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Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2023: No. 1 — Taylor Swift

Mr. Nimbus | 12/15/2023

For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2023 all this week. At No. 1, we remember the year in Taylor Swift — who, quite simply, spent all year doing things we’ve never seen a pop star do before.

“9/24/23. Taylor was here.” 

So read the bio of the NFL’s official TikTok account on Sept. 24, as Taylor Swift attended her first Kansas City Chiefs home game of the season as the special guest of her then-rumored beau, star tight end Travis Kelce. Swift’s appearance at Arrowhead Stadium was bigger news than anything that happened across 13 football fields that Sunday; even the reported condiments on the chicken she was eating in her guest box spawned year-defining memes. And so, the National Football League – as powerful, influential and deeply embedded a cultural institution as exists in the United States of America – had no choice but to simp for their new pop overlord. Taylor was here

Then again, there were very few places Taylor Swift wasn’t in 2023. Certainly not in North America, which she spent most of the year criss-crossing on her culture-consuming Eras Tour, being feted with gifts, welcome videos, keys to the city, street namings, city namings and Taylor Swift Days in jubilant anticipation of her arrival. And if it wasn’t your city she was coming to that weekend, chances are you still had a good idea where she was headed, because fans, the press and just about everyone else was on Taylor Watch all year – the kind of full-time job that major media companies needed to start specifically hiring reporters for. When Swift was in the building this year, nobody else mattered as much; when she wasn’t in the building, her absence was still bigger news than anyone’s actual attendance. 

Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2023:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Rookie of the Year: Peso Pluma | Comeback of the Year: Miley Cyrus | No. 10: Drake | No. 9: Doja Cat | No. 8: Bad Bunny | No. 7: Olivia Rodrigo | No. 6: Karol G | No. 5: Morgan Wallen | No. 4: Ice Spice | No. 3: Beyoncé | No. 2: SZA

A lot of pop stars – some new, some established, some all-timers – had great years in 2023. We here at Billboard just wrote about nine of them, with plenty more we wish we could’ve given the full treatment; it was a notably great year for pop’s best and brightest. And yet, the decision of who would be our No. 1 Greatest Pop Star has never been easier. That’s truly no disrespect to our runners-up; it’s just about Taylor Swift having the kind of year that, as recently as late last year – even as we actually predicted in our No. 3 Greatest Pop Star of 2022 essay for her that she’d be “ready to snatch the crown right back in 2023” – we never could have seen coming. It didn’t seem possible that anyone could have a year this dominant: not this deep into the streaming era, not this long after the oft-proclaimed death of the monoculture, not when the entire industry seems to be in crisis over how to capture and hold onto listener attention. It was a year not to be judged against Swift’s 2023 peers, but against the entirety of modern pop history. 

Which isn’t to say that it came totally out of nowhere, of course. The main reason we were able to call such a big year coming for Swift in 2023 was because she’d already ended 2022 on a stunning new career peak, 15 years into her superstardom. October’s Midnights release had served as the climax-to-that-point of a 2020s where Swift had made every right move, starting with the acclaimed alt-folk reset of Folklore and Evermore in 2020 and crescendoing with the triumphant first two Taylor’s Versions re-recordings (and the improbably Billboard Hot 100-besting 10-minute revision of Red deep cut “All Too Well”) in 2021. We actually named her the Greatest Pop Star of that year, too, saying that she’d been “making the type of moves within and outside of her music that elevate an artist from superstar to legend.” 

But Midnights took her to yet another new level, with 1.57 million units moved in its first week – nearly three years into a decade where no other artist, even Adele, had even come particularly close to clearing a million – and spawning the longest-reigning Hot 100-topper of her career with the four-quadrant smash “Anti-Hero.” Previously, Taylor Swift’s Greatest Pop Star Alive claims had to be tempered with allowances that Adele sold more, that Drake streamed better, that The Weeknd and Ariana Grande had bigger pop hit singles. Now all those qualifiers were moot: Swift was dominating on every platform at every level, and if anyone else was nearing her performance in one or two facets of superstardom, they certainly weren’t in all of ‘em. She ended 2022 the unchallenged No. 1 in the pop arena; the only reason she slotted at No. 3 in our Greatest Pop Star rankings for the year (behind Bad Bunny and Harry Styles) was because she’d spent the first eight months of the calendar mostly dormant, recharging. 

Taylor Swift

Getty Images for TAS Rights Management

Taylor Swift

John Shearer/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management

There would be no such lengthy respites in 2023. Swift kicked off the year still in the golden hour of the Midnights album cycle, with “Anti-Hero” spending the first two-non-holiday chart weeks of the year at No. 1, and second single “Lavender Haze” growing at pop radio. Over the first two months of the year, she released a gently surreal video for “Haze,” picked up a Grammy for best video as director of All Too Well: The Short Film and scored a top five album on the Billboard 200 for a Record Store Day release of her Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions collection. But mostly, she prepped for the Eras Tour. 

It would be no exaggeration to call the Eras Tour the single most anticipated live trek of the century. Part of that was just a numbers game: Taylor Swift had not played a full concert since the Reputation tour in 2018, having to cancel her planned Lover Fest mini-world tour for 2020 – the COVID shutdown year. In the half-decade since that successful live run, Swift had released four entirely new albums, as well as two Taylor’s Version deluxe re-recordings, and myriad in-between bonus goodies. All of that had combined to make Swift significantly more popular than she had been in the late ‘10s, when she was already one of the biggest pop stars and live draws on the planet. Needless to say, the fans were ready – so much so that Ticketmaster’s servers had proven woefully under-equipped to handle the level of demand once Eras Tour tickets were first released to the public the prior November. 

And when Eras finally kicked off on March 17, it was far more than just the tens of thousands of fans in attendance at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, AZ who were watching. Interest in the tour was so high that phone-filmed bits of the show spread through social media like wildfire, with some fans even live-streaming the entire experience from their phones. Consequently, even though no official stream of the kickoff concert was offered, millions of Swifties still saw the whole thing, if only in minute-long clips at a time. Eras was in many ways the first event tour for the TikTok Generation – the app rising to global prominence during Taylor’s touring hiatus – and footage of and reactions to the first concert soon overwhelmed the service, ultimately reaching all corners of the internet as fans pored over each song selection, each costume and set change, each little bit of in-between banter. 

The kickoff show was, in every way, just the beginning for the Eras Tour. Contrary to 99% of big pop tours, national interest in Eras hardly dropped at all after the first night, as the set’s rotating spot of two acoustically performed “surprise songs” gave fans reason to excitedly tune into the social chatter (and videos) from each new concert. “I AM DONE WITH TAYLOR SWIFT” became a recurring trending topic as the battle cry of faux-betrayed Swifties, irate that their personal fav track appeared in the setlist for a show when they weren’t in attendance. The celebrity turnout at Eras gigs also became a reliable topic of content and discussion, with everyone from Julia Roberts to Flavor Flav getting in on the world’s hottest ticket. 

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One celebrity who actually took the Eras stage with Swift was rising rapper and pop star Ice Spice, who joined Swift at MetLife Stadium in late May to perform their new remix to the set-closing Midnights cut “Karma,” which had been released earlier that day. The remix drew a mixed reception, as the two artists’ styles meshed a little awkwardly, but the alliance was still a logical one for Swift, as Ice Spice covered the one area inside the mainstream that she was no longer really able to touch – the cutting edge – and also just lent a much-needed freshness to the no-longer-new Midnights single, helping “Karma” to surge to No. 2 on the Hot 100.

Of course, fans theorized about another reason why the pairing was a shrewd one for Swift, and it had to do with Matty Healy, frontman for veteran U.K. alt-pop fixtures The 1975. Healy and Swift had a friendship dating back to the mid-’10s, and in January 2023, Swift had actually made a surprise appearance at a 1975 show in London. Now, Swift and longtime paramour Joe Alwyn were reportedly through, and rumors about her and Healy being in a relationship were flying. It made for an unusually controversial topic of discussion around the traditionally backlash-averse Swift, as her relatively clean public image made for a stark contrast with Healy’s longtime affinity for provocation – most recently, offensive comments he’d made about Ice Spice during a podcast interview. Countless fans voiced their disapproval and hurt over Swift pairing with such a figure, and Ice Spice’s appearance within her fold less than a month later felt to many like an attempt to redeem her new beau’s reputation by proxy. 

Nonetheless, Swift’s relationship with Healy became top-tier tabloid fodder, and ensured that all eyes remained on the Eras Tour as it wound its way through the States during the spring and early summer. The arrival of Eras in a new town every weekend brought with it not only an avalanche of hype, media attention and near-groveling from the host cities, but enough traveling business to give local economies a notable boost. Cities like Las Vegas and Philadelphia had reportedly seen their tourism levels rise to pre-pandemic levels upon her visits, and research company QuestionPro ultimately estimated that the tour could raise as much as $4.6 billion for all its host cities combined – even leading to debate on The View over whether Swift was doing more for the national economy than President Biden. 

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It helped that by that point, the tour had its own hit single adding to its promotion – and for once, it was one that Swift herself couldn’t have planned or predicted. “Cruel Summer,” a sparkling album cut off 2019’s Lover, had been a fan (and critic) favorite and regular high-performer on streaming for years, but with its plum second-from-the-top placement within the Eras setlist – and with the weather heating up – consumption of the song kicked into high gear. In June, it reappeared on the Hot 100 for the first time in four years, and Swift soon seized the moment, announcing its release as an official single a few weeks later. Radio quickly jumped on board – it ultimately spent 10 weeks atop Pop Airplay, her longest-ever reign on that chart – and in July, the song climbed into the Hot 100’s top 10. 

The overdue success of “Summer” continued a trend first started by the “All Too Well” revival of two years earlier, where even her should’ve-been-smashes from years past were being validated with the kind of chart success they’d been largely ineligible for in real time. “Summer” in particular represented a sort of fascinating hypothetical for Swifties, because the lead single Swift had released from Lover – the jarringly jejune and poorly received “ME!” – was an extremely rare miscalculation, tainting the entire album era. With “Summer” becoming the kind of consensus-beloved smash four years later that “ME!” was never going to be, Swift not only got to boost her numbers for 2023, but she also got to belatedly redeem her narrative for 2019, fixing her past while plotting her future. 

And in truth, “Cruel Summer” was just the tip of the spear for the full-on streaming onslaught that the Eras Tour represented for Taylor Swift. For the first eight weeks of her tour, her streaming numbers rose across the board in each frame – ultimately leading to a 79% total boost in her streaming performance, for numbers that were already ozone-high. Her catalog-wide consumption was so vast that in July, she notched four albums simultaneously in the top 10 of the Billboard 200, becoming the first living artist to accomplish that feat since Herb Alpert six decades earlier. (By year’s end, she’d become the first to get a full five at once.) 

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One of those four July albums was her first Taylor’s Version re-recording for 2023, of 2010’s Swiftie-beloved Speak Now. The set featured the usual barrage of bonus cuts, and some particularly enticing collaborations with period-appropriate special guests like Fall Out Boy and Hayley Williams of Paramore. Best of the bunch was the slinking solo performance “I Can See You,” which sounded like the undeniable radio smash that Speak Now never totally produced, the lone thing missing from the album’s resumé. It became the highest-charting song from the new Speak Now, debuting at No. 5 on the Hot 100, as the album became her third straight re-recording to bow atop the Billboard 200 – with a whopping 716,000 first-week units, the best number yet for any Taylor’s Version, and also the biggest number for any album released to that point in 2023. 

If Taylor Swift’s year had ended as the U.S. leg of the Eras Tour began to wind down in late July and early August, she already would have done more than enough to easily capture our No. 1 spot in these rankings. She even took a kind of mid-season victory lap at September’s MTV Video Music Awards – which has essentially served as Swift’s pop culture home base, ever since she unwittingly played a key role in the show’s all-time signature moment back in 2009. Without performing, she was still the show’s focal point all night, as she hung out with Ice Spice, gushed about presenters *NSYNC, Nelly Furtado and Timbaland, and collected nine awards, including song and video of the year for “Anti-Hero” – her second-straight win and fourth total in the latter category, double the amount of any other artist. 

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But Swift’s year was nowhere near done – in fact, the biggest moments were yet to come, as would become abundantly clear on that aforementioned Sept. 24 date. To the relief of untold numbers of Swifties, her fling with Healy had run its course months earlier, and now rumors were beginning to swirl about her and Kelce. The Chiefs star had become increasingly coy in his comments about the pop icon, saying he’d invited her to come see him play a home game (after he’d seen her Eras show in Kansas City that July). She did indeed do just that on the 24th, with her presence at Arrowhead sending both the worlds of sports and pop culture into a frenzy, and leading to numerous posts and videos of non-football-conversant Swifties sharing the sport’s rules with one another, so they could better understand what was happening in between the shots of their hero in a private box with Kelce’s mom Donna. 

From then on, every Sunday (and a couple Mondays and Thursdays) of 2023 was overtaken with Taylor talk: Would she be showing up at the Chiefs’ next game? What other celebrities would she be attending with? What kind of Kelce swag would she be wearing, and what would that mean about their relationship? What do you mean Kansas City is on a bye week? While Swift’s short relationship with Healy was extremely controversial to Swifties and her long relationship with Alwyn was largely uninteresting to everyone else, her love story with Kelce – a well-liked, unproblematic figure, a Super Bowl-winning superstar as an athlete with enough of a Q rating as a celebrity to host SNL – was universally accessible, and found near-100% public approval. You didn’t need deep grounding in Swift Lore to understand the relationship, because it just felt right: the All-American athlete dating the All-American pop star. 

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As her second 2023 tour of America’s football stadiums continued through October, Swift also had a new project to promote: Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, the concert film documentary shot across her August dates at SoFi Stadium in California. While such concert docs have historically been fan-only fare, with limited box-office ceilings, news of The Eras Tour was greeted as if it was the new Marvel blockbuster – and with commercial expectations to match, as insiders projected it could earn as much as $100 million in its opening weekend. Swift released the movie directly through theater chain AMC’s screening and distribution, and even with the brand beefing up its ticket sales systems to five times their usual capacity in advance of the Eras ticket pre-sale, they still crashed due to overwhelming demand. No business could properly quantify or contain Swfitie enthusiasm in 2023. 

Following a glammy L.A. premiere – including an appearance from Beyoncé, perhaps the only current pop star with the unimpeachable legacy and continued greatness to qualify as a “get” for such Swift events – Swifties descended upon the nation’s AMC theaters the weekend of Oct. 13 for the Eras film debut. Fans sang (and filmed) along, countless friendship bracelets were exchanged, and the film raked in $92.8 million – short of the $100 optimistically projected (darn), but still enough to make it the highest-grossing concert film ever in just three days of release. Meanwhile, Swift took the opportunity to take care of some unfinished business: With “Cruel Summer” lingering around the Hot 100’s top 5 for months but unable to claim the top spot, she released the three-song “Cruelest Summer” pack to celebrate the song’s Eras-boosted success – “for old times sake” – with a new live version and a new Giobbi remix of the song. Following the added consumption from the extra versions, “Cruel Summer” finally hit No. 1 the next week.  

