LET’S talk about Taylor Swift. Can her star rise even higher? We have the eternally sold-out Eras Tour; we have the blockbuster success of the concert film Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour; we have two new albums, Speak Now (Taylor's Version) and 1989 (Taylor’s Version); and on top of that, she has been spotted with a new beau, footballer Travis Kelce. In a world where fear and uncertainty have become the main parameters, Taylor gives us distraction and a sense of belonging. Even a serious newspaper such as The New York Times reports at least once a week on the latest Swift storm. The stories have juicy titles such as “Travis, don't fumble Taylor" and “My delirious trip to the heart of Swiftdom".
One of the most interesting NYT articles had the headline “Taylor Swift has rocked my psychiatric practice". It was written by Suzanne Garfinkle-Crowell, who tells us how her clients — teenagers and young women — increasingly depend on Taylor as a wise older sister who guides them through the horrors of growing up: the unsteady friendships, the 24-hour firing squad of the internet and the endless longing to feel seen and valued.
As the Eras tour lurched toward New York, panic among her young clients increased, notes Garfinkle-Crowell. Girls told her they didn’t know what to do now that Taylor's appearance on stage was imminent. How could they possibly stay calm? Some wondered how they could ever resume their normal life after the concert.
Garfinkle-Crowell, who grew up with quirky, feminist artists such as Indigo Girls and Tori Amos, did not remain immune to the Swift fever. Soon she, too, sat glued to the apps that had something new to report about the “Taycalypse". Every sigh, every word, every sock, every shade of nail polish, every layer of lipstick, every reference to an ex, every car ride, every bracelet was described and analysed to the bone. “And now I, too, cannot calm down," she sighed.
She decided to investigate why the 33-year-old singer has such an unprecedented effect on girls and young women. Of course, it is impossible to pin down the exact forces behind the magic and enchantment. They are a combination of many things: a chemical reaction between songs, news, gossip, bonhomie, secret codes, friendship, the spirit of the times and solidarity. Collectively, they fill an existential hole. “Whatever you are upset about, the poet laureate of this generation has got a song somewhere in her mega-oeuvre describing that precise feeling. She is not going to solve whatever problem you are having, but she is going to sit with you in it until the passage of time does its work: Look at her now," writes Garfinkle-Crowell.
The world of a Swifty is an ever-expanding party that goes on day and night. Taylor only has to lift her little finger for the evolving story to gain a new chapter. Her secret, notes Garfinkle-Crowell, is that she is simultaneously anti-hero and lucky charm, maverick and insider. She is not the class bitch but neither is she the morose teenager in an oversized Nirvana T-shirt. Taylor dresses beautifully and looks cool. But she acts vulnerable. In Superstar, she sings, “I'm no one special, just another wide-eyed girl/ Who’s desperately in love with you." That “you" is perfectly chosen. It can be singular and plural, it can indicate a new flame, or it can refer to the millions of fans who each believe Taylor is speaking to them personally. She has, said music critic Amanda Petrusich in a podcast for The New Yorker, “terrifying expertise in striking relationships with her fans".
Taylor is not a rebel, rather a bucked-up cheerleader. She is pretty but not untouchable like Beyoncé or frightening like Madonna. A tad prudish perhaps, despite the bright red lips, half-open mouth and the ever-exposed shapely legs. She has no permanent tattoos. She walks slightly stooped, which gives her an endearing quality. Her breasts are inevitably part of endless discussions focusing on the question: did or did she not have them enlarged? We don’t know, she hasn’t told us.
In many ways, Taylor is the girl next door. She loves romcoms and talks in a universally understandable American television lingo full of “oh my gods", “you guys" and the quasi-amazed “whaaaaaat?" Her songs are full of self-deprecating observations, such as “And I wouldn’t marry me either/ A pathological people pleaser." She likes to position herself as a victim. Victim in relationships, victim in the media, victim in the music industry where her record company ran off with her songs. But in the end, she proves to be the strongest: boss of her relationships and boss of her songs. She struggles and comes out on top.
Time for some facts. Taylor Alison Swift was born on December 13, 1989, in West Reading, Pennsylvania, a small town with a population of about 4,000. She got her first name from the fact that her parents were fond of singer-songwriter James Taylor, known for the 1970 hit Fire and Rain (James and Taylor later sang it together). One blemish on an otherwise carefree childhood was that despite her height, she was poor at sports. Oh, and at times she was bullied by girls at school. But overall she had a lovely upbringing by caring parents who taught her compassion and justice. They were also supportive of her career as a singer and moved to Tennessee when Taylor was 14 so she would be closer to the beating heart of country music, Nashville. Here, Taylor would try to impress the industry folks with her abilities as a singer and songwriter.
Taylor was a virtuous teenager. It wasn't until her 21st birthday that she had her first taste of alcohol and there are no stories about drugs. She believes in God, in a slightly hesitant way. “Desperate people find faith, so now I pray to Jesus too," she sang in Soon You’ll Get Better, a song for her cancer-ridden mother. She doesn't like it when things threaten to get out of hand. “I think I have a big fear of things spiralling out of control, because people get hurt," she said in an interview with Rolling Stone. But she rejects the label OCD because it suggests someone who is cool and aloof, and that’s not how she sees herself.
