The recent Netflix documentary Taylor Swift: The Reputation Concert Tour ostensibly presents itself as a document of the pop superstar’s two sold-out shows at Dallas’ AT&T Stadium in November, the climax of the most successful concert tour in American history. But it’s really about the staggering enormity of Swift’s immense popularity. With many concert films, it’s customary to keep the cameras fixed on the performers, giving the audience a uniquely personal view of every glance, gesture, and bead of sweat. (See Netflix’s Springsteen On Broadway, or classics like Stop Making Sense and The Last Waltz.) The Reputation Concert Tour, however, cuts constantly to sweeping overhead shots of AT&T Stadium, which resembles the Grand Canyon if it were filled with 60,000 screaming Taylor Swift fans. We also see close-ups of those fans singing, dancing, and crying their heads off. It’s an effective visual representation of the macro and micro scale of Swift-mania. She matters to people, the film explains, both intimately and universally.
The Reputation Concert Tour film appeared on Netflix about three weeks after nominations for the 2019 Grammys were announced, and in some ways it felt like a rebuttal. As Rolling Stone observed, 2017’s Reputation is Swift’s least Grammy-nominated album since her 2006 self-titled debut, garnering just a single nomination in the Best Pop Vocal Album category. This despite the field for Album Of The Year being newly expanded to eight nominees, affording space for relatively under-the-radar releases by the R&B artist H.E.R. and country singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, along with blockbusters by ubiquitous superstars like Cardi B, Drake, and Post Malone.
But not the most ubiquitous superstar. To quote the woman herself, there’s a blank space at the Grammys this year, and it’s worth pondering which institution has been damaged most in the process.
When Reputation was released nearly a year and a half ago, critics lined up to call it a turning point in Swift’s career — nobody argued that it spelled the end of her commercial dominance, exactly, but it did seem like the album’s general sourness and troubled roll-out pointed to a decline in Swift’s previously charmed career. Last month, about a week before the Netflix documentary was released, The New York Times declared that the monolithic, one-size-fits-all pop archetype that Swift personifies “has been almost completely dismantled,” making way for “Pop 2.0” represented by “K-pop, Latin trap, melodic hip-hop and more.” Swift, some would argue, is on her way out.
Getting shut out of the Song, Record, and Album Of The Year categories suggests that enough Grammy voters have bought into this narrative about Taylor Swift being passé. Of course, nothing is more passé than the Grammys itself, though the award show has been extremely eager this decade to honor young talent in order to burnish its own dubious credibility. And few have been honored before now as much as Taylor Swift, who won Album Of The Year in 2010 at the age of 20, and then again six years later.
While the Grammys didn’t make Taylor Swift’s career — she was already huge on country radio even without all the hardware — they anointed her a certain status early on that fortified the brand as she maneuvered toward her smashingly successful pop crossover. But now, the Recording Academy apparently was so intent on proving how much it suddenly loves hip-hop that it couldn’t even grant Reputation a courtesy Album Of The Year nomination, effectively throwing their previously beloved wunderkind under the bus.
I’m not asking anyone to cry for Taylor Swift not getting enough Grammy nominations. Her trophy case is stacked enough already. And Reputation is certainly a flawed album, though it will likely be regarded by future generations as one of her most interesting, and perhaps best, LPs. (Every legacy artist benefits from having their own equivalent of Neil Young’s “ditch” period.) Besides, arguing against the quality of Reputation in reference to an institution that feels Beerbongs And Bentleys represents the pinnacle of artistic achievement is missing the point. The Grammys first and foremost like to associate themselves with artists who are already winners. And Reputation still has an unwarranted stigma as a failure.
Lest anyone interpret Swift’s absence from the Grammys this year as evidence that she is fading away, it’s worth reviewing some pertinent statistics. In spite of being released in early November, Reputation rallied to become the third best selling album of 2017. And then it became the top selling album of 2018, besting even the juggernaut that was Drake’s (Album Of The Year-nominated) Scorpion. One of Reputation‘s signature singles, “Delicate,” burrowed into pop radio last year and stayed there, unlike the more hyped “Look What You Made Me Do,” becoming a fixture on the Hot 100 for much of 2018.
And then there’s that US stadium tour, which grossed a record-breaking $266.1 million, moving more than two million tickets for just 38 concerts, according to Billboard. (The previous record-holder, the Rolling Stones, grossed $245 million by playing almost twice as many shows on the 2005-07 A Bigger Bang tour.) This, to me, is more impressive than album sales or streaming statistics. Swift sold an average of 54,432 tickets per show, while often playing multiple stadium gigs in the same town. At New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, for example, she played three consecutive sold-out concerts last July, selling an incredible 165,654 tickets.
It’s one thing to convince listeners to invest in a free click on a song. But Taylor Swift inspires an enormous population of fans to spend a lot of money on her whenever she comes to town. Cardi B, for all of her popularity, can’t quite do that yet, at least not on the same level. With all due respect to the Pop 2.0 generation, very few people could pull off a campaign like the Reputation tour — not just in the contemporary pop world, but in the history of pop music.
Factor in that for about a decade each new Swift tour has outgrossed the previous tour, while also including fewer and fewer concerts each time out, and it’s apparent that Swift has done the opposite of fade. Swift has actually achieved the type of success that might be equated with a kill screen for pop stars — a level so high that it simply cannot be exceeded, automatically triggering some kind of do-over. After all, can you really sell out four consecutive stadium shows in one market? How about five? Six? At some point, it becomes inconceivable, like imagining a sea of Swifties being even happier to see their hero, to the point where they eventually just spontaneously combust. That can’t happen … can it? Then again, I never bet against Taylor Swift.
The Grammys, however, have chosen to do just that, and part of me wonders if this all is part of Swift’s master plan. Along with her peerless talent for immediate pop songwriting, I’ve long admired Swift’s preternatural career instincts. One of her canniest moves has been consistently positioning herself as an underdog, even as she’s evolved into a thriving multi-national corporation. And the Grammy giving short shrift to Reputation plays almost too-perfectly both into the underdog narrative and the “outsider” themes of the album.
Shutting Reputation out of the Grammys is like if the Bush administration had threatened to censor Green Day’s American Idiot. It actually makes the album seem prescient, and therefore better and more interesting. (It’s also worth noting that a relatively edgy, confrontational album made by a high-profile woman after she was sexually assaulted by a music-industry insider not being honored says something about the music industry’s slow embrace of #MeToo.)
If this is Taylor Swift’s “kill screen” moment, she’s rebooting from a position of power. And, I suspect, the Grammys — which could use some of those devoted Swifties to help offset their plummeting ratings — will eventually come crawling back to her, rather than vice versa.