If you work in radio right now and you want to hear the new Taylor Swift single before it comes out at midnight, you are required to navigate a series of stringent security measures. A label representative comes to your station at a pre-appointed time. Before hearing the single, you must sign a nondisclosure agreement. Then you are allowed to listen through noise-cancelling headphones as a snippet of the song is played from a device that is treated with the same care as the nuclear football, according to programmers who spoke to Rolling Stone on the condition of anonymity.
The white-knuckle approach makes sense when you consider that Swift’s new single is her first since the release of Reputation, which is at once the lowest-selling album of her career, according to the RIAA, the least well-received by critics, according to the aggregation site Metacritic, and the rare Swift album to be almost entirely overlooked by Grammy voters, failing to secure an Album of the Year nomination.
For almost any other artist, Reputation would be considered a major win, if not a triumphant high-water mark. But Swift was betrayed by her own sky-high sales history: Reputation‘s 3 million units was a whiff after the jab-cross of Red (7 million) and 1989 (9 million), killing the upward momentum Swift had built as she made her dominant transition from country to pop.
The most damaging aspect of Reputation was its failure to generate an enduring single. “Delicate” came closest, lingering seven months after the album’s release thanks to the type of heavy radio support that is only afforded to pop’s biggest stars. (It wasn’t really combustible on Spotify — Ariana Grande’s “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” has amassed more streams on the platform since February than “Delicate” has since November 2017.) Pop is a hits game, and while Red launched four Top 10 singles and 1989 had five, Reputation had only two, both of which sunk quickly.
This wasn’t entirely surprising. In between the release of 1989 and Reputation, hip-hop cemented its longstanding hold on young America — four months before Reputation came out, rap was officially crowned the biggest genre in the country. So it made sense that Swift, along with many of her peers, felt she had to move with the times. On Reputation, she adjusted her drum patterns and basslines to duel with playlist-dominating hip-hop hits, and she played more with rap-singing than her previous work.
But the precedent for this transformation was poor. Swift’s past attempts to engage with hip-hop were frequently clunky — few listeners return to the “Bad Blood” remix with Kendrick Lamar — or worse: The rapper Earl Sweatshirt accused the “Shake It Off” video of “perpetuating black stereotypes.”
It’s maybe not surprising, then, that on Reputation, Swift ended up in an energy-sapping middle ground. A song like “End Game,” a collaboration with the rapper Future, was not convincing enough to win over rap fans. At the same time, Swift’s new style also alienated some members of her core audience. “In 2008, [Swift] had the happy-go-lucky, mass appeal pop song, ‘Love Story,'” one radio programmer wistfully explained to Rolling Stone last year. “The 2017 releases are vastly different. Sometimes the mega superstars get away from the formula that made them a success. They try to latch onto whatever flavor of music is doing well in the current environment.”
Doubters like that one are probably the prime targets of Republic’s radio team as they carry Swift’s new single from town to town. Swift might be aiming at Grammy voters as well: It’s notable that she is releasing her new single in the spring, rather than in the late summer or fall, when she traditionally kicked off past album cycles. Moving up her release date gives members of the Recording Academy plenty of extra months to live with her work, so they don’t overlook it like they did with Reputation.
Swift’s new single is her first under a direct deal with Republic Records, and two of her new label-mates — Post Malone and Ariana Grande — are hogging the majority of pop’s oxygen right now, in part by selling a mainstream-inflected form of hip-hop.
Grande has borrowed from rap — triplet cadences, blitzkrieg drum programming, make it fast, release it faster — better than anyone who came up on the pop side of the fence. Grande’s reworking of her sound has been so effective, in fact, that she was accused of copying two different rappers, Soulja Boy and Princess Nokia, when she released the runaway hit “7 Rings.”
However, another Republic act hints that there’s a different path to commercial success today. In pop’s other corner you can currently (and surprisingly) find The Jonas Brothers. Their successful comeback, the musical equivalent of Hollywood’s reboot obsession, skips the awkward inter-genre embrace and ignores the existence of rap completely. On the Jonas Brothers’ two new hits, “Sucker” and “Cool,” the trio revel in their guitars and handclaps and falsetto hooks and throwback rhythm sections. It’s a sound from an earlier era, but they’re riding it to the top of the charts.
Which path will Swift choose?