Taylor Swift & Her Pop Music Heat Check

Taylor Swift
Courtesy of YouTube

Taylor Swift in the video for "Bad Blood."

The irony of Taylor Swift hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart this week is that she did it with a song about weakness -- at a point in her career where she couldn’t be more impenetrable.

Taylor Swift's 'Bad Blood' Blasts to No. 1 on Hot 100

The new single edit of “Bad Blood,” featuring Kendrick Lamar, rockets 53-1 on this week’s tally, following its music video breaking Vevo’s 24-hour viewing record, zooming to the top of the Digital Songs chart and leaping 31 spots on the Radio Songs tally in one week. Following “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space,” the song is Swift’s third No. 1 single from 1989 in four tries (“Style” topped out at No. 6) and continues an prolonged string of top 40 radio successes for the country-turned-pop superstar. “Shake It Off” (four weeks at No. 1) ruled the fall and “Blank Space” (seven weeks at No. 1) owned the winter, and Swift is making damn sure that “Bad Blood” has the summer on lock.

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Other female pop artists have previously experienced this breathtaking run of Hot 100 success: Lady Gaga smashed the scene during her The Fame Monster era, Adele sent three 21 singles to the top of the chart, and Katy Perry tied Michael Jackson’s Bad record by notching five No. 1 hits from her Teenage Dream album. Some have referred to this hallowed moment in a pop artist’s career as their “Imperial” phase -- a point in time during which a musician can do no wrong, no matter how idiosyncratic their art may become. 

For Taylor Swift, though, this point in her career feels even grander. This is not just an Imperial phase for Swift -- this is a heat check moment.

For those unfamiliar, “heat check” is most often used as a basketball term to describe a player whose shooting touch is so “hot” from all areas of the court that he or she attempts an outlandish shot to see how scorching they really are. You’re on fire, you know you’re on fire, and you want to try something crazy just to see if you can sustain that momentum. That’s what Taylor Swift is doing: before 1989, she was effortlessly hoisting three-pointers. Now? She’s taken a few steps back and is jacking up half-court shots. They’re all going down, too. Swish.

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What makes Swift’s 1989 run so special is its timing. Gaga, Adele and Perry were all on their second albums when they enjoyed their Imperial phases -- they were not “new” artists, but their superstardom was still fresh when they made their strongest cultural impacts. Swift is doing all of this -- scoring the biggest debut sales week of her career, breaking Vevo records, getting Kendrick Lamar a No. 1 single on the Hot 100 -- five albums deep into her career. Swift is not “new” at all -- she just appears to be because she’s new to the genre.

Prior to 1989, Swift was a huge album-seller (Speak Now and Red both sold over a million copies in their first sales weeks), critical darling (her sophomore album, Fearless, won the album of the year Grammy) and force within the live music realm (arena tours begat stadium tours). Only one aspect of her career had been somewhat unfulfilled: Hot 100 domination. Her first four albums produced 10 top 10 hits, but only one No. 1 smash (Red’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” which spent three weeks in the summit in 2012). Songs like “You Belong With Me,” “Today Was a Fairytale” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.” all peaked at No. 2 but failed to reach the top spot. Here’s the thing about Taylor Swift: she doesn’t want to be No. 2 to anyone.

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So after a career of draining shots, Swift took a few steps back to see how blistering her heat could be. She linked up with Max Martin -- if anyone has the key to Hot 100 domination, it’s that guy -- and ditched the guitars. She aimed for the fattest, juiciest hooks of her career. It was heat check time.

Sure enough, “Shake It Off” became the longest No. 1 hit of her career, at four weeks. Then “Blank Space” stayed at the top of the Hot 100 for even longer, at seven weeks. “Style” only mustered a No. 6 peak, but with an impossibly star-packed music video, splashy awards show premiere and Kendrick Lamar verse, “Bad Blood” was never going to falter even slightly. 

So here we are: another acrobatic accomplishment from pop music’s most precise markswoman. Can this last forever? Of course not -- heat checks never do. But right now, all one can do is sit back and let her torch the competition.


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