US singer Taylor Swift keeps breaking records, and has now been crowned by Time magazine. What's behind her global appeal?
"Taylor Swift found a way to transcend borders and be a source of light... Swift is the rare person who is both the writer and hero of her own story," Time editor-in-chief Sam Jacobs wrote in a statement, as the magazine named the US pop superstar as its person of the year on Wednesday.
"Much of what Swift accomplished in 2023 exists beyond measurement. She mapped her journey and shared the results with the world: She committed to validating the dreams, feelings, and experiences of people, especially women, who felt overlooked and regularly underestimated," added Jacobs.
There’s no denying it: Taylor Swift is currently among the most successful pop stars on the planet, an absolute cultural and economic powerhouse. Her record-breaking distinctions include more number-one albums on the US Billboard charts that any woman in history; in 2022, her album "Midnights" pushed UK vinyl sales past those for CDs for the first time in 35 years; and this year, she became the most streamed female artist on Spotify.
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Her current "Eras" world tour is on track to become the highest-grossing tour ever, with her concert dates becoming significant economic factors for the host cities, which have on occasion found themselves having to make public-transit system improvements to deal with the numbers of concertgoers. She even managed to put the German city of Gelsenkirchen on the global map by booking her tour there.
Analyzing the hype from all angles
There are countless articles online attempting to analyze and explain why and how she's had this success and impact. Experts from fields such as economics, linguistics, psychology, neuroscience and music management have all tried to parse the phenomenon. Universities in the US and Australia are organizing conferences on the Swift phenomenon. There's even a Wikipedia article dedicated solely to the "Cultural impact of Taylor Swift."
But maybe you, dear reader, just don't get the hype. Maybe you have listened repeatedly to Taylor Swift's music, trying — and failing — to hear in it what so many others seem to do. Perhaps the repeated assertions by critics and experts that she is an exceptionally gifted songwriter just don't convince you.
'Swifties' in unexpected places
Full disclosure: This author is one of those people. If the critics couldn’t convince me, why not ask fans themselves? So I turned to people who at least in one point share my music taste: members of a Facebook fan group devoted to the British band IDLES. You might think there wouldn’t be any overlap between shouty left-wing punk and Taylor Swift's glossy pop music, but it turns out there is.
One "Swiftie" (as Taylor Swift fans are known), 25-year-old Amy Duhig from the UK, says, "I think she captures girlhood amazingly. She's gotten a lot of hate for being very feminine but hasn't changed anything about herself. (...) You can also see her grow so much in her music and older fans feel like they have grown up with her, as young teenagers... She's very good at putting feelings into words and writing in metaphors that people can relate to. She writes about so many different situations but can really capture people's feelings and probably makes them feel understood."
Melanie Horne, a Canadian fan closer to the 33-year-old Swift's age, said, "I think she really knows how to capture a moment and she can evoke memories in me like no other artist. I'm in my 30s but I can sit down and listen to a song she wrote when she was a teenager, and I'm transported back to high school again. The songs that she wrote when she was young completely capture all the best and worst things about a girl growing up." Horne predicts Swift will one day be recognized as the voice of a generation of women.
Taylor Swift fans are not only young women
But even women older than that generation find Swift's music relatable. A German fan, 45-year-old Kathy Kossatz, said that her "music is glossy and intimate at the same time. (…) When listening to Taylor, you get the feeling she is alone with you in a room. It feels close while also being catchy pop music."
When asked why Kossatz thinks Swift is so successful, she said, "Her music connects with the most diverse people. Mainstream pop fans love the accessibility and catchiness, teenagers feel heard, music nerds and critics acknowledge her talent and even indie/punk rock fans like me cannot resist. Her music and the topics she sings about are very universal. It's relationship-stuff, some songs are a bit socio-critical but not too much, yet it always feels honest and smart and (almost) never dull. This makes it appealing to so many different people."
That diverse appeal was reflected in responses from people like David van der Burg, a 56-year-old in the UK who "will always identify as a punk," and says, "I love that so many of her songs tell a story and do so within the confines of a short pop song, quite a talent," and added, "What sets her apart from her contemporaries, and why she is so successful, is her repeated ability to reinvent herself. Even my die-hard indie friends loved 'Folklore' and 'Evermore,'" referring to the two albums Swift wrote and recorded during the COVID-19 lockdown and that veered into the indie-folk genre.
Admired for asserting her rights
Van der Burg also highlighted a non-musical aspect of Swift's appeal: her assertion of herself as an artist. As Hayden Binns put it, "The most bada** piece of 'f*ck you' to the music industry is her current re-recording of her back catalog following the sale of her masters. I read about it, thought it was a cool thing and then started listening to her. I'm now a big fan even if I started my musical listening journey as a metalhead."
Admiration for Swift's assertion of her artistic independence was echoed by others. Even those who don't care for her music appreciate that aspect of her career, and some said the way she stood up for herself in the face of a sexual assault changed their minds. UK fan Jo Shepherd explained, "The turning point for me was the court case, where she very calmly and intellectually took apart the testimony of the bloke that had put his hand up her skirt. She was so incredible, and still relatively young."
With that combination of such broad appeal, confidence and a willingness to experiment and grow as an artist, it seems likely that the Taylor Swift phenomenon will go on for some time to come, at least as long as she can make her experiences relatable to others while still surprising fans with her music and image.
Author Tanya Ott
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier
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