(February 13, 2021). At just past midnight on Friday, February 12, when Taylor Swift dropped the newly re-recorded version of her 2008 classic “Love Story” – parenthetically rebranded as “Taylor’s Version” – fans were understandably curious about just how different the 2021 version would be from the original.
With a good set of headphones and the ability to play both versions back-to-back multiple times over in rapid succession, one can easily pick up on subtle differences in the production and engineering while simultaneously marveling at how meticulously Taylor (or, more accurately, she and her current musicians) recreated the spirit of the first version, with nearly dead-on instrumentation (enhanced percussion notwithstanding) and vocals played and sung in the song’s original key and with the first version’s timing remaining completely intact.
To a non-discerning listener, the distinctions will be without a difference, but true Swifties have likely already dissected every nuanced change like they were hearing the song itself for the first time (in essence, I guess they were).
Which brings me to the following question:
How will the nation’s premier trade publication, Billboard magazine, which Taylor has pretty much dominated for a decade and a half, treat the new “Love Story” and its newly recorded parent album Fearless (Taylor’s Version) – due in April – when it comes to their weekly singles and albums charts, namely the Hot 100 and the Billboard 200, respectively?
If the new Fearless, which reportedly contains six re-recorded versions of previously unreleased tracks, hits No. 1 on its own strength when it’s released in April, would it add to Taylor’s No. 1 album tally (becoming her ninth chart-topping album overall) or would it simply continue the run of the original, which spent eleven weeks at the top back in 2008-09?
I searched Billboard’s archives in vain to see if the question about this very unique situation – an artist essentially duplicating significant chunks of his or her older song catalogue – had already been answered.
Without finding a Billboard article addressing this specific scenario, I then figured logic and reason would be the best approach to figuring out how Taylor’s chart history would be altered by her latest musical achievement.
On first glance, it would seem that Billboard would honor the artist’s vision by treating the two songs (and eventually the two albums) as separate products for charting purposes. For reasons that have been well documented, the whole purpose of Taylor re-recording her older albums is to reclaim ownership of the music that was the source of her dispute with Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun. And let’s face it, Ms. Swift would probably love nothing more than to know that the newer versions of her songs are charting high on their own merits and not with the help of the older versions she’s compelling her fans to leave behind.
So it would seem only right that “Taylor’s Version” of “Love Story” would be tracked separately from the original.
Except it may not be that simple.
While the technology certainly exists for Billboard’s data partner – Nielsen/MRC Data – to differentiate which versions of Taylor’s hit songs or albums are getting the most airplay, sales, downloads or streams, the issue will be one of policy rather than capability.
And even within Billboard’s existing chart policies, there may not be a rule covering the specific scenario of an artist recreating an album in its entirety on a different record label with the same song sequence – save for six bonus tracks. I’m sure Billboard’s chart managers have already met to discuss what flexibilities they have to invoke to address this interesting situation.
We’ll focus on the album more in a minute, but the question isn’t any simpler for the single, “Love Story,” or more accurately, “Love Story (Taylor’s Version).”
Traditionally, Billboard has treated different variations on the same song as “remixes,” with streaming, sales, download and airplay activity on all versions of a particular single counted together for charting purposes. We see this play out regularly today whenever a featured artist is added to a current hit to boost its popularity and propel it further up the chart (several of last year’s No. 1s got there by virtue of a remix featuring late-added artists, including Doja Cat’s “Say So,” Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” and Jawsh685’s “Savage Love”).
In that sense, it’s feasible that all versions of “Love Story,” specifically the 2008 original and its 2021 remake, could also be counted together to track the song’s revival. It’s worth noting here that streaming activity on the original tune increased substantially in the hours leading up to the new version’s release, likely as fans began gearing up for the inevitable comparisons between the two. On Friday, the old “Love Story” entered Spotify’s daily streaming chart at No. 189 with more than 700,000 clicks registered from the previous day. Spotify streaming is a major factor in Billboard chart placement and including the older version’s activity would only bolster the combined song’s chances of topping the chart.
But there are reasons that it makes no sense to combine the two versions for charting purposes.
First and foremost is that the songs appear on different labels. The first “Love Story” – as were all six of Taylor’s first albums – was released on Big Machine Records. The latest version is on Republic. That alone is reason to track the two singles separately.
There is also precedent – several examples in fact. Although they may not equate entirely with Taylor’s circumstances, these examples tend to support the argument that “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” will have a totally separate chart history from the original 2008 version, although the first example below might suggest otherwise.
Back in 1989, one-hit wonder Benny Mardones re-recorded his 1980 hit “Into the Night” and watched it reach the top 20 of the Hot 100 all over again. Despite slight differences in the two recordings and a different catalog number on the single’s label, Billboard allowed “Into the Night” to “pick up where it left off,” assigning it the 20 weeks from its initial 1980 run in the “weeks-on” column and counting from there. The song’s total run-up to 37 weeks – including its first 20 frames from 1980 – were reflected in all of the 1989 chart appearances through its final one that August.
Billboard didn’t include “peak position” in its printed charts at the time, so it’s not known whether the chart would have reflected the No. 11 peak of its initial run or the No. 20 high mark of the song’s second cycle. It’s also worth noting that – despite the different mixes of “Into the Night” – most stations likely leaned toward one or the other in ‘89 and likely didn’t differentiate between the two when reporting to Billboard their airplay data. Many old heads I’ve discussed this with don’t recall ever hearing the slightly remixed version.
