Congratulations are in order for Taylor Swift, who may not have won Entertainer of the Year at the CMAs last night but for all intents and purposes made it rain with her new album Red. The country-popper’s fourth release moved 1.21 million copies in its opening week, and set a boatload of records along the way. Most notably, she became the only woman in the SoundScan era to sell over a million copies in a week on more than one occasion, as her previous album Speak Now also went instant-platinum back in 2010.
But there’s one statistic that really stands out, and that’s the fact that Red represents the biggest single week for a release since 2002, when Eminem’s The Eminem Show moved 1,322,000 copies in its opening week. Red is still only the eighth biggest opening week of all time, but it’s way more impressive a showing than a lot of the albums in front of her, the bulk of which were released between 2000 and 2002, when music was the centerpiece of the pop culture conversation, record stores still existed, TRL remained a power player, and the evil Internet had yet to make its full impact on downloading culture (Napster was at its height, but in the pre-iTunes universe, most people were still wary of online music, and the shift to universal broadband hadn’t set in yet).
The fact that Swift has not only put up such a big number but actually improved upon her last album is nothing short of remarkable. The industry has only narrowed since she last released an album, and yet here she is cranking up her sales numbers. So while she basks in the glow of her latest industry-related victory, the question arises: What is Taylor Swift’s ceiling? Most pop stars of her caliber run into some variation on the same recurring problem: Their audience simply doesn’t move with them. Because of the speed with which music culture shifts, and because of the nature of pop music, the cliché is that the 14-year-olds who bought your album in droves have moved on to something entirely different by the time they are 16. While Britney Spears set a record for a female artist when she moved 1.32 million copies of her sophomore album Oops!…I Did It Again in 2000, her subsequent solo albums have yielded steadily diminishing returns. In fact, her last album Femme Fatale limped to platinum status after opening with 276,000 copies sold—a solid number to be sure, but light years away from her previous sales efforts.
Swift doesn’t have that problem—her first-week sales actually increased, and there’s no reason to doubt that Red will dominate the holiday sales season and go platinum many times over. It may seem unfair to compare Spears to Swift, as the latter has made an entire career out of maintaining her agency over her career, while Spears exists primarily as a cypher. But their music both caters to very young girls, and young girls grow into teens.
But because of her independent nature, Swift has an edge with her rapidly-aging audience, as she is marketed primarily as a songwriter, a skill that she has managed to hone and expand over the course of her career. Like her best songs, Swift’s career presents a compelling narrative of someone who is growing both as an artist and as a human being. Her actual artistic independence is a lot easier to embrace than Spears’ see-through girl-powerisms, which by now everybody knows are written by old Swedish guys and not a young woman actually experiencing the things she’s singing about. Today’s pop fans recognize authenticity (or at least the suggestion of authenticity) with a much sharper eye, and they tend to reject those poses that are clearly flim-flammery.
So how far can Swift take this? Based on sales figures and popular opinion, she has yet to reach her peak. In fact, while logic dictates that the event horizon on the size of her first week sales might be nearing, the crest of that wave still may be one or two albums away. As the music business narrows and there are fewer sure things, Swift could easily become the definitive pop star of this generation, grinding out instant-platinum smashes every two years for the next decade. Look at how many massive entities wanted to be on the Swift Express this time around: CoverGirl, Target, Papa John’s, Wal-Mart, and a bevy of others. There will be a lot more next time around, simply because Swift has proven herself to be the rarest of musical commodities: A best-selling artist with quite a bit of integrity and an image that doesn’t focus on her general lack of clothing.
Red seems like a watershed moment for Swift, and it is. But based on her audience, the ever-shifting music industry, and her particular set of skills, Red feels less like the culmination of something and more like the beginning of some next-level business that we haven’t yet seen this millennium.
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