How Taylor Swift sold her self – without selling her soul

Taylor Swift has always dealt in fairy tales. Her first three albums – self-titled, Fearless and Speak Now, which were released between 2006 and 2010 – all show her in various states of princess-dom, her long blonde hair falling in corkscrew curls, her dresses sparkling and swirling, her life waiting to begin.  

Her biggest hit from those early days was 2008’s “Love Story”, a country-pop song whose cover showed Swift in sepia, in a tiara and Jacobean-style corset. It became the first country song to reach number one in the US charts, with its dreamy, uplifting melody and the story of a fairy-tale-slash-Shakespearean romance.

“Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone/I’ll be waiting, all there’s left to do is run/You’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess/It’s a love story, baby, just say yes” – so goes the chorus etched into millions of brains worldwide. Ten years after the song had appeared on Fearless in 2009, Swift would tell The Guardian that she needs metaphors “to understand anything that happens to me”

Now, she has moved on from allegory of such crude proportions, preferring to compare herself to, for example, a discarded cardigan, her boyfriends to magnetic forces, the concept of karma to “a cat, purring on my lap ‘cause it loves me”. But she has also become a real, modern version of the “princess” she used to cosplay, if not via the white dress and lifelong romance of “Love Story”, then through achieving the kind of celebrity that has never been achieved before. 

This year, she set out on a world tour with “Eras”, which is not exactly a greatest-hits show but an all-the-hits show that plays on the mythology surrounding her evolving identity. Swift was, of course, already a megastar – but the tour’s success has blazed the trail for a new, dizzyingly huge kind of stardom. 

LAS VEGAS - MAY 23: Country singer Taylor Swift arrives at the 41st Annual Academy Of Country Music Awards held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 23, 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)
Taylor Swift in 2006 (Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

When tickets for “Eras” went on sale in 2022, she sold more than two million in a single day, breaking previous records, and “Eras” has gone on to become the first ever tour to gross more than $1bn. When a film of the show opened in October in cinemas it became the highest-grossing concert film ever, and at the box office wiped the floor with Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which shared an opening weekend. Now, it has made $250m (£197m) worldwide. 

When she released re-recorded versions – more on that later – of her 2010 album Speak Now and her 2014 album 1989, they each garnered the second-highest number of album streams ever for a single day (in first place was Swift’s own album Midnights). Unsurprising, then, that she was announced by Spotify to be the most-streamed artist of 2023, and her royalties from that platform alone have exceeded $72m (£58m).

Economists have estimated that “Eras” provided a boost to the US economy to the tune of $5.7bn, and leaders from countries including Chile, Thailand and Canada have implored Swift to add tour dates there to reap a similar reward. Naturally, online, Swift has been deemed to be entering her “capitalist era” – while in a rare interview, Swift told Time magazine in December this year that “It feels like the breakthrough moment of my career, happening at 33.” 

Her wealth is incomprehensible, and her commercial appeal a dream come true for everyone who has ever represented her. Yet her cultural impact runs deeper than just big numbers; though there is an exponential curve to any successful marketing campaign, Swift’s unprecedented significance within the culture started organically.

She is known for her head for business and finely tuned awareness of her own image – a girlbossery that undoubtedly contributes to her popularity among millennial women. But there is more at play than commercial savviness. To go some way in demonstrating her impact on culture, this year two publications in the US have advertised for reporter roles focused solely on Swift, and multiple universities worldwide – including Harvard – offer modules on her and her work. In early December she was the first musician in history to be declared Time magazine’s person of the year.  

In her 2014 hit “Blank Space”, Swift sang of a relationship full of “madness”, “heaven” and “sin” – three words also readily applicable both to her imminent marketability and the effect she has on the public. But the first in that list was “magic” – and, when you pay close attention, it’s clear she’s got plenty of that too. 

Swift’s new burst of success is only more remarkable considering that just a short time ago her career was cast into doubt. After her first three albums of good-girl country-pop, Swift pivoted, with Red (2012), to something a little less stylised, a little more in keeping with the other songs playing on the radio.

