A generational icon or a cult. How singer Taylor Swift found herself on top of the world, changed show business, and became the Person of the Year
No concert tour in the history of world music has ever grossed more than $1 billion in net profit. The 34-year-old American singer Taylor Swift, who was recognized by TIME magazine as the Person of the Year in 2023, managed to set this bar. Her The Eras Tour is going on five continents, will last until the end of 2024, and is breaking records.
“The last monoculture in a stratified world”: the Taylor Swift phenomenon
“Two of the most famous pop music writers in the world” – this is how the influential music magazine Rolling Stone characterized American singer Taylor Swift and legendary British singer Paul McCartney in 2020. Both of them appeared on the cover of the magazine’s annual special project Musicians on Musicians, a special format of “mutual interviews” between two top stars. Three more years passed, and Taylor Swift managed to become not only the face of world pop music, but also the whole planet. It was her who TIME magazine named Person of the Year 2023, although the shortlist for this nomination included Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and British King Charles III.
The attributes of the modern Taylor Swift phenomenon listed by TIME in the accompanying article convincingly prove that the 34-year-old singer’s sky-high level of popularity has gone far beyond the music world – no matter how strange this phenomenon may be on a planet of devastating wars and global cataclysms.
“She has long attracted constant attention and knows how to use it. But this year something has changed. Discussing her moves is now like discussing politics or the weather: a language that is spoken so widely that context is not needed. She has become the main character of the world,” the publication states.
Taylor Swift’s ten studio albums, some of which were forced to be duplicated in new “author’s” versions, have provided her with dozens of the highest music awards and records. Among them are 12 Grammy Awards (including three wins in the Best Album of the Year category), more than 200 million copies sold, about 40 American Music Awards statuettes and more than 20 MTV Video Music Awards, more than 100 Guinness World Records, the title of the most popular singer on the Spotify platform – and this is not a complete list.
Taylor Swift’s crazy tsunami wave of popularity is currently fueled by The Eras Tour, the singer’s second concert tour in five years, which began in 2023 and will end only at the end of 2024. The tour, a review of all the “eras” of her musical career, consisting of 151 concerts on five continents, has already become the most successful in world music history and the first in the world to collect more than $1 billion in net profit, surpassing Elton John’s farewell tour ($939 million). Each show is a retrospective of Taylor Swift’s entire career, lasting more than three hours and featuring more than 40 songs from almost all of her albums, and is extremely spectacular: the star changes 16 outfits, the concerts are full of pyrotechnic stunts, complex choreography and optical illusions.
However, even offstage, Taylor Swift’s name has now become a phenomenal key to success. The movie version of The Eras Tour, which the singer produced herself, broke records on the screens. By signing a direct contract to screen the film with the American cinema chain AMC, the world’s largest, Taylor Swift secured the highest ever level of ticket sales revenue in one day (more than 100 million tickets were sold in 24 hours). The movie eventually became the highest-grossing concert movie in history.
“Cities, stadiums, streets have been renamed in her honor. Every time she visits a new place, there is an economic mini-boom as hotels and restaurants register a surge in visitors. At least 10 academic courses, including one at Harvard, are dedicated to her,” TIME lists numerous “spin-offs” of Swift’s popularity. Bloomberg Economics analysts estimate that Taylor Swift’s army of fans, known as Swifties, along with the supporters of another superstar, Beyoncé, added $5.4 billion to the US GDP in the third quarter of 2023 alone. A typical Swiftie, a fan of the singer, spends about $1500 to attend her shows, including the cost of tickets, hotels, airfare, and meals. Even the Federal Reserve has noted the impact of Taylor Swift’s tour on the regional economy: in May 2023, when she gave several concerts in Philadelphia, it was the month of the highest local hotel revenues since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is not an exhaustive list of areas where Taylor Swift’s name works like a modern reincarnation of the mythical king Midas, who turned everything he touched into gold. She managed the seemingly impossible: to make American football even more popular in the United States. After the singer started dating Travis Kelce, a Kansas City star and two-time Super Bowl champion, games with his participation became even more popular among fans. Swift also managed to get Generation Z hooked on vinyl records. In October 2023, her album 1989 (Taylor’s Version) broke the historical record for vinyl sales in one week, when 580,000 copies were sold. And in November 2022, a rush of tickets for The Eras Tour concerts caused such a huge online boom and traffic that the American Ticketmaster system crashed. As a result, thousands of Swifties fans were unable to purchase tickets, while intermediaries raised prices to $20,000. Eventually, the case of possible speculation or violations by Ticketmaster had to be heard in the US Congress. The first show of The Eras Tour in Arizona brought in more revenue than the Super Bowl 2023, which took place at the same stadium in Glendale. And Taylor Swift’s two July concerts in Seattle caused seismic activity equivalent to a magnitude 2.3 earthquake. About 144,000 fans danced at her shows those days.
