Tell me if this has ever happened to you: You’re bored so you decide to pop an edible and watch a movie. Then you drink a cocktail or two. Everything after that turns hazy. The next morning, you realize that you went on eBay last night and bought several hundred dollars worth of video games your parents wouldn’t purchase when you were a kid. And you DM’ed the ex you definitely should not ever DM. And you posted the entirety of the drafts folder from your social media account. Including the ones that will definitely get you fired.
With the benefit of hindsight, you can plainly see that these actions were unwise. But you figure that they must have made sense at the time.
Now, let’s say that “you” in this scenario is American pop culture. And the edible is Taylor Swift. And last night is 2023 and this morning is 2024. You look back and discover that you spent $1 billion on concert tickets, $250 million on film tickets, and tens of millions more on vinyl copies of re-recorded albums that you already own. Also, you enrolled in a class about Taylor Swift at Harvard University, one of at least 10 schools that now include the pop star in their curriculums. (You recall that the teacher compared Taylor to Wordsworth.) In addition, you applied for a job as a Taylor Swift reporter for a major metro newspaper. And you lobbied the Pennsylvania legislature to declare 2023 the “Taylor Swift Era.” And you picked a fight on Twitter with 85-year-old writer Joyce Carol Oates because “she does not understand” Taylor’s popularity. And then you battled far less famous people online because you believe this Taylor Swift video “is totally awesome and not embarrassing at all.” And then you doxxed a music critic or two because they did not give Taylor a sufficiently high grade in an album review.
With the benefit of hindsight, you can plainly see that at least some of these actions were unwise. Or can you? Welcome to your intervention! (In-Tay-r-vention?) As we enter 2024, the time has come to take stock of what we did last year. And what we did last year was lose our damn minds over the most dominant pop star since Michael Jackson. Surely, our behavior must have made sense at the time. It was certainly (mostly) fun. But at this juncture, an important question must be asked: Can we as a culture resolve to be more normal about Taylor Swift in 2024?
Now, before we proceed any further, let me state a few things for the record (and for my own personal safety): I have been writing about Taylor Swift for the better part of 15 years. I like writing about her. As a cultural phenomenon with seemingly inexhaustible relevance, I find her fascinating. And I admire her all-time acumen as a music-industry professional par excellence. I am not interested in writing a “Taylor Swift takedown.” I am not even really talking about Taylor Swift at all. As I suggested in my metaphor earlier, Taylor Swift is merely the stimulant. What I am interested in are the lunatics she has driven insane (i.e. the entire country).
Not that I am painting all Taylor Swift fans with the same brush! The vast majority of you seem like perfectly nice and reasonable people! Though there is a very small and very vocal minority online whose Taylor Swift avatars scarcely conceal their pitch-black, vengeance-seeking, sociopathic souls. (I type this with great love and respect.)
Actually, let’s pause on addressing the fanbase. I am going to start instead with a much easier target — the media.
Something broke inside of me last month as I read Time’s “Person Of The Year” article. It’s not that I think that Taylor Swift didn’t deserve the honor; if anything, given the magazine’s lack of prominence in 2023 whenever it was not declaring Taylor Swift its “Person Of The Year,” Time barely deserved her. But the prose seemed a touch … worshipful? Maybe worshipful isn’t a strong enough adjective. The biblical Gospels are literally worshipful of Jesus Christ, but they read as skeptical muckraking when compared with Time‘s gushing about Taylor Swift.
I’ll give you an example. Here is the passage that really snapped that thing inside of me into tiny pieces. It’s the section that closes the story:
After I leave Swift’s house, I can’t stop thinking about how perfectly she crafted this story for me — the one about redemption, how she lost it all and got it back. Storytelling is what she’s always done; that’s why, [Kenny] Chesney tells me, he gave her that gift all those years ago. “She was a writer who had something to say,” he says. “That isn’t something you can fake by writing clichés. You can only live it, then write it as real as possible.”
She must have known that all the references she made had hidden meanings, that I’d see all the tossed-off details for the Easter eggs they were. The way she told me that story about Chesney, she knew there was a lesson, about the power of generosity, and how a crushing defeat can give way to a great and surprising gift. The way she said, “Are you not entertained?” — surely we both knew it was a quote from Gladiator, a movie in which a hero falls from grace, is forced to perform blood sport for the pleasure of spectators, and emerges victorious, having survived humiliation and debasement to soar higher than ever. And the way before I left, she showed me the note from Paul McCartney hanging in her bathroom, which has a Beatles lyric written on it — and not just any Beatles lyric, but this one: “Take these broken wings and learn to fly.”
