How Taylor Swift Carefully Conquered the Pop Charts

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Aug. 29 2014 3:50 PM

Why Is Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” No. 1?

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Swift stands athwart the music world, yelling pop.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Before we talk about the shimmying pop tsunami that overtook Billboard’s Hot 100 pop chart this week—let’s call it Hurricane Taylor—it might help to ponder, briefly, another perky superstorm that first made landfall on the charts four decades ago. So here’s a quick quiz about a certain ’70s–’80s megastar:

1. What was Olivia Newton-John’s first Top 10 hit on a U.S. chart?
2. Which chart was it?
3. What Grammy award did she win with this song?

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Give up? The song was 1973’s “Let Me Be There,” and the chart was Billboard’s Hot Country Singles. (It made the Top 10 of the Hot 100 about a month later.) And Newton-John’s first-ever Grammy came in 1974’s Best Female Country Vocal category, where the 25-year-old Brit/Australian won in an upset over Tammy Wynette’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” Dottie West’s “Country Sunshine” and Marie Osmond’s “Paper Roses.” ONJ’s Grammy-winning hit kicked off a strong three-year run for her at U.S. country radio. She racked up seven Billboard Country top 10s through 1976—and while a couple of these hits were also pop smashes, during this period she scored more consistently on Hot Country Singles than on the Hot 100.

Of course, within a half-decade, Newton-John moved beyond country and basically transformed herself into one of the biggest pop stars, period, on Billboard’s charts: going toe-to-toe with John Travolta, wafting out of your radio with the sultry “Magic,” tapping into America’s Reagan-era obsession with fitness. Given that level of nationwide popularity, country fans certainly maintained some fondness for ONJ—Grease’s torch ballad “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was a top 20 Country hit in 1978, and her last top 40 Country hit came in 1979—but she was no longer reliant on the format that broke her in America.

All this is worth keeping in the back of your head when considering Taylor Swift, the biggest star in contemporary music. Maybe decades from now, some of us with short memories will look back on her insanely successful career and half-forget she was ever a country star.

Eight years after her breakthrough on Billboard’s Country charts, Swift storms onto the Hot 100 with “Shake It Off,” entering the big chart at No. 1—only the 22nd song in history to start in the penthouse. Billboard reports that, in its first week, the song racked up the highest digital sales total of the year (544,000 downloads), trouncing the best sales week for the year’s top song, Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” (490,000). It also ranks as the fourth-highest digital debut, period. So powerful is Swift with radio programmers, meanwhile, that “Shake,” which is barely nine days old, has already racked up the ninth-largest U.S. radio airplay audience of any current song. This is the fastest that radio has adopted a song since Lady Gaga’s 2011 smash “Born This Way.” Finally, in terms of online streaming—the third ingredient in the Hot 100 formula—Swift arrives with 18.4 million U.S. streams, nearly all of them tallied by the song’s sprightly video (the song is not yet available on Spotify). Only Nicki Minaj’s ass-tastic video for “Anaconda,” which is also brand new, racked up more clicks over the last week.

The simple answer to why Swift is No. 1 with this song is that, again, she’s music’s biggest star. Also the song is impossibly catchy—if you’re like me, last week you thought it was forgettable, and this week it’s fully colonized your frontal lobe. “Shake It Off” takes the up-with-people bounce of Williams’s “Happy,” adds horns—odd that Pharrell didn’t think of that—and layers in an infectious descending, cascading melody that some advertising agency is either trying to license or rip off as we speak. At this imperial point in Swift’s career, she probably could’ve released four minutes of impassioned alpine yodeling and topped the charts. The fact that she released perhaps her most irresistible pop melody yet is just not playing fair.

Lyrics have always been essential to Swift’s songs, but these are probably her dopiest, certainly for one of her major hits. And it basically doesn’t matter: They are still knowing, self-referential and trash-talky in a post-hip-hop way (“I go on too many dates, but I can't make ’em stay/ At least that's what people say”). They also keep up the us-against-the-world theme so beloved by Swift’s younger fans, a la her prior hit “Mean.” Moreover, because the song is all hook, the lyrics themselves are arranged rhythmically to deliver maximum pleasure (“ ’Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play/ And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate/ Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake”). It’s as if Taylor caught this summer’s James Brown biopic Get on Up and took to heart the apocryphal scene where Brown teaches his Famous Flames that, in funk, “every instrument [is] a drum.” On “Shake,” she’s taken her most valued asset—the words—and made a beat out of it.

Given its massive sales and airplay, “Shake It Off” probably could have hit the top without its satirical, Mark Romanek–directed video, which finds Taylor flailing through a series of modern dance tropes (and troupes). Like the lyric, it works very hard to maintain Swift’s carefully nurtured Cult of the Awkward White Girl, alive and well since 2009’s award-winning clip for “You Belong With Me.” As naturally charming as Swift is in the clip, I kind of wish “Shake” had scaled the chart without it, given the ill-conceived segment—widely, and deservedly, eviscerated in the media over the last week—that satirizes post-Miley twerking and in the process dehumanizes that portion’s black dancers, the only twerkers who are literally faceless, much as Miley did. (Memo to Swift, Lily Allen, and anyone else who feels the need to “comment” on twerking in 2014: Don’t replay the exact same offense you’re attempting to skewer.)

While it may seem as if the charts part like the Red Sea for Swift whenever she drops a single, this is just her second Hot 100 chart-topper. Despite four straight multi-platinum albums—three of which debuted at No. 1, the last two with million-copy opening weeks—she is only now emerging as an all-genre pop juggernaut.

