regular-article-logo Wednesday, 22 May 2024

Pop stars Taylor Swift and Beyoncé avoided a collision on the charts again

Beyoncé and Swift, the 21st century’s preeminent pop stars, have often been cast as competitors if not rivals, a story line partly rooted in misogyny and amplified by duelling fan armies filled with stans

Craig Marks Published 17.04.24, 03:29 PM
Taylor Swift (left); Beyoncé (right)

Taylor Swift (left); Beyoncé (right) File picture

In February, Taylor Swift took the stage at the Grammy Awards to accept the prize for best pop vocal album. After dutifully thanking the Recording Academy and her fans, she got down to business: “My brand-new album comes out April 19,” she said, in a surprise announcement revealing “The Tortured Poets Department.” It was a heads-up for her loyal followers, as well as anyone else in the business with a spring release on the radar: If you want your new album to debut at No. 1, don’t release it on April 19. Or April 26. Or May 3, for that matter.

A week later, following a teaser during a Super Bowl commercial, Beyoncé also dropped news of a new album: “Cowboy Carter” would arrive earlier than “Poets,” with breathing room, on March 29. Another pop powerhouse in the Grammy audience made her own announcement in early April: Billie Eilish will unveil her forthcoming third album, “Hit Me Hard and Soft,” a month after Swift’s release, on May 17.


Beyoncé and Swift, the 21st century’s preeminent pop stars, have often been cast as competitors if not rivals, a story line partly rooted in misogyny and amplified by duelling fan armies filled with stans, or superfans.

For their part, the two artists have regularly dispelled the notion over the years. They were first linked, through no fault of their own, at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, when Kanye West interrupted a Swift acceptance speech to advocate for her fellow nominee Beyoncé; later that night, Beyoncé brought Swift onstage to finish her remarks. In 2021, Swift shared on Instagram that Beyoncé had sent her congratulatory flowers after Swift won the album of the year Grammy for “Folklore,” calling Beyoncé “the queen of grace & greatness.” And last year, following their blockbuster stadium tours, they appeared at each other’s concert film premieres, a pointed rebuke to message-board zealots looking to sow discord.

“Clearly, it’s very lucrative for the media and stan culture to pit two women against each other, even when the two artists in question refuse to participate in that discussion,” Swift told Time magazine. (Representatives for Swift and Beyoncé declined to comment.)

In fact, when it comes to album releases, whether by design or by chance, the two superstars have generally avoided one another altogether. The only other time they’ve released LPs in the same window was way back in November 2008, when Beyoncé’s “I Am … Sasha Fierce” supplanted Swift’s “Fearless” at No. 1. Absent Swift’s 2006 debut LP, every studio album from Beyoncé and Swift — 21 in all, including Swift’s rerecordings of her earlier catalog — has entered the Billboard 200 at No. 1. (Eilish’s previous albums both opened big at the top, as well.)

In the streaming era, where songs have superseded albums as music’s main currency, and chart placements are based on an opaque formula that blends streams with sales, a No. 1 album doesn’t have quite the same cultural or historical resonance it once did. Still, said Jonathan Daniel of Crush Management, which oversees the careers of Miley Cyrus, Green Day and Lorde, it remains “a great talking point,” perhaps most of all for the online superfans who take pride in hoisting their heroes to the top.

“Pop-stan Twitter is fierce,” Daniel said. Partisans treat the Spotify and Billboard charts like a zero-sum game. “It’s their version of sports.”

While top artists and their teams tend to avoid overlapping album releases in order to secure a No. 1 and the bragging rights that go along with it, that wasn’t always the case. “In the days when the only way to consume music was to go to your local record store or big-box retailer, labels would sometimes schedule a release so that it would come out on the same day as a similar but bigger release,” said Keith Caulfield, Billboard’s managing director of charts and data operations.

That way, someone who came to Best Buy to purchase, say, “the ‘Bodyguard’ soundtrack might also spot the new Anita Baker CD and say, ‘I’ll get that, too,’” he said. Before social media, where artists can post album updates to their followers with unrelenting frequency, casual fans might not even have known a new record existed unless they spotted it in the wild.

One of the most high-profile examples of convergent superstar releases came in September 2007, when rappers Kanye West and 50 Cent colluded to issue their new albums on the same date. “We marketed it like a heavyweight boxing match,” said Dennis Dennehy, who led publicity for 50 Cent’s label, Interscope. “It was Ali vs. Frazier.”

West and 50 Cent, both signed to subsidiary labels of Universal Music Group, appeared together on the cover of Rolling Stone to hype the event and draw people to record stores. “It was like a get-out-the-vote campaign,” Dennehy said. The reward was increased first-week sales of both titles and a clarion call for hip-hop’s commercial clout; the risk, as 50 Cent found out, was finishing a distant second. Kelefa Sanneh, writing for The New York Times, called it “a low point” in 50 Cent’s career.

For the likes of Swift and Beyoncé, pinpointing an album release date is both art and science, a calculation based on such disparate factors as proposed tour schedules, the availability of vinyl pressing plants and optimal timing for Grammy consideration. And sometimes, even the best laid plans can go awry.

Daniel recounted that last year, Cyrus’ “Endless Summer Vacation” and Lana Del Rey’s “Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd” were originally slated to be released on the same date, but Del Rey’s album ended up pushing back two weeks. “And then Morgan Wallen’s ‘One Thing at a Time’ came out the week before,” he said, “and knocked us all out of the water.”

The New York Times News Service

Follow us on: