Last week, we counted down our Billboard staff picks for the 10 Greatest Pop Stars of 2023. While it was a pretty good year across the board for pop stars showing out at the highest levels, we’d be lying if we said it was ever a particularly close race for No. 1.
It was, after all, Taylor Swift‘s year, pretty much from beginning to end. With three Hot 100 No. 1 singles, two Billboard 200-topping Taylor’s Version re-recordings and a tour expected to end up the highest-grossing in recorded history (and a box office-topping documentary to accompany it), it was an absolute 2023 for the ages for Swift — one whose enormity is almost impossible to put in proper perspective.
Still, we tried this week to answer some of the bigger questions surrounding Swift’s year: How do we try to explain the dominance of it? And can she do it again? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. We were unanimous as a staff in agreeing that Swift was the No. 1 Greatest Pop Star of 2023 — and maybe even that no one else was particularly close. If you were trying to explain to someone what made her year so different (without using stats), what’s the main thing you’d focus on?
Katie Atkinson: Her ubiquity. Whether you’re a day one Swiftie or don’t know a single song (I honestly have no idea how this could happen, but let’s imagine), I guarantee you heard her name at some point this year. Every state she brought her Eras Tour to gave her a queen’s welcome, as she transformed local economies in her wake. And if you somehow missed her stadium concert tour, maybe you caught her stadium suite tour as she also infiltrated the NFL. She also released two re-recorded albums and brought three songs (one four years old, one originally conceived nine years ago and one holding over from last year) to No. 1 on the Hot 100. Taylor Swift was completely and utterly unavoidable this year and she somehow found new heights to her already-stratospheric levels of fame and acclaim.
Kyle Denis: Taylor understands pop stardom. She knows that the show doesn’t stop once you’ve stepped off stage, and that’s what made her year so different. From a whirlwind controversial boyfriend (Matty Healy) and a link-up with the year’s hottest new star (Ice Spice) to music videos that expand on her already storied lore (“I Can See You”) and a very public-facing romance with Travis Kelce, Taylor performed pop stardom better than anyone else this decade. Each new occurrence in her personal life came accompanied by a new single, re-release, music video, or tour announcement, further expanding and cementing her hold on the mainstream this year.
Jason Lipshutz: The best way I could explain it would be to describe Taylor Swift’s place in popular music this year as an all-consuming force that anyone remotely paying attention to pop culture in 2023 was familiar with to some degree. Over the past 20 years, the proliferation of the Internet has weakened the monoculture by giving us more entertainment options to focus on and discuss — but Swift’s cultural standing harkened back to a time when we were all listening to the same hit singles and watching the same things on television, cultural moments that were far-reaching enough to be inescapable. I didn’t think an artist in our current culture could recall a fervor like Beatlemania or the peak of Michael Jackson’s reign; Taylor Swift proved me wrong.
Meghan Mahar: Aside from the money she has earned and records she has broken, Taylor’s No. 1 spot on our Greatest Pop Stars list stems from her cultural ubiquity. She was already a household name but this year, she was truly inescapable, whether you were trying to watch a football game and saw Swift in the stands or saw yet another Swift-soundtracked trend on social media. The Eras Tour gave superfans yet another reason to celebrate their fandom, encouraged new listeners to dive into Swift’s discography, and emboldened fans who may have been a bit shy with their support to be loud and proud. This year, liking Taylor Swift wasn’t just commonplace — it felt cool and exciting to be part of something so massive.
Andrew Unterberger: The thing I keep coming back to is just how much Taylor Swift’s star status this year transcended any one of her hit songs or albums. She had plenty of both of those in 2023, but you didn’t necessarily need to be familiar with any of them to know that she was the biggest pop star in the world having the best year of her career — you just kinda knew from living in the world. It’s not something I ever remember experiencing before, at least not on this level.
2. And if you were using numbers — what’s the one that you think best captures how dominant Taylor Swift was this year?
Katie Atkinson: I’d say our headline last week estimating that Swift grossed almost $2 billion this year from her music, movie, touring and concert merch is about as mind-blowing as it gets. So basically she’s racking up numbers that are akin to the GDP of a small country (we’re looking at you, East Timor).
