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Music

Nobody Will Ever Do Taylor Swift-Level Numbers Again.

Taylor Swift's popularity has been bubbling for years now, and if the first-week US sales of her latest release, Speak Now, prove to be the climax, they could also prove to be historical. Think about it: who else has the potential to break the million-in-a-week mark ever again?

Jake Gyllenhaal better have thick skin, and it’s not just because Brothers wasn’t nearly as good of a movie as it should have been.

Actually, it’s because his latest muse—the “whenever a relationship I’m in ends, and I’m mad, I write about it” singer/songwriter Taylor Swift—recently did the one thing I, along with most of the other geeks who follow this kind of stuff with pertinent attention, never thought would be done again: she sold a million copies of her latest release, Speak Now, in its first week.

Swift has long been a curious case for me. I was admittedly resistant of her success when she first found her way onto the charts. I then fell completely head over heels for her when I stumbled across her performance of “Fifteen” with Miley Cyrus at the Grammy Awards nearly two years ago. Now? Well, now, she just kind of exits within my own personal musical orbit, at this point not really warranting an emotion either way.

I will always find her shtick endearing, but that’s mostly because I’m probably a 16-year-old girl at heart. She writes her own songs (though I’ve never truly believed such a statement, even when it’s insisted upon). She seems to prefer performing with a guitar strapped across her torso more than she does, say, performing with two free hands and a slew of dancers behind her. She sings about heartbreak (and who doesn’t love that?). It appears as though she’s nice enough, constantly willing to sign autographs, and making appearances and granting interviews basically whenever she’s asked. She killed it on Saturday Night Live with a spot-on Shakira impersonation. And she loves vinyl. And if you love vinyl, I love you.

So it’s clear that she’s someone I find myself rooting for, regardless of how “cool” or “uncool” it may be for a 26-year-old dude to partake in such activities. All of that now considered, though, the entire notion of her achieving such a feat as selling a million records in a week utterly transcends any preconceived notion one may have of the singer/songwriter. I mean, my goodness.

In its first week of sales, Speak Now sold 1,047,000 copies, the most a record has sold in its first week in the United States since 2005, when 50 Cent sold 1,141,000 copies of The Massacre. To give you an idea of how important those numbers are in today’s fickle music world, Kings of Leon’s Only By The Night sold 1,297,000 copies in all of 2009, and still managed to finish tenth on the year’s best-selling list. Swift nearly accomplished that in a week with Speak Now (ironically enough, the singer’s previous effort, Fearless, finished with the top spot in last year’s race by moving 2,694,000 units in 2009).

“I am elated to see that kind of business is still there”, Mike Dungan, Capitol Records Nashville president/CEO, told Billboard last week. Then, after being asked if selling a million records in a week is something he thought was possible again, he offered a sense of levity. “I certainly hope it’s not the last time", he quipped.

But it just might be.

The last time this happened was in June 2008, when Lil Wayne moved 1,006,000 copies of Tha Carter III in a week, though those numbers ultimately proved to be tainted after reports alleged that the rapper’s label was behind a chunk of the purchases that ultimately pushed total sales of the album above the million mark after its first week. Speak Now marks only the 16th time such a feat has been achieved since SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991. What’s the sales record, you ask? ’N Sync’s 2000 smash, No Strings Attached, sold 2,416,000 units in its first week of sales. And no matter how popular the country starlet may get, there’s no possible way she’ll pull in those numbers.

In fact, I’m willing to argue that there’s no way she’ll pull in Speak Now numbers ever again, either. The singer is at the height of her popularity. Above all, she’s growing older, and that means the demographic of which she owns—the teenage girl contingent—is also growing older. The older you grow, the less inclined you are to buy CDs. Just ask the Backstreet Boys.

But that’s not to say Swift’s latest accomplishment isn’t noteworthy, or, perhaps, the biggest music story of 2010. Her popularity has been bubbling for years now, and if this proves to be the climax, it could also prove to be historical.

Think about it: who else has the potential to break the million-in-a-week mark ever again?

The age of the popstar is over. If it wasn’t completely dead when Michael Jackson passed away in the summer of 2009, the life support it has been living on is nearly out of juice. By the time another transcendent pop music star finds his or her way to the forefront, the entire notion of CDs will be obsolete. Sales will be judged by the success of mere singles, and the art of an entire album will eventually fade so far into the fabric of music history that Billboard will stop charting it.

According to SoundScan, Speak Now was bought in CD format by 769,000 individuals. Conversely, 278,000 copies of the CD were sold in a digital format. What’s that say? Well, it highlights exactly how prominent the idea of buying CDs online has become. This, in turn, will ultimately lead to a disinterest in entire albums as a whole, paving the way for a music world filled with “the song” rather than “the CD”.

“She’s the perfect storm of an artist: super smart, super focused and she understands the value of her audience”, Bill Bennett, the former head of Warner Bros. Nashville, said last week. Clay Hunnicutt, senior vice-president of programming at Clear Channel Radio—the end-all, be-all of popular radio—also added how unique Swift’s career has been. “That’s the great thing about Taylor—the guys want to date her, the girls think she’s their best friend, and everybody likes her along the way”, he said. “Name another person who’s like that.”

He’s right. You can’t. And that’s why this is as big of a deal as it is. That type of artist will not have the ability—or forum—to be able to establish himself or herself in the way Swift has. The outlets simply won’t exist. Already living in a “I need it now, I want it now”, information-filled climate, it’s inevitable that music lovers’ tastes and interests will be so short-lived, it will literally make the entire notion of selling one million albums in a week an impossibility.

All things considered, though, having now met the pinnacle of her popularity by accomplishing such a feat, maybe not ever selling a million albums in a week again, can be a good thing for Swift.

Or, well, if not Swift—and assuming her most recently reported romantic situation turns out anything like the previous flings she has written about in the past—it could be a good thing for Jake Gyllenhaal, at least.

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