It worked: with this album, and hits like “I Knew You Were Trouble”, “22” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (all of which were co-written with pop songwriter and kingmaker Max Martin), she became one of the most prominent voices in pop music. 

Suddenly, Swift was everywhere: and the speculation that had always swirled about her personal life was dialled up to unfathomable levels of intrusion. Two years later, when she released 1989 (the album that contains “Blank Space”, but also hits like “Shake It Off”, “Style” and “Welcome to New York”, and that marked the beginning of her longstanding working relationship with the producer Jack Antonoff) she appeared to reach the crest of a hill.

Though she was beautiful, she was never a sex object: Swift’s slight goofiness and “relatability”, combined with her addictive songs, had shoved her right to the front of a celebrity culture newly bolstered by social media. She and her trademark blonde fringe, her cats, her girl-gang “squad” of Victoria’s Secret models and Hollywood A-listers, were on the cusp of overexposure.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 07: Singer Taylor Swift performs onstage during Z100's Jingle Ball 2012 presented by Aeropostale at Madison Square Garden on December 7, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Killian/WireImage)
Taylor Swift performs at Madison Square Garden in 2012 (Photo: Brian Killian/WireImage)

The public are fickle, and lo and behold, over the next few years, her empire, not yet fully solidified outside the realm of her diehard fans, began to crumble.

She was hit by scandal after scandal: the well-publicised feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, which, in a now discredited narrative, branded her a liar and a “snake”; a sexual assault trial against the DJ David Mueller, who groped her at an event in 2013; an unwitting stint as the poster-girl for the Trumpian alt-right in the run-up to the 2016 election; and later, in 2019, the sale of her first label, Big Machine, to Scooter Braun, a close ally of West’s and nemesis of Swift’s – resulting in Braun’s profiting from her life’s work.  

The latter in particular was a huge personal blow, but in the preceding years her public image, too, was highly unstable. This was only exacerbated by her post-Kanye comeback album, 2017’s Reputation, where she painted herself as a hardened mean girl (the “old Taylor”, she declared, was “dead”). She directed unfiltered lyrics straight at West (“Friends don’t try to trick you/Get you on the phone and mind-twist you”, she sings on “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”) and bleached her hair to an icy white. All but a loyal group of Swifties struggled to know what to make of it.  

But if the problem with her Reputation era was a perceived inauthenticity – less because of her alleged snakeiness, and more because of a sense she was basing her decisions on insecurity – since then Swift has built a public identity so strong, so unrecognisable, that you can almost taste it in the air.

Before Reputation she had retreated from public life for several years and, once she had got the anger out her system on the album, she seemed to soften. It has given way to a more mature, reflective style of songwriting, and her most prolific period to date – bolstering both her credibility as a songwriter and her appeal as a character. (As a young, pretty woman shilling catchy love songs helped along by her openness about the real stories behind them, she has previously been underestimated. Even this year, at the height of her success, stories about her romantic life after she broke up with her long-term partner, the British actor Joe Alwyn, in January, have occasionally threatened to eclipse her musical achievements.)

Through four very different albums, free of Braun’s greasy pawprints – the dreamy pop of Lover (2019), the unexpected woodsy folk of folklore and evermore (2020) and the individuated confidence of Midnights (2022) – she has shown a resilience and self-awareness that, despite her continued, overt romanticism, has cast her as something of a modern god.  

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 02: Taylor Swift attends the
Taylor Swift in 2016 (Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Her self-mythology enables a total immersion in her and her world and a blurring of lines between her and her listeners. For her mostly female, millennial audience, she has retained an intense relatability despite her distinctly unrelatable success; her music speaks so directly to you that it can almost make you feel as though you are her.

At the same time, Swift has made herself invincible by embracing the idea of her “Eras”, her regeneration itself becoming part of the narrative she is so expert at crafting. For a society that has never been more fixated on self-realisation, it’s completely intoxicating. 

Yet unlike many stars whose elusive appeal lies in their artfully constructed image, Swift’s magic qualities are all there in her music – and unlike many stars whose celebrity status rests on a flimsy oeuvre of playlistable hits primarily written by jobbing producers, Swift’s catalogue is her own, and it’s her distinctive sound that defines her.