And then, the capper. While Swifties had ravenously consumed each of Swift’s three Taylor’s Version re-recordings, there was one that was anticipated above all others: 1989, the 2014 mega-blockbuster that fully completed her crossover to pop superstardom and was still treasured by fans as the defining album of that pop era. Swift had announced the release of her new 1989 onstage at the final show of her Eras Tour U.S. leg in August, and in late October, it was finally set to be released. However, following a full year of Taylormania, dating back to Midnights the prior October – and only three months after Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), two weeks after the Eras Tour film, and with “Cruel Summer” still holding atop the Hot 100 – some had to wonder: Has it been too much Taylor? Will fans really have the capacity to come out in full force for another album of re-recordings? 

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The first-week numbers for 1989 (Taylor’s Version) answered those questions with a definitive no and yes, respectively. The re-recording debuted with a near-unthinkable 1.653 million units, including 1.359 million in pure sales: both numbers passing every other Taylor’s Version, passing Midnights, even passing the debut week for the original 1989. (Passing every other release of the 2020s as well, though Swift beating everyone else had ceased to be as impressive as besting her own marks.) The set’s five new bonus tracks were also well-received by fans and critics, particularly “Slut!,” which offered a new look at Swift’s vulnerability under the peak media glare of the 1989 era, and “Is It Over Now?,” which debuted atop the Hot 100, becoming her third song to hit No. 1 in 2023.

Swift’s year wound down with her scoring six nominations for the 2024 Grammys (including album of the year for Midnights and song and record of the year for “Anti-Hero”) while resuming her Eras touring in South America. Sadly, tragedy struck at one of her Brazil dates in November: a fan died at her show, with many pointing to extreme temperatures and a scarcity of available water (and rules prohibiting fans from bringing in their own) as a potential cause. Swift shared her condolences over Instagram, saying she had a “shattered heart,” and canceled her Brazil show the next night due to continued “extreme temperatures” and safety concerns. (Local authorities announced that free water would be made available at all future shows.) 

The Eras Tour finally wrapped for the year in late November, with Swift scheduled to pick things back up in Tokyo in February. Official Box Score numbers have yet to be reported for the tour’s 53 dates so far, but Billboard projects the total number to be upwards of $900 million – already enough to zoom past Elton John’s current mark for the highest-grossing North American tour of the Box Score era, with his Farewell Yellow Brick Road trek taking in $567.7 million over 135 shows – and that she might double that number with her 2024 dates. In fact, between her music sales and streams, tour receipts and box office returns, Billboard estimates that Swift made nearly $2 billion in 2023 alone, numbers which don’t even account for her financial wins from synchs, sponsorships and merchandise.

Still, while the staggering numbers certainly suggest the enormity of Taylor Swift’s 2023, they don’t totally capture it. It’s also about going to any airport, any city center, anywhere with a large gathering of people – not even necessarily music fans – and seeing multiple Eras Tour tees and hoodies. It’s about watching a TV show like the critically beloved The Bear, and getting blindsided by the emotional power of an unlikely character having a cathartic singalong to “Love Story” (Taylor’s Version, no less). It’s about memory-testing quiz site Sporcle creating a category just for user-submitted Swift tests, the only artist besides The Beatles with their own. It’s about no less authoritative and competitive a pop authority than Drake – Drake!!admitting on record that he delayed a project’s release to avoid her crossfire: “Taylor Swift the only n-–a that I ever rated/ Only one could make me drop the album just a little later.” 

And it’s about looking at the current pop landscape and seeing Swift’s impact absolutely everywhere. It’s in the breakout of singer-songwriter Noah Kahan, who’s acknowledged that the pandemic-era acclaim for her Folklore and Evermore albums helped open a mainstream lane for his brand of alt-folk. It’s in the sophomore success of Olivia Rodrigo, who’s been following in the Taylor Swift career mold so well through her first three years of recording that she even just released an eerie Hunger Games ballad. It’s in the first-ever Hot 100 hits for obvious acolytes like Lizzy McAlpine and Gracie Abrams. It’s even in the recent triumphs of stars like Zach Bryan and SZA, whose musical trees don’t branch up to Swift, but who are certainly benefiting from the raised commercial ceiling she’s allowed for artists whose emphasis is first and foremost on detailed, personal songwriting. 