“She’s the last monoculture left in our stratified world,” TIME says. And People magazine, which even before TIME put the singer on its cover as the “most intriguing person” of 2023, noted: “Taylor Swift is on top of the world, more powerful than ever.”
Even Moscow tried to take advantage of Swift’s incredible popularity. At the end of 2023, Russians promoted a series of posts on Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) with fake quotes from the singer, trying to attribute anti-Ukrainian sentiments to her, which Taylor Swift has never voiced.
“A moving target is harder to hit”: how a country singer became a pop icon
“I’m always in the pilot’s seat and trying to fly the plane, which is my career, in the direction I want it to go,” Taylor Swift said in a big interview with The Rolling Stone in 2019. At that time, this airplane had already experienced both the peak of popularity and severe showbiz turbulence. However, time has proven that the helm seems to be in good hands. Swift has built the lion’s share of her success on her own, which in the end only added to her brilliance.
“For nearly two decades now, the singer has been reinventing herself, much like Madonna, changing genres and redefining the music business with her marketing savvy,” People magazine summarized Taylor Swift’s career path in late 2023.
The beginning of this journey did not promise brilliant prospects – except for the symbolic name. Her parents named their daughter after the star American singer James Taylor, one of the most successful singer-songwriters in the United States in the 1970s, who wrote the lyrics to his own songs. Paradoxically, this skill later became the strongest point of Taylor Swift’s talents.
The future singer’s family, although she now calls it one of the main pillars in her life, had only an indirect connection with the stage world. Taylor’s maternal great-grandmother, Marjorie Finley, was an opera singer (the singer later even dedicated one of her songs to her). However, Swift’s parents, as she herself said, had no idea about the music industry. Her father was a stockbroker and her mother worked as a marketing manager, and for a while they also owned a Christmas tree farm. The singer’s childhood was spent in several cities in Pennsylvania until the family moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where Swift began to realize her musical dreams.
Her first attempts to get on stage included performances in youth theater, vocal and acting lessons, attempts to break into recording studios with demos (mostly in vain), and a passion for country pop music, particularly the songs of Canadian star Shania Twain. At the age of about 12, Taylor Swift learned to play the guitar, which became part of her stage persona. And at the age of 13, supported by her parents, she signed an artist development deal with RCA Records, one of the record labels of Sony Music Entertainment. During this period, Swift’s family collaborated with music manager Dan Dymtrow, who later tried to sue the singer’s parents for allegedly missing commissions, saying that he had introduced the future musical idol to the world.
Taylor Swift’s star really started to rise when she was a teenager. From performing at individual festivals and concerts with her own songs, the 15-year-old singer moved on to work with the newly created Big Machine Records (Nashville), terminating her previous “development” contract due to its lack of prospects and limitations in creativity. A number of experienced songwriters helped her create songs at that time, and even they recognized Swift’s main talent, which would later be pointed out by music critics: the ability to write lyrics and tell stories that were close to millions. Liz Rose, one of Taylor Swift’s most prolific songwriters, described their weekly classes as “one of the easiest I’ve ever had to teach.” “In fact, I was just her editor. She wrote, for example, about the events at school that day. She had a very clear vision of what she was trying to say. And she came up with incredible hooks in the lyrics.”
So when 16-year-old Taylor Swift’s first single, Tim McGraw, was released in 2006, and later that year, Taylor Swift’s first album, she occupied a previously vacant niche – teenage country pop, in which each of her peers could recognize their own stories and emotions. It was an unexpected discovery-one of many that Swift herself had a hand in. Later, she recalled hearing from music bosses and pros that “teenagers don’t listen to country music,” that the audience for this style was 35-year-old housewives, and that at 16, she had nothing to say to these women in her songs. “But I kept thinking: “But I love country music, and I’m a teenager! There must be more kids like me out there!”
