On Monday, when Taylor Swift unveiled her new single in front of a select group of Swifties (and an untold number of viewers watching it on webstream), she did so with the casual confidence of someone with a large enough and devoted enough fan base to ensure it a No. 1 spot. And according to Billboard, “Shake It Off” very well may debut at the top of the Hot 100 next week, finally knocking Magic!’s strangely resilient “Rude” out of the place it’s held since mid-July. She’ll face some heavy competition when she gets there, though—much of it from female artists. Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea have basically owned the chart for the entire summer. Between the two of them they currently have five out of the top 10 songs in the country, including their team-up “Problem.”
Swift will also have to contend with Nicki Minaj, whose “Anaconda” video, released just hours after “Shake It Off,” has gone massively viral, racking up 24 million YouTube views in two days, nearly three million more than “Shake” has tallied so far. That should be enough to get it near the top of the chart even if it doesn’t receive the same radio play that Swift’s single’s getting. (The song itself is arguably only mediocre.)
Swift and Minaj are an odd pair to be facing off. They’re at least nominally a country artist and a rap artist, respectively—two genres that in the past haven’t been considered to be in direct competition with each other. But both artists have been making increasingly straight pop over the past couple years, and in the process found vast audiences who don’t align with one particular musical culture. The two videos coming out at nearly the same time, then, has turned the situation into a head-to-head battle. It’s also highlighted just how dissimilar the artists behind them are.
The most obvious difference has to do with sexuality: For a pop star, Swift’s strikingly prudish. Her lyrics never go further than kissing, and her image is deeply chaste—her attempts at twerking in the “Shake It Off” video alongside a troupe of much more accomplished ass-shakers is the closest thing to raunchy she’s ever done. Minaj, on the other hand, appears on the cover of “Anaconda” in so little clothing that some blogs covering its release tagged it NSFW, and she spends much of the video twerking.
But the contrast between the two runs much deeper. Swift seems to value relatability over nearly all other aspects of herself as a performer, and her music reflects that. Taylor Swift singles approach the world with arms wide open, engineered to appeal to the maximum number of listeners. She’s as conservative sonically as she is with her image, and she keeps a safe distance away from any sounds that could be considered edgy. People have complained that “Shake It Off” rehashes relatively recent hits like “Hey Ya” and “Hollaback Girl.” But while it’s not difficult to mount an intellectual argument against the song, it’s hard to hate on its own terms.
On the other hand, Swift’s constant quest for relatability has turned her into a pretty severe reverse snob, to the point where she seems outright suspicious of anyone attempting to push boundaries or seem “cool”—which, in her philosophy, seems to be a cardinal sin. The entire theme of the “Shake It Off” video is that she doesn’t fit in with performers who are intently focused on styles that are too stylized. Their devotion to an aesthetic is presented as a flaw, and the “normal people”—some of them Swift fans recruited through the Internet—who appear at the video’s end are held up as its heroes, their humble and kind of goofy moves superior to the serious dancing of the professionals who precede them.
Minaj, on the other hand, is down to try anything. And not just try it, but fully commit to whatever it is, whether that’s covering herself in whipped cream or attempting to steal “Baby Got Back” back from wedding DJs who have held it hostage for the past decade-plus. Maybe even more than her lyrical skills, it’s this commitment that’s made her the phenomenon she’s become. Not even Lady Gaga goes so weird so hard, and at this point, in a lot of ways, she has less in common with her competition on the Hot 100 than with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, a J-pop star who specializes in surreal sensory overstimulation. Like the dancers in “Shake It Off” who Swift adorkably has trouble relating to, Minaj is intensely devoted to her aesthetic, one that no one else in the pop mainstream can even get close to. The average person can’t relate to Minaj, and she’s quick to tell us so. That’s one of the reasons she’s so much more compelling than Swift will probably ever be.