x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Will Taylor Swift be the voice of a generation?

The 20-year-old's album Speak Now is emblematic of the way culture is consumed in the early part of this century.

Taylor Swift's Speak Now has become the fastest-selling album in the US in five years.
Taylor Swift's Speak Now has become the fastest-selling album in the US in five years.

When Taylor Swift heard last week that her new album, Speak Now, had become the fastest-selling album in America for five years, there was a noticeable lack of rock'n'roll posturing or arrogance. Swift clearly doesn't do triumphalism - her reaction was the goody-goody tweet "I... Can't... Believe... This... You guys have absolutely lit up my world. Thank you." One million album sales in seven days spoke for itself, perhaps, but the really impressive feat here was how an unprepossessing 20-year-old making generic country rock became a record-breaker in the first place.

One million people can't be wrong, can they? Well, yes, they probably can. Taylor Swift might look - and act - the part of the all-American sweetheart. Indeed, when Kanye West famously turned on her at the MTV Awards last year, he misjudged the public's mood so spectacularly he was forced to apologise (although he has since somewhat uncharitably implied that it was his bad behaviour towards Swift that made her a real star).

But there's no real reason why it should be Swift - and not a hundred other pretty country musicians - who rockets to the top of the charts. Speak Now does not push country music in new directions. The songs aren't even particularly memorable. The only classic element of this record is the clever way in which it was marketed, as an insight into her celebrity life post Kanye-gate.

Speak Now is, though, emblematic of the way culture is consumed in the early years of this century. Increasingly, the connection between the speed in which we race to buy albums, books or cinema tickets, and the actual quality of the product is tenuous. In the UK last year, a 48-year-old Scottish church volunteer who recorded an album of covers claimed the prize for biggest first-week sales for a debut album. Incredibly, Susan Boyle's I Dreamed a Dream went on to be the biggest-selling album in the world in 2009 - despite only being released in late November.

Admittedly, I praised Boyle's version of Wild Horses in The National this time last year. But 12 months on does anybody, really, get home from a hard day at work and decide they'd like to unwind by listening to Boyle wildly emote over Daydream Believer?

It's interesting that as Susan Boyle topped the charts, Avatar was on its way to becoming the highest-grossing film yet. A year on, the actual story in James Cameron's film is rarely discussed amid the constant chatter about the technology involved in its creation and the way it looks. It wasn't a must-see movie in terms of its plot and The Hurt Locker triumphed over it at the Oscars - rightly, many felt.

Meanwhile, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are the biggest-selling books of recent years by a considerable margin. Nobody is suggesting that they are works of great literature - and the novels that perhaps are (for example, Booker Prize winners) sell a minuscule amount in comparison. But crucially, Brown and Rowling's books are entertaining, easy to read and deftly plotted page turners. One of the bestselling and most popular novels ever - Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities - might be considered a classic now, but it was similarly very much the commercial, cliffhanging story of its time, published in weekly instalments in a national newspaper.

Of course, it's the cultural snob's default setting to pick at anything that happens to be liked by large swathes of the general public. But just sometimes mass appeal and genuine, era-changing talent do align. By far the most popular album so far - Michael Jackson's 110 million-selling Thriller - is unquestionably a lasting classic of its genre. Yes, there may be some clunkers in the unofficial top 10 best-selling records ever - Whitney Houston's Bodyguard soundtrack and the Backstreet Boys' Millennium are not exactly celebrated and reappraised on a regular basis. Nevertheless, Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon is surely one of the most experimental and creative records to be welcomed into 45 million homes, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours is aped by hipster bands to this day, and, well, AC/DC's Back in Black still sets pulses racing.

So the lesson Taylor Swift - and her fans - would do well to learn is that instant hits don't always beget timeless, best-selling classics. After all, when Oasis released their third album Be Here Now in 1997 they crowed to anyone who would listen, a week later, that they were the biggest band in the world. It became, and remains to this day, the fastest-selling album ever in the UK. Yet 13 years on, it's widely dismissed as Oasis' worst by far - even by the band's Noel Gallagher himself. An album, a book, even a film, becomes a must-have in years, not weeks. Will Speak Now be, in 2020, the sound of a generation? I very much doubt it.