At some point, we have to recognize that even if you embrace the limits of pop music, the distance between middlebrow entertainment and the lowest common denominator is enormous. Our need for shared artistic connection cannot be allowed to overwhelm a duty to also collectively seek out music that takes us places and challenges us with insights into the human condition, revelations about ourselves we didn’t know (or maybe didn’t want to know), and otherwise produces insights into the problems of others. And I, for one, already know enough to know Taylor Swift just doesn’t have it in her to do that.
After Tayor Swift’s massive “Eras” tour is packing stadiums to the point her shows are causing earthquakes (even though bad seats are often going for $1,000 or more), Swift isn’t just resuscitating the post-Covid live music industry, she’s threatening to help rescue America’s flagging theater business.
It was recently announced that she struck a deal with AMC theaters to show a three-hour concert film from her smash tour for the millions of people who couldn’t get tickets. It starts showing in October, AMC is charging higher ticket prices than normal — which are already absurd — and the presale figures for the movie tickets are already breaking records. Based on some back-of-the-envelope math gleaned from some speculative news reports, Swift might make something close to half a billion dollars off this tour and all the related revenue.
And it’s not just that Swift has conquered the unwashed masses, America’s elite tastemakers have also become unrepentant Swifties. This summer, The New York Times covered Swift with an enthusiastic zeal not reserved for any other figure since maybe Obama — even going so far as to publish a distasteful meditation on internet randos’ lesbian fantasies about her.
Most recently, The New Yorker issued its high-toned blessing by publishing a remarkable essay, “Listening to Taylor Swift in Prison: Her music makes me feel that I’m still part of the world I left behind.” There was a time when we imagined that everyone in the prison yard would stand around overwhelmed by the sheer emotion and elevation of the soul produced by hearing “Sull’aria” from Mozart’s Le Nozze Di Figaro, even though they had no idea what those two Italian ladies were singing about. But if “Blank Space” is what you’ve got on the cheap commissary radio to help you count the days, I’m not going to begrudge you.
Still, someone who truly, deeply cares about the state of popular music has to stand athwart Taylor Swift, yelling “what is this @#?!,” and it might as well be an intellectually dyspeptic Gen X guy with nothing to lose.
To be clear, I’m not so hostile or out of touch that I don’t get important aspects of her appeal. I think she’s worth paying attention to because something about Swift resonates at the frequency of America. But I’m genuinely not sure her popularity is a testament to her talent, and I can’t think of another major post-WWII music figure I’m honestly this conflicted about estimating their gifts. Swift is a phenomenal marketer, she works very hard, and from what I can tell, almost no one at her level cares about her fans and reaching out to them personally the way Swift does.
Further, while a lot of positive developments came out of the internet destroying the cabal of corporate music executives and radio programmers that previously controlled popular tastes, we’re now coming to terms with how resulting fragmentation has been detrimental to society. We hardly have anything in the way of a shared common culture, so people tend to cling to anything that breaks through the din and consolidates any pop culture support like it’s some kind of life raft. Music has the power to connect people through shared experience, and people desperately want that connection in this polarizing age.
In the case of Swift, however, that connection has to be interpreted, like everything else these days, through a political lens. Thus New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg declares, “After years of Covid isolation, reactionary politics and a mental health crisis that has hit girls and young women particularly hard, there’s a palpable longing for both communal delight and catharsis.” While there’s some truth in this observation, I regret to inform Goldberg that Swift’s fanbase is so massive that a huge part of it agrees with the reactionary politics New York Times readers seem to deplore.
The best pop stars simply transcend pedestrian political concerns, explaining Swift’s appeal doesn’t have to be done through the lens of feminism. Six years ago — long before, say, the Dobbs decision or the New Right writing essays about “The Longhouse” — I observed after Tom Petty’s death, “a huge swath of America, across beliefs, cultures, generations, and races, would want to claim Tom Petty’s music and feel some solidarity in his loss. We need unifying cultural figures and artists now more than ever.” Petty was obviously very masculine and a baby boomer, but his massive appeal over several decades — at the time of his death, one out of every 40 songs played on classic rock radio was Tom Petty — and Swift’s appeal are both born of a universal desire for human connection.
The Rise of “Me Music”
What has changed is the overall cultural milieu that produced Swift, compared to popstars of previous generations and how they reflect changing values. Ironically enough, Tom Wolfe coined the phrase “the Me decade” to refer to the 1970s when artists such as Tom Petty rose to stardom. The idea was Americans were starting to move away from having an identity rooted in community and moving toward atomization — and certainly, a big part of that development was the ability for individuals to find meaning outside local communities and identify with distant pop culture figures whose identity and branding were created by relatively new mass media technologies.