Kyle Denis: Definitely the fact that she became the first living artist to simultaneously chart five projects in the top 10 of the Billboard 200. It genuinely doesn’t get much more dominant than that.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s the five albums in the Billboard 200’s top 10, at the conclusion of a year in which Swift did not release a new studio album. Those five included 1989 (Taylor’s Version) and Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), the two re-recorded albums that Swift released this year and spent 5 combined weeks at No. 1; Lover, which included the non-single “Cruel Summer” that Swifties sent to the top of the Hot 100, four years after its release; Folklore, Swift’s 2020 indie-folk pivot which has proven to be one of the most lucrative left turns in pop history; and of course, Midnights, which boasts Swift’s longest-running No. 1 single in “Anti-Hero” and could win the album of the year Grammy in February. Half of the top 10 being Swift albums — all of which posted that chart ranking for a different reason — demonstrates just how massive her year turned out to be.
Meghan Mahar: $838 million: the projected dollar amount of gross ticket sales of the Eras Tour’s U.S. leg in 2023. In a post-pandemic concert boom, Swift made Eras likely the second highest-grossing U.S. tour of all time, only behind the iconic Elton John and his Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour. This achievement is insane when you consider how far along Elton was in his career when he set this record and how much music he had behind him. Swift is only 34 years old and putting numbers on the board. For scale: according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the median price for a home in the U.S. is $431,000. This means that Swift could buy almost 2,000 homes with her U.S. Eras grosses alone.
Andrew Unterberger: The Billboard 200 and tour stats are remarkable, but I go back to the first-week number for 1989 (Taylor’s Version): 1.653 million units. Not only is that the biggest debut week of Swift’s career — bigger than Midnights, bigger than the original 1989 — but it’s a full 1.15 million larger than any week posted by a non-Taylor Swift artist this year. And it’s not even for a new album — it’s for a re-recording, basically a deluxe reissue with some new bonus tracks. In 2021, we were talking about how impressive it was that Fearless (Taylor’s Version) moved 291,000 units in its first week; just two years and three TVs later, she’s doing nearly six times that. It’s mind-boggling.
3. While Swift had three No. 1 hits and 53 Hot 100 entries this year, it wasn’t necessarily her biggest year in terms of new music. Nonetheless, if you had to define her 2023 in one song of hers, which would it be?
Katie Atkinson: Definitely “Cruel Summer.” The Lover song never had its moment in the sun when it was first released, so it was really magical to watch it become an honest-to-god organic hit four years later, even without a music video or other gimmicks. As the opening song on the Eras Tour setlist, it felt like a celebration of the career-defining trek to have it climb all the way to the top.
Kyle Denis: I think it would still be “Anti-Hero.” It felt like the Swift song people kept returning to despite the subsequent Midnights singles and From the Vault tracks.
Jason Lipshutz: The obvious choice is “Cruel Summer” — Swift’s commercial enormity, exemplified in a years-belated hit — but I’m going with “Anti-Hero,” not only because it started the year on top and turned into Swift’s longest-leading No. 1 single on the Hot 100, but because it’s one of the best singles of her career, immediately catchy and self-lacerating, steeped in imagery but able to push a phrase like “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me” into the cultural lexicon. It’s easy to forget that the centripetal force of Swift’s gargantuan success still has to be great music; the tour, awards, visual projects and general celebrity don’t hit as hard if the hits are subpar. “Anti-Hero” was a revelation in the midst of Midnights, though, and if I’m explaining her recent musical success to someone, I’m starting there.
Meghan Mahar: “Karma.” Swift’s success can be traced back to various factors, whether it’s how she has stayed true to her art, employed brilliant marketing tactics, or built a strong relationship with her fans. However, the two things that stood out to me this year more than ever were how intentional and positive Taylor was with her actions. An artist can’t reach this level of success without being widely loved, and I believe that Taylor has made genuine connections in the industry that continue to fuel her success. Take Kelly Clarkson, for example, who suggested that Swift re-record her older works, laying the groundwork for all the Taylor’s Version releases. “Karma” is how Taylor turned a bad situation into everything her “eras” have become, including nearly $2 billion grossed across merchandise, movie tickets, and music sales.
Andrew Unterberger: Yeah, it’s gotta be “Karma” for me — the Ice Spice remix, the Eras Tour debut, the general victory-lappy vibe of it all. It won’t go down as her most beloved song from this period, but it’s the first one I’ll think of when recalling what the era felt like.
