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.”