Taylor Swift Is Achieving Record-Breaking Success Comparable to Michael Jackson, but Is There a “Billie Jean” Moment in Her Career?

With The Tortured Poets Department, she breaks even more sales records. But is a song like “Fortnight” a lasting smash?

Taylor Swift looks directly at the camera and is wearing lots of black eyeshadow and black lipstick in a black-and-white photo.

Quick pop quiz: Prior to this week, what was Taylor Swift’s last new No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100?

I know, I know … it’s a little hard to keep up with her relentless output. If you are among the Americans only passively aware of Swift’s oeuvre, you might think her last No. 1 was the moody one where she says hi, she’s the problem, it’s her. But “Anti-Hero” hit No. 1 nearly 18 months ago. What about that percolating bop about the hottest days of the year? Improbably, “Cruel Summer” reached No. 1 last fall—not only late for summer, but four years after its original release as a Lover album cut. But nope, there was another new Taylor No. 1 after that.

Here’s the correct answer, in the form of a question: Does anybody remember “Is It Over Now?”

“Is It Over Now?” debuted at No. 1, fueled by the release of Swift’s latest rerecording, 1989 (Taylor’s Version), last November. When that supersized LP reboot arrived to predictably gargantuan sales, one of its bonus tracks “from the vault” benefited from the rising tide. A burbling meditation on lost love, “Over” spent just one week on top. I didn’t bother covering it for this Slate No. 1 hits series, because we’d just covered “Cruel Summer,” and “Over” seemed like a rounding error—a fluky side effect of Swift’s newest album-release gambit, not a hit anyone beyond rabid Swifties would remember by 2024.

How wrong I was! “Over” had legs. It amassed a very respectable 22 weeks on the Hot 100 from mid-November through early April, about half of those weeks in the Top 20. It became a radio smash months after its arrival, peaking in March at No. 3 in all-genre airplay and No. 1 at pure pop stations, the first “Taylor’s Version” track to top radio playlists. (And it’s not like DJs were hurting for Taylor material all those months: “Cruel Summer” is still one of radio’s 10 most played singles.) Though I remain a bit skeptical that “Is It Over Now?” will ever rank highly among the pantheon of Taylor Swift’s greatest hits, it has to be regarded as a legitimate hit, not a barnacle clinging to the hull of Taylor’s pop dominance.

I bring up “Is It Over Now?” to offer a benchmark for assessing the latest flotsam to wash up with a Swift tidal wave: “Fortnight,” a song that happens to be Track 1 on Swift’s new megablockbuster album The Tortured Poets Department, happens to be a duet with Post Malone, happens to be the new track with a music video, and now happens to be No. 1 on the Hot 100.

In short, you don’t need me to tell you why this song is No. 1. It’s obvious. What none of us can answer is whether “Fortnight” will be remembered as a classic Taylor hit or a side effect of Swift’s biggest album launch ever, the moment when she beat her own record by sweeping the Top 14 slots on the Hot 100. Other first singles from prior Swift LPs, like “Look What You Made Me Do,” “Cardigan,” and “Willow” made big Hot 100 splashes but fell off quickly and never became lasting radio hits. Will “Fortnight” go down as an “Anti-Hero,” an “Is It Over Now?,” or a “Look What You Made Me Do”? Could it maybe even be Taylor Swift’s “Billie Jean”?

OK, that last hypothetical is a laugh—“Fortnight” is no “Billie”-style banger—but hold that thought, because someone was just asking recently whether Swift has generated any songs worthy of that Michael Jackson–level cultural footprint. At least in terms of raw numbers, Swift is certainly putting Jacko-level points on the board.

The final tally: In its first week, The Tortured Poets Department shifted a whopping 2.6 million album units, making it her biggest-opening album ever. Depending on how you count, that’s either the second or third biggest opening week in modern Billboard history (after 1991, when the charts became far more accurate). It’s about 800,000 shy of Adele’s 25 opener of 3.4 million in 2015, and just a couple hundred thou higher than the 2.4 million copies of No Strings Attached that ’N Sync sold in 2000. Of course, comparing 2024 numbers to 2000 numbers is apples and oranges—that ’N Sync number was straight CD sales. Nowadays, in Billboard parlance, “album units” include traditional full-album sales plus aggregated streams and downloads of individual tracks—and Tortured Poets was certainly helped by the fact that it’s Swift’s longest album ever at 31 tracks, including its second disc The Anthology. Nonetheless, even limiting Swift’s tally to traditional commerce, her numbers are stunning: Tortured Poets sold 1.91 million copies the old-fashioned way (including an astonishing 859,000 vinyl LPs). That gives her the third biggest pure-sales week ever, behind Adele and ’N Sync. Among Swift’s own sales, Tortured Poets outsold her previous career high, last year’s 1989 (Taylor’s Version), by more than half a million copies.

