“So, are you gonna be writing about Bob Dylan’s No. 1 song?” my rather giddy father asked me on the phone one day, a little over a year and a half ago. “Isn’t that what you write about?”
I had to patiently explain to Dad that, no, I would not be writing about Mr. Zimmerman, despite all the headlines trumpeting Dylan’s first! ever! No. 1 song! The chart that Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” topped in April 2020 was not Billboard’s flagship Hot 100, but rather Rock Digital Song Sales. That chart, which is not even published in the magazine, is a niche of a niche: It ranks, among that week’s best-selling downloads, just the songs Billboard says qualify as “rock,” which can mean anything from REO Speedwagon to Coldplay. And it’s only downloads, not streams; given how deeply the dollar-download has declined since the mid-’10s, a few thousand copies are enough to top this chart. For that one week early in the pandemic, Bob the Bard sold about 9,800 copies of his quirky, JFK-conspiracist epic at iTunes, enough to give Dylan his first No. 1 on any Billboard song chart, ever—a chart that didn’t even exist when he was flipping signs in an alleyway next to Allen Ginsberg.
As I was clarifying this minutia and utterly killing Dad’s buzz, I said something to this effect: “Slate only has me write about No. 1s on the Hot 100. And trust me, Dad, songs over 10 minutes don’t top the Hot 100.”
For Thanksgiving this year, I’m eating a bit of humble pie. Maybe a 17-minute song by Bob Dylan, musing about JFK, the Eagles and Billy Joel, doesn’t top the Hot 100. But a 10‑minute song by Taylor Swift, musing about Jake Gyllenhaal and a scarf? No. 1 across the USA.
A very bespoke combination of factors aligned to make “All Too Well” (I’ll get to its full title shortly) our new No. 1 song. First, it’s by one of music’s über-stars. This star was pissed off enough about her storied song catalog being sold out from under her to reassert control of it by rerecording her early albums. Said star not only has the resources to do this but also happens to be a marketing genius, able to present this prosaic copyright gambit as a sales-juicing cultural event. It so happens that one of these rerecorded, culturally ubiquitous albums contains a fan-favorite song that had never lived up to its commercial potential (and was initially not even perceived as commercial) but had quietly grown in estimation over the course of a decade. That song also happens to be a juicy roman à clef about a dramatic breakup with a movie star, spiked with a young-woman-wronged storyline that has taken on new, post–#MeToo resonance. Further, there’s a semi-secret version of this song that has never before been revealed, one that’s twice as long—and that extra five minutes of song contains deep-cut lyrics implying new revelations about the decade-old breakup with the celebrity dude (who, BTW, is still a pretty major star 10 years later—that doesn’t hurt).
Finally, our marketing-genius music star pours gasoline over the unveiling of her supersized song with a well-timed Saturday Night Live performance—she has the clout to command 10 solid minutes of NBC airtime, playing the entirety of the rebooted tune live on the air—while standing in front of a glossy music video of the new version that she herself directed, which she has dubbed All Too Well: The Short Film.
NBC should have flashed a subtitle while Taylor performed on SNL, as a disclaimer to other musicians: “PROFESSIONAL DRIVER ON A CLOSED COURSE. DO NOT ATTEMPT.” Because I’m not sure anybody besides her could pull this off. Maybe not even Adele: The British thrush was expected to dominate all week thanks to her feverishly anticipated album 30, her Oprah special–cum–televised concert and her chart-dominating smash “Easy on Me,” which had already commanded the Hot 100 for four weeks and looked to keep doing so through the holidays. Nope—Swift ejected Adele from the Hot 100’s perch. That will probably only last a week; 30 is already dominating in sales before its first week is even over, will top the Billboard 200 album chart handily when it’s announced next week, and will likely pull “Easy” back up the Hot 100 in its wake. But still: Taylor interrupted Adele’s march through the center of our cultural conversation. That’s a major flex.