What we have here is a journalist making an interesting observation: Taylor Swift has manipulated me into writing precisely the article she wanted me to write. The journalist (rightly) recognized how Taylor manufactured the little moments that round out his piece. But this recognition has not stopped him from writing the article he was manipulated into writing. He is, in fact, admiring of the manipulation. And he is happy to carry out the movements Taylor Swift has puppeteered. And his editors seem perfectly content with this as well. And that, frankly, stinks.
Now, I don’t want to be too hard on Time or the writer of the article. This piece is a symptom of an environment that’s bigger than any single publication or website. Two obvious truths about the media’s relationship with Taylor Swift must be acknowledged. The first is that we are terrified of her fans. And that fear is justified. If you run afoul of the extremely loud and highly toxic portion of the fanbase — again, I type these words with love and respect! — they might find an unflattering photo and cruelly mock your appearance while garnering dozens of likes and retweets. Or they might take a screenshot of something you have written and frame it to make you look like a monster. And that’s if you’re lucky! If you’re unlucky, they might go Keyser Söze and threaten you and your loved ones. Because there is no amount of positive press that will make these people say “we’re good!” and subsequently take less positive press in stride. Harvard could change its name to The Taylor Swift Academy For The Study Of Bops and there would still be fans convinced that she doesn’t get enough respect. They require that Taylor Swift be showered with omnipresent praise. But that wrinkle is also the media’s salvation.
This brings us to the second obvious truth regarding the media’s relationship with Taylor Swift — we see her fans as endlessly exploitable. If you publish a thinkpiece “that attempts to understand the phenomenon of Taylor Swift” — or you simply post a photo of her leaving a Kansas City barbecue joint with Travis Kelce — it will get clicks. It always gets clicks. Why does it always get clicks? Seriously, aren’t you people at least a teeny-tiny bit sick of Taylor Swift yet? How much Taylor Swift can a person possibly take? At what point do you say, “Maybe I should take a break and listen to Ed Sheeran (or whoever) for a few days?”
Fear and capitalism. These are the twin drivers of Taylor Swift media coverage. The former makes criticism (or even measured neutrality) unattractive, and the latter ensures that unfettered praise is a matter of economic survival. The culprit is not poptimism, as some have persuasively though not quite accurately claimed. Poptimism over time has shifted from an arcane critical concept debated by music writers on tumbleweed-riddled message boards to a catch-all term used to describe any form of writing about very famous pop stars that the person applying the term finds to be juvenile, superficial, and annoying. Believe me, I share (some) of your annoyance! But poptimism is a red herring. Fear and capitalism are the real deal.
What bothered me most about the Time article is that some members of the media seem to be openly advocating for their own obsolescence as journalists. It’s very strange to publish a puff piece so puffy that you admit at the end that Taylor Swift could have just as well written it herself. It amounts to a form of journalistic surrender in the face of a powerful cultural institution that is (at best) unseemly and (at worst) humiliating.
And Time was not the only — or the first — reputable outlet to do this! Here is a quote from an exhaustive (and exhausting) New York Times Magazine cover story about the Eras tour published in October:
How could I interpret Taylor Swift better than she does, better than her fans do online, every day, without my interference or input? They’re reading her codes, hunting down her clues, complying with her wishes, finding themselves in her world — a place that someone like me used to have the privilege of visiting alone.
She is inventing all of this in real time, and like other great inventions that cut out middlemen, this one might catch on.
I’d like to attempt to answer the question posed in this passage. Yes, fans are very knowledgable. They know all the trivia. They spend endless hours “reading her codes” and “hunting down her clues.” But they have no sense of perspective. This is true of any fan of anything. Fans care too much to be objective. I’ll give you an imperfect but nonetheless illuminating example from my own life: I am a professional music critic, but I am not qualified to properly assess the musical talents of my 7-year-old daughter, even though I have known her from literally the second she was born. I have “read her codes,” so to speak. But I love her too much to think she is anything other than a musical genius whenever she starts warbling loudly around the house. Because love distorts. It blinds. It makes you believe things that aren’t necessarily true. And that is why you sometimes need “interference or input” from a person with a bit more critical distance, for the sake of clarity.
Of course, this is nullified when even the media has lost perspective. And I believe this passage from that New York Times Magazine article perfectly sums up how the media has forfeited its critical distance regarding Taylor Swift. It’s an anecdote in which the writer overhears a fellow concertgoer criticizing the show.