The streaming numbers were similarly gargantuan. Altogether, Tortured Poets’ 31 tracks racked up 891 million streams—the largest streaming week for an album ever, beating the 25 tracks from Drake’s 2018 album Scorpion by nearly 150 million. Again, album length helped—as country megastar Morgan Wallen showed us by making his last two LPs over 30 songs, more tracks means more streams for the charts. But Swift’s streams per song number was also exceptionally high: “Fortnight” generated 76.2 million streams by itself, edging out Olivia Rodrigo’s big opening week for “Drivers License” three years ago. (The alleged Tay-versus-Liv rivalry persists!) And finally—have I buried the lede?—on the Hot 100, not only does Swift lock down Nos. 1–14, beating her own 2022 record when 10 songs from Midnights blanketed the Top 10. She also debuts all 31 Tortured Poets tracks on the big chart, from “Fortnight” at No. 1 to “Robin” at No. 55, another all-time record for most song debuts by an artist in a single week.

Are you surprised by any of this? I’m not, given the ongoing hegemony of last year’s Time Person of the Year. I’m almost underwhelmed she didn’t lock down chart positions Nos. 1–31! Swift’s second imperial phase is now so outsize and full of superlatives that it’s a bit hard for any of her feats to shock us anymore. (In 2022, when I covered the many chart feats of Midnights, I wrote about how truly gobsmacking it was for a pop hitmaker 17 years into her career to achieve new chart firsts. I’m not gobsmacked anymore.) At a certain point, this makes it hard to judge either the album or its songs as art—even pop art. Like, is “Fortnight” our nation’s No. 1 song only because it leads off Swift’s new behemoth, or is it on top because it’s an exceptional song?

One man’s opinion: Among chart-topping lead singles from Taylor Swift albums—seven of her last eight LPs (all but Lover) led off with a Hot 100 No. 1—“Fortnight” is a little better than average, which makes it a very good song. It’s not quite at the level of “Anti-Hero,” the lead single from Midnights, which boasts some of Swift’s all-time greatest hooks and has added catchphrases to our lexicon, or my sleeper fave “Willow” from Evermore, with hypnotic guitar playing by co-writer-producer Aaron Dessner and a gossamer Swift melody that’s quite literally bewitching. On the other hand, “Fortnight” is a damn sight better than “Look What You Made Me Do” from Reputation, which will remain forever encased in the Swiftian grievances of 2017, and while it’s not as funny as Red’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” it’s also less snarky and self-amused. I’d rank “Fortnight” somewhere between Folklore’s “Cardigan” and 1989’s “Shake It Off”—a moody bop that’s almost as moody as the former, not quite as boppy as the latter.

Coproduced and cowritten by Swift with her longtime trusted collaborator Jack Antonoff, “Fortnight” is sneakily catchy, not unlike “Anti-Hero” the first time you heard it. Riding a heartbeat-pulse synth line, it never tries to break out of its dreamy, listless tempo, which complements the longing and regret in the lyrics. “All my mornings are Mondays stuck in an endless February,” Swift sighs, and “I was a functioning alcoholic ’til nobody noticed my new aesthetic,” and, “I love you, it’s ruining my life.” Tortured poet indeed! The song should probably feature an honorary writing credit for another Antonoff client and Friend of Taylor, Lana Del Rey. With its drowsy vocal phrasing and woozy melody, “Fortnight” is arguably the most LDR–esque hit in Taylor’s history—and I’m counting her actual 2022 Del Rey collaboration “Snow on the Beach,” in which we heard precious little Lana.

Instead, “Fortnight” has its own underused duet partner, the song’s third co-writer, Austin Post, aka Post Malone. But this guest’s limited presence is a plus: There is just enough Post Malone—some fine, gentle harmonizing and a few melancholy vocal lines from him toward the song’s end. I daresay Swift makes better use of Malone than Beyoncé does on Cowboy Carter. (What is it with that dude and regal pop stars this year?!)

This is Post’s first credited Hot 100 No. 1 in nearly five years, since 2019’s “Circles,” and can I take this opportunity to say I called it on this genre charlatan? Long after his bleary mid-’10s chart-toppers “Rockstar” and “Psycho” got him tagged as a “rapper”—I always put that term in scare quotes—Post has finally embraced what he really is and always was, an alt-pop hook boy disguised as a dirtbag rocker. That’s exactly how Swift uses him on “Fortnight,” and he has a bigger presence in the song’s Fritz Lang–indebted, silent-film-style music video than he does in the song, playing the tortured (former? would-be?) lover to Taylor’s mad-bride figure.

