Music

Why Taylor Swift Is Finally Back at No. 1

With Folklore, she figured out the streaming era—and she didn’t even have to turn herself into a rapper.

Taylor Swift in a chunky sweater.
Taylor Swift. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Beth Garrabrant.

Maybe it’s appropriate that, in the dead of August in a year when we mostly can’t leave the house, our No. 1 song has the counterintuitive title “Cardigan.” But then, Taylor Swift has long been the music superstar who made her own weather.

At least, she used to—by topping Billboard’s Hot 100 this week, “Cardigan” represents a bit of a chart comeback for Swift. And the crazy thing is, if critical consensus around her new album Folklore is to be believed, she pulled this off by not trying to have hits anymore.

“Cardigan” not only doesn’t sound like the sort of song that commands the late-summer airwaves. It doesn’t sound like a bid for chart domination, period. Downy, contemplative, and melancholy, with a prickly refrain (“When you are young, they assume you know nothing”), Swift’s sixth career Hot 100 topper—produced and co-written by the National’s Aaron Dessner—feels like a very polished album cut. Which, almost categorically, it is: “Cardigan” leads off a trilogy of Folklore tracks, alongside “August” and “Betty,” that Swift has dubbed her “Teenage Love Triangle.” (The word cardigan even recurs in the lyrics of “Betty.”) The song is built around hypnotically tolling piano, a gently pinging drumbeat, and tasteful strings. The closest thing in “Cardigan” to a Top 40–friendly hook is the way the lyrics of its pre-chorus (“But I knew you/ Dancin’ in your Levi’s/ Drunk under a streetlight”) replicate the cadence of Swift’s swooning, radio-dominating 2015 smash “Wildest Dreams” (“Say you’ll remember me/ Standin’ in a nice dress/ Starin’ at the sunset”). Otherwise, “Cardigan” is—and I say this with admiration—the chamomile tea of pop singles.

You might also say “Cardigan” is the opposite of thirsty—the antidote to whatever “Me!” was. When that eager-to-please collaboration with Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie, the leadoff to last year’s Lover, peaked at No. 2 in the spring of 2019, it became the first lead single from a new Swift album to miss the Hot 100’s top slot since she began pivoting from country to pop eight long years ago, with the chart-topping “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” on 2012’s Red (the track that, as many Folklore reviewers are now reminding you, included the snarky, now-ironic lyric about an ex finding “peace of mind with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”). The leadoff tracks to Swift’s next two albums, 1989’s “Shake It Off” in 2014 and Reputation’s “Look What You Made Me Do” in 2017, also both went immediately to No. 1. “Me!” broke that streak last year, and her second pre-album single, the frothy LGBTQ+ anthem “You Need to Calm Down,” similarly topped out in the runner-up slot. This led to some overheated “Whither Taylor?” coverage (some of which, I’ll admit, I indulged in myself).

The truth is, if Swift hadn’t had the misfortune to launch her Lover campaign in the wake of Lil Nas X’s 19-week juggernaut “Old Town Road,” I would have wound up writing about one or probably both of her 2019 singles for this Slate No. 1 hits series. But when you examine the data behind Billboard’s flagship chart, something subtler is going on with Swift’s return to No. 1. This rustic single from her purportedly anti-careerist album appears to have finally solved a chart conundrum that’s been dogging Swift since the late ’10s. By going Luddite, Swift has actually made one of her most technologically and commercially savvy moves.

About that Billboard data. “Cardigan” hurtles onto the Hot 100 thanks largely to digital consumption, both downloads and streams. For the bulk of her career, dating back to the iTunes Store’s 99-cent heyday, Swift has been a download-selling titan, and “Cardigan” continues the trend, becoming her record 20th top-selling digital song. (Her closest competitor, Rihanna, has had the top download only 14 times.) Swift also has the most-streamed song of the week—including both views of the official video and audio streams. (More on that in a moment.) Swift benefited from an otherwise slow late-summer week—her digital numbers for “Cardigan” aren’t exceptional. She sold 71,000 downloads, a number boosted by first-week sales of limited-edition physical goods bundled with digital downloads (a widespread chart-gaming practice that Billboard is planning to do away with very soon). That’s less than half the 193,000 sales that “Me!” debuted to just last year, but 71,000 is solid in an ever-diminishing market where the top download often sells 20,000 or less, as former dollar-downloaders rapidly switch to streaming services. As for streams, “Cardigan” pulled 34 million, one of the lower chart-topping streaming totals this year, when rappers like Roddy Ricch and Drake have racked up between 50 million and 75 million in a week. Still, considering Swift’s latest hit doesn’t lend itself naturally to TikTok virality (a meme about Harry Styles’ real-life, multicolored cardigan is generating more Toks than Swift’s metaphorical “Cardigan”), the fact that she leads the streaming survey is fairly impressive.

It’s the third component of the Hot 100, radio airplay, where “Cardigan’s” numbers are most muted—and that’s revelatory both for this hit and the trend on Swift in general. You might expect a song this downbeat and emo to be a tough sell at hit-driven radio. Really, it’s best suited to the Adult Album Alternative radio format, not Top 40. Sure enough, Billboard reports that “Cardigan” didn’t generate enough airplay in its first full week to make even the bottom rungs of the magazine’s all-genre Radio Songs chart. Because she’s Taylor Swift, the song does open to 12.7 million in radio audience in its first full week. But that’s not only small for an airplay hit—radio’s current top hit, the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” has an audience of 76.2 million—it’s also a slow start for Swift: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” premiered with 52 million, “Shake It Off” with 71 million, and “Look What You Made Me Do” with 64 million. The fact is, in the era of downbeat trap music, Swift is not the automatic add for broadcasters that she once was, and that’s been true for a few years now: 2017’s “… Ready for It?,” 2018’s “End Game,” 2019’s “You Need to Calm Down” and “Lover,” and early 2020’s “The Man” all topped out on Radio Songs below the Top 10. Simply put, Swift’s been trying to scale the Hot 100 for about three years now with one hand tied behind her back.

