Possibly it’s acceptable that, within the lifeless of August in a yr after we principally can’t go away the home, our No. 1 music has the counterintuitive title “Cardigan.” However then, Taylor Swift has lengthy been the music celebrity who made her personal climate.
A minimum of, she used to—by topping Billboard’s Sizzling 100 this week, “Cardigan” represents a little bit of a chart comeback for Swift. And the loopy factor is, if essential consensus round her new album Folklore is to be believed, she pulled this off by not attempting to have hits anymore.
“Cardigan” not solely doesn’t sound just like the kind of music that instructions the late-summer airwaves. It doesn’t sound like a bid for chart domination, interval. Downy, contemplative, and melancholy, with a prickly chorus (“When you find yourself younger, they assume you understand nothing”), Swift’s sixth profession Sizzling 100 topper—produced and co-written by the Nationwide’s Aaron Dessner—looks like a really polished album reduce. Which, virtually categorically, it’s: “Cardigan” leads off a trilogy of Folklore tracks, alongside “August” and “Betty,” that Swift has dubbed her “Teenage Love Triangle.” (The phrase cardigan even recurs within the lyrics of “Betty.”) The music is constructed round hypnotically tolling piano, a gently pinging drumbeat, and tasteful strings. The closest factor in “Cardigan” to a Prime 40–pleasant hook is the best way the lyrics of its pre-chorus (“However I knew you/ Dancin’ in your Levi’s/ Drunk beneath a streetlight”) replicate the cadence of Swift’s swooning, radio-dominating 2015 smash “Wildest Goals” (“Say you’ll bear in mind me/ Standin’ in a pleasant costume/ Starin’ on the sundown”). In any other case, “Cardigan” is—and I say this with admiration—the chamomile tea of pop singles.
“Cardigan” is—and I say this with admiration—the chamomile tea of pop singles.
You may additionally say “Cardigan” is the alternative of thirsty—the antidote to no matter “Me!” was. When that eager-to-please collaboration with Panic! on the Disco’s Brendon Urie, the leadoff to final yr’s Lover, peaked at No. 2 within the spring of 2019, it turned the primary lead single from a brand new Swift album to overlook the Sizzling 100’s prime slot since she started pivoting from nation to pop eight lengthy years in the past, with the chart-topping “We Are By no means Ever Getting Again Collectively” on 2012’s Purple (the observe that, as many Folklore reviewers are actually reminding you, included the snarky, now-ironic lyric about an ex discovering “peace of thoughts with some indie report that’s a lot cooler than mine”). The leadoff tracks to Swift’s subsequent two albums, 1989’s “Shake It Off” in 2014 and Popularity’s “Look What You Made Me Do” in 2017, additionally each went instantly to No. 1. “Me!” broke that streak final yr, and her second pre-album single, the frothy LGBTQ+ anthem “You Must Calm Down,” equally topped out within the runner-up slot. This led to some overheated “Whither Taylor?” protection (a few of which, I’ll admit, I indulged in myself).
The reality is, if Swift hadn’t had the misfortune to launch her Lover marketing campaign within the wake of Lil Nas X’s 19-week juggernaut “Previous City Highway,” I might have wound up writing about one or in all probability each of her 2019 singles for this Slate No. 1 hits collection. However while you look at the info behind Billboard’s flagship chart, one thing subtler is occurring with Swift’s return to No. 1. This rustic single from her purportedly anti-careerist album seems to have lastly solved a chart conundrum that’s been dogging Swift for the reason that late ’10s. By going Luddite, Swift has truly made one among her most technologically and commercially savvy strikes.