R.I.P. Benny Mardones: The only artist to become a one-hit-wonder…twice.
The following year in 1990, there were two different versions of the Righteous Brothers’ classic “Unchained Melody” charting simultaneously. The original – released in 1965 – had been popularized in the film “Ghost,” but licensing issues prevented that version from being released as a cassette or CD single in the U.S. (the two prevailing commercial singles formats at the time). It was, however, available via Verve Records as a 45 RPM vinyl single, making it eligible to chart (albeit somewhat stunted due to its lack of availability in the other formats).
Wanting to capitalize on the song’s immense new popularity, Righteous Brothers Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield went into the studio and re-recorded “Unchained Melody,” then rush-released it on Curb Records via cassette and CD single (not sure how that got them past any licensing issues on the original, but oh well).
The result was that both versions were tracked separately and appeared simultaneously in the top 20 – a chart first – with the original charting largely on radio airplay, while the remake was being fueled by single sales.
It’s worth noting that, for both the Mardones and Righteous Brothers examples, Billboard relied on human interface and man-made lists of stores’ bestsellers and radio’s most-played songs before the advent of the more accurate Nielsen/MRC Data and its incorporation into the chart’s calculations in 1991. There’ve been other examples of pre-1991 cases where artists have re-recorded versions of their older hits and have had them chart separately – including songs by Neil Sedaka (“Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”) and Aerosmith (“Walk This Away”) – but none of those portended to be duplicates of the originals that correlate to the situation we’re analyzing today.
Fast-forward to 1997 and a re-recorded version of Elton John’s 1973 classic “Candle In The Wind.” That song has an interesting history in that it first appeared as an album cut on John’s 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road before finally seeing the light of day as a single in 1987 when it climbed to No. 6 on the Hot 100.
Then in 1997, Elton performed a reworded version of “Candle” at the funeral of his good friend and British royalty Princess Diana. It was that version, retitled “Candle In The Wind – 1997,” which debuted at No. 1 and spent 14 weeks at the top, making it the biggest hit of his career.
John’s “Candle” represents the most significant example of an artist re-recording his earlier song during the Nielsen/MRC Data era and, as such, presents the challenges that come closest – at least from a technological standpoint – to the situation facing Billboard today.
A major difference between John’s situation and the current one involving Swift, however, is the concept of commercial single availability. At the time of “Candle – 1997,” songs had to be commercially available in brick-and-mortar stores – usually as a cassette or CD single – in order to chart. There were no downloads or streaming, so there was scant possibility of an older version of “Candle” joining forces with the revamped one to enhance its chart position, without a single of the older one in stores to generate sales.
Not only that, but John’s re-structuring and retitling of “Candle in the Wind” to “Candle in the Wind – 1997” really did make it a different tune altogether, so it’s probably the clearest example of how an artist could avoid having two versions of songs being paired with each other for chart tracking purposes.
Which brings us back to Taylor and “Love Story.”
The “Taylor’s Version” addendum and label differences should make Billboard’s decision easy: track the two songs separately and allow the newer version to chart on its own merits and with its own new history. If Swift happens to get yet another No. 1 song out of it, then great, it would be her eighth career No. 1 hit on the Hot 100.
Actually, it would be the first time the song reached No. 1 since the earlier version peaked at No. 4 in 2009, so it would augment her No. 1 total regardless.
But the album is a different story. It reached No. 1 in 2009 in its earlier version. So Billboard’s decision here will make a big difference in where Taylor stands in terms of chart history.
If Billboard decides that “Taylor’s Version” of Fearless is simply a deluxe version of the original album and combines data for the two for charting on the Billboard 200, then the album’s ascension to the top – assuming that happens – would be a return to No. 1, adding to the eleven weeks the set spent there twelve years ago.
If Billboard separates the two and gives Fearless (Taylor’s Version) its own chart run with its own new history, then that would become Swift’s ninth No. 1 album overall, beginning with the first Fearless (how’s that for coming full-circle artistically?). It would continue to move her further up the all-time list of artists with the most No. 1 albums and tie her with frenemy Kanye West, while placing her just two behind Barbra Streisand who has the most among all females with eleven chart-toppers.
In this era of deluxe albums where artists append older releases with new tracks to bolster sales and chart positions, it’s hard to predict where Billboard will land in Taylor’s case, which skates into “deluxe” territory with the addition of the six never-before-heard new tracks.
A very recent example of a superstar artist retitling an album and adding a bunch of new songs was Eminem, whose Music To Be Murdered By – Side B (Deluxe) was released nearly a year after its Side A counterpart. Billboard chose to count all versions of the album together and treat it as one chart entry under the older album’s name. As a result, the conglomerate rose to No. 3 last month and simply picked up the history of the earlier version. (Had it reached No. 1 under those circumstances, I’m sure several Eminem stans would have felt he was cheated out of padding his No. 1 total, but, alas, disaster was dubiously averted).
Recent precedent aside, Taylor’s pending Fearless (Taylor’s Version) album isn’t simply being retitled. It will have new (stronger) vocals, new instrumentation, six new songs, and, most importantly, Taylor’s newer label, Republic Records, bearing the distribution costs.
That last factor alone should be enough to make the case easy for Billboard: track the album’s versions separately.
But the more important and compelling reason is even simpler: honor the artist’s (and fans’) wishes. Let Taylor and her Swifties see if the superstar’s latest vision can be realized on its own merits.
DJRob is a freelance blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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