your time. None of them indicated that Taylor Swift being more popular than ever before a decade-and-a-half into her career was that strange for a superstar. Now, you could argue that Swift fandom is more intense than any fandom that has come before it. Again, this piece focused on the timing rather than intensity of peak popularity. But I want to turn to Franz Liszt to discuss why that probably isn’t the case.
In 1839, the pianist Franz Liszt began a tour across Europe. During the eight year tour, he elicited such intense reactions from fans that writer Heinrich Heine termed the frenzy “Lisztomania” in 1844. In 1844, Franz Liszt was 33, the same age as Taylor Swift as of the publication of this newsletter.
The intensity around Swiftian fandom is undeniable. You could argue that the magnifying effects of social media and the smart phone have made that intensity greater than any artist before her. But that would deny that The Beatles and Frank Sinatra - two artists who also garnered intense fandom - did not have the intensity of their fandom exacerbated by the fact that the media landscape was much less fractured. In short, intense fandom is not new.
Should Taylor Swift’s popularity not abate over the next few decades, it’s possible that her fame will peak later than any artist before her. But she will have to compete with artists like Elton John, who released the best-selling single of his career 28 years after the release of his debut album. She will also have to compete with artist like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, who respectively released platinum albums 34 and 44 years after the release of their debuts. In other words, despite achieving every accolade imaginable, there is still work to be done if Taylor Swift wants to be an outlier among the outliers.
A New One
"Lightning and Luck" by John Mellencamp
2023 - Americana
According to the RIAA, John Mellencamp is the 78th best-selling artist of all-time. Though his commercial peak was sometime between the mid-1980s and early-1990s, Mellencamp continues to make music. On his June 2023 LP Orpheus Descending, Mellencamp rehashes many similar themes to his heyday, albeit with a more haggard voice. For my money, “Lightning and Luck” is the best offering from that LP.
An Old One
"You Can Fly" by REO Speedwagon
1974 - Soulful Rock
I got an advance copy of Sly Stone’s autobiography Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) a few months ago and finally got around to reading it. It is a powerful reflection by a man who reinvented popular music, got wrapped up in a multi-decade drug addiction, yet doesn’t have many regrets. Though Sly is still alive and has his mind intact, various ailments, including COPD, prevent him from making new music.
Beyond the personal revelations in this memoir, one thing that I found most fascinating was all of the unexpected side projects that Sly appeared on over the years. The one that surprised me the most was his guitar and keyboard work on this funk-adjacent, soft rock track by REO Speedwagon. The sound on this record contrasts strongly with the power ballads that helped them on their way to becoming the 97th best-selling act according to the RIAA.
Want to learn a little bit more about me? Check out this interview that I did for Music Journalism Insider.
Want to dig into top 100 artist data? Follow this link to take a look.