‘1989’ vs. ‘Thriller’: Is Taylor Swift the new Michael Jackson?

Taylor Swift performs during her 1989 world tour in Jersey. Easily the most important pop star of today, now Swift's star power has reached even greater heights and stretched outside of music. (Evan Agostini / Invision)
Taylor Swift performs during her 1989 world tour in Jersey. Easily the most important pop star of today, now Swift’s star power has reached even greater heights and stretched outside of music. (Evan Agostini / Invision)

By Jon Bream
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Katy Perry has more Twitter followers. Kanye West gets more tabloid headlines. Beyoncé has more sex appeal.

But Taylor Swift is America’s biggest pop star.

Her 1989 is the top-selling album of the past year — 5 million and counting — in an era when hardly any album sells even 1 million.

And her concert tickets are selling even faster. Her tour has become the year’s most talked-about, partly because she brings on a famous guest each night.

Swift conquered last month’s MTV Video Music Awards, winning four including video of the year for “Bad Blood.” In May, she snared eight Billboard Awards, including top artist. And she’s a heavy favorite to have a big night at the Grammys next February.

Which raises the question: Is Swift’s 1989 having the biggest impact on the pop-culture landscape since Michael Jackson’s Thriller?

There are many similarities. Both superstars released these landmark albums at age 24. Thriller, delivered in November 1982, was Jackson’s sixth solo effort. 1989, which dropped last October, is Swift’s fifth.

Imagination, smarts and hard work have made Swift successful, she told “Entertainment Tonight” in 2014 — qualities that also applied to Jackson.

Both were savvy enough to pull in unexpected collaborators — rock guitar god Eddie Van Halen on Jackson’s “Beat It” and hip rapper Kendrick Lamar on Swift’s “Bad Blood” — to help cross over to different audiences.

But their personalities couldn’t be more different.

Before Jackson’s death in 2009, he became increasingly mysterious, reclusive and strange. Swift is open, accessible and about as normal as any major pop star has ever been. People are drawn to her friendliness, while mystique was a big part of Jackson’s attraction.

Still, both found ways of employing cutting-edge media to fit their disparate personalities.

While Jackson built Thriller via the impersonal clubhouse known as MTV, Swift has developed her following through social media — Instagramming photos of personal moments, tweeting directly to followers and literally inviting fans, via Twitter, to her house for a preview of 1989. And those repros of Polaroids packaged with every 1989 CD, how cool was that?

Michael Jackson performs in Kansas City in this 1988 file photo. (Cliff Schiappa / Associated Press)
Michael Jackson performs in Kansas City in this 1988 file photo. (Cliff Schiappa / Associated Press)
With such videos as “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Thriller,” Jackson not only tore down racial barriers at rock-oriented MTV but set new artistic standards, transforming videos from glorified commercials into big-budget, meticulously crafted pieces of art.

For her part, Swift has certainly made a dramatic impact with the videos from 1989.

The dance-happy “Shake It Off,” with its retro ’80s new-wave vibe, felt like her “Billie Jean.” With its opulent, combustible pas de deux, “Blank Space” is her “Beat It.” And “Bad Blood” is her “Thriller,” with its noirish takeoff on “Robocop” movies.

The Thriller album yielded seven Top 10 singles, with “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” reaching No. 1. 1989 has already delivered three consecutive No. 1 songs, with “Wildest Dreams” threatening to make it four in a row.

Not bad considering 1989 is Swift’s first full-on foray into pop music.

The former teenage country star crossed over in the past with such hits as “Love Story,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.” For 1989, she collaborated with several proven pop pros on the songwriting, including Ryan Tedder, Jack Antonoff, Shellback and Max Martin (who now ranks behind only Beatles maestro George Martin for producing the most No. 1 pop hits).

Still, as big as 1989 is, the album is not having the across-the-board cultural impact that Thriller had. It’s not just the fact that Jackson’s album dwarfs Swift’s in sales, with 29 million in the United States alone — the biggest album ever. This is an era of downloading singles and Swift totally rules there.

Swift’s audience is big, but not wide. She’s immensely popular with tweens, teens and twenty-somethings. As a country star, she spoke to being her age — whether 17 or 22 — more effectively than arguably any singer-songwriter in the history of pop. But she is not reaching an older demographic as deeply as Jacko did with Thriller — like all those middle-aged Jane Fonda workout-worshipers who loved his “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.”

It also boils down to indelible cultural touchstones. Even though Swift dominates award shows with those I-can’t-believe-I-won faces, she hasn’t done anything on television to match Jackson’s thrilling moonwalk on the 1983 Motown anniversary special.

Ultimately, two things separate Taylor from Michael.

He was a dazzling dancer and a terrific singer. She’s an unformed (but improving) dancer and a serviceable singer. Her music may be consistently emotional and sometimes exciting, but she’s still no thriller.

Haters gonna hate

Despite becoming the biggest and most ubiquitous pop star of our day — or more likely because of it — Taylor Swift has her fair share of detractors. She addressed the naysayers directly in her No. 1 kiss-off hit “Shake It Off,” but they didn’t go away. Here’s a quick look at the flip side to all the things people love about her.

She conquered country and pop

Love: No question, the musical transformation to electronic beats and catchy synth-pop music on her latest album 1989 confirms she makes a great pop star.

Hate: Her previous country albums always edged on Top 40 pop music anyway, and as a result she heavily tilted Nashville toward its slicker, teen-centric sound of today.

She writes her own songs

Love: Her name appears in the songwriter slot under every song on every one of her five albums, and clearly they’re loaded with her own personal/personality touches.

Hate: She enlists a lot of help from outside co-writers, especially on 1989 with such hitmaking machines as Max Martin and Shellback. Most pop and mainstream country stars today also use co-writers, though — and the ones who seem to get criticized most for it are women.

She sings her own songs

Love: No lip-syncing here. Swift delivers all her vocals live in concert and TV appearances. She also seems to use AutoTune much less than a lot of her peers in pop music.

Hate: She’s no vocal powerhouse and frequently goes off-pitch. This has been repeatedly exposed by viral audio clips of her isolated vocals, especially her duet of “Rhiannon” with Stevie Nicks at the Grammys in 2010.

She seems down-to-earth

Love: Her approachable, girl-next-door persona has led to frequent up-close, one-on-one encounters with fans.

Hate: Her list of true BFFs all seem to be TMZ-worthy celebrities, be it musician boyfriends or supermodel girlfriends.

— Chris Riemenschneider, Minneapolis Star Tribune

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