Once upon a time, a few bubbles ago, pop stars regularly shifted a million units opening week. This was before the industry contracted by half. Who now can remember such splendors? This platinum age was scarcely more than a decade back. Its peak was gilded and precipitous: the five biggest debuts in the history of the music business cluster in an eighteen-month period, four of them within seven months of 2000. ‘N Sync, Britney Spears, Eminem, the Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync again. Call it teenpop, but for Marshall Mathers. Blue-eyed hip-hop, then. It was the most popular music the world has ever known.
As a matter of cultural memory, we seem divided from that moment by the fall of the Twin Towers. In truth, it ends with the tech bust. The popularization of Napster didn’t help the industry, but the sales figures tanked with the plunging NASDAQ charts, the end of the media sector’s merger mania, the fall of AOL/Time Warner. So: two blowouts back. This is how history is punctuated now.
Late last year, something extraordinary happened. Taylor Swift’s Red debuted with US sales of 1,208,000 in the first week. This may be dwarfed by ‘N Sync’s No Strings Attached, which moved 1.1 million alone on Tuesday, March 21, 2000. Within the current landscape, however, Red is a glittering skyscraper, much like Swift herself. She fronts every fashion glossy, globally massive. The phenomenon is bigger than the music industry. It is a boom unto itself.
Swift is blonde and white and in this sense fits the profile. She is life-affirming, stands for personal independence, and appeals achingly to the tween/teen sweet spot. But there matters diverge. One would be hard-pressed to dance to a Taylor Swift song. She does not herself dance much; she is a singer with a band, if by “band” we mean the archaic instrumentation canonized five decades ago. There is precious little borrowed from soul, or funk, or hip-hop—less even than several of her comrades on the country charts.
Is Taylor Swift even a country artist anymore? She has come out the other side. If file sharing is one great fact of the digital age, genre fragmentation is another. Even if country and hip-hop, our two great native forms in their racialized polarity, have preserved better than most their genre status—their coherent fan base—such markers no longer have the power to bear pop stars aloft in the way they once did. Blake Shelton might be the biggest true country star just now; readers are likely to know him as a reality-show judge.
Taylor Swift is something else. For one bright and suspended moment, she has no need of a genre. She is bigger than country, bigger than all that. Her songs circulate across formats; Red is such a magisterial production that she can release multiple singles to radio at one time, “I Almost Do” swiveling from country to adult contemporary while “22” ricochets through the remains of what was once called “chick alt,” even as down the dial the come-hither dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” persists from winter. It begins, “Once upon a time, a few mistakes ago.”
There is no going back. The album and its success do not seem to portend a return to those paroxysms of adventure capital that characterized the turn of the millennium. Pop cannot do that; it is always of its time. Just now, Red is a total fact, the bearer of a broader sense of well-being, of possibility. An album of such scope is always a national allegory of its moment, or a transnational allegory, or—let’s go big—an allegory of the world system.
Recently I have been feeling that Taylor Swift is China. Having shrugged off the decisive genres of communism and capitalism as we understood them back when we believed in guitar solos, the red country is the home of a rocketing GDP, Detroit-size pop-up cities appearing overnight, magisterial production of a sort we barely remember. China’s place in the public imagination is no longer that of the rising threat to a US-centered world; it is the boom we are riding. It is the last best hope to draw us out of the ongoing systemic crisis of capital. It is profligate, prolific; it towers over the landscape. It is a global phenomenon.
But there is a shadow. We can well understand linking one’s sense of industrial well-being to Taylor Swift; there don’t seem to be many others prepared to fly the industry standard. She seems to have paid $17 million in cash for a Rhode Island house. Yet there is not an endless supply of singles; perhaps three more remain. It is not quite visible yet, certainly not obvious—but the great profit center, the bearer of hope and thus of futurity itself, is beginning to reach its limits. Taylor Swift is winding down.
This cross-referencing would be curious, except that pop is defined by this quality—not by sound or genre but precisely by its market magnitude. Because it is simultaneously an aesthetic and economic fact, pop is a vessel for that ineffable but ambient experience: a sort of empathy with the global economy, a world-system affect. We are at the moment in the song where the buoyant production dissolves into mixed signals, the assembly-line beat falling away. China’s expansion slowed sharply last quarter, agitating the world market; unemployment is up, telltale oil and copper purchases down, and speculation overheating. Another bubble ready to pop. It is just about the moment in dubstep called “the drop,” when everything falls on you and things get real ominous and wobbly. Trouble, trouble, trouble.
In the November 14, 2011, installment of Shelf Life, Joshua Clover reviewed Ellen Willis’s Out of the Vinyl Depths, which collects work from her pop years.