Reports of Taylor Swift’s death are greatly exaggerated
There are a lot of people keen to buy into the idea that Taylor Swift is finished. She’s picked up a considerable number of detractors over recent years, for multiple reasons (some valid, some not); and since the launch of her latest album Reputation there have been more cries than ever that she’s passed her peak – heck, even Taylor herself declared on Look What You Made Me Do that “the old Taylor” is six feet under.
But after seeing the first Wembley date of her Reputation Stadium Tour this weekend, she certainly still seems like an A-list pop heavyweight to me.
With big-budget production, a well-honed setlist combining hits from yesteryear (the Style/Love Story/You Belong With Me medley was a religious experience) with newer bangers, it was a relentless spectacle that left me in no doubt that she’s still on the top tier of pop music – especially when she had to pause for nigh-on two minutes to soak in huge applause from fans of all ages.
That she could craft such an engaging show out of so many album tracks was great (Getaway Car went down a treat, for one; as did the big, bold I Did Something Bad), and the inescapable smashes peppered throughout – like Blank Space and Bad Blood – sparked absolute hysteria. Vocals in fine form, and speaking with confidence and gratitude to her audience, Taylor proved herself an expert at keeping thousands entertained for nigh-on two hours.
From a PR perspective, she’s not had a perfect couple of years, and I won’t deep-dive into that here, but did anyone else see The Sun’s vvvvery melodramatic hit-piece last weekend? It basically sums up what many Taylor naysayers have been arguing lately: that the UK leg of the tour is an “embarrassing” “major humiliation” (the first night in Manchester apparently sold 38,000 tickets out of a potential 56,000), that record sales have “plummeted” with her “flop album” (301,000 in the UK, 2m worldwide) – and it even rolls its eyes at the fact she was nominated “for just two minor awards” at the Grammys this year.
While none of those statistics are outright wrong, there’s a lot to unpack about the way they’re presented – not least the fact that two Grammy nods is pretty impressive considering Reputation won’t be eligible until 2019. While a handful of music critics can, in my opinion, be guilty of overly-gushing praise when they’re after interview access or free tickets (can’t say I haven’t done that), the opposite is true too – some can go on a bit of a rampage when they’ve been rubbed up the wrong way by an artist or their PR team. I wonder if that’s what’s happened here.
Firstly, while the new concerts have obviously not sold out in the UK, bear in mind that 38,000 is very nearly enough to fill the O2 Arena twice – and I’m inclined to think the high prices made sure no financial loss was made on seats that either weren’t shifted or were given away for free. Wembley on Friday wasn’t sold out, but it was far from the awkward wasteland I’d been expecting – literally after all the press coverage, I thought there’d be more cordoned-off seating than there was on The Saturdays’ Greatest Hits tour. BBC News ran a very interesting deep-dive into the current wave of stadium shows in this country and why so few of them are selling out – it’s not just Taylor, and it’s worth a read here if you fancy it.
As for Reputation’s album sales, there’s no denying that 300,000 is a big dip on 1989, which did 1.1 million in this country alone. Whether it’s the lack of promotion, the absence of big hit singles or just the relentless bad press, it’s hard to say – but it’s worth remembering that 1989 was a huge pop moment. And when popstars have an Imperial Phase like that, it’s incredibly rare for them to replicate it, unless they’re inoffensive white guys like Ed Sheeran. Just look at Katy Perry’s enormous 2010 opus Teenage Dream (1.3m UK sales) versus 2013’s Prism (440k). I wouldn’t put it past Lady Gaga to do a stadium tour, and her last album did 130k over here; while One Direction’s domestic album sales slid gradually from 1.2 million for Up All Night to 346k for Made In The A.M., and to call them flops would have been laughable.
I suspect Taylor’s next era will need a bit more by way of promotion, but that’s a worry for 2019 or 2020 or whenever she re-emerges again. The fact is that, love or loathe her, she’s a smart woman: her debut album came out 12 years ago, she knows exactly what she’s doing, and – clearly – fuckloads of people love her for it.
Now for Christ’s sake, make Getaway Car a single already.
Top pic from Taylor’s Instagram.