Who’s Taylor Swift, anyway . . . ew?
If you think that’s a real question, you haven’t been paying attention.
Swift is nothing short of a 21st-century trailblazer and undoubtedly one of the biggest recording artists of all time, propelled by a global army of devoted fans.
The 33-year-old released her self-titled debut album at 16 and has pumped out on average of one album every two years, plus two bonus pandemic records. Her mostly autobiographical songwriting is renowned for its intimate and intricate storytelling and her ability to seamlessly transition through genres including country, pop and folk.
Her long list of records broken, achievements and awards has put her in the upper echelon of recording artists past and present, and she often surpasses records set by the likes of The Beatles, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley.
Swift recently snared The Beatles’ long-held record for having the fastest run of three No. 1 albums.. She is the highest streamed female artist of all time and, despite experiencing most of her success in the digital era, has still managed to sell 114 million albums worldwide.
Taylor Swift is making history, but really it’s more fitting to call it herstory.
And now, when it seems the whole world knows her name, she proudly wears that memorable lyric from her hit song 22 emblazoned across a sparkly T-shirt as she performs on her Eras tour — who is Taylor Swift anyway? The joke is on anyone who needs to ask.
When it was announced Swift was bringing the Eras tour to Australia — playing three shows at Melbourne’s MCG and four at Sydney’s Accor Stadium in February — all hell broke loose.
Those in Victoria and New South Wales rejoiced, while Swifties (as her fans are known) in every other State let out a collective howl of frustration.
Even Roger Cook and Rita Saffioti got in on the act, publicly urging the pop sensation to reconsider leaving WA off her touring schedule. Meanwhile, WA-based Swifties got to scheming, registering for presale tickets and crossing every digit in the hope they might be one of the lucky thousands to get their hands on tickets to the show the New Yorker has called “mind-boggling”.
But Frontier Touring called demand for tickets “unprecedented” and thousands have been left disappointed.
Rolling Stone proclaimed the Eras tour was in a league of its own: “There’s nothing in history to compare. This is (Swift’s) best tour ever, by an absurd margin.” Variety said the show proved “the person who has come up with the single greatest body of pop songwriting in the 21st century is also its most popular performer”.
Right now, Swift is nearing the end of the 52-date North American opening leg of Eras, and smashing stadium attendance records along the way. The show, which is almost three and a half hours, features 42 songs from her last nine studio albums (only her self-titled debut doesn’t get an airing in the main set) plus two surprise songs that change nightly.
Such is the demand for tickets that in the US, thousands of fans without tickets have gathered outside stadiums to be part of the concert experience, a phenomenon now being referred to as Taylor-gating. When the South American leg of the tour was announced, fans in Brazil reported online ticketing queues of two million, while those who chose to queue up estimated the crowds were around one million.
It’s no understatement to say Eras is the hottest ticket in the world right now. It is also expected to be the largest concert tour in history and expected to bring in a record-breaking $US 1 billion.
While Swift’s prodigious talent, savvy business sense and sheer hard work are at the root of her success, there’s no denying her passionate Swifties play a huge part, too.
At the Grammys in 2023 Swift said, “there’s really nothing that they can’t accomplish” in reference to the Swifties taking industry giant Ticketmaster to court over their alleged mishandling of Eras ticketing.
While the words were meant as praise, there is also a darker side to some sectors of the fandom.
Over the course of her career, Swift has been deeply invested in her fans. She has been known to host intimate listening parties for long-time fans at her own home, where they feast on cookies the pop star has baked herself. She’s helped fund fans through college and helped some in financial crisis.
She litters her work with “Easter eggs”, coded clues or hints that fans try to decipher to work out when new songs, albums or videos will be released and what they might be called, when new tour dates will be announced or the meaning of lyrics.
The Swifties communicate on TikTok channel “SwifTok” and Stan Twitter as they trawl Swift’s social media posts, analysing her album art, her music videos and even her clothing and nail polish colour looking for Easter eggs.
Swift has purposely cultivated this sense of intimacy and camaraderie within her fandom but the unfortunate flipside is that some fans have developed an intense parasocial bond with the star — a phenomenon exacerbated by social media which gives some fans a false sense of involvement in Swift’s personal life.
She is by no means the only celebrity to experience the downside of fame, but few experience it at a level comparable to Swift.
And in the digital era, where fans can share her real-time locations online, enabling swarms of fans to assemble within minutes, the threat posed to her safety is unprecedented. Fans gather outside her home or the New York recording studio where she works with Jack Antonoff. They chase her car from the studio to her garage. This intrusion into her private life is something Swift struggles with. In The Lakes she sings about being hounded and her desire to disappear:
I’m not cut out for all these cynical clones
These hunters with cell phones
It also sparks heated debate among the Swiftie community, with the majority reprimanding the overzealous for behaviour that borders on stalking and fixation.
In her revealing 2020 documentary Miss Americana, Swift was filmed leaving her New York home and jumping into a waiting car parked out the front, while swarms of fans screamed her name.