That hasn’t been her only chart disadvantage. The wholesale shift in the music industry’s economic model over the past decade—from selling stuff to streaming stuff—has been tough on the Taylor Swift approach. What made Swift the queen of the charts in the first half of the ’10s was her ability to still sell CDs when almost no one else was (even if that meant partnering with promotional partners like Target and Papa John’s) and sell downloads of her tracks the minute they dropped. But after 2015 or so, selling music in virtually any fashion became old-hat. Swift was always great at event-izing her releases, setting up Red and 1989 and Reputation and their respective singles with breadcrumb trails of fan-stoking content that built excitement for a purchase. But in the consumption era of the charts—where hits are made through aggregations of millions of tiny streams, not thousands of credit-card transactions—the rhythm of a superstar release has changed radically.

Enter Folklore, Swift’s eighth album but her first to receive a surprise release, with no traditional setup. Seven years after Beyoncé changed the game with her 2013 self-titled album, surprise releases are not novel anymore. Especially in hip-hop: For rappers from Drake to Lil Uzi Vert, the surprise drop is now virtually the norm. But it’s all new for Swift, completely off-cycle from her normal, every-two-years album release schedule—a timetable she followed rigorously, from 2006’s Taylor Swift through last year’s Lover, save for an anomalous three-year gap between 1989 and Reputation.

Famously, Folklore is Swift’s pandemic album, thrown together unusually quickly (for her) while the world was on lockdown. In the two weeks since the album dropped, a narrative has emerged: not only that its bucolic sound is inspired by Swift’s burst of quarantine creativity, but that sonically and spiritually it is intended to blow up her former big machine (pun intended) approach. Critics are endorsing this narrative. “What if we had a music industry that didn’t demand singles?” Pitchfork associate editor Anna Gaca asks rhetorically on a recent episode of the Pitchfork Review podcast discussing Folklore. “I don’t think you’ll see Taylor chasing … like, quasi-contemporary pop hits anymore,” says New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica on his Popcast. Implicit in these comments is the idea that Swift, in her 30s, has entered a “Beyoncé phase” where she no longer needs pop hits to command the cultural conversation.

But what if Swift pulled a Beyoncé and got the big hits anyway? One of Swift’s many headlines in chartland this week is the fact that she is the first artist to debut at No. 1 on both the Billboard 200 album chart and the Hot 100 in the same week. That’s amazing—but on the album chart, there was never any suspense. Swift still sells albums better than anybody. In 2019, Lover was quietly the top-selling album of the year. (At least in terms of old-fashioned sales. Factoring in streams, as per the Billboard 200’s modern formula, the album ranked a still-impressive fourth for 2019.) So of course Folklore was going to open big on the Billboard 200. No, the shocker—what makes that Billboard 200–Hot 100 double command impressive—is that the moody “Cardigan” also entered on top.

But the breakdown of the song’s streams suggest this is in fact a new-model Taylor, not the Imperial Swift of 2014. One thing to keep in mind about Billboard’s ranking of Streaming Songs is that it combines both audio streams on services such as Spotify and video streams, mostly from YouTube. And Swift, heretofore, has over-relied on video to score her big hits. (Remember, also, that for about three years in the mid-’10s, Swift had pulled all her music from Spotify.) Over the past eight years, anytime Swift has had a big streaming hit, it’s been goosed by one of her glossy, megabudget music videos, like “Blank Space” or especially “Bad Blood,” which was launched like a Hollywood summer blockbuster. The week in 2015 that “Blood” vaulted to No. 1 on the Hot 100, Billboard reported that literally 99 percent of its streaming activity came from views of that music video. As late as last year, videos were still vital to Swift’s Hot 100 performance: The video for “Me!” launched to record YouTube views, which accounted for a large proportion of her chart points the week the song vaulted to No. 2.

“Cardigan” also launched with a dreamlike and very on-brand–for-Taylor music video. Conceived and directed by Swift with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, the clip is remarkably glossy and ambitious, considering it was made under strict social-distancing rules. But for all that effort, the video has been less essential to the song’s chart command than usual for Swift. “Cardigan” launched as only the sixth-biggest music video on YouTube for the week, with strong but not record-breaking views.

As it turns out, Swift’s command of Billboard’s streaming tally, and hence the Hot 100, is largely driven by straight-up audio streams. In other words, the video wasn’t that big of a deal, because the surprise drop of the album’s audio was the event. Billboard maintains a separate On-Demand Songs chart that isolates audio streaming data at places like Spotify and Apple Music, sans video, and “Cardigan” is tops on that chart. Indeed, that chart’s Top 20 this week is 65 percent Swift songs—almost every song on Folklore—the sort of dominant streaming performance we normally expect from a returning rapper debuting with his new project.

In other words, Taylor Swift has finally decoded how you score big hits in the age of Spotify—and she did it not with the album where she tried to beef like a rapper but the album where she turned inward and “indie.” The sound of the music mattered less than the way Swift rolled it out: dropping it like a Zeitgeist-sweeping bomb rather than a weekslong campaign. Don’t be surprised if “Cardigan” is out of the No. 1 spot in a week or two, maybe even with a steep drop-off after the initial wave of curiosity. In the absence of heavy radio play, it might be out of the Top 40 by the time actual sweater weather rolls in … but then, in the time of corona, cardigan season is year-round. Months from now—to paraphrase the chart topper’s chorus—you might find this old song under your bed, put it on, and say it’s your favorite.