Even among Swift’s deep trove of songs, “All Too Well” has long been unique. Not in terms of subject matter—the fact that its lyrics searingly capture a breakup makes it one of many Tay-Tay compositions to mine that topic. No, it’s unusual in that even the self-aware Swift appeared not to fully appreciate its potential at first. It’s beautifully crafted, with a slow-growing anthemic quality, a memorable melody and a lyric even more incisive than her usual; “You call me up again just to break me like a promise/ So casually cruel, in the name of being honest” still doubles me over. But “All Too Well” went relatively unremarked upon when Swift’s 2012 album Red arrived. (Props to critic Brad Nelson, who recognized in a 2012 Atlantic feature on Red that the song was “Swift’s finest narrative” and the infamous scarf its narrator leaves at the boyfriend’s sister’s house was “a Chekhov’s gun.”)
“All Too Well” was not issued as one of the album’s official radio singles in 2012–13. It was neither fish nor fowl at a moment when Swift was carefully pivoting from country to pop— sturdy like a country story-song, but built like a pop-rock anthem. Produced not by her new collaborator Max Martin (who co-wrote Red’s leadoff smash “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and the dubsteppy follow-up “I Knew You Were Trouble”), “All Too Well” was instead helmed by her stalwart Nashville producer Nathan Chapman and co-written by her longtime country-hitmaking collaborator Liz Rose. As an unpromoted album cut, it only reached No. 80, unremarkable at a time when Swift’s digital songs would regularly spend a week or two on the Hot 100 thanks to dollar downloads by rabid fans. Even the fans hadn’t homed in on it yet.
But they began to scream loudest for it in concert, years after Swift had moved onto other albums and bigger hits. The earliest indication that Swift recognized what a heartbreak-banger it was came at the 2014 Grammy Awards, where Red was up for Album of the Year (it didn’t win), and Taylor gave a head-thrashing, piano-pounding performance of the song. Critics at the time regarded the fiery rendition as lovably peculiar.
“All Too Well” then became that rare thing—what “Vienna” is to Billy Joel, or “Landslide” to Fleetwood Mac: the deep cut anointed by fans, a stealth hit everyone assumes was a real hit all along. By the late ’10s, it was routinely topping rankings of Swift’s best songs. In a way, it was no surprise Swift would give it special treatment when she selected Red as the next in her series of early-album re-recordings. And when she revealed that it was originally several minutes longer—with many more verses that she ultimately pared back, as if it was her take on Leonard Cohen’s originally 80-verse “Hallelujah”—the yearning to hear the full-length version took on its own momentum. Of course, it was widely expected that Red (Taylor’s Version), the re-recording of Swift’s 2012 blockbuster, packed with bonus tracks “from the vault,” would sell like crazy, and predictably it did. But a new No. 1 song, one so long most Top 40 radio stations won’t play it? Yeah, I wouldn’t have bet on that. But here we are.
I wasn’t exactly wrong when I told Dad 10-minute-plus songs don’t top the Hot 100. Until now, none has. But in most ways that matter when it comes to the charts, Taylor is the exception. That’s a word that the great, out-of-print documentary The Compleat Beatles used to describe “Hey Jude,” the first supersized single to top the Hot 100 way back in 1968. “At seven minutes, it was more than double the length of most singles,” Compleat narrator Malcolm McDowell intones. “Radio stations usually refused to play a record that lasted more than three. But once again, the Beatles were the exception to the rule: ‘Hey Jude’ became their largest-selling single of all.” Indeed, “Jude” spent nine weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100, longer than any Beatles single both in chart dominance and running time. And among all No. 1 hits, until this week, “Hey Jude” was the largest undivided song to top the Hot 100.
