The Week In Pop

Your (Completely Speculative) Guide To Taylor Swift’s (Possibly Imminent) New Album

Taylor Swift has been a little too quiet lately. Some might call that a blessing; this is, after all, a woman who can saturate your entire news feed without trying very hard, and one who is also known for trying extremely hard, a polarizing figure who’s been known to wear out her welcome even among those who like her. Swift can be inescapable when she wants to be, and when she disappears, she does so just as intentionally: After spending most of 2015 touring in support of the previous year’s 1989, she told NME she was taking time out of the spotlight because “I think people might need a break from me.”

She was right! Swift didn’t really end up going away in 2016 thanks to blanket coverage of her romantic life and certain narratives she’d rather have been excluded from. In fact, Swift’s various corporate partnerships, lawsuits, and celebrity cold wars ensure she never completely goes away. Still, by Taylor Swift standards she stayed silent throughout 2016 — especially about politics — only emerging at year’s end to duet with Zayn Malik for the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack. And besides a couple sports tie-ins — a gig on Super Bowl weekend, a video tribute to NBA MVP Russell Westbrook — 2017 has been even quieter.

We’re now nearing two years since Swift announced her intentions to disappear and three years since 1989 (the album, not the year; we’re preposterously nearing 29 years since 1989 the year). That’s 50 percent longer that she’s ever taken between albums. Previously, she famously released a new LP every two years in the autumn, potentially controlling the fates of various baseball teams in the process. Last fall came and went without a peep about a new Taylor Swift album, and with this fall rapidly approaching it’s still crickets from Swift’s camp. She didn’t even hold her annual July 4 party, usually a fountain of content for what has become a near-comatose Instagram account. We at Stereogum HQ are willing to bet this sustained absence from the public eye means Swift is gearing up to release a new album before the end of the year.

(OK, it could also mean she’s being carried around inside a giant suitcase, but let’s assume that even if she’s folded up in there she’s hatching plans.)

There’s good reason to believe Swift’s album launch is imminent. She was in the studio as early as last fall, when horrifying rumors suggested she was collaborating with Drake and pursuing “a real mix of edgier hip-hop and R&B sounds.” She was also spotted recording in Nashville this past spring, at which point a source told Entertainment Tonight her album would be out before year’s end. And while promoting his own recent album, Ed Sheeran told an interviewer Swift would likely wait until sometime around Christmas to release hers.

As Sheeran pointed out, “Christmas is the smartest time to release because that’s when everyone buys records.” It certainly worked for Adele, whose 25 dropped at the outset of the 2015 holiday shopping season and went on to become the bestselling album of the decade. And despite downplaying expectations for her 1989 follow-up in the same NME interview — “How could the next one be as big?” — you know Swift is gunning to surpass Adele’s sales figures. Competition aside, it’s just good business to release your album at the end of the year, and Swift is nothing if not a savvy businesswoman.

So what will this album sound like? If we are to judge by “I Don’t Want To Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker),” it will find her pushing even farther into the pop realm, infusing 1989’s synth-driven ’80s sound with darkly tinged maudlin balladry. On the other hand, Zayn was credited as the lead artist on that track, and it’s more in line with his own post-Weeknd ethos. On the other other hand, Swift and the suddenly omnipresent Jack Antonoff appeared to be the brains behind the song — Zayn contributed his parts over email — and I wouldn’t be surprised if Swift and Antonoff came up with it while workshopping material for her next album.

The trouble is that “I Don’t Want To Live Forever” is also the only song she’s released since 1989, which could mean it’s extremely significant or not significant at all. As a soundtrack one-off liberated from the expectations of a new Taylor Swift album, it could just as likely be indicative of her creative direction or a one-time exercise catered to the movie’s aesthetic, left off her next album because it doesn’t fit. Let’s hope that’s the case because it’s the most anonymous, least compelling version of Swift we’ve yet encountered, grandiose “What is happening to me?!” scream notwithstanding. (“What is happening to me?!” is actually a reasonable response upon hearing yourself record a song so devoid of your characteristic spark.)