About that Billboard knowledge. “Cardigan” hurtles onto the Sizzling 100 thanks largely to digital consumption, each downloads and streams. For the majority of her profession, courting again to the iTunes Retailer’s 99-cent heyday, Swift has been a download-selling titan, and “Cardigan” continues the pattern, changing into her report 20thtop-selling digital music. (Her closest competitor, Rihanna, has had the highest obtain solely 14 occasions.) Swift additionally has the most-streamed music of the week—together with each views of the official video and audio streams. (Extra on that in a second.) Swift benefited from an in any other case sluggish late-summer week—her digital numbers for “Cardigan” aren’t distinctive. She bought 71,000 downloads, a quantity boosted by first-week gross sales of limited-edition bodily items bundled with digital downloads (a widespread chart-gaming apply that Billboard is planning on doing away with very quickly). That’s lower than half the 193,000 gross sales that “Me!” debuted to only final yr, however 71,000 is strong in an ever-diminishing market the place the highest obtain typically sells 20,000 or much less, as former dollar-downloaders quickly swap to streaming companies. As for streams, “Cardigan” pulled 34 million, one of many decrease chart-topping streaming totals this yr, when rappers like Roddy Ricch and Drake have racked up between 50 million and 75 million in every week. Nonetheless, contemplating Swift’s newest hit doesn’t lend itself naturally to TikTok virality (a meme about Harry Kinds’ real-life, multicolored cardigan is producing extra Toks than Swift’s metaphorical “Cardigan”), the truth that she leads the streaming survey is pretty spectacular.
By going Luddite, Swift has truly made one among her most technologically savvy strikes.
It’s the third part of the Sizzling 100, radio airplay, the place “Cardigan’s” numbers are most muted—and that’s revelatory each for this hit and the pattern on Swift normally. You would possibly count on a music this downbeat and emo to be a tricky promote at hit-driven radio. Actually, it’s finest suited to the Grownup Album Various radio format, not Prime 40. Certain sufficient, Billboard stories that “Cardigan” didn’t generate sufficient airplay in its first full week to make even the underside rungs of the journal’s all-genre Radio Songs chart. As a result of she’s Taylor Swift, the music does open to 12.7 million in radio viewers in its first full week. However that’s not solely small for an airplay hit—radio’s present prime hit, the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” has an viewers of 76.2 million—it’s additionally a sluggish begin for Swift: “We Are By no means Ever Getting Again Collectively” premiered with 52 million, “Shake It Off” with 71 million, and “Look What You Made Me Do” with 64 million. The very fact is, within the period of downbeat lure music, Swift isn’t the automated add for broadcasters that she as soon as was, and that’s been true for just a few years now: 2017’s “… Prepared for It?,” 2018’s “Finish Sport,” 2019’s “You Must Calm Down” and “Lover,” and early 2020’s “The Man” all topped out on Radio Songs beneath the Prime 10. Merely put, Swift’s been attempting to scale the Sizzling 100 for about three years now with one hand tied behind her again.
That hasn’t been her solely chart drawback. The wholesale shift within the music trade’s financial mannequin over the previous decade—from promoting stuff to streaming stuff—has been robust on the Taylor Swift method. What made Swift the queen of the charts within the first half of the ’10s was her potential to nonetheless promote CDs when virtually nobody else was (even when that meant partnering with promotional companions like Goal and Papa John’s) and promote downloads of her tracks the minute they dropped. However after 2015 or so, promoting music in just about any style turned old-hat. Swift was all the time nice at event-izing her releases, organising Purple and 1989 and Popularity and their respective singles with breadcrumb trails of fan-stoking content material that constructed pleasure for a purchase order. However within the consumption period of the charts—the place hits are made by aggregations of hundreds of thousands of tiny streams, not hundreds of credit-card transactions—the rhythm of a celebrity launch has modified radically.
Enter Folklore, Swift’s eighth album however her first to obtain a shock launch, with no conventional setup. Seven years after Beyoncé modified the sport along with her 2013 self-titled album, shock releases will not be novel anymore. Particularly in hip-hop: For rappers from Drake to Lil Uzi Vert, the shock drop is now just about the norm. Nevertheless it’s all new for Swift, utterly off-cycle from her regular, every-two-years album launch schedule—a timetable she adopted rigorously, from 2006’s Taylor Swift by final yr’s Lover, save for an anomalous three-year hole between 1989 and Popularity.
Swift is the primary artist to debut at No. 1 on each the Billboard 200 album chart and the Sizzling 100 in the identical week.
Famously, Folklore is Swift’s pandemic album, thrown collectively unusually rapidly (for her) whereas the world was on lockdown. Within the two weeks for the reason that album dropped, a story has emerged: not solely that its bucolic sound is impressed by Swift’s burst of quarantine creativity, however that sonically and spiritually it’s supposed to explode her former huge machine (pun supposed) method. Critics are endorsing this narrative. “What if we had a music trade that didn’t demand singles?” Pitchfork affiliate editor Anna Gaca asks rhetorically on a latest episode of the Pitchfork Evaluation podcast discussing Folklore. “I don’t assume you’ll see Taylor chasing … like, quasi-contemporary pop hits anymore,” says New York Instances pop critic Jon Caramanica on his Popcast. Implicit in these feedback is the concept that Swift, in her 30s, has entered a “Beyoncé section” the place she now not wants pop hits to command the cultural dialog.
However what if Swift pulled a Beyoncé and received the large hits anyway? One in all Swift’s many headlines in chartland this week is the truth that she is the primary artist to debut at No. 1 on each the Billboard 200 album chart and the Sizzling 100 in the identical week. That’s wonderful—however on the album chart, there was by no means any suspense. Swift nonetheless sells albums higher than anyone. In 2019, Lover was quietly the top-selling album of the yr. (A minimum of when it comes to old school gross sales. Factoring in streams, as per the Billboard 200’s fashionable formulation, the album ranked a still-impressive fourth for 2019.) So in fact Folklore was going to open huge on the Billboard 200. No, the shocker—what makes that Billboard 200–Sizzling 100 double command spectacular—is that the moody “Cardigan” additionally entered on prime.
However the breakdown of the music’s streams counsel that is in truth a new-model Taylor, not the Imperial Swift of 2014. One factor to bear in mind about Billboard’s rating of Streaming Songs is that it combines each audio streams on companies resembling Spotify and video streams, principally from YouTube. And Swift, heretofore, has over-relied on video to attain her huge hits. (Bear in mind, additionally, that for about three years within the mid-’10s, Swift had pulled all her music from Spotify.) Over the previous eight years, anytime Swift has had a giant streaming hit, it’s been goosed by one among her shiny, megabudget music movies, like “Clean Area” or particularly “Dangerous Blood,” which was launched like a Hollywood summer season blockbuster. The week in 2015 that “Blood” vaulted to No. 1 on the Sizzling 100, Billboard reported that actually 99 % of its streaming exercise got here from views of that music video. As late as final yr, movies have been nonetheless very important to Swift’s Sizzling 100 efficiency: The video for “Me!” launched to report YouTube views, which accounted for a big proportion of her chart factors the week the music vaulted to No. 2.
“Cardigan” additionally launched with a dreamlike and really on-brand–for-Taylor music video. Conceived and directed by Swift with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, the clip is remarkably shiny and bold, contemplating it was made beneath strict social-distancing guidelines. However for all that effort, the video has been much less important to the music’s chart command than standard for Swift. “Cardigan” launched as solely the sixth-biggest music video on YouTube for the week, with robust however not record-breaking views.
Because it seems, Swift’s command of Billboard’s streaming tally, and therefore the Sizzling 100, is basically pushed by straight-up audio streams. In different phrases, the video wasn’t that huge of a deal, as a result of the shock drop of the album’s audio was the occasion. Billboard maintains a separate On-Demand Songs chart that isolates audio streaming knowledge at locations like Spotify and Apple Music, sans video, and “Cardigan” is tops on that chart. Certainly, that chart’s Prime 20 this week is 65 % Swift songs—virtually each music on Folklore—the kind of dominant streaming efficiency we usually count on from a returning rapper debuting along with his new mission.
In different phrases, Taylor Swift has lastly decoded the way you rating huge hits within the age of Spotify—and she or he did it not with the album the place she tried to beef like a rapper however the album the place she turned inward and “indie.” The sound of the music mattered lower than the best way Swift rolled it out: dropping it like a Zeitgeist-sweeping bomb slightly than a weekslong marketing campaign. Don’t be stunned if “Cardigan” is out of the No. 1 spot in every week or two, possibly even with a steep drop-off after the preliminary wave of curiosity. Within the absence of heavy radio play, it may be out of the Prime 40 by the point precise sweater climate rolls in … however then, within the time of corona, cardigan season is year-round. Months from now—to paraphrase the chart topper’s refrain—you would possibly discover this outdated music beneath your mattress, put it on, and say it’s your favourite.