But behind that attractive girl-next-door image hide unrivalled ambition and perfectionism, protected by a ring of steel. That perfectionism is reflected in the tightly choreographed concerts, the superbly crafted songs with clever hooks and the lyrics that have just enough question marks to keep us on our feet. Her best songs deal with love and lust, with evocative lines like, “I know heaven’s a thing/ I go there when you touch me/ The altar is my hips/ Even if it’s a false god." Her voice, a mezzo-soprano, is clear but not particularly exceptional. It once let her down when she had to sing Rhiannon with Stevie Nicks during the 2010 Grammys. So no, she ain’t no Janis Joplin, Kate Bush or Björk. But unlike them, she conjures up a world where happiness ultimately beats adversity.
And she’s very, very clever. In 2009, around the time she shifted her musical course from country to pop, she received the Grammy for best video by a female artist. She appeared in a Cinderella carriage dressed in a silver gown. But during the ceremony, an inebriated Kanye West ran onto the stage, grabbed the mic and shouted that it was Beyoncé who deserved the award. Taylor finished the show but later burst into tears. It was a defining moment in her career. Instead of wallowing in the role of hapless victim she decided to capitalise on the rude interruption. She wrote the song Innocent, where she turns things around in a crafty way. She does not mention Kayne by name but there’s no doubt the words are about him, a grown-up man who cannot control himself. “Thirty-two and still growing up now," she sings, haughty, patronising. “Who you are is not what you did. You’re still an innocent." Kanye, who had repeatedly apologised for his unbecoming behaviour, felt aggrieved and hit back. In 2016's Famous, he raps, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous."
The incident and its long aftermath proved Taylor’s instinctive power of turning adversity into strength. It’s something she also applies skilfully when it comes to her turbulent love life. For love in all its guises is what truly captivates the singer and her fans. Taylor likes to present herself as the ultimate romantic — she swoons over stories about people finding each other and staying together forever, like her grandparents who were married for 51 years and died a week apart. When it comes to love, she dons the control freak dress, she says. “The way I look at love is you have to follow it, and fall hard. You have to forget about what everyone else thinks… You have to make it work by prioritising it, and by falling in love very fast, without thinking too hard. If I think too hard about a relationship, I’ll talk myself out of it," she told Rolling Stone. She has rules for a lot of things but in love she prefers recklessness. Tellingly, her video for All Too Well starts with a quote from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long."
Cupid’s arrows haven’t hit their target (yet). The list of ex-partners and boyfriends is long. Elle Australia counted 17 since 2008, including celebrities such as musician John Mayer, actor Jake Gyllenhaal, boy band singer Harry Styles and rock star Matty Healy. Her only long-term relationship was with English actor Joe Alwyn, which lasted six years. The end of each relationship is invariably crowned with one or more songs. She first used that trick after the breakup with singer Joe Jonas in 2008, which yielded the songs Last Kiss and Forever & Always. The best lines, however, were about Mayer. In the epic All Too Well, she sings, “And you call me up again just to break me like a promise/ So casually cruel in the name of being honest/ I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here." And no, she has no qualms about using an ex in her lyrics. “Telling a story only works if you have characters in it. And I don't think it’s mean. I think it’s mean to hurt someone in a relationship," she explained.
Taylor is a serial dater who happily shares that tempestuous love life with her fans. They then dissect the lyrics down to the comma in search of references to lovers and competitors. When in All Too Well she sings the two simple lines, “He's gonna say it’s love, you never called it what it was", we are immediately treated to an overwrought analysis of this dilemma by a fan on the Genius.com website: “Swift reveals how hopeful she was about their relationship, while Jake Gyllenhaal seemingly did not admit the depth of his feelings. This suggests that she may have had stronger feelings for him than he did for her, and admitting that he didn’t feel the same way may have scared her away if he told her." I shall not bother you with the next paragraph, which relates All Too Well to other songs so that we get a kind of meta-narrative.
And the music? Like David Bowie and Madonna, Taylor cleverly picks elements from new trends without losing her own identity. Inspired by Shania Twain, she began as a country singer. With 2012’s Red, she switched to pop. Subsequently, she also won over fans of serious music by collaborating with The National, a band of ageing hipsters loved by ageing hipsters.
All this still does not explain her phenomenal success. The Eras concerts are like a high mass for 70,000-plus girlfriends (and the odd boyfriend). Everyone looks fabulous, the antidote to the grunge era. It’s a fashion show with girls in copies of the outfits Taylor wore over the years, from party girl (1989) to Christmas tree (Christmas Tree Farm). Some have pink glitter hearts drawn around their eyes (Lover), others have friendship bracelets up to their elbows, prompted by You're on Your Own, Kid, in which Taylor tells us that making bracelets is a way to communicate with others.
A Taylor Swift concert, and even the movie, is a return to the communal experience Covid obliterated. It’s a response to the yearning of the generation that is going through tough times — scared, alienated and insecure. For them, the songs are psalms, the lyrics the Bible and the outfits the gowns. And, as a modern take on prayer bracelets, they receive a luminous bracelet upon entering so that each individual feels as if they are seen from the altar where the blonde star sings and dances with outstretched arms, like a swan. The usually level-headed Petrusich of The New Yorker sensed “a spiritual shift" during the performance. “You feel a wave that is washing over us," she sighed.
The star succeeds where politicians fail: creating an intense feeling of bonding and belonging. In the world of Taylor Swift, girls and young women are seen and heard. Here they can safely meet like-minded people to exchange bracelets, build friendships and find their identity. Here they have someone who cares about them — someone they, in turn, fiercely protect if need be. To them, Taylor is the saviour, the one who suffered for them to show them the way in life. And be honest, why shouldn't the new Jesus be a 33-year-old blonde American woman?
♦ VWB ♦
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