“So this is my front yard and I’m highly aware of the fact that this is not normal,” she said, as she turned to survey the crowd while the car pulled away.
In a video posted to her Instagram page to promote the song Anti-Hero from her most recent album Midnights, Swift delves further into her feelings around fame.
“I struggle a lot with the idea that my life has become unmanageably sized. And not to sound too dark I just struggle with the idea of not feeling like a person.”
The lyrics to the song reflect the sense that her life sometimes feels out of control and Taylor Swift the person, as opposed to the brand, is the casualty.
Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby,
And I’m a monster on the hill,
Too big to hang out, slowly lurching toward your favourite city,
Pierced through the heart but never killed.
Swift also recognises the huge toll her level of fame takes on her love life. She questions who could endure what she does if they don’t get the perks — the applause, the adoration and accolades — that make the scrutiny, the criticism, the headlines and the hatred somewhat more palatable. In The Archer from Lover, she sings:
Who could ever leave me, darling?
But who could stay?
In a conversation with Paul McCartney for Rolling Stone magazine, Swift addressed this concern saying: “I know you have done a really excellent job of this in your personal life: carving out a human life within a public life . . . I, oftentimes, in my anxieties, can control how I am as a person and how normal I act and rationalise things but I cannot control if there are 20 photographers outside in the bushes and what they do and if they follow our car and if they interrupt our lives. I can’t control if there’s going to be a fake weird headline about us in the news tomorrow.”
In Peace she sings about her partners having to sacrifice their own privacy and anonymity by proxy:
I’d give you my sunshine, give you my best,
but the rain is always gonna come if you’re standing with me
She goes on to sing: would it be enough, if I could never give you peace?
But it is not just the tabloids who are fixated on Swift’s love life; her fans have long been overly invested in who she dates.
Some have harassed John Mayer and Jake Gyllenhaal, former flames Swift has immortalised in songs. And more recently they have turned their attention to Joe Alwyn, Swift’s boyfriend of six years, whom she split from in February.
In The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich acknowledged: “The intense parasocial bond her fans feel towards Swift can swing from charming to troublesome. When Swift debuts new costumes . . . a wave of glee washes over Twitter. But when she puts out a new song, You’re Losing Me, with lyrics that suggest romantic turmoil, ‘I wouldn’t marry me either, a pathological people pleaser’ . . . it can provoke vitriol — in this case to the actor Joe Alwyn, Swift’s former partner of six years who she split with earlier this year.“
While Alwyn experienced a wave of hatred, it was nothing like the tsunami unleashed on Matty Healy, the frontman of UK band The 1975. Healy was rumoured to be dating Swift post-Alwyn when he flew halfway around the world to attend six of her concerts, before being photographed out and about with Swift and her friends in New York. The pair, who have known each other for 10 years, never confirmed they were in a romantic relationship.
Riled-up Swifties started posting TikTok videos about how disappointed they were in Swift for dating Healy and claiming they were going to tear up concert tickets and cancel pre-orders for her latest re-recorded album, Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), which is due out on July 7. Some Swifties penned and published an anonymous open letter with the title and hashtag #SpeakUpNow in which they urged Swift to dump Healy due to problematic comments he recently made on a podcast.
Not long after, tabloids reported that the hot and heavy romance was over. While some Swifties were openly celebrating the break-up online, others were quick to condemn their actions and reaffirm the fact they do not know Swift personally and have no right to dictate who she can and cannot have a relationship with.
Swift was keen to let the controversy slide. In the midst of the most successful tour of her life, and with four more re-recorded albums to release, the last thing she needed was bad blood with the Swifties. After all, if anyone knows how it feels to fall out of favour, it’s Taylor Swift.
At her lowest ebb, the pop star disappeared from public view for a year in 2016 following a spate of celebrity feuds with the likes of Katy Perry, ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris and a well-documented spat with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.
It resulted in an internet pile-on with Swift’s Instagram and Twitter flooded with snake emojis, while the hashtag #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty became the No. 1 global trend on Twitter. Instagram introduced the option to turn off commenting as a result of the abuse Swift endured.
“Do you know how many people need to be tweeting they hate you for that to happen?” Swift asked in Miss Americana. “When people fall out of love with you, there’s nothing you can do to change their mind, they just don’t love you.”
As a result of the bullying, Swift went to ground and disappeared.
“No one physically saw me for a year, because I thought that’s what they wanted,” she says in the documentary.
But in May 2022, when Swift was receiving an honorary doctorate of fine arts from New York University, she was more pragmatic about the experience.
“Getting cancelled on the internet and nearly losing my career gave me an excellent knowledge of all the types of wine,” she told the class of 2022 with a wide smile.
And Swift has every right to be a tad contrite because somehow she managed to turn public opinion back in her favour in spectacular fashion.
With her beloved Swifties on board, she’s not only regained old ground but gone on to epic new heights.
