Music

How Taylor Swift Achieved the Unthinkable

The Beatles’ record once seemed unbeatable, and then Swift doubled it. But this unprecedented debut was planned weeks in advance.

A photo shows Taylor Swift on stage smiling in a sparkly black shirt that has one long sleeve and otherwise shows one totally bare arm. In front of her, a white acoustic guitar, a microphone, and—photoshopped in the corner—a logo says "Why Is This Song No. 1?" with a little hand making the sign for the number 1
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images.

You may have heard that, this week, one artist—a notorious cat-lover with an increasingly foul mouth—has locked down the entire Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Before I dissect how this happened, gather ’round the campfire, kids, while I tell you a story from long, long ago, a time when this singer-songwriter had yet to score her first Top 10 pop hit. (Were we ever that young?)

In the spring of 2008, a former bartender from Missouri named David Cook, who had never appeared on the Hot 100 before, suddenly crash-landed with 11 chart debuts all at once. This instantly placed Cook second on the all-time list of most simultaneous chart entries in a single week—behind only the Beatles, who, one week in 1964, at the peak of Beatlemania, managed 14 simultaneous charting songs. OK, sure, Cook was no ordinary ex-barkeep: He had just taken the crown in the seventh season of American Idol, the top-rated program on television. Since it launched in 2002, Idol had proven itself a juggernaut, minting pop stars including Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, and Carrie Underwood. But no previous Idol winner had generated that many Hot 100 hits—not even cumulatively. How did this grungy, goateed dude (David Cook was certainly a charmer but would not go down in history as the most celebrated Idol victor) rack up nearly a dozen Hot 100 hits in a single week, coming within spitting distance of an all-time Beatles record?

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It was the data, stupid: Before the ’08 season, the Idol producers signed a deal with Apple’s iTunes Music Store, the 800-pound gorilla of digital hitmaking in the years before Spotify. For the first time that season, Idol contestants’ songs would be available for 99-cent purchase the same week they were performed on the show. But there was a catch: Idol got Apple to agree not to release sales data on these songs, either on its own iTunes charts or to Billboard. The TV producers didn’t want weekly sales totals to skew fans’ perceptions of the contenders’ chances, affect phone-in voting, or generally spoil the reality show’s final result. Only the week the show ended could Apple share sales results for these Idol entrants. So when Cook was announced as the Season 7 winner, the songs he’d been performing all season got a massive boost at iTunes—and for the first time, this data was shared with Billboard. For the week ending June 7, 2008, Cook blanketed the Hot 100, from “The Time of My Life” at No. 3 to “I’m Alive” at No. 99. Other than “Life,” Cook’s Idol coronation song, none of these were enduring hits—eight were off the chart the next week. The guy who had briefly threatened to top the Beatles scored just two more Top 40 hits in 2008 and ’09 and then never cracked the Hot 100 again.

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Now, I admit, David Cook is not remotely analogous to Taylor Swift career-wise. Swift is one of our most enduring music stars—along with Drake, basically the biggest hit-generator of the past decade. Her skillful, savvy, and very commercial songwriting, not a reality show, is the engine of her enduring success. Nonetheless, David Cook’s fluke chart story is useful to keep in mind as we assess Swift’s Hot 100 carpet-bombing this week—led off by her new No. 1 hit, “Anti-Hero.” As good as Swift’s songs are, like Cook, she is achieving a Beatles-level chart feat thanks to the vagaries of data delivery and how Billboard’s charts work now.

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“Anti-Hero” is the official lead single from Swift’s 10th studio album Midnights, which has been dominating the cultural conversation across generations since it arrived two Fridays ago. Indeed, ever since she announced it back in September on the MTV Video Music Awards, anticipation for the album has been high, as is true anytime Swift announces new music—or even rerecordings of her old music. Every Taylor Swift album since Fearless in 2008 has topped the Billboard 200 album chart with blockbuster numbers, so of course Midnights was bound to do the same.