An album in that vein could line up with the “new urban sound” she was allegedly toying with, especially if Drake, a true pioneer in luxuriant, self-obsessed hip-hop and R&B brooding, is involved. But I have to believe if Taylor Swift is making a rap album she’s going all-in with it, which would of course be a tremendous mistake. Does anyone — particularly Kendrick Lamar fans — actually prefer the Kendrick Lamar remix of “Bad Blood”? Does Swift recall that as recently as the “Shake It Off” video a hip-hop Taylor Swift was the stuff of winking parody? Is she really ready to face down the torrent of appropriation thinkpieces and performative Twitter outrage that would accompany such a move? Has she no shame and/or self-awareness?

I am not sure I want to answer those questions, but I may not have to. The report about Swift recording in Nashville indicated that she was weighing a return to country, the genre that made her a star in the first place. Because she was recording in Nashville, let’s assume she’s at least considering it. That would be a hell of a lot better than going hip-hop, but retracing her steps is not the most exciting move artistically speaking, and there are a lot of career landmines to anticipate: Will the country audience she outgrew receive her back with open arms? Does she even fit into a mainstream country scene that has radically transformed since she departed for pop radio? And will the fans she gained by going pop follow her down those dusty roads?

My guess is that Swift is going to do a “back to her roots” album, a stripped-down affair that makes overtures toward her old country audience without diving headfirst into the sound of modern Nashville. The tide is already beginning to trend in that direction, with Swift’s fellow white woman pop stars Miley Cyrus and Kesha both self-consciously making over their music to eliminate the hip-hop overtones that once characterized their hits. Swift would be wise to skip past an ill-conceived party-music era and get straight to her singer-songwriter phase. Although she was talking about commercial success when she asked, “How could the next one be as big?” sonically speaking her only move after 1989’s bombast may be to downsize. Plus now that Adele is retreating to her privacy bubble again, maybe forever, this may be Swift’s moment to seize control of that profitable adult contemporary lane for the foreseeable future.

There is one other possibility to consider: What if Swift is doing all of the above? What if she’s working on an album that veers wildly from genre to genre, dialoguing with a wide spectrum of sounds and ideas? What if she’s creating a kaleidoscopic opus that represents many sides of a complicated artist, a statement album with deep personal and social resonance — her very own Lemonade, if you will? What if Taylor Swift, having proven her world-conquering pop craftsmanship, is ready to make the leap into a new echelon of depth and creative transcendence?

Ha, just kidding. She’s definitely making a singer-songwriter album.

CHART WATCH

This was one of the most suspenseful weeks in recent memory for the Billboard 200 albums chart. Not only was there a tight three-way race for #1 between Lana Del Rey, Meek Mill, and Tyler, The Creator, the results were delayed by several days due to a “top-tier data provider” experiencing a technical error. Ultimately Del Rey’s Lust For Life came out on top thanks to 107,000 equivalent album units and 80,000 in pure sales. It’s her second #1 album following 2014’s Ultraviolence. Tyler, The Creator’s Flower Boy is at #2 with 106,000 units/70,000 sales — his best chart performance ever, Billboard reports. Then comes Meek Mill’s Wins And Losses at #3 with 102,000 units/30,000 sales, an L that would have felt more like a W had he released it on a less competitive week.

Up next is Linkin Park’s One More Light, which shoots back up from #17 to #4 in the wake of Chester Bennington’s death; the band’s debut, Hybrid Theory, also returns to the chart at #8. After Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. at #5 comes the Disney Channel’s Descendants 2 soundtrack, debuting at #6 with 46,000 units/35,000 sales, followed by Jay-Z’s 4:44 at #7. Closing out the top 10 are DJ Khaled’s Grateful at #9 and the debut of Romeo Santos’ Golden at #10 with 36,000 units/26,000 sales.

Speaking of Latin stars, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” has tied Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” for the longest tenure atop the Hot 100 singles chart this year. Buoyed by its Justin Bieber-infused remix, the track has now spent 12 straight weeks at #1. Per Billboard, it’s one of only 19 songs to last that long at #1.