Her songs are not only stories but vivid illustrations. She shows, rather than tells. Take her 2014 album-opener “Welcome to New York”: the track not only explains in plain terms that Swift has moved away from her Nashville roots to the big city, but swaps banjo and guitar for pulsing, glittering synths that sound like lights and skyscrapers, plunging us right in there with her. 

Several more tangible techniques comprise the Swiftian style – the effect of which is making you feel like you live in the movie of both her life and yours. She is a distinctive melodic writer with a few tics she returns to time and time again.

She is a master, for example, of lines that drag over just one note before falling off (in the second verse of “Cruel Summer”: “Killing me slow/Out the window”) or flying up (just two lines later, she flips it: “Devils roll the dice/Angels roll their eyes” – or try, on “London Boy”, “Took me back to Highgate/Met all of his best mates”). She frequently deploys a melodic device described as early as 2014 by the music analysis podcast Switched on Pop as a “T-drop”, a sequence of three notes – most easily recognisable on the “see”, and penultimate “me”, in the chorus of “You Belong With Me” – that conveys both resign and possibility, conclusion and ellipsis.

And she doesn’t shy away from a clunky simile or on-the-nose lyric: even aside from Lover’s devils, angels and a whistlestop tour of the London Tube map, on her most recent album “your roommate’s cheap-ass screw-top rosé” sticks out as overly sincere and cringeworthy – two traits that only make her more beloved. 

In her storytelling, Swift is precise and sure of herself, keeping things closely contained. She is specific and playful with her imagery – juxtaposing old-world, mythical evocations of red roses with distinctly new-world references to “take-out coffee”: props in a carefully composed still-life. She laces much of her work with a sense of clean, white-toothed Americana (“she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers”). And she is always careful to delineate neat units of time to hold her objects: it’s cruel summers, hot nights, long drives.

While all this creates an alluring sense of certainty, and the tidiness of a fairy tale, Swift also creates drama and ambiguity in the way she describes the emotions that surround those experiences – a dichotomy that creates her unique combination of classic romance and modern individualism. 

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - MARCH 17: Editorial use only and no commercial use at any time. No use on publication covers is permitted after August 9, 2023. Taylor Swift performs onstage for the opening night of
Taylor on Taylor: Swift at the opening night of her Eras tour (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management)

In her songs, many of which concern relationships, she is simultaneously the villain and the victim, and always the main character (or, as she would have it, the “anti-hero”). In “Blank Space” and “Style” she juxtaposes tales of “crashing down” and “going down in flames” with peppy melodies and euphoric choruses. She’s a drama queen, but her millennial sardonicism also plays into the elements of her personality that make her such a 21st-century star. Despite her obvious successes and privileges, she presents herself as an underdog – playing up her goofiness, her weak spots in the choreography. There is no pretence that she could ever be “cool” – and her listeners buy into it all, while also being comforted by the fact that she’s completely in control.

Her paradoxical self-deprecation has continued to her most recent output: “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem it’s me”, goes the chorus of 2022’s “Anti-Hero”, streamed more than a billion times on Spotify. But if you think there’s never been a more Swiftian lyric, listen again to “Blank Space”: “Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream”. 

Nightmares, problems, drama, drama, drama – it doesn’t sound much like a happy ending. Yet Swift is loved by a generation for whom endings have flown out the window, for whom experiences and stories – readily posted on Instagram, and not conceptually incompatible with the imminent demise of the planet – are the primary goal.

Swift’s is the story that just keeps going, a vicarious realisation of self for the millions of people – mainly young women – who worship her. A significant part of her redemption arc was, following the lengthy conflict with Braun, to re-record her first six albums so that she owned her masters, an act of defiance and radical self-ownership. She is midway through the project, with two further records to release. Each time, “Taylor’s Version” adds to the story she’s already told – not because it’s a new story, but simply because it’s a different telling. 

So, as we would Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel or The Princess and the Pea, we look, and listen, again. We search for ourselves. We learn. It may seem that, in terms of worldly success, Taylor Swift simply cannot climb any higher – but hers is a fairy tale that will never stop being written.  

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