She won this audience – and subsequently matured with it – by first using the win-win theme of love. “A typical Taylor Swift song is gentle but full of insistent hooks, starring Swift’s fragile voice singing about love in all its variations,” The New Yorker wrote in a 2011 profile of the singer, “or, as she told us, ‘about love and unrequited love; love that’s short-lived or love you want to continue or love whose story hasn’t even begun. These were the hits of her first album, including Teardrops on My Guitar, Should’ve Said No, Our Song, and Tim McGraw.
Taylor Swift combined the eternal theme of her lyrics with unmistakable steps in promoting the album. She turned her MySpace account, a popular social networking site at the time, into a place to communicate with fans, marking the beginning of her “signature” tradition of close contact with fans. In the fall of 2006, Swift had more than 30 thousand friends on MySpace, and as of the beginning of 2008, their number exceeded 650 thousand.
In the end, the recipe turned out to be ultra-successful. Taylor Swift’s first album quickly soared to fifth place on the US Billboard 200, where it spent a total of 157 weeks – the longest chart stay of any album in the first decade of the 2000s. Two years later, in 2008, she received her first Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, but lost to Amy Winehouse. In the same year, the singer’s second album Fearless was released, and its title track Love Story conquered not only the United States but also other continents, entering the top 5 charts of many countries around the world, including Australia. A few years ago, The Guardian recognized this song as one of the best singles of the singer’s career, calling it “the moment when Swift’s songwriting skills were fully revealed for the first time.” In general, Fearless became the best-selling album of the year in the United States, and Taylor won the Young Hollywood Awards in the category of Future Superstar.
Great fame brought Taylor Swift her first big challenges. In 2009, her music video for the single You Belong With Me won the MTV Video Music Awards for Best Female Video. However, the award ceremony became a nightmare for the young star. When she came out to receive the award and managed to say only the first few words of gratitude, rapper Kanye West suddenly got up on stage, took the microphone from Swift and said that Beyoncé’s video Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), nominated in the same category, should have won. The embarrassed Taylor Swift never finished her speech after that, and the scandal was widely publicized in the media: West was criticized by many celebrities, even Barack Obama called him a “dumbass.” Although the rapper later apologized to the singer, a few years later their conflict took on a new dimension. In 2016, Kanye West released the single Famous, where he insisted in a vulgar lyric that it was thanks to him that Taylor Swift (“that c*ck”) became famous. When the singer denied West’s claims that she had agreed to such lyrics in advance, the rapper’s then-wife Kim Kardashian published a recording of Swift and West’s conversation (as it turned out later, shortened and incomplete): it allegedly proved that the star had indeed discussed his song idea with the rapper.
By the time the tabloids exploded with the drama, Taylor Swift had already become a major star and released five wildly popular albums. After her two debuts, she began to transform her style, drifting from country to pop with Speak Now (2010), adapting rock energy to her style with the emotional Red (2012), and finally embarking on her first world tour in support of 1989 (2014), which became the highest-grossing tour of 2015 and turned her into a real pop icon. At that point, she was already a seven-time Grammy winner, the best-selling artist of all time in terms of digital music commercial success, and the first female singer to be recognized twice as Billboard’s Woman of the Year.
Despite all this success, the aforementioned scandal with Kanye West in 2016 knocked Taylor Swift out of balance. She disappeared from the public space for a year, left the United States, and even in an interview with TIME in 2023, she mentioned this story as one of the two most horrible things in her life, which at the same time became the biggest catalysts for her career.
The second big shock for the star was 2019. Back then, the founder of Big Machine Records, Scott Borchetta, with whom Swift recorded her first six albums, sold the company – along with the rights to the singer’s albums – to Ithaca Holdings. The latter is owned by music manager Scooter Braun, who once worked with Kanye West. It was Brown who was now to receive further profits from licenses for her records.