Also holding strong are numbers 2, 3, and 4 — a Bruno Mars sandwich on DJ Khaled bread, if you will. (Specifically, that’s “Wild Thoughts” featuring Rihanna and Bryson Tiller at #2, “That’s What I Like” at #3, and “I’m The One” featuring Bieber, Quavo, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne at #4.) Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” returns to its #5 peak, bumping down French Montana and Swae Lee’s “Unforgettable” to #6 and Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” to #7. Shawn Mendes remains at #8 with “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back,” while his spiritual brother Charlie Puth rises to #9 with “Attention.” And Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road,” which just became the longest running country #1 in history, clocks in at #10.

POP FIVE

Julia Michaels – Nervous System EP
How can I pick just one track from Week In Pop cause célèbre Michaels’ marvelous new mini-album? You ought to hear the whole thing, but may I recommend “Worst In Me” if you’re feeling melancholy, “Pink” if you’re feeling racy, and “Make It Up To You” if you’re in the mood for some cutting-edge production crossed with timeless songwriting? (And “Issues” and “Uh Huh” in any circumstance, but I’m going to assume you’ve had those on repeat all year.)

Camila Cabello – “OMG” (Feat. Quavo) & “Havana” (Feat. Young Thug)
We’re starting to get a sense of what Cabello’s solo debut album is going to sound like: Dark, stylish, interacting with both hip-hop and Cabello’s Cuban roots while remaining firmly planted in the world of pop. It’s shaping up to be one of the more successful teeny-bopper-goes-adult efforts in recent memory.

Jax Jones – “Instruction” (Feat. Demi Lovato & Stefflon Don)
Lovato knows the drill: These days, when coming back from creative hibernation, you cover your bases with a single of your own (“Sorry Not Sorry”) plus a feature on some producer’s dance track. The propulsive “Instruction” may well outperform “Sorry Not Sorry” on the charts, though I far prefer Lovato’s own song.

Snakehips & Anne-Marie – “Either Way” (Feat. Joey Bada$$)
Anne-Marie is one of those aspiring pop stars in the industry machine who seems to pop up everywhere — including a great pop posse cut with Nick Jonas and Mike Posner — but doesn’t have a proper hit to her name yet. Maybe this collab with Joey Bada$$ and rising production duo Snakehips will do the trick?

Cara Delevingne – “I Feel Everything”
I guess if the powers that be are going to force a Cara Delevingne singing career on us, it might as well be head-scratchingly odd and out of step with current trends.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Machine Gun Kelly covered Linkin Park’s “Numb” in tribute to the late Chester Bennington, and his vocal performance will really make you appreciate what Bennington brought to the table. [YouTube]
  • Relatedly, OneRepublic recently paid tribute to Bennington and Chris Cornell with a cover of “Hallelujah” and will do it again on Good Morning America tomorrow. [Billboard]
  • Carly Rae Jepsen was back in the studio with Jack Antonoff. [Instagram]
  • Beyoncé is reportedly interested in buying a stake in the Houston Rockets. [Bloomberg]
  • In other Beyoncé financial ventures, she and Jay-Z are reportedly ending their lengthy LA house hunt with the purchase of a $90M Bel-Air mansion. [LA Times]
  • Here’s a preview of Disney’s Frozen musical, which will include three times as many songs as the movie. [YouTube]
  • In a new interview Hayley Williams discusses her regret over a controversial, seemingly anti-feminist lyric from Paramore’s “Misery Business” (“Once a whore, you’re nothing more/ I’m sorry, that will never change”). [Billboard]
  • Dr. Luke wants a judge to force Lady Gaga to sit for a deposition in his lawsuit against Kesha. The producer claims Gaga received text messages from Kesha asking her to join a smear campaign against him. [TMZ]
  • In more positive Kesha news, she announced a US fall tour. [Rolling Stone]
  • Camila Cabello is the newest Global Spokesperson for L’Oreal Paris. [Teen Vogue]
  • Macklemore walked away unscathed from a head-on collision with a drunk driver near Seattle. [TMZ]
  • J. Cole visited San Quentin State Prison. [Instagram]
  • Maroon 5 are getting a Decade Award at the Teen Choice Awards. [Twitter]

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