Is Taylor Swift the Biggest Pop Star in the World? Not Yet

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For all that New York magazine’s Jody Rosen has written, count ’em, 6000 words about Taylor Swift for the cover story of this week’s issue, the article’s most interesting and contentious claim comes in the headline: “Why Taylor Swift Is the Biggest Pop Star in the World.” But wait, is she? You could probably make an argument about her being the biggest pop star in the US right now, but the world? It’s like calling whoever wins the NBA Finals World Champions.

Swift has certainly had a hugely successful couple of years. She’s sold a heap of records — her album Red was the second-biggest-selling record of 2012 in the US, behind the indestructible Adele’s 21. This certainly makes her a legitimate contender for the title of biggest pop star in America, although it’s worth noting several other prominent contenders for that title — Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, in particular — didn’t release albums in 2012. Still, on record sales alone, she’s definitely big news.

But who’s buying these records? Swift has traditionally had a strong support base among country enthusiasts, and the thing about country enthusiasts is that they still buy albums, bless them. It’s fascinating to see how skewed the US charts are toward country: five of this country’s ten top-selling albums in 2012 were country. But the thing is, this audience basically doesn’t exist outside America. Of those five records, three of them are by artists who I guarantee you pretty much no one outside the US could give the remotest semblance of a fuck about: Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. (The other one, curiously, is by Lionel Richie.)

Beyond the raw statistics, Rosen’s article also raises the question of quite how we define “big” in 2013. Back in the days when people listened to American Top 40 and checked the charts every week and went out and bought 45s with their pocket money, the answer was easy — record sales were a pretty decent metric by which you could measure an artist’s impact. If they were selling the most records in any territory, then they could pretty reliably be considered the most popular act in that territory.

These days? Not so much, really. Katy Perry’s Prism, for instance, entered the Billboard album chart at #1 a couple of weeks back, but sold a pretty piddling number of copies by the standards of US chart toppers of the past. No one would suggest that equates to Perry’s star being on the wane — it’s just that on the whole, people buy fewer albums. Swift’s album sales are strong because of her demographic, but that doesn’t immediately make her the Biggest Star In The World™.

So how do we measure whether people outside the USA care about Taylor Swift? Beyond just asking various people from around the world — which I did, and generally got the answer, “Yeah, she’s big, but not like Beyoncé or Lady Gaga or etc.” — it’s worth looking at how many people will actually shell out to see her shows. The Red tour has encompassed a kinda crazy 85 dates in the US, but only 13 overseas thus far: three in New Zealand, four in Australia, five in London, and one in Berlin. She’s playing stadiums or arenas in all those countries, which is impressive, but perhaps not quite as impressive as it sounds.

Let’s take my home city of Melbourne, for instance, where Pink sold out 18 — 18! — dates at the 15,000-capacity Rod Laver Arena in the space of two months earlier this year. Swift is playing a bigger venue (the 50,000-capacity Etihad Stadium), but at this stage she’s only playing it once. Blank dates have been left to announce extra shows if these sell out, but they haven’t yet, a month or so after they went on sale.

It’s a similar story in London: she’s playing five dates at the O2 Arena, which seats 20,000 — but Justin Bieber played there seven times in March. Last time Lady Gaga was in town, she played two dates at Twickenham, which seats 80,000. And so on. (Swift’s London dates, incidentally, do serve as another indicator that record sales are a poor metric — Red didn’t even make the top 40 biggest albums in the UK last year, and yet here she is playing arenas.)

None of this is to suggest Swift isn’t big, in whatever sense you take that word. But at this point in her career, she’s one of those artists whose resonance is largely confined to her own country, and boosted by a couple of factors that really only exist here: the popularity of country music and the fact its fans buy lots of records. She may be becoming what Rosen suggests she already is — “country’s first truly global star” (although there’s an argument to be made that Dolly Parton already owns that prize) — but the only way she’ll secure that title is, perversely enough, by continuing to move away from country.

Oh, and the biggest pop star in the world? Now and quite possibly forever, it’s Robert Nesta Marley. Seriously. Go to an obscure corner of the Sahara, or the backblocks of Bangkok, or the shores of the Dead Sea, or any backpacker hostel in the entire goddamn world, and if there’s one person everyone’s heard of, it’s Bob Marley. Taylor Swift has a way to go.