I include that qualifier because, technically, another No. 1 hit was even longer: Don McLean’s 1972 stemwinder “American Pie.” No one disputes that McLean’s song, in its canonical version, ran longer: “Jude” was 7:11, “Pie” was 8:37. The debate arises over which single version topped the Hot 100. A nearly nine-minute song wouldn’t fit on one side of a 45-RPM vinyl single. So the retail version of “American Pie” was issued as a split single, with “Part I” of the song (running 4:11) on the A side and “Part II” (4:23) on the B side—and strictly speaking, this is the single that topped the Hot 100. Radio stations hardly ever play half of the song, though. The full LP version of “Pie” is basically a radio staple. Still, as recently as 2019, when I asked a couple of chart historians on Twitter to settle the question of what the Hot 100 No. 1 with the longest track length was, there was no consensus; Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits author Fred Bronson admitted it was a “gray area.”
So Taylor’s new smash, running 10:13, should settle the debate, right? More or less, although there’s yet another asterisk. Similar to “American Pie,” we can’t attribute all of the Taylor song’s chart points to its fullest-length version. As it routinely does with remixes and radio edits, Billboard combines sales, streams and airplay of both the five-minute and 10-minute editions of “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)”—as well as the clean version that eliminates Swift’s newly revealed F-bomb, and the “Sad Girl Autumn Version.” (In case you’re wondering, Billboard chart tabulator MRC Data tracks the 2012 original version separately; the new Hot 100 berth is for all flavors of the Taylor’s Version rerecordings only, which I’m sure Swift feels is just.) Among all of the versions, Billboard reports that the longer mixes of “All Too Well” handily outsold and outstreamed the short versions—to be exact, 62% of streams and 78% of the download sales were for the 10-minute editions. On the Hot 100 itself, Billboard shows the chart-topping title only as “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version).” But the thrust of the song’s success is that of “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault)”—and yes, that is the full name. (Fellow chart geeks are now debating whether this triple-parenthetical is a record.) So … if the official version of Taylor’s No. 1 hit is an amalgam of all versions, short and long, but the 10-minute version sold and streamed the most, does Swift finally beat Don McLean and the Beatles for longest No. 1 hit? A qualified yes, I’d say.
In any case, it’s clear that curiosity about the supersized version was what drove Taylor’s reboot to the top. Its No. 1 debut was overwhelmingly driven by digital consumption. “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” sold almost 59,000 digital tracks, which is not a BTS number but is blockbuster-level by the current diminished standards of the dollar-download. It racked up 54.4 million streams, driven not only by Spotify consumption but tens of millions of views of the video—err, The Short Film. The strength of these two metrics was essential, because the song’s radio airplay is anemic: a first-week radio audience of just 286,000, a fraction of a typical top-ranked airplay hit. (For comparison, this week’s Radio Songs leader, the Kid Laroi’s “Stay” featuring Justin Bieber, racked up an audience of 87 million.) If you’re wondering what kind of radio station in 2021 would spin a track whose new flagship version is longer than “Stairway to Heaven,” Billboard reports that only four pop stations nationwide put it in anything resembling a rotation. You probably won’t hear the 10-minute “All Too Well” at the drugstore anytime soon.
And does that matter? The Hot 100 functions best when its top slot aligns with the song that feels like the most dominant—whether that’s “WAP” or “Old Town Road” or “Shallow”—even if a lot of that chatter is extramusical. And last week, it did feel like everybody, most especially the Very Online, was talking about “All Too Well”: both the Jake of it all (and the Maggie of it all) as much as the song’s graceful pop hooks. Of course, a large faction of Taylor Swift fans has spent much of the last decade thinking and talking about “All Too Well.” As far as they are concerned, this No. 1 ranking only ratifies what they’ve long believed: this song is a smash. But really, that’s a bonus—it’s important to keep in mind that the Billboard charts measure popularity one week at a time. They’re not meant to track the slow coalescing of popularity over the course of years or decades. (Despite everything that’s happened to it in the 21st century, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” is still recorded in chart histories as a mere No. 9 hit in 1981.)
Maybe “All Too Well’s” command is just a brief interregnum in the pop conversation surrounding our prodigal pop overlord Adele. But give it up for Taylor: She played the game better than anybody last week. And as she says, we love the game.