Except Midnights did more than “the same.” By several metrics, it’s Swift’s biggest-opening album of all time, which is mind-blowing for someone in her 17th year as a recording artist. Forget the Beatles, who barely lasted a decade together. To find parallels, you have to point to acts like Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, or Diana Ross, all of whom started young like Swift and were still achieving personal bests on the charts deep into their second decade as recording artists. All of these artists—Swift too, I’d argue—were geniuses, and in the balance of art and commerce that is hitmaking, their ability to read the room culturally and shift artistically was essential to their endurance. But none of these acts, not even Jackson, played the commerce side of the equation better than Swift has. Those who call her a musical wunderkind are right. Those who call her a cold-blooded marketing tactician are also right. Just look at the results.

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Midnightsopening album-chart tally of 1.578 million is the highest week of Swift’s career, if you go by Billboard’s modern album-chart methodology that combines sales and streams. Isolating just traditional sales, Swift sold 1.14 million copies, which is just a tad fewer than 2012’s Red, 2014’s 1989, and 2017’s Reputation but is—for 2022—an absurdly strong number now that few albums sell, period, and even Adele can’t sell a million a week anymore. Midnights even set a new 21st-century benchmark for vinyl sales, moving 575,000 LPs, the highest weekly total for any wax disc in the modern era, not only since vinyl’s “comeback” but since Billboard computerized its charts in 1991.

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And then there’s the little matter of Swift sweeping the Top 10 of the Hot 100, the chart I more typically cover in this Slate series. As I examined one year ago in this space, Drake came close to pulling this off, capturing nine out of the Top 10 the week his Certified Lover Boy album arrived, including the No. 1 lead single “Way 2 Sexy.” The only thing preventing Drake from sweeping the region was the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber’s smash former No. 1 “Stay,” which stubbornly clung to the No. 6 spot.

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Nothing held back Swift the week Midnights showed up this year. “Unholy,” the Sam Smith–Kim Petras chart-topper I wrote about just one week ago, slid all the way to No. 11, as Swift’s streams and sales were orders of magnitude bigger than Smith’s and Petras’s. In case you’re curious—maybe you’ve been picking your own Midnights favorites and duds—here’s how America ranked its all-Taylor Top 10: at No. 10, “Vigilante Shit”; No. 9, “Karma”; No. 8, “You’re on Your Own, Kid”; No. 7, “Question…?” (which, thanks to a late-in-the-week acoustic instrumental remix Swift posted for sale in her webstore, was the top-selling download this week but only the 10th-biggest stream); No. 6, “Bejeweled”; No. 5, “Midnight Rain”; No. 4, the Lana Del Rey collaboration “Snow on the Beach”; No. 3, “Maroon”; No. 2, “Lavender Haze”; and No. 1, “Anti-Hero.” Given Midnights’ consistent, burbly-electro, Chvrches-lite sound, it’s tempting to assume any of its songs could have wound up No. 1. (I’m a little bummed the sad-but-perky “Karma,” which has been stuck in my head for days, didn’t place a little higher.)

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But about “Anti-Hero”: As my colleague Carl Wilson points out in his Midnights review, it really sneaks up on you. As leadoff singles from Swift albums go, it’s no “Love Story,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” or “Shake It Off” in the radio-obviousness department. (As several critics, Wilson included, have also pointed out, it’s no “Me!”, thank God.) On first listen, it feels like a therapy session on wax, more akin to Folklore’s downy “Cardigan” or Evermore’s diaphanous “Willow” as a commercial prospect. (Both of those singles topped the Hot 100 in their respective first weeks but never became big pop radio hits.) Like Drake’s “Way 2 Sexy,” which got the glossy music-video treatment and a radio push, “Anti-Hero” was tapped as the designated emphasis track—a “single,” if I may use that now-outmoded term. The “Anti-Hero” video is also a gas, joining “Blank Space” and “Delicate” in the pantheon of funny-emo Taylor Swift clips as it depicts the attending-your-own-funeral fantasy she sings about on the song’s bridge, with a cast of comic actors (Mike Birbiglia, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, John Early) clawing each other’s eyes out.