Reputation, released in 2017, was the dark and brooding pop and RnB tinged album that came from her year of darkness. Filled with stories of revenge and love, it spawned the Reputation stadium tour. The third-highest grossing concert tour by a female artist of all time, it saw Swift take control of her own narrative by performing on a stage littered with snake iconography.
It was followed by the decidedly more upbeat Lover. Released in 2019, it came hot on the heels of Swift — who had hitherto failed to speak out on political or social issues — publicly aligning herself with the Democrats. On the album she threw her support behind the LGBTQIA+ community with the upbeat anthem You Need to Calm Down.
While critics claimed her social and political awakening was too little, too late, in Miss Americana was filmed Swift imploring her management team to let her speak out so that she would be on the right side of history. Even if that meant alienating some of her conservative fans. Swift explained she had been wanting to speak out for some time but always felt it wasn’t her place and wasn’t what people wanted from her.
Swift also knows she’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. If she speaks up on issues or for marginalised groups, it is often dismissed as performative. If she says nothing, she is deemed entitled and mocked for coming from a place of privilege.
But the experiences that bred Reputation caused her to rethink her position to always be the “good girl” who simply smiles and makes no waves.
When the global pandemic put paid to an elaborate tour in support of Lover, dubbed Lover Fest, Swift started writing more music and in July 2020 she surprised fans with a new album, Folklore. It showcased a stripped back, acoustic folk pop sound and saw Swift move away from purely autobiographical songwriting. Five months later she dropped Evermore, a second surprise album that was a companion album to Folklore.
Folklore earned Swift her third album of the year Grammy, making her the first woman in history to receive the most sought-after award in music three times, having previously won for Fearless in 2010 and 1989 in 2016.
Before kicking off the Eras tour this year, she released Midnights. Her 10th album was also the 10th to reach No. 1 in Australia and around the globe. Swift said the synth pop album contained “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life” and the thoughts, feelings, fears and anxieties that keep her awake.
On Midnights hit Karma she celebrates her career resurrection and ability to endure in a notoriously fickle industry:
Ask me what I learned from all those years
Ask me what I earned from all those tears
Ask me why so many fade but I’m still here
The two albums she has so far re-recorded and re-released as Taylor’s Versions, Red and Fearless, now outsell and out-stream the originals. When she included the 10-minute version of fan favourite track All Too Well on the Red (Taylor’s Version), it unseated Don McLean’s American Pie to become the longest No. 1 hit in Billboard Hot 100 chart history.
McLean conceded the defeat with uncharacteristic charm: “Let’s face it, nobody ever wants to lose that #1 spot,” he tweeted. “But if I had to lose to somebody, I sure am glad it was another great singer/songwriter such as Taylor.”
Maybe McLean got wind of that Swiftie might.
Others haven’t come off as well. Gyllenhaal, who reportedly inspired the beloved All Too Well, told Esquire that the response from the Swift fanbase led him to turn off his Instagram comments — something that the company only made possible after the abuse Swift herself faced in 2016. The actor went on to say celebrities should not allow “unruly” fans to “cyberbully in one’s name” without directly referencing Swift.
In the New Yorker, Petrusich points out that: “the swarm and bully tactic” of some Swift fans “feels at odds with Swift’s music, which has always championed the misunderstood, the overly sensitive, the underdog.”
Mayer, who is up there with Kanye and his former manager Scooter Braun — who infamously bought Swift’s masters, resulting in her decision to re-record her first six albums — on the Swifties’ most hated list, would likely agree.
But, for the first time, Swift has chosen to speak up against the bullying happening in her name. Last week, at a concert in Minneapolis, she took time to talk to her fans about their online behaviour. Before playing the song Dear John, which is widely thought to be about Mayer, whom she dated when she was 19 and he was 32, she praised the positive fan interactions and kindness she was witnessing at concerts and urged them to continue in that spirit when Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), which contains Dear John, is released.
“I was hoping to ask you that as we lead up to this album coming out, I would love for that kindness and that gentleness to extend on to our internet activities,” she said.
“I’m 33 years old, I don’t care about anything that happened to me when I was 19 years old except the songs I wrote and the memories we made together. I’m not putting this album out so you feel the need to defend me on the internet from someone you think I wrote that song about 14 billion years ago.”
It was a welcome speech by Swift, who is the only one who has the power to rein in the more “unruly” Swifties.
And Swift has proven she is someone who is willing to speak out for what is right. In her 16-year career she’s taken on industry giants like Ticketmaster and Spotify in a bid to improve things for music fans and for musicians. She has also spoken out about the rampant misogyny she faces and that permeates the world at large.
On the powerful track The Man from Lover she imagines what her life might have been like if she were male:
I’m so sick of running as fast as I can
Wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man
In 2023 it is more than apparent that Swift doesn’t need to keep running. She has already won the race. No one truly needs to ask: “Who is Taylor Swift?” A better question might be, “Where does Taylor Swift, the person, fit into her story?” and will she find the elusive balance between her personal and public lives. Will she find her peace?
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