Taylor Swift may have captured the charts, but Charli XCX captured the zeitgeist

Estimated read time 7 min read

Earlier this month, when asked about why her friend and collaborator Taylor Swift is so popular, Lana Del Rey didn’t mince words: “She wants it. She’s told me so many times that she wants it more than anyone,” she told the BBC. “And how amazing – she’s getting exactly what she wants. She’s driven, and I think it’s really paid off.”

To a casual observer, the remark might seem unremarkable, even obvious – but for her nearly 20 years in the music business, Swift has painstakingly made sure onlookers never see her sweat. As she’s broken sales and touring records, Swift has maintained a veneer of unflappable benevolence that obfuscates her admirable business savvy and clear understanding of what her fans, and the music business at large, want. Del Rey was saying the quiet part out loud: Swift’s success may, at its core, come down to her preternatural musical ability, but her maintenance of that success was aided by intense ambition.

Of course, success means different things to different people. For the British pop singer Charli XCX, it might mean broadcasting an uncompromising, avant garde vision to a dedicated audience. Her newly released sixth album Brat is, in those terms, an unmitigated success: it is her most critically acclaimed album ever, and the most acclaimed pop album of the year on the review aggregator Metacritic, besting records by Billie Eilish and Beyoncé. It’s also captured the cultural zeitgeist: X, Instagram and TikTok have been ablaze with memes and videos about the album; tickets to her show in Brooklyn last week were being resold for $10,000 (£7,880); the lime of the album cover has been reclaimed as “Brat green”. It’s her most commercially successful album, too: today (14 June) it debuted at No 2 on the UK albums chart with her biggest sales week ever, and will probably debut at No 4 on the Billboard 200 next week. In its first day of release, Brat tripled the first-week streams of its predecessor, 2022’s Crash.

There was a moment, late in the week, when it looked as if Brat would debut at No 1. Then, on Thursday, Swift stepped in: at 6.57pm, Taylor Nation, Swift’s public-facing PR arm, which interacts with fans and provides news and updates, announced the release of six deluxe reissues of her latest album, The Tortured Poets Department (TTPD), each with different additional live versions and voice memos, available only in the UK until 11:59pm that evening – the end of the tracking week for the album charts. (The new releases bring the total number of TTPD variants to 34.) TTPD now stands as Swift’s longest-running No 1 album in the UK – another (personal) record broken, and another stats-based marker of success for Swift’s trophy cabinet.

According to Taylor Nation, the deluxe editions were released to celebrate Swift’s blockbuster Eras tour hitting the UK a week earlier, on 7 June. Fans had another theory: by releasing an avalanche of new album variants, geolocked to the UK, Swift was attempting to block Charli from the top spot of the albums chart, thereby maintaining her own run at No 1. On X, users were brutal in their analysis: “Even when you remove Charli from the equation, she is richer than god and writing her fans for every penny they have over an album that already sold far more than its quality would suggest,” wrote one. Even Swifties seemed to raise their eyebrows: the top tweet under Taylor Nation’s post announcing the variants, from an “all things Swift” account with the username @allswifted, simply reads “im tired.”

The theory has some credence: in the US, the biggest threat to Tortured Poets’ streak at No 1 to date was Eilish’s latest album, Hit Me Hard and Soft. When that album came out in mid-May, Swift released three new digital album download variants and a new CD version of the album, and restocked four deluxe CD variants. Each album variant contains a new song exclusive only to that version of the album, encouraging completist fans to buy every new version. Fans saw the sudden influx of new music as a shot at Eilish and an attempt to block her from the top spot, which the album eventually did. A week later, Swift released three more deluxe variants of Tortured Poets, thereby blocking Eilish from the top spot once again.

Billie Eilish pictured in Berlin.View image in fullscreen

It’s worth noting that almost every A-list artist is now in the habit of reissuing their new releases with alternate versions or bonus tracks in order to boost their chart position. In the days after Hit Me Hard and Soft came out, Eilish released alternate mixes of the record; Bon Jovi, once considered a frontrunner for this week’s UK No 1 before settling into third place behind the more competitive Swift and Charli, released a digital-only deluxe edition of album Forever once it became clear that there were only 1,000 units separating Forever, Brat and TTPD within the top three. A few days after Brat’s release, Charli released the winkingly titled Brat and it’s the same but there’s three more songs so it’s not, featuring Spring Breakers, a song that makes light of the fact that her unapologetic edginess has kept her shut out of mainstream industry events such as the Grammys.

But it’s likely that Swift has attracted ire for her TTPD reissue strategy simply because she’s done it so many times, in so many different flavours, to the point that even the most apologetic fans have reached the end of their tether. That she seems to reissue TTPD specifically to best smaller artists – and, notably, smaller female artists – creates the image of Swift as Goliath attempting to crush Charli’s hedonistic, gothy David. Even if she simply is releasing deluxe versions on a whim, the damage in the eyes of fans and onlookers is done; in the harshest light, you could say that her apparent constant drive for commercial dominance makes her Taylor’s Version album re-recordings, framed as an attempt to once again own her music after the masters of her first six albums were sold against her will, look like a bad-faith justification for yet another series of album reissues.

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I consider myself a fan of both Charli and Swift. To me, the most concerning aspect of Swift “wanting [success] more than anyone”, as Del Rey put it, is the idea that her commercial drive is outpacing the meticulous songcraft and image control that made records like 2012’s Red and 2010’s Speak Now era-defining classics. For Swift, it seems that creative success is no longer as satisfying as selling the most records and spending the most weeks at No 1. Part of the reason TTPD feels like one of her most enervated records – with the critical response to prove it – is that, at 30 songs, it is overblown and distended, its many bonus tracks seemingly only serving to juice its weekly streams.

A much shorter version of the record – like the 10-track “Less Tortured Poets” playlist I’ve taken to listening to – feels to me a lot more successful than the “official” 30-track version. But that such a playlist even felt necessary tells you a lot about how much work this entire era of Swift’s career has felt like for even dedicated fans.

When putting together its follow-up, she might do well to follow Charli’s example: Brat is an unapologetic return to underground electronic music styles after Crash’s flirtation with mainstream pop trends, and yet it is her biggest commercial and critical success ever. More importantly, it’s Charli’s most vital-sounding and clarified record ever. You get the sense that, even if it had sunk like a stone, she might have seen it as a success anyway.

Source: theguardian.com

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