“There’s not a lot of sex in this show,” one of the HUSBANDs, the other one, said now. They had switched seats, and he was bored by the “Speak Now” era.
“That’s because this isn’t for you,” I told him, and I found myself getting angry as I spoke. “She wasn’t created to please you like the other women pop stars. She created herself to please me. She escaped the machine where women are only allowed to be pop stars if they don’t anger or threaten men. This just isn’t for you.”
Now, I have written thinkpieces that are set during concerts. And this is the sort of thing you dream of as a writer. It’s a scene that captures everything. In this case, it’s a clueless dude making a boorish and sort of sexist comment that underlines the writer’s thesis. But in the interest of clarity, I must point out that everything the writer just said is obviously untrue. It’s so obviously untrue that I feel kind of silly refuting it. But here goes: Taylor Swift is not the only female pop star who might “anger or threaten men”! I could list other examples but it would just look like a roll call of practically every famous woman singer going back to at least Marlene Dietrich. I grew up in the 1990s, and I have a hard time believing that Taylor Swift is more confrontational toward the patriarchy than, say, Madonna or Courtney Love or Janet Jackson or PJ Harvey or Liz Phair or Alanis Morissette or Missy Elliott or Fiona Apple. This does not take anything away from Taylor Swift. It’s just recognizing that not everything Taylor Swift does is unprecedented or unique only to her. It’s basic context.
Also: Does Taylor Swift actually “anger or threaten men”? Don’t millions of men also love her? Wasn’t this writer yelling at a man at a Taylor Swift show? Isn’t there a disconnect about still feeling a need to defend Taylor Swift while seated inside a sold-out stadium filled with Taylor Swift fans in the middle of the most successful tour in the history of humankind?
And then there’s This just isn’t for you. You hear this phrase a lot these days, and it’s usually in relation to an aggrieved fanbase that feels compelled to shield an extremely popular cultural institution from even mild criticism. Which is strange, because This just isn’t for you used to be reserved for justifying culture with extremely narrow appeal, the polar opposite of Taylor Swift. “Of course you hate Frank Zappa’s MIDI period, this just isn’t for you!” That sort of thing.
What This just isn’t for you is now is a tool for conflating a very popular product like Taylor Swift with a group of people, so that criticizing Taylor Swift becomes synonymous with criticizing a demographic. If you point out Taylor Swift’s shortcomings, this thinking goes, you are actually making a statement against young girls and 35-year-old white women. And nobody wants to be accused of that. Ultimately, This just isn’t for you is a very effective rhetorical device that automatically shuts down any conversation that Taylor Swift or her fans might not like.
I don’t doubt that Taylor Swift fans sometimes feel marginalized or attacked. Especially the ones who are extremely online and see every bozo on Twitter who says Taylor Swift isn’t a real musician or erroneously claims she doesn’t write her own songs. Misogyny exists. No one (except those bozos) disputes this. And it’s undeniable that Swift communicates something extra special and relatable to her core fans that more casual listeners miss. And that is worth writing about. But at some point, the compulsion to hush or shout down anyone with a dissenting opinion starts to feel wearying and ungenerous. In 2023, it felt like a classic case of being a sore winner, to borrow a phrase used by the writer B.D. McClay in 2019 to describe thin-skinned cultural figures who want “acclaim, but not responsibility; respect without disagreement; wealth without scrutiny; power without anyone noticing it’s there.”
The first example McClay wrote about, naturally, was Taylor Swift. And that was before she got really big over the pandemic and beyond. But for all her winning, she hasn’t got any better about sportsmanship. She remains obsessed with score settling. (When you have a billion-dollar tour and still feel the need to drag Kim Kardashian for something that happened in the mid-2010s you have unlocked a new level of pettiness.) As for the Swifties, I’m sorry, but you don’t get to say This just isn’t for you when your idol has achieved the ubiquity of Taylor Swift. Because Taylor Swift isn’t just for you. She’s for all of us. Everyone on the planet has Taylor Swift being shot into their ears and up their nostrils. She’s inescapable. Whether you like her or not.
So, some of us are sort of sick to death of hearing about Taylor Swift. And that’s an understandable reaction that has no bearing on your personal enjoyment of her music if you’re a fan. Some of us being sort of sick to death of Taylor Swift will not stop the content machine from servicing you. Fear and capitalism will no doubt roll on in 2024. But maybe we can all be a little more normal about it.