The way Taylor Swift responded to both of the most difficult challenges in her professional life only multiplied her fan base. After the epic scandal with West and his family, she organized a real “reincarnation” of herself and her work. The singer completely cleared her social media (another move that attracted additional media attention) to return to the stage with her “revenge album” Reputation (2017) – a response to all the hate against her – and its eloquent single track Look What You Made Me Do. The video for this song, in which Taylor demonstratively “kills” previous versions of herself as a performer, gained almost 50 million views in the first day, breaking all previous records (including Adele’s Hello with 27.7 million views in the same time).
The unexpected sale of Big Machine Records prompted Taylor Swift to make a unique decision for the music industry. She decided to re-record all of her first six albums to regain control of them. In 2021-2023, four of them were already released: slightly modified recordings of Fearless, Red, Speak Now, and 1989, labeled Taylor’s Version and adding previously unpublished songs. All of them were recorded for Republic Records, with which Taylor Swift signed a contract in 2018, receiving, in her own words, “100% creative freedom.”
At the same time, the singer does not stop creating new albums: over the past four years, her CDs Lover (2019), Folklore (2020), Evermore (2020), Midnights (2022) have been released. Each time she finds something to surprise even her most loyal fans, as she constantly experiments with the form, styles and genres of her compositions and expands their thematic palette.
In a conversation with TIME, Taylor Swift admitted that she realized the need for such changes in the early stages of her career. “I realized that every record label was actively working to replace me. Instead, I thought that I would first replace myself with a new me. It’s harder to hit a moving target,” Swift said with her characteristic self-irony and willingness to fight for her achievements. The year 2023 proved that she is moving at a speed that allows her to remain invulnerable and unattainable.
Why Taylor Swift is so popular: from conspiracy theories to academic research
Hundreds of texts have been devoted to attempts to reveal the secret of Taylor Swift’s phenomenal success, with not only music critics and academic researchers but also conspiracy theorists contributing to them. In particular, the popular US conspiracy movement QAnon now has another crazy hypothesis that Taylor Swift is actually a separate IPSO. QAnon supporters call the star’s insane popularity a psychological operation aimed at changing the course of the 2024 elections.
The singer usually refrains from expressing her political views, but she has demonstrated her support for the Democrats and Barack Obama’s family several times, and on the day of the 2016 US presidential election, the query “who is Taylor Swift voting for” soared to the top of Americans’ interests on Google. So now the QAnon movement, which traditionally supports Donald Trump, and other supporters of far-right views in the United States are calling the singer a secret weapon of his opponents in the election, Wired writes. This is the entry that appeared recently on the account of End Wokeness, which supports extreme right-wing views and has almost 2 million followers: “Taylor Swift’s fans idolize her like a cult and would drink poison for her. The media knows this and feeds it. The music industry. The entertainment industry. Sports. Now they’ve named her Person of the Year 2023 according to TIME. The next step? Politics. If you don’t think that the regime [the US government] has plans to ‘arm’ her just in time for the 2024 elections, you clearly haven’t been paying enough attention.” And one of QAnon’s Telegram accounts noted that “we need to awaken the next generation to the fact that occult forces are colluding with their favorite celebrities.”
If we leave these fictions to the supporters of a flat Earth and try to understand the true global phenomenon of Taylor Swift, we can find several recurring arguments and assessments of her work. Many of them are collected in a recent survey on the Harvard University portal The Harvard Gazette, which discussed the singer’s popularity with linguists, professional researchers in psychology, the music industry, and economics. Below are a few of the factors they highlighted.
The quality of the lyrics. According to Stephanie Burt, a poet, literary critic, and professor of English at Harvard, Taylor Swift has an “amazing ear” for writing lyrics and combining words in them in terms of both meaning and sound. According to Burt, the singer is able to write songs that make listeners understand them as the author’s own feelings, as well as tell stories and create characters in her compositions. “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that her lyrics have more words in total than any similar hits from a songwriter of similar caliber, except maybe someone like Bob Dylan,” the professor said.
Burt considers this talent of Swift’s all the more valuable because musically she uses rather traditional pop chords “and fairly standard pop arrangements.” “Her genius, her innovation, and her brilliance as a songwriter is in her melody and her verbal power. And, of course, she’s also a very good singer, which is something you shouldn’t overlook. But she manages to do so within the rather strict constraints of existing, easily recognizable chords and rhythmic frameworks,” the professor adds.
