The success of ‘Delicate’ shows how pop listeners haven’t moved on from ‘Reputation’ as quickly as some initially thought.
As resounding as Taylor Swift's first-week numbers for her sixth album Reputation were — 1.2 million, her fourth straight seven-digit first week, according to Nielsen Music — it's been hard for her to shake the perception that the album has marked a step back for her, commercially.
In large part, that's because the album's singles haven't been embraced the way her 1989 hits were. That 2014 album spawned three No. 1 hits on the Streets Talkin Hot 100 and essentially ruled radio for a year and a half – with its first five singles all reaching the top three on Streets Talkin's Radio Songs chart — achieving a kind of cultural omnipresence that's rare for a 2010s album, to say the least.
Reputation? Well, lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” topped the Hot 100 in its first full tracking week, of course — even ending the record-tying 16-week reign of “Despacito” — and stuck there for three weeks. But its shelf life proved relatively short: Within 10 weeks it was out of the chart's top 10, and on Radio Songs, it only peaked at No. 5. Meanwhile, follow-up “…Ready for It?” debuted at No. 4 on the Hot 100, but plummeted from there, only reaching No. 17 on Radio Songs. And despite guest appearances from fellow superstars Future and Ed Sheeran, and a big-budget, globetrotting music video, “End Game” could only crawl to No. 18 on the Hot 100, peaking at No. 15 on Radio Songs.
Upon its establishment as the set's fourth official single, it could be assumed that “Delicate” was only to continue this downward trend for Swift. The Reputation fan favorite debuted at No. 84 on the Hot 100, and climbed slowly from there, but stalled outside the top 40 — despite the release of both an official Joseph Kahn-directed music video, premiered at the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards, and a Spotify-exclusive vertical video, eventually also made available on YouTube. A half-year after the album's release, it seemed like the Reputation era would end without Taylor Swift having the kind of hit she was accustomed to — the sort of long-simmering smash that proves unavoidable for months on end, particularly on radio, well after the initial headlines surrounding the single's release recede from memory — and that maybe the imperial phase of her pop stardom had already come to an end.
But a funny thing happened with “Delicate”: It kept growing. Though the sensual, intimate, mid-tempo ballad may have seemed less immediately top 40-ready than the more bombastic “Look” and “Ready,” it gradually sunk its tentacles into pop radio. It climbed to No. 1 on Adult Pop Songs this week, Swift's first single to top the chart since “Wildest Dreams” almost three years earlier. It's scaling the top five of the Pop Songs chart, and has reached a new peak of No. 4 on Radio Songs — making it the highest-charting entry from Reputation thus far. This week, it also climbs to No. 20 on the Hot 100, jumping seven spots in its 16th week.
Of course, “Delicate” still has a long way to go to match the overall chart peak of “Look What You Made Me Do” on the Hot 100 — 19 spots, to be exact – and may very well not get there, particularly given the song's lack of presence on the Streaming Songs chart, where it's yet to even make an appearance. But what “Delicate” has already given Taylor is something none of her other Reputation singles can claim: a hit that's only gotten bigger the longer audiences have spent with it. Where the first three releases off the album peaked almost immediately upon release, “Delicate” has gradually swelled to arguably her most popular single off the set to date.
The success of “Delicate” is part of an overall turnaround in momentum Swift has undergone for the Reputation era. Swift has attracted uniformly strong reviews and earned some historic grosses for her Reputation Tour, a triumphant victory lap for an album not necessarily considered by all to be an unequivocal win. And it's also hard not to note that the recent PR hits taken by old Swift foe Kanye West related to his controversial opinions and behavior on and off social media have made the narrative surrounding the loss Swift supposedly took in her feud with West in 2016 seem like a distant memory, and sort of small potatoes in comparison.
And it's also noteworthy that “Delicate” is the song that's marking the turnaround. While “Look What You Made Me Do” was outwardly vindictive – apparently in direct response to the Kim and Kanye controversy of the prior year — and “…Ready for It?” and “End Game” further pushed the idea of Taylor the Avenger with their talk of vendettas and maps of buried hatchets, “Delicate” puts the drama to bed. ”My reputation's never been worse, so you must like for me,” Swift concludes in the opening lines, the only reference to her feuding days in what otherwise unfolds to be the kind of tender, irresistible pop song that few artists do better. For “Delicate” – the single that feels the most disconnected from the oft-overwrought Reputation rollout and Swift's accompanying new personality – to be the song most connecting with fans, would seem to demonstrate that they too still like Taylor for Taylor.
Of course, none of this is to say that Reputation is now on its way to matching the blockbuster status of 1989: Indeed, Swift may not have another album of that size again. (Of course, it might be a while before anyone else does, either — since its release, Justin Bieber's Purpose is the only other LP to spawn three Hot 100 No. 1 singles, and no other set has managed five top five singles.) But even if Reputation shows the superstar to be moving into a less commercially bulletproof stage of her career, the late-arriving success of “Delicate” also proves that she's still a major pop force — particularly at radio — and shouldn't be counted out so easily again.