4. Is there anyone else currently impacting the pop mainstream who, if they do absolutely everything right from here, you think might one day be capable of a year comparable to Swift’s 2023?
Katie Atkinson: Whew. It’s hard to imagine, but it feels like the start of Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo’s careers mirror some of the hallmarks of Swift’s beginning – like starting out as a teenager, racking up both commercial and critical success. They’re building bases that could possibly rise to that level, if everything is nurtured and continues at this A-list pace. But even then, it’s hard to imagine another pop star who is going to reach their commercial peak at age 34 like Swift has accomplished. And who knows? She could go higher.
Kyle Denis: Olivia Rodrigo. Her fan base is still relatively young so she can spend the next few years cultivating a special relationship with them to lay the foundation for a year like Swift’s one day. Her music and brand also have a comparable reach to Taylor’s, which will make it easier for her to reach those kinds of commercial heights.
Jason Lipshutz: Not really? The two names that come to mind immediately, Adele and Drake, could release hits-packed commercial juggernauts, and possess the back catalogs to mount in-demand tours… but even if everything did go right in that promotional blitz, they probably couldn’t muster the level of all-out cultural fascination that Taylor Swift has reached. These runs come along once in a generation, so I’d guess that, if another artist could in fact replicate Swift’s 2023, we haven’t met them yet.
Meghan Mahar: There are two major keys to success that an artist would need to reach Swift’s level of 2023 success: a consistently rich, impactful discography and a wide-reaching, highly-favored public persona. Based on these criteria, I think the only pop star who’s fully active at the moment who can truly be in the conversation is Beyoncé. While she didn’t have as big a year as Taylor by the numbers, Renaissance and its corresponding tour proved that she can reinvent herself and still reach tremendous heights. If we are still waiting on two more acts of the Renaissance project, Queen Bey might bless us with a wild 2024. I think Ariana Grande could rise to this potential as well, and I’m excited to see how she returns to the spotlight next year. I’m hoping that she has a major comeback in which she releases a new album and does a press run for Wicked: Part One.
Andrew Unterberger: I don’t really see it happening for anyone else. Olivia Rodrigo would be the only newer artist whose trajectory to this point looks to be even remotely similar to Swift’s at this point in her career — but she’s got so long and so far to go to get there that it’s unreasonable to expect or even hope for. I wouldn’t say it’ll never happen again, but when it does, chances are it’ll be with someone totally unfamiliar to us currently, and in a totally new way that we never could have seen coming in 2023.
5. If you had to bet right now, do you think Taylor Swift will also be the runaway pick for our Greatest Pop Star of 2024 around this time next year?
Katie Atkinson: I don’t want to bet against Taylor ever. I guarantee she’s on that list, given we have another full year of The Eras Tour ahead of us, but we’ll have to see whether she might take a (much-needed) break from the prolific pace of her album and re-recording releases next year. She’ll be top five regardless.
Kyle Denis: I won’t say she’ll be the runaway pick, but I do think she’ll be in the top five or top three contenders. The tricky thing with a year like the one Swift has had is that the pendulum eventually swings in the other direction.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s simply too early to tell. I do want to point out a pattern, though: Swift released two re-recorded albums in 2021, then a new studio album in 2022, then back to two re-records in 2023… Could the cycle continue, and we get a new Swift album next year? If we do, then yes, she is the prohibitive favorite for our Greatest Pop Star of 2024. Bet against Taylor at your own risk.
Meghan Mahar: Absolutely. There are Eras Tour dates lined up through December of 2024, and every show will generate new content now that Swift’s slate of surprise songs will be reset at the top of the year. In addition to surprise songs, the Reputation and Taylor Swift debut eras that are incorporated into the show will continue to fuel the anticipation of the Taylor’s Version releases — and I would bet that we are getting at least one of those albums next year. The fact that Taylor has two more potentially career-defining projects in the pipeline is insane, and her dominance over the news cycle goes beyond her professional endeavors. Between her high-profile friendships and budding romance, I don’t think we will hear the end of Swift anytime soon.
Andrew Unterberger: Between her and the field I’ll probably take the field — there’s just too much competition out there, and it’s hard enough to sustain a year like Swift’s 2023 for 12 months let alone for 24 — but she’s certainly got the best odds of anyone on the field. It may come down to how much she wants that title again, or whether she’d rather give herself (and by extension everyone else) a little bit more of a break instead.