Despite her BFF and occasional producer Jack Antonoff’s rabid protestations, Taylor Swift is not a good songwriter. When left to her own devices Swift creates monotonous, repetitive choruses that range from one to three notes and recycle the same handful of chord progressions every album cycle. She is also a surprisingly unremarkable singer – a statement so uncontroversial only her most ardent fans would disagree.
Yet she has undoubtedly become the world’s biggest pop star, certainly of this moment, but also arguably of all time. A monolithic presence that has outsmarted every media trap, sidestepped every music industry pitfall, and calculated every single necessary action to outshine not only her peers but also some of the most popular artists to ever grace a concert stage. Her marketing and PR team have turned her into a phenomenon thanks to one mantra: it’s not about the music.
Taylor Swift is not only a product, Taylor Swift is a lifestyle. More specifically, she’s the lifestyle of millions of millennials and zoomers – primarily women between 15 and 35 – who have grown with her either in real time or latched on at some point in her now nearly 18 year old career. She is the archetypal modern young woman; her journey is a template for her followers. They know what it’s like to be fifteen and someone tells them they love them, they also know what it’s like to be twenty-two and keep on dancing.
Swift’s cohort was a large one. The mid to late 2000s were a fruitful era for pop and the years in the proximity of her 2006 launchpad introduced us to Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson, and Pink. Of those five, the first four can accurately be described as A-listers within the same tier as Swift, the latter two as high ranking B-listers. All have an astronomical level of fame, yet none are within striking distance of Swift’s level of relevance.
Gaga’s biggest mistake was choosing artistic integrity over suffocating omnipresence. The first few years of her fame heavily influenced fellow pop stars in both style and substance – meat dress notwithstanding. But she couldn’t replicate the success of her debut, and after the tepid response to 2013’s “Applause” she dove into a search for authenticity, vacillating between soulful rocker and Hollywood actress.
Miley was a little too wild for the masses, even though they went through their similarly wild phases around the same time. Rihanna’s lyrics, a little too spicy.
That leaves Perry, Clarkson and Pink. All three are trend-hopping, middle of the road pop singers and all three are now relics of the 2010s. They can sell out an arena, but they’re not selling out a stadium six nights in a row and supporting a city’s economy with their visit.
Kelly Clarkson had a battle with her management not unlike Swift’s fight with Scooter Braun. Pink has always had similarly personal lyrics. Katy Perry was once sharing the spotlight with Swift herself as her ‘Bad Blood’ frenemy back in 2014.
But Perry is now an American Idol judge with no notable new music to mention. Swift meanwhile, has exponentially grown in reach since 2014. The other two you can hear in supermarkets.
How? How has Taylor Swift managed this longevity? Every pop star has a shrewd team guiding them through missteps, flops, and other industry perils. Every pop star has had at least a few years of tabloid coverage and hounding paparazzi. Why, after almost 18 years, has Swift not yet reached her peak?
The answer may be an exceedingly simple one: Taylor Swift is a fountain of youth. She has weaponized arrested development, and essentially become an ageless fictional ideal playing the lead in a movie of her life. And that is what sells. Literally, because she now has multiple hit documentaries that bring in as many people as her concerts.
A mythos. Taylor Swift is the human embodiment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There was a time when you couldn’t escape mention of the MCU online. Even as recently as five years ago each day brought a new casting revelation or plot spoiler or even just a meme. Now the franchise’s popularity has been relegated to the fanbase it originally sprung from. Nobody but the geeks is geeking out over Spider-Man now.
Swift however, remains the topic of conversation around every water cooler. USA Today hired a correspondent to write about her. There is in fact someone who’s entire job is to report solely on her exploits.
Exploits that are remarkably germane. Swift has an incredibly scandal-free career, the cleanest of slates. The cadre of suitors she’s had over the years would be considered typical tabloid fodder if attributed to any other celebrity. Swift has embraced these hiccups and folded them into the mythology by writing songs about each failed relationship, a strategy so blatant it’s been recognized and memed for years. The Swift Cinematic Universe and its many players are just part of the widescreen epic she’s convinced everyone she’s living.
This is why her genre-hopping in recent years has not mattered one scintilla to her legion of fans. To a music purist, her folk experiments Folklore and Evermore were hollow, craven PR stunts meant to reframe her as an authentic artist after the near-misstep that was 2019’s Lover. They were wool blankets meant to comfort her fans during the bleakness of the pandemic years, discarded once the world resumed normalcy and Swift released Midnights.
To her fans, these were just chapters furthering her Story™.
They were palatable instalments of her franchise, even if none of them had the pop hits of 1989. They successfully masked the fact that Swift doesn’t need the power of another “Shake it Off” or “Blank Space” to propel her upwards. Swift managed something impossible: pivoted the focus off her music and onto her life. Her Swifties aren’t breathlessly waiting for another banger, they’re waiting for the next bit of drama surrounding her love life.
There will never be a day when Taylor Swift does not sell tickets. In 10 years, 20 years, she will be a legacy artist and will still be commanding arenas with week-long residencies.
There will however be a day when the mania subsides. Swift is now 34 years old. Still young both in real world terms and pop star terms, but precariously perched on the fence between relatable and just plain sad. Although she’s managed to incredibly extend her young adulthood by over a decade, there will be a time when she, as the avatar for her fans, will have to grow out of this phase. Many have tried, but as of now you can’t be a teenager forever.
What happens after Travis Kelce? Is there an after? Is this meathead jock the antidote to years of damaged artistes? These are all questions being asked in a boardroom in California right now by her team, figuring out how they can extend her reign as the most popular performing artist on Earth. Who will she be at age 40 in 6 short years? The team needs to quickly decide how to retain her brand’s magic without forcing attempts to make a grown woman deal with high school level drama. They need to learn how to pivot, evolve, reframe once, twice, thrice more.
And how to ward off threats like Olivia Rodrigo.
Taylor Swift is currently in her demigod era. She will not give this power hold easily. She has billions of dollars to ensure that she makes the correct moves to remain in power. Meanwhile we’re going to continue to live life (Taylor’s Version).