The British The Guardian used similar epithets to describe the song Blank Space (2014), which it recognized as Swift’s best single of all her years (see video below): “The melody is effortless, the lyrics are sharp, funny, and self-deprecating, and the end result is a pop song so strong that it has withstood covers by everyone from Imagine Dragons to Ryan Adams.”
The strong social and emotional connection that Taylor Swift managed to establish with her army of fans. The Swifties fandom really has a lot of rituals and almost reverently observes them: from the “friendship bracelets” exchanged at her concerts and drawing the number 13 on the back of her hand, which Swift considers lucky for herself, to the regular meetings of the singer with fans that she tirelessly holds year after year. In addition, one of Taylor Swift’s “tricks” is the hints to events and people from her personal life that she leaves in her videos and lyrics, which fans rush to decipher, which has become a separate hobby. For example, the lyrical ballad All Too Well, considered one of Taylor Swift’s best musical works and featuring a twice as long 10-minute version on the re-recorded album Red (Taylor’s Version), was perceived by fans as a confession about the singer’s relationship with actor Jake Gyllenhaal. In the end, he even had to close comments on his accounts due to a flurry of questions about whether he had really broken the singer’s heart.
Alexandra Gold, a psychology specialist at Harvard Medical School, explains this powerful connection between Taylor Swift and her audience for several reasons. Firstly, it is the lyrical content of her songs and the emotions behind them, which are very close to many people and their personal experience.
Secondly, it’s the fact that the core of Swift’s fans are now millennials and Generation Z. “For millennials, a lot of them grew up with her. When they had some of those first experiences-maybe with relationships or the beginning of adulthood-she was doing it at the same time as them and singing about it. In a way, her life story overlapped with their life story,” explains Gold. According to the psychologist, the singer’s popularity among Generation Z increased during the pandemic, when a lot of content about her was on TikTok and Swift released many new albums. “In general, she was very important for the development of identity and maturation of many people,” the researcher notes.
The third reason for the close contact with fans, according to Alexandra Gold, is how over the years Swift has become a role model and “a great example of someone who sticks to her values and shows fans that they can achieve their goals, whatever they may be.” Swift has demonstrated these qualities by claiming ownership of her albums and successfully re-recording them despite any barriers or obstacles. “Seeing someone do something like that can be an inspiring [example] for a lot of young people,” the expert believes.
And finally, the fourth reason was the Swifties fan community itself, which allows the singer’s fans to find a circle of friends and form their identity “around a relationship not only with the celebrity, but also with other fans.”
Exceptional economic impact. Edward Mason, a lecturer and researcher on the impact of mega-events at Harvard Kennedy School, recognizes the unprecedented business impact of Taylor Swift’s popularity. “What’s amazing about Taylor Swift’s concerts is that they go from city to city, and you see the same impact [on the economy] in each one. You can see that with some other musicians as well. But it’s something that we haven’t really seen before on this scale and this consistently,” Mason says.
The power of her songs, her ability to perform live, and her overall impact on the music industry. “If you’re going to talk about Taylor Swift, you have to talk about the power of great songs. It all starts with the power of great songs. That’s why we still listen to The Beatles and Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra. And, like [David] Bovee or Dylan, she’s not afraid to “expand.”We’ve seen her grow up in real life, from a young girl to a woman with power, and she wields it,” summarizes Ralph Giacchodin, associate professor at the Berklee College of Music, summarizing the singer’s musical achievements.
He highlights several other aspects of Taylor Swift’s stage success. These are how skillful she is at performing live, as well as how many qualified people she has managed to gather around her over time. “She’s always had a good team around her, smart people, good PR people, and good management. When you are that successful, you have the best in the industry. Her team is great: they set expectations; they promote publicity,” says Giacchodin.
As a music management researcher, Giaccodin also emphasizes the impact that Taylor Swift has had on the entire industry. According to him, her persistence in defending the rights to her own songs has shed light on what was previously little known to the average listener, from artist contracts to album re-recording rights. “Her influence has affected a lot of people who are music fans or musicians themselves. I look at Rihanna, I look at Beyoncé, I look at Taylor Swift-these are the biggest artists on the planet. All of them are women who empower girls, stand up for their rights, and are good at business. I admire this,” Giacchodin summarizes.