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. Nearly every seat is gone for her three shows this weekend at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul — one of the few cities where she is playing more than two nights. Her tour has become the year's most talked-about, partly because she brings on a famous guest each night. (See sidebar on page E3.)
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.
Savvy use of new media
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?
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.
Going for four in a row
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.
Tay Tay'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.