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But the song does matter. It’s got a typically well-crafted Swiftian melody, and once that conversational refrain—“It’s me, hi. I’m the problem, it’s me”—connects with your lizard brain, you understand why “Anti-Hero” is not only the album’s centerpiece but an irresistible hit. The first-week chart data ratifies this: nearly 60 million streams (more than 40 percent higher than the second-ranked “Lavender Haze,” even though “Haze” had the advantage of being the album’s opening track), 13,500 in download sales, and a first-week radio audience of 32 million. That airplay figure is the most impressive, as “Anti-Hero” blasts in at No. 13 on the Radio Songs chart, the highest start for a Swift single at radio ever.

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Still, even if “Anti-Hero” is a deserving hit, locking down the entire Top 10 feels like overkill on Swift’s part. That is a literally Beatlesque achievement—or, more like a double-Beatle. As any chart fan will tell you, perhaps the Beatles’ most cherished Hot 100 record is its April 4, 1964 lockdown of the entire Top Five. For those who need a recap, I broke down the fluky set of circumstances that led to that sweep in an early Hit Parade episode as well as last year’s article about when Drake equaled the Fabs’ Top Five sweep and went 9 for 10 in the winners’ circle. Now Swift has topped both the Beatles and Drake.

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You might be asking: With this album, really? 17 years into Swift’s career? The reviews are in, from fans and critics alike, and few seem to think Midnights is Swift’s very best album. I put it in the upper-middle of the pack, myself (right around 1989 but below Red and Folklore). Every Swiftie I’ve read or talked to in the last fortnight has their own rankings, and nobody seems to agree on what Midnights’ best or worst songs are. So why did this album pull off these dramatic chart feats? Some of it is Swift being the permanently Imperial star she is. Some of it is easier competition—radio ratings are down post-pandemic, and so “Anti-Hero” opened to a bigger reception than it might have a decade ago (back in 2014, “Shake It Off” didn’t start as high on the airplay chart, but its first full week generated a much bigger radio audience in absolute terms).

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But overall, as I said above about David Cook: It’s the data, stupid. We are now nearly 20 years into the digital era in the music business—the unbundling of the album into collections of tracks in which all songs behave like singles. Starting in 2003, the iTunes Music Store made it possible for fans to buy songs one download at a time, and all of those purchases were tracked. Starting in 2005, Billboard began counting those purchase on the Hot 100. Within a couple of years, certain hit acts could debut multiple tracks on the chart at once—say, a lucky bartender from Missouri who just won American Idol. Or a rising teen country star with pop crossover dreams—just a few months after David Cook’s hit explosion, an 18-year-old Taylor Swift dropped her 2008 album Fearless and placed seven songs on the Hot 100. By allowing any track to chart—not just the official singles—we were redefining what a hit song meant.

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All this was years before Spotify was a gleam in Daniel Ek’s eye. The arrival of Ek’s music service in America in 2011, and the 2012 addition of Spotify data to the Billboard charts, added jet fuel to this fire. Now we were counting not just the sale of a song but every time you streamed it on Spotify. This has upended what we know about the rhythms and patterns of hitmaking. If you’ve been reading this Slate series a while, you know I’ve written a lot about seemingly unprecedented things topping the charts: decades-old Christmas songs, Oscar bait, Disney ensembles, a previously overlooked song from the ’80s, a biting satire about racism or a snarky satire about the Old West. In each case, without streaming, these songs’ chart feats would have been either much tougher or impossible.

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Taylor Swift, star pupil, has watched all of this evolution in how technology and the charts work and adjusted her approach accordingly. When the download was king in the late ’00s, she promoted new albums like Fearless and Speak Now by dropping pre-album singles like breadcrumb trails. In the early ’10s, Swift, famously, wasn’t a fan of streaming: In 2014, at the height of her pop-pivoting album 1989, she pulled all of her music from Spotify. She was striking a blow for artists’ rights, but she also had a vested interest in the traditional way of selling CDs and downloads, given how good she was at it. No streams back then meant stronger disc sales, and Swift was rewarded with sales for 1989 that instantly overtook every other album released that year.

