‘She dominates our age’: Taylor Swift has become the greatest show on Earth.


How to write about the biggest, most written-about star in the world as summer 2024 approaches, and with it the arrival of Taylor Swift’s Eras tour in the UK later this week? We could take cues from the normally level-headed New Yorker. But even they recently threw up their hands and pronounced Swift as beyond review – not because reviewers might get doxxed by overzealous Swifties if they dare give her fewer than five stars, but because Swift’s work might officially be beyond good and evil.

The New Yorker’s Sinéad O’Sullivan contends that Swift is operating so far outside the norm for pop that assessing her output as mere songs is futile: she has created a Marvel-style universe all her own, in which complex internal references abound and the identity of her enemies, and the 3D chess games she is playing, are pored over across the social mediasphere. Teenage girls and young women, it turns out, are not passive consumers of glittery froth, but supercharged Dylanologists crossed with ninja cryptographers, operating at an emotional pitch on the scale of Beatlemania.

Swift not only has lore, she embarks on her multi-platform art knowingly, laying a trail of Easter eggs and numerological puzzles. She is also, of course, beyond interview, a “post-media” celebrity who does not have much use for middle-people. But in a rare 2023 exchange with Time magazine (when she was named person of the year) she discussed her emotive and canny album re-recording campaign to gain control of her masters – Taylor’s Versions – being like a mythical quest. “I’m collecting horcruxes,” Swift said, eyebrow only slightly raised. “I’m collecting infinity stones. Gandalf’s voice is in my head every time I put out a new one. For me, it is a movie now.”

In this universe, from news stories about her latest Swiftonomics milestone, to fan theories shared and dissected at light-speed, to university courses and symposia, the mass of Swift exegesis is weighty. This is, yes, yet another op-ed to toss on to a vast pile, but still it remains worth examining the phenomenon of a singer-songwriter who has become far, far more than just that. Swift’s fans cheer so loudly they twice registered as an earthquake on the Richter scale in the US last year. Donald Trump allies have threatened to wage “holy war” against Swift if she endorses Joe Biden for the US presidency. “Biggest gangsta in the music game right now,” Drake recently called her.

Drake considers Swift his only real competition but really, it’s not even close. A number-soup of statistics, of umpteen records broken and most-streamed this, or online reach that, supports Swift’s dominance. Her Eras tour looks set to be the highest-grossing of all time, tilting the financial tectonics of entire cities: Barclays has estimated that her shows here might be worth £1bn to the UK economy. The Swift lift is real: she has made American football, that most popular US sport, even more popular. Her boyfriend, Travis Kelce, plays for the Kansas City Chiefs; it’s been calculated that Swift has generated an additional $331.5m for the NFL between 24 September last year and 22 January this year.

Trump allies have warned her to stay out of politics. What’s extraordinary is that everyone believes that she can swing the election

The Swift lift could be political too. “I can’t comment on what Taylor Swift is saying, or not saying,” said a White House spokesperson in March, on whether Swift will endorse Biden this year; hilarious, if the context weren’t so charged. The star did endorse him in 2020 and Swift is, apparently, sky-high on Biden’s team’s wishlist. (She may be reticent to endorse a figure known to Palestinian supporters as “Genocide Joe”.) Fox News, meanwhile, has called Swift “a Pentagon psyop asset” and Trump allies have warned her to stay out of politics. What’s extraordinary is that everyone believes that she can swing the election.

What’s even more remarkable is how Swift manages to be a significant geopolitical and macroeconomic disrupter, while simultaneously cultivating an insightful, sensitive relatability. She is “your billionaire best friend”, according to Georgia Carroll, who spoke at the recent Australian Swiftposium; a star who made her money on the back of her songwriting (not by diversifying her portfolio into drinks, makeup or NFTs) and by leveraging the obsessiveness of her fans to consume multiple formats of her output. “My Pennies Made Your Crown” completes the keynote speech’s title (it’s a Taylor Swift lyric); Carroll’s thesis examined what expenditure does to cultural capital within the fan community. Swift has been likened to a capitalist role model thanks to endless limited edition releases and merch drops, and her indefatigable work ethic: she has released five studio albums in the past five years, alongside four complete Taylor’s Version re-recordings. (Recently, Billie Eilish called out as “wasteful” unnamed other pop stars releasing multiple colours of the same vinyl record; Eilish’s vinyl is recycled.)

