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Taylor Swift could actually become an even bigger deal after ‘The Tortured Poets Department’

There’s sweat on your brow. You start to feel your heart beat a little faster. The acrobatics you feel in your stomach are tumbling just enough to make you mildly queasy. You get a little wobbly in the knees as the anxiety, stress and anticipation shoot through every limb of your body.

No, you’re not getting sick; you’ve got Taylor Swift album release fever. And you’re not alone.

Swifties know the feeling because they’ve lived through the experience before, and are about to do it again with the release of Swift’s 11th studio album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” out Friday. What’s different this time: Swift – the breaker of records, the new face of NFL broadcasts and the touring machine who turned the eyes of the government on Ticketmaster – doesn’t have a lot left to prove. Not that it’s dulling anyone’s excitement.

“This is probably the most anticipated album ever that I’ve seen in my career,” Tom Poleman, the chief programming officer & president for iHeartRadio, told CNN in a recent interview. “It’s not just a music event, it’s a pop culture event that I think that everybody in America will be talking about and celebrating together.”

“Tortured Poets” is Swift’s latest album following the 2022 release of “Midnights” and the 2023 release of “1989 (Taylor’s Version).” Both of those albums broke so many streaming, sales and chart records that listing them all would not only read rote, but in the larger scheme of her success, the stats and the term “record-breaking” almost begin to lose meaning. Imagine that: Being so successful that your success is sort of boring. (Disclaimer: The term “record-breaking” is still going to pop up a lot throughout this story.)

It’s hard to imagine how Swift’s achievements can even be measured at this juncture. One major record label executive with nearly two decades of experience, who asked not to be named so he could speak candidly, said for an artist like Swift, achieving “huge commercial milestones” is as important as the conversation with and involvement of fans.

“It’s like in movies, it’s like James Cameron who cares about quality, cares about credibility but also cares about commercial success,” he said.

“Tortured Poets” comes during an unprecedented moment of success for Swift that is the result of both intentional and accidental circumstances. The album’s performance will answer whether there’s any ceiling to Swift’s accomplishments, or prove that for an artist of her caliber, there is such a thing as flying so high you can’t really see the top.

Proven track record
In an industry that’s had to change its own bar for success in the last 15 years or so – mostly due to the rise of music streaming – Swift is something of a rare breed in that she has been successful at both putting up massive streaming numbers and simultaneously selling millions of physical copies of her albums. She’s in amazing company.

For those stat lovers, let’s dig into those a little deeper: Both “Midnights” and “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Swift marked her largest sales week for an album in the US out of her entire career when “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” sold nearly 1.7 million units in its first week. She also became the most streamed artist in a single day on both Apple Music and Spotify with “Midnights,” according to data the music streaming platforms provided to CNN.

“She has both markets cornered,” Keith Caulfield, managing director of charts & data operations at Billboard, told CNN in an interview. “At the core of it, people are still incredibly interested and incredibly invested in the music and the art that she creates. She’s not just a celebrity. She is also an incredibly respected musician and artist that fans love to engage with.”

If there was a stronger word for love, we’d use it here to describe how the truest Swifties engage with her content, from continuously spotting so-called Easter eggs in her work to musing on her dating life to following the exclusive “secret sessions” she throws.

“She’s very in tune with how her audience is engaging with her,” Poleman said. “She has a plan for every different facet of how she can connect with her audience and I think it comes from her being like her audience. She’s consuming life the way they are, and I think it makes her very relatable.”

For the most part, Swift’s rollout for “Tortured Poets” has been quieter than past album releases – if announcing your new album at the Grammys can ever be considered quiet. But the superstar has not released a single or a music video, as is tradition when promoting an album. Sometimes, one could argue, doing less says everything.

The beauty of being Swift is that you don’t really need to follow any rulebook. With so much momentum behind her, she is one of the few artists who can get away with a pared down album launch and still yield impressive results.

“I think she’s going to break the internet,” Poleman said.

Turning point
While “Midnights” and “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” were some of Swift’s most commercially successful work, it was her 2020 album “Folklore” that was a turning point in her career that set the stage for the moment she finds herself in now.

It was an evolutionary time for Swift, perhaps best showcased by what she wrote on her Instagram page when she announced the pandemic-era album.

“Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed,” she wrote at the time. “My gut is telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world.”

Trusting her gut paid off.

The boost in Swift’s profile following “Folklore” was a welcome one after her 2019 “Lover” album only spent one week at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Sure, one week at No. 1 for any artist is a feat, but it’s a short period of time compared to most of Swift’s previous studio albums that spent at least four weeks or more in the top spot.

“Folklore,” on the other hand, spent 11 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and won her a third album of the year Grammy at the time. It is still widely considered one of her greatest works.

To fans and insiders alike, “Folklore” also kicked off Swift’s playing-by-her-own-rules era. In 2019, she committed to re-recording her first six studio albums after Scooter Braun acquired the rights to her master recordings from her former label. The one-two punch of the Braun acquisition and the pandemic changed how Swift released her new albums thereafter, starting with “Folklore.”

“I think all those things collided to potentially help inform how her career took on a whole new level of success in a way that I don’t think people would have ever possibly anticipated,” Caulfield said.

After “Folklore,” she released a steady stream of both new music and her re-recorded albums. In nearly three years she released five albums, all of which notably claimed the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart at the time of their release.

“Since then, it’s been unprecedented. It’s been this rocket ship for her,” said the record executive.

Swift’s profile then rose to yet another level when she announced the “Eras Tour,” her first tour since 2018 and her first opportunity to take the four studio albums she had released since then – none of which got their own individual tours – on the road.

The fervor for scoring tickets to the tour caused Ticketmaster to crash at the time, which then spawned a congressional hearing where lawmakers put its parent company Live Nation in the hot seat about its inability to process orders.

Those who did manage to get tickets, however, experienced a celebration of Swift’s greatest hits from her nearly 18-year career that bridged generations.

“The totality of those factors combined has put her into this space that no other artist has really been in,” the record executive said. “She’s kind of in this place where no other artist has had the capability to touch this many generations and it kind of stems from ‘Folklore.’”

When it comes down to it, though, Swift has said time and again that making music is simply just something she loves to do.

“I feel this happy when I finish a song or when I crack the code to a bridge that I love,” Swift said in March while accepting the Grammy for album of the year (her fourth). “For me, the award is the work.”

Says the Grammy-winner who does record-breaking all too well.

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