The big open question is whether “Fortnight” will wind up a canonical Taylor Swift hit, the kind your parents, or your surly friends who claim to ignore Swift, know exists. Will it reach a Michael Jackson level of cultural ubiquity? That’s the question posed recently by Neil Tennant, the witty frontman of veteran British synthpop duo Pet Shop Boys. The shots were fired—very droll, lowkey shots—around a, um … fortnight ago, tied to the release of the Boys’ own new LP Nonetheless. In a live-audience interview hosted by the Guardian, Swift’s new album came up, and Tennant said mostly kind things about Swift as a cultural spectacle but said his appreciation had limits: “Taylor Swift sort of fascinates me as a phenomenon, because she’s so popular and I sort of quite like the whole thing. But then when I listen to the records … for a phenomenon as big [as she is] … where are the famous songs? What is Taylor Swift’s ‘Billie Jean’?”

Swifties did not take kindly to this opprobrium, and of course the media hyped up the rivalry into Tennant “slamming” and “taking swipes” at our billionaire pop overlord. But I (a Gen-X lover of Pet Shop Boys, so caveat emptor) understood the nuanced point Tennant was making: What are the undeniable Swift hits, the “Dancing Queen” or “Stayin’ Alive” or “…Baby One More Time” that would make even skeptics give it up?

Tennant is not without bona fides. He was a music critic in the early ’80s before he was a pop hitmaker. (Welcome back to our diminished critical world, Neil—you take on Swift, you take your chances.) He is widely credited with coining the now-ubiquitous term “imperial phase” to describe the moment when a pop act can seemingly do no wrong; in fact, I noted Neil’s coinage a full decade ago in this column to describe Swift circa “Blank Space,” which now seems naïve of me, given how doubly imperial she now is. And, the snide Swiftie might ask, what’s Pet Shop Boys’ “Billie Jean,” smartass? That’s easier than they might think: It’d be “West End Girls,” which topped the Hot 100 in 1986 and is still so culturally omnipresent Drake tried to sample it just last year without paying for it. (Did he think it was a public utility?) Still, while “West End Girls” is the canonical Pet Shop Boys hit, I’m not sure even Tennant would argue that it’s “Billie Jean.” However tarnished Michael Jackson is as a public figure, “Billie Jean” is undeniable, so undeniable even queasy Jackson avoiders turn it up or take to the dance floor. Your mom knows “Billie Jean.”

Does Swift, sturdy as her songcraft is, have even one hit that reaches that level? At the Guardian event, one Pet Shop Boys audience member shouted out “Shake It Off,” which … sure, has the mom factor and still makes punny news headlines the way Madonna will never live down “Material Girl,” but I don’t think even Swifties will be insulted when I say “Shake” is far from Taylor’s greatest hit. (Rolling Stone’s resident Swiftie Rob Sheffield ranked it 135th in her 274-song catalog, dead in the middle of the pack.) On the other hand, “All Too Well” is Swift’s most acclaimed hit, a legitimately good song that was the centerpiece of last year’s “Eras” tour. But even after it belatedly topped the Hot 100, the 10-minute heartbreak anthem never became a song you’re likely to hear on the radio, the way you’re likely to hear “American Pie.” Even now, it feels like a closely guarded Swiftie secret.

If I were to answer Neil Tennant, I’d say Taylor Swift’s “famous songs” are “Blank Space,” “Anti-Hero,” and, with an asterisk, “All Too Well.” Decades from now, when Swift’s vast catalog is boiled down to a couple of hits the way Etta James is reduced to “At Last” and Mariah Carey and Brenda Lee are being reduced to their Christmas hits, these are the songs I think will survive the purge. On the other hand … maybe Swift isn’t trying for “Billie Jean.” The whole point of The Tortured Poets Department, fans and critics agree, is that Swift, even after five years of already furious activity, had to get these 31 songs out of her system. The volume is the point. The other widely agreed point is that Tortured Poets grows on you—I already like it better than I did a week ago, and some early potshotters are now partially recanting or even admitting they were too hasty in dismissing it.

I’d say that’s especially true of “Fortnight,” a bleak pop song whose melody has not-so-gradually infected my brain. Like the rest of Swift’s new magnum opus, it’s fan service that’s somewhat inscrutable but also oddly relatable. I don’t think it will ever be—to invoke that tired word that Zillennials now use way too much—iconic. It’s too intentionally small-scale, a piece of mass-appeal termite art. But it didn’t set a one-day Spotify record on the backs of rabid Swifties alone. This is the unique value proposition of Taylor Swift: She takes the songs-in-bulk approach of peak Bob Dylan and achieves the blockbuster stats of peak Michael Jackson. “Fortnight” may not be “Billie Jean,” and it’s certainly not “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but she’s opened up her own blank space in which to write her name.

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