How Taylor Swift’s bond with fans makes her one of a kind
The Taylor Swift numbers game would boggle the minds of mathematicians.
It is a study of how a natural-born storyteller has fashioned a multimillion-dollar enterprise out of her alchemy with music and lyrics, hard-fought business acumen and assisted by an army of tens of millions of devoted fans whose primary mission is to make her the biggest pop star on the planet.
The surprise release of her eighth studio album Folklore on July 24, just 16 hours after the 30-year-old announced its existence to her 200 million plus followers on social media, has rewritten chart and streaming records around the world.
Spotify reported it set a new high for first-day album streams by a female artist with 80.6 million streams.
Folklore was "the most-streamed pop album on Apple Music in 24 hours" with 35.47m plays.
Within a week, the record had amassed more than half a billion streams, with Cardigan, Exile, featuring indie rock hero Bon Iver, The 1, The Last Great American Dynasty and My Tears Richochet the most played of the album's 16 songs.
Swift became the first artist to debut at No. 1 with an album and single in the same week in the US, with Cardigan claiming the summit of the Hot 100 and Folklore landing atop the Billboard 200.
She has achieved that feat twice in Australia, the first time back in 2014 with 1989 and Blank Space.
In Australia, the acoustically-driven, musically sparse yet lyrically expansive Folklore became her sixth No. 1 on the ARIA charts, Cardigan her sixth chart-topping single.
The numbers become truly mind-blowing when you consider they are wholly generated and driven by her fans.
Folklore was conceived and recorded in coronavirus lockdown and thrust into the world without the months-long promotional teasing which typically precedes a new Taylor Swift album.
Not even her label knew their superstar artist had a record in the can until she told the world.
"Most of the things I had planned this summer didn't end up happening, but there is something I hadn't planned on that DID happen," Swift posted on Instagram.
"And that thing is my 8th studio album, folklore. Surprise."
The Swifties mobilised online immediately.
This fan army has grown exponentially over the past 13 years of her career, as the internet and social media have outstripped the power of the traditional gatekeepers of the music industry and radio and television stations to create pop superstars.
Simply, they have grown up with her, shared her broken hearts and growing pains, disappointments and wins.
Their ranks have been replenished with each new record and stadium tour, peaking with 1989 six years ago which has achieved sales of more than 10 million copies worldwide.
And counting - all of Swift's previous records are selling bucketloads again in Folklore's wake.
The Swifties ranks are dominated by girls and young women but also include sizeable chunks of mums and daughters, the LGBTQI community, peers including Selena Gomez and Katy Perry, and older pop music aficionados who appreciate her songwriting craft.
While some have suggested Folklore, which features 11 songs co-written and co-produced by The National's Aaron Dessner and the duet with Bon Iver, will bring a raft of the indie musical tribe into the fandom, that is more wishful thinking by artist and her loyal followers than a quantifiable reality.
Yet everyone, fan or critic, is invested in Folklore's mysteries - the Teenage Love Triangle trilogy of songs, the famed socialite who once owned Swift's Rhode Island mansion and inspired The Last Great American Dynasty and the identity of the unknown co-writer William Bowery, credited on two songs. Could it be actor boyfriend Joe Alwyn?
Swift has cultivated and maintained her fandom's devotion with atypical intimacy for a top-shelf pop star.
She invites them to her homes for listening parties and makes them cookies and cakes.
She pays medical bills and college tuition fees.
She sends them homemade gifts and exclusive merchandise.
She retweets adoring posts with gratitude.
Her early signing sessions would stretch for hours and her backstage meet and greets aren't the usual $1000 plus for a three second interaction and photo ripoff - she hugs and chats and SMILES.
And she is the queen of Easter egg engagement, peppering liner notes, videos and lyrics with secret clues and messages to reveal the stories behind her songs.
"It's honestly one of the most amazing feelings knowing that there's this group of people that has my back, and that they always show up," Swift said in 2012.
"I try to figure out ways all the time to thank them for that."
In turn, the Swifties flex their online muscle to game the charts.
Fans will stream songs on repeat even when sleeping to bolster her stats, and buy not one CD or vinyl edition of a new release, but all of them.
#ProudOfTaylor began trending when the Billboard chart results revealed her historic dual No. 1s, significant because she owns all the rights to this new music after losing the battle for control of early work to Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande manager Scooter Braun.
"Cardigan by Taylor Swift isn't just a song. it's a lifestyle, a reason to breathe, an escape from this cruel world filled by thieves," one fan wrote.
"It's art, the first gift you open on Christmas, a hug from a loved one, it's everything you ever wanted, it's everything you need."
But the numbers game of Folklore hasn't all been cause for celebration.
The Swifties set their hearts on achieving a 90.0 or above rating for the album on the review aggregation site Metacritic.
A rather random and insignificant goal but a battalion of her fan army had their hearts set on it.
While the stylistic shift of Folklore has won universal acclaim - the lion's share of reviews have been unprecedented five stars and A ratings - when Pitchfork reviewer Jillian Mapes gave Folklore a glowing review and score of 8.0, it jeopardised their Metacritic goal.
It brought down the average to 88 and they turned nasty.
The out-of-control and unwarranted outrage included issuing Mape death threats, doxing her personal details, making phone calls to her home.
They even flooded Twitter with a hex written in runes, which was translated on the platform in part as saying: "Anyone who comes after the dark queen will die alone and burn forever."
Other fans called them out on the harassment and pointed out the positives in the review.
Yet there will always be a cohort of Swifties who remain determined to find the next target to menace with their social media pitchforks.
Perhaps Folklore's greatest success as a genuine surprise record is it has reignited the mystery in pop music in an era where every move is disappointingly predictable and coldly calculating.
It's made everyone wonder what will Taylor do next.
Originally published as How Taylor Swift's bond with fans makes her one of a kind