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Eventually sensing that she couldn’t fight the way the winds were blowing, Swift began to relent on streaming around the time of 2017’s Reputation. She allowed its leadoff single “Look What You Made Me Do” to stream on Spotify, where it of course broke records, while her album sales fell off only slightly. Three years later, near the start of the pandemic, Swift tried a Beyoncé-style “surprise drop” of Folklore and Evermore—yet another ’10s tactic that digital music had made possible. Sales for that pair of alt-rock-adjacent LPs, recorded with indie titan Aaron Dessner of the National, were somewhat more modest, but with music consumption in general depressed at the height of COVID, both albums and their leadoff singles pulled off the previously unthinkable feat of debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 simultaneously. Finally, in 2021, when she started her “Taylor’s Version” project of rerecording her old albums to wrest control of their copyright, she found fans were willing to pay a premium for vinyl. Both Evermore and Fearless (Taylor’s Version) went back to No. 1 months after their initial digital sales bursts, when Team Taylor was able to get overtaxed vinyl plants to press LP editions. Then, for Red (Taylor’s Version), Swift’s minions got vinyl pressings ready for the week of release, and her opening-week tally was even higher.

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So, finally, we arrive at Midnights, whose triumph I can best describe as the result of a winning formula—picture Swift in a lab coat, tipping test tubes—painstakingly concocted from every sales tactic that’s ever worked for her. She’s learned that the surprise-drop approach is good for chart explosions but less good for full-disc sales, so she split the difference on Midnights by preannouncing the album like the old days but withholding all of the tracks—even “Anti-Hero”—until the night of release. As with Red (Taylor’s Version), Team Taylor made sure vinyl of Midnights was available on day one, leading to that record-smashing LP sales figure. (The signed CDs also didn’t hurt, nor did the fact that her most rabid fans were encouraged to pick up four different LP or CD versions whose back covers formed a clock face.) Swift offered certain Midnights tracks in special download editions, a very late-’00s move which piled even more sales into the first week. And as for streaming, rather than fighting the Spotify Industrial Complex like she did in the mid-’10s, Swift is making it work for her—withholding all Midnights tracks until that first night meant opening streams were gargantuan. Topping it all off, the wee-hours release of seven bonus tracks as Midnights (3am Edition) ensured even more consumption. All of this made both her all-time-best opening album tally and her sweeping of the Hot 100’s Top 10 not only possible but just about inevitable.

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But maybe she didn’t have to work that hard! Drake nearly swept the entire Top 10 a year ago, and nobody thinks Certified Lover Boy was his most inspired album—nor did Drake offer all those vinyl, CD, and download options. No, Drake and Swift are also setting new records because the digital age offers so many more ways to set records. This is why I bring up the fluke of David Cook—a guy who was in the right place at the right time, with the right set of iTunes/Idol rules, to nearly topple the Beatles. Drake and Swift actually did topple the Beatles! That’s what I mean by “It’s the data, stupid”: The charts are a game whose rules keep evolving. Picture a version of baseball with not only more games in a season and performance-enhancing drugs but … like, a way to round the bases multiple times when you hit a homer. That’s the sport being played now by Drizzy and TayTay.

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All of which kind of overshadows “Anti-Hero,” a damned good Taylor Swift song that, on its own merits, probably could have scaled the charts the old-fashioned way. When I mentioned the Beatles’ Top Five sweep earlier, I failed to mention the song that was No. 1 that fabled week in April 1964: “Can’t Buy Me Love,” a fine piece of Paul McCartney popcraft. The big difference is that “Can’t” came in the Fabs’ first flush of success, when they were still in their early twenties. “Anti-Hero” arrives when Taylor Swift is a grizzled 32-year-old veteran of the chart wars who keeps refining her attack. Contrary to the opening lyric of her latest No. 1 hit—“I have this thing where I get older, but just never wiser”—Swift lied: She got older, and she got wiser.

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