With discussion of Swift’s work and life powering several server farms’ worth of internet fan activity, it becomes harder to get your head around this epically unprecedented state of affairs. If the Kansas City Chiefs are not really in Kansas any more, Toto, then neither are the rest of us.

Swift’s exceptionalism, though, is well founded on both talent and tactics, and in the singular journey she has had through the past couple of high-churn decades. Ironically, given she dominates our age, Swift is actually a profoundly old-fashioned artist who would have made a great Broadway librettist. Unlike a lot of modern pop, her songs tell a story, in succinct, emotive ways that often scan meticulously, a legacy of her country beginnings. But Daddy I Love Him, off The Tortured Poets Department, is a vexed love story complete with meddling onlookers that may have nodded to Swift’s troubled relationship with the 1975’s Matty Healy. She quotes The Little Mermaid, wrongfoots expectations – “I’m having his baby/No I’m not, but you should see your faces” – and nonchalantly tosses off the line “all the wine moms are still holding out/But fuck ’em”.

When we’re repeatedly told that the value of recorded music has never been lower and that it is consumed largely as snippets on TikTok, Swift releases double albums that are events themselves; her body of work is studied as a whole. In a time where people engage with highly individualised content on their phones, Swift’s releases, gigs and pronouncements provide mass moments as stans, lighter-touch fans and onlookers race to digest her latest output, or decode a cryptic post.

But Swift is also profoundly of this era, where fame has significantly altered – especially for female pop artists. It has become more intense, bloodthirsty and fickle. The leftfield singer-songwriter and musician Ethel Cain, in a recent interview with the Guardian, suggested that fans nowadays treat female pop artists “like fantasy football teams”, arguing “about streams and stats and followers and almost using them like Pokémon to fight each other”. Swift knows a little about that. Her current level of adulation has been hard won; back in 2016, the hashtag #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty trended, after a series of dramas, conflicts and PR nadirs where the Taylor avatar took a drubbing. That all seems very long ago now; you might quip that Swift’s narrative arc has been long, but it has bent towards justice, and – crucial to her ubiquity now – that justice has coded female.

Swift saw off a groping male DJ in court in 2017. A convoluted and ugly multi-part saga involving Kanye West and his former wife, Kim Kardashian, has ended with Swift vindicated, and with Ye losing big brand endorsements after a series of antisemitic statements. Swift also creatively faced down the controversial pop manager Scooter Braun, who bought the masters of her back catalogue out from under her when he acquired her old label. (He has since sold the label and the masters; Braun’s other crime was being a Ye ally). Many of Braun’s premier clients – Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato and Ariana Grande – are now working with others.

Swift has survived physical, legal and financial assaults. She proves the creeps are beatable, which is news we can use

Stars are, to some extent, two-dimensional characters; they are projections. But stars are also mirrors, reflecting back at us what we want – or need – to see. And what Swift’s many fans see is a woman whose songwriting reflects their concerns. She writes about the anticipation and disappointments of romantic love, privileging the intensity of the female experience but also all aspects of her complex story. There is, perhaps, a yawning unmet need now for an avenging angel such as Swift in the wake of the overturn of Roe v Wade – Swift speedily tweeted her “absolutely terrified” reaction – and the anti-choice legislation under way in various states.

But if Swift’s saga skews female, her feminism does have shortcomings: it’s been criticised for its paleness, despite some timely social media action at the time of #BlackLivesMatter, her embrace of Juneteenth and her friendship with Beyoncé. In the Q&A after her opening address to the recent Melbourne Swiftposium, senior Rolling Stone writer Brittany Spanos, a Black Swiftie, expressed some personal discomfort; that Swift had ground to make up. There is, categorically, more that Swift could do on many fronts. Since her outburst in the Miss Americana documentary (2020), in which she argued with her father and other managers about supporting Democratic candidates in a local Tennessee election in 2018, her public commitments to social justice seem to have dropped off somewhat.

But key to her dominance is her own story: Swift has been cancelled, and risen, phoenix-like; surviving physical, legal and financial assaults. She proves the creeps are beatable, which is news we can use. More than just some idealised gracious Athene, Swift has access to reserves of Boudicca and Joan of Arc. It’s all been a postmodern hero’s quest, with a woman at its heart. All entertainment is, inherently, distraction from more important things; circuses have traditionally come a close second to bread in the hierarchy of needs to avoid a descent into anarchy. But we need them. A tremendous multi-ring, multi-level circus is coming to town, and Swift is its vindicated ringmaster.

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