All of this raises the obvious question: Where does Taylor Swift’s 2023 rank among the greatest years any pop star has ever had? Was it greater than The Beatles’ 1964, Michael Jackson’s 1983, Britney Spears’ 1999, Beyoncé’s 2003, or Adele’s 2011? It’s certainly on that all-time shortlist, but it’s also exceptionally hard to compare to most of the other folks on there – largely because every other artist’s mega-year on that list was defined and driven first and foremost by unavoidable, culture-defining hit singles, which have always served as the lifeblood of pop success. But while hits certainly played a part in Taylor Swift’s 2023 – she did have three No. 1s, after all, and 53 total Hot 100 entries – they weren’t really what powered her success. None of her No. 1s were even properly from this year; “Anti-Hero” was a 2022 holdover, “Cruel Summer” was a 2019 reclamation, and “Is It Over Now?” dates back a whole decade in origin. In truth, the hits were more effect than cause for Swift’s pop mega-success: She could have had none of them and still ruled easily over these rankings this year. 

It’s not totally clear how her year relates to the past, but what’s abundantly clear is that Swift’s 2023 will now be the year that all future pop stars will be measured against. Swift has shown that as powerful as a viral hit can be, it’s absolutely nothing compared to a viral tour, a viral catalog, a viral… everything. Really, Taylor Swift spent 2023 in a perpetual state of virality – something that sounds like it would be unsustainable if not outright dangerous for most pop stars, but something that after 15 years in the spotlight, she seemed absolutely ready and game for. Consequently, she is on a level of pop stardom right now that no other contemporary artist is even approaching, and remarkably few would be able to hold onto if they ever got there. 

You can ask whether that’s a good thing for pop music, or even for Taylor Swift. When an artist’s success becomes divorced from their need for conventional hits, it can result in artistic complacency; just ask Drake superfans how they feel about his last five years of output, after it became clear he’d dominate the charts with every new album and single no matter what kind of consensus they held about its quality. And top 40 has also long thrived on the greats at least having plausible contemporary rivals who pushed them to higher heights: The Beatles had The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys, Michael Jackson had Prince and Madonna, Britney Spears had the entire TRL teen-pop dynasty. Without that level of healthy competition, everyone suffers. 

You can ask whether it’s a good thing for pop fans, too. Certainly the public appetite for Swift remains enormous, and has been well-earned following her decade and a half of consistent pop excellence. But one star can sustain that level of approval for only so long – and who knows how many music fans right now have already begun to hit their fill point with how much Swift they can handle in their lives. Plus, with the Eras Tour set to continue on through all next year, and with two remaining Taylor’s Versions still to go – not to mention what other new material could be on the way – there’s no obvious break from the Taylorverse coming anytime soon. It’s not inconceivable that we could be back here this time next year, talking about how as big as her 2023 was, we never could have predicted how much bigger still her 2024 was going to get. 

But if you do have to hand it to Taylor Swift’s 2023 for one thing, it’s this: Pop history is littered with frustrating what-if stories. Artists who made a major miscalculation with a song or album, artists who got in bed (literally or metaphorically) with the wrong people, artists who changed their sound or style too soon (or not soon enough), artists who took a couple years off at the worst possible time, artists whose personal lives overwhelmed their musical output or vice versa. And there is something not just awe-inspiring, but deeply satisfying, about watching an artist who made every single right decision for years and saw it all come together in one year of total untouchability. There is no wasted potential with Taylor Swift, no what ifs – the chance was there for her to have one of the greatest years any pop star has ever had, and you know that she grabbed it. Taylor was here. No one who was around for her 2023 will ever forget it. 

This post was originally published on this site

Written by Mr. Nimbus

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