Both of Swift’s Hot 100 No. 1s are clearly pop songs, not country tunes. Her first was 2012’s quippy “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” which, like “Shake,” was co-written by Swift with Swedish pop megaproducer/writer Max Martin and his frequent partner Johan “Shellback” Schuster. There have now been four Swift/Martin/Shellback compositions, all radio singles: “Never Ever,” the dubsteppy followup “I Knew You Were Trouble” (which went to No. 2), the pensive-plus-party jam “22,” and “Shake.” Her forthcoming album 1989 is widely expected to feature another raft of Martin/Shellback tracks. (Fun, shocking footnote, by the way: This is Max Martin’s 18th No. 1 hit as a songwriter.* With this, the 43-year-old who wrote such pop dominators as “…Baby One More Time” and “Teenage Dream” moves into third place among the Hot 100’s all-time list of writers of No. 1s. The guys in first and second place? Paul McCartney and John Lennon.)

Crossover is hardly new for Swift. As far back as 2008, she was scoring Top 40 hits with her teen-friendly country songs: That year, the diary entry “Teardrops on My Guitar” broke into the pop Top 20. In 2009, she achieved a rare feat when “You Belong With Me” actually topped Billboard’s all-genre Radio Songs chart, the airplay component of the Hot 100. (On the full, sales-plus-airplay Hot 100, it reached No. 2.)

But in 2012, “Never Ever” was Swift’s first real shot across Nashville’s bow—a warning that she was moving away from twang and embracing the digital thump of Top 40 radio, as Jody Rosen noted in Slate in 2012 when the song hit No. 1. In his 2013 profile of Swift for New York magazine, Rosen chronicled her ongoing, careful overtures to the country establishment, including continued glad-handing of radio programmers. A half-hearted acoustic mix of the super-poppy “Never Ever” was serviced to them in 2012.

But Swift’s relationship to country was changing even while Rosen was penning last year’s profile. Her follow-up hit “I Knew You Were Trouble” was scarcely played at country radio—it spent one week on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart at No. 55—and “22” didn’t chart Country at all. (She kept her profile alive in the genre with the twangier “Red” and a chart-topping duet with Tim McGraw, the country titan she sang about in her very first single, from 2006.) With “Shake,” Swift is severing ties fully—Billboard reports that no country mix of the new song has been made available to country radio, and she has clearly indicated that the new disc 1989, unlike 2012’s transitional Red, will be regarded as her first “pop album.”

It’s hard to overstate how deliberate and carefully planned Swift’s move away from country has been—and how unusual: I compared her to Newton-John, above, because Ms. “Physical” is one of the only examples I can think of where an artist has made this particular country-to-pop pirouette. We’ve seen dozens of country artists enjoy crossover pop stardom—from Johnny Cash to Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton to Faith Hill—but, as the squaredance saying goes, virtually all keep dancing with the one that brung them. And if anything, the trend over the last decade has found erstwhile pop artists moving country’s way. Country will selectively embrace outsiders, but loyalty is prized in Nashville and among country radio programmers, and the genre’s borders have long been zealously policed, as Bruce Feiler reported in his seminal 1998 book Dreaming Out Loud. Whether to cross over at all is so fraught that some of country’s biggest acts—such as George Strait and especially Garth Brooks—have deliberately avoided pop-single releases and Top 40 radio promotion, as if to prove the point that country superstardom is enough of a prize.

Taylor is no Garth: The kind of full crossover she is mounting, while not totally unprecedented, is unique in its overtness and scale. I doubt she’s thinking much about Newton-John, but she surely is drawing inspiration from two more recent crossover females.

The first is ’90s star LeAnn Rimes. Swfit credits Rimes for introducing her to country music as a tween, before she moved to Nashville with her family and got signed. Rimes broke through with 1996’s “Blue,” a Patsy Cline soundalike, before pivoting to the pop album chart and recording one of the longest-lasting Hot 100 hits of all time, the ultra-diva ballad “How Do I Live” (No. 2, 1998, 69 weeks). But after that success, Rimes recorded one poorly received pop album before scurrying back to country. Swift probably regards that too-fast trajectory as a cautionary tale.

The more interesting crossover figure of the last 20 years is Shania Twain, possessor of the second-biggest-selling album of the Nielsen SoundScan era, the 20-times-platinum Come on Over. (She even baked her crossover intentions into the title.) Thanks to the Canadian singer’s then-partnership, both professional and romantic, with hard-rock producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, Twain’s hits sounded less like the Opry and more like Wembley. She only released four studio albums before going on a long hiatus a decade ago, so we’ll never know how far she would have pushed her crossover after a millennial string of hybridized hits. Before she disappeared she dropped three different versions of her last studio album—2002’s Up!—in country, pop and even “International” flavors. Had there been an immediate follow-up, she might’ve dispensed with the country version entirely. Twelve years after Up!, it’s as if Swift is completing what Shania started.

What Swift, Twain, and even Newton-John all have in common is outsider status. They’re arrivistes to country from Pennsylvania, Ontario, and Victoria, respectively, who could take off their cowboy boots as easily as they put them on. In his 2013 Swift profile, Rosen speaks eloquently about Swift’s genuine love of and devotion to country, but also notes that “Nashville turned out to be the perfect staging ground, the ideal base of operations, for Swift’s broader conquest of pop culture.” With her preternatural gift for Music Row–quality melody and lyric, Swift has produced plenty of memorable music over the last half-decade. But for all we know, “Shake It Off” is what she was working toward all along. Taylor might well turn out to be the Gmail of pop music—her first half-decade an improbably long “beta period” before the real, final product shipped.

* Correction, Sept. 2: This post originally said that Max Martin has written or co-written 19 No. 1 hits. According to Billboard, the number is 18.

Chris Molanphy is a feature writer and critic who writes widely about music and the pop charts. Follow him on Twitter.

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