The explainer

👸🏼 Why is the world so obsessed with Taylor Swift?

10 May 2024

The explainer

Taylor Swift performing in Las Vegas. Christopher Polk/Penske Media/Getty

Why is the world so obsessed with Taylor Swift?

The 34-year-old billionaire was Time Magazine’s person of the year in 2023, and her Eras arena tour, which arrives in Europe this week, has been the first to make more than a billion dollars.

How did she get started?
Swift grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania, on land owned by her financier parents. When she was 14, she convinced her family to move to Nashville, Tennessee so she could pursue a career in country music. After being spotted at the Bluebird Café, a small venue for up-and-comers, she entered the world of mainstream country, where writing teams aim to capture, in familiar language and simple chord patterns, the texture and emotion of everyday blue-collar lives. She was good at it. She released her first album aged 16; by her 20th birthday, she had earned more than $50m.

What turned her into a mainstream star?
Her albums became less folksy but she stuck to the basic principles of classic country, hitting a lucrative seam with songs about her bad taste in boyfriends. “Every time a new Swift romance is announced,” says Helen Lewis in The Atlantic, “fans begin to salivate over how good a break-up album she will get out of its eventual demise.” Her formula worked: according to Forbes, she is the first person to become a billionaire purely from music.

Is Swift’s success part of a trend?
Yes. She is one of a host of female musicians replacing men both in the charts and at awards ceremonies, says Jonathan Dean in The Sunday Times. Men may still dominate the nostalgia market, but women are now “putting out more songs and better songs”. This year’s Grammys, for example, saw women win all three top prizes. Teenage girls, who once went for “ripped and raunchy” boy bands like Take That, now go for female role models like Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish.

What’s behind this shift?
Like most things, it owes a lot to social media. Feeling close to heroes online, says Dean, leads fans to see singers on stage as “less on a pedestal, more in a mirror”. “We are now seeing a lot more freedom for female artists,” says Jack Saunders, who presents Radio 1’s New Music Show. “Where their image was once heavily controlled by others, they now have a much more personal say and, therefore, more personal control over their output, which is attractive to their audience.”

What makes Swift stand out?
For one thing, her willingness to take on powerful industry forces, says Taffy Brodesser-Akner in The New York Times. In 2019, her long-time record label was sold, along with the rights to her back catalogue, to the pop mogul Scooter Braun, “a man she hated”. So re-recorded all of her albums, marking them “Taylor’s Version” so her fans knew how to support her. In 2014, she complained about the piffling royalties Spotify paid to artists, and when they pushed back, removed her music from the service.

What makes her able to throw her weight around?
She’s “cracked the code of modern fame”, says Helen Lewis, and is unbothered by the “constant speculation” about who or what inspired her songs. “She is flirting: giving fans a glimpse into something secret, but not the whole picture.” And because she never does press interviews, the songs are all her fans have to go on, and why scrutinising her lyrics has become a “cottage industry”.

How popular is she?
Her popularity is extraordinary. When fake pornographic photos of the star, generated by AI, started circulating on X, her fans launched “Operation Protect Taylor Swift”, drowning the fake images in a sea of real ones and writing so many angry messages that the White House called for new legislation against virtual sexual abuse. Elon Musk, who owns the site, temporarily blocked all searches for her name and hired 100 content moderators. Swifties’ obsession appears to know no bounds: thanks to her extensive use of private jets, in 2022 Swift was accused of being the world’s most polluting celebrity. Did her eco-minded millennial and Gen Z fans care? Not a jot.

Does she have enemies?
She ruffled conservative feathers when she called on her fans to vote for Joe Biden in 2020, accusing then-president Donald Trump of “fanning the flames of white supremacism and racism”. Now that she’s going out with all-American NFL star Travis Kelce, some Trump fans have started claiming the romance is fake, accusing her of being a Pentagon stooge set up to provide Biden with an election-winning mega-endorsement. Silly as that sounds, the fact that she is regarded as a White House kingmaker is a reflection of her cultural dominance.

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