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.
But this development, however startling it was to astute critics such as Wolfe, was embryonic 50 years ago. With Taylor Swift we see it in full flower; maybe it took 30-some years, but the cultural trends that emerged from the ’70s finally produced an artist almost wholly dedicated to “Me Music.” This finally brings me to my actual gripe, the specifics of why and how her music sucks: It’s utterly defined by self-obsession rather than introspection. Where other artists will occasionally do a Christmas album, it seems like every Taylor Swift album is a Festivus record devoted to the airing of grievances and feats of artistic strength.
To that end, she has almost wholly pioneered a new genre of what an acquaintance of mine calls the “bellyaching about a boyfriend” song. It’s true that young men are frequently terrible to young women and there’s nothing inherently wrong with this being fodder for pop songs, but there are limits. There’s yet another song on her latest record bashing one of her famous exes, John Mayer, following up on her infamous breakup song “Dear John” in 2010. Look, everyone knows Mayer was a terrible womanizer — but this was known before he dated her — and that was 14 YEARS AGO. Whether he’s fully atoned or not, the guy has since gotten sober and moved to Montana or whatever. It’s, as the kids say, pretty cringe to still be exploiting these past relationships, which considering Swift’s had a charmed life since she was a teenager, seem like pretty hollow examples of genuine heartbreak.
Aside from generally objectionable thematic content, it’s also true that a great many of her lyrics are just so forced as to be terrible. In “Anti-Hero” she sings, “Did you hear my covert narcissism/I disguise as altruism/Like some kind of congressman?” which hangs in the Louvre of lyrics where I audibly groaned the first time I heard it (though it’s a bit further down the hall from the place of honor occupied by “Hike up your skirt and show your world to me”). Aside from the clunker of a reference to congressmen, it’s just adorable she thinks her narcissism is “covert,” but since this is what passes for self-reflection coming from Swift, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Still, I know enough Swifties whose judgment I respect, and they insist she is a talented lyricist. When pressed for an example of said talent, one suggested this lyric from “All Too Well” of the Red album: “And you call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest.” And you know what… that’s a pretty good lyric!
But in context, “All Too Well” is just another breakup song, and some of the lyrics demonstrate a degree of obliviousness that’s concerning: “Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone/But you keep my old scarf from that very first week/’Cause it reminds you of innocence/And it smells like me/You can’t get rid of it.” I’m sorry, but leaving an item of clothing at the house of your ex, and then citing that as proof he’s not over you is borderline bunny boiler behavior. Distressingly, there’s plenty of evidence that Swift’s dysfunctional view of relationships is already influencing the minds of a new generation of pop stars. Just take a gander at the lyrics to up-and-comer Olivia Rodrigo’s “Vampire,” an excruciatingly bitter, plodding ballad that is inexplicably a smash hit.
I still stand by the fact it’s a mistake to read too much in the way of politics or feminism into Swift’s appeal, but given her popularity in the face of this lyrical obsession, it’s a chicken-or-egg-first proposition about whether the cultural avatar of millennial females is famous for being near constantly romantically aggrieved even as TikTok is full of videos of women insisting, “No really, it’s great being 29 and unmarried and childless, I don’t want that at all, I get to sleep in on weekends and learn to make shakshuka, this is the most fulfilling life I can conceive of, I’M HAPPY WHY WON’T ANYONE BELIEVE ME?!”
Anyway, it almost goes without saying that I would love to see the reaction to a male pop artist who wrote with the same unchecked verve about having to date women who see things this way.
The Soft Bigotry of Low Musical Expectations
But pop music isn’t just about lyrics, and when it comes to the actual music, I’m not sure where her own skill ends and that of her big league collaborators — which now include the one-man Swedish hit factory Max Martin, Bon Iver, and everyone in between — begins. While I don’t doubt she has talent as a songwriter, her songs are a corporate product both in the sense that they are almost always co-created by a team of songwriters with a track record of hits and in how they are then marketed. Which is to say that Taylor Swift excels at writing popular songs, but that’s not the same thing as writing good songs.
On a musical level, I don’t expect people to be such nerds they have articulate opinions about the overuse and abuse of the I–V–vi–IV progression, but suffice to say that if you think that in the last 20 years all pop music has started to sound the same, there’s a very good reason for that. And Taylor Swift is one of the worst offenders, in the sense that she’s not just going to the well until it runs dry lyrically, she’s also essentially writing the same songs over and over again.
Again, maybe casual listeners aren’t to be expected to pick up on this, but to a remotely trained ear, bad pop songwriting is like pornography: You know it the moment you hear it. The Beatles catalog is comparatively devoid of songs consisting of these same trite and overused chord progressions, and if you think of individual chords and melodies as a proxy for evoking different emotions, Taylor Swift’s music occupies a very, very specific range in terms of the breadth of the human condition she is speaking to. Granted, it’s perhaps the broadest, most appealing (and shallowest) tranche, so that’s something.
To drag this back to the Beatles, think about “Eleanor Rigby.” It’s incredibly sophisticated. There are counter melodies, staccato strings, and it’s notable for its repeated use of “plagal cadences” where the IV chord resolves to the I, or root chord in the key. Musically, this particular songwriting move is most closely identified with hymnody — it’s also known as the “Amen Cadence” — a remarkable move for a song about church life, and one McCartney probably did instinctually.
Which brings us to the lyrics. McCartney is putting himself in the shoes of others and trying to empathize with their loneliness: “Eleanor Rigby/Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been/Lives in a dream/Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door/Who is it for?” Listening to the song, you can just imagine him as the 15-year-old choirboy at St. Peter’s in Liverpool closely observing the characters in the church around him. It’s a series of concise but unforgettable vignettes about people that listeners such as myself, half a world away, would otherwise have no connection or insight into.
And it’s not just that this is all a thousand times more sophisticated than anything Swift has ever done. Yes, it is that, but more importantly, it is just two minutes and six seconds long and STILL ONE OF THE CATCHIEST POP SONGS IN HISTORY.
Did I mention McCartney was 23 years old when he wrote this, and multitrack recording was in its infancy? Swift is 33 years old, has 10 studio albums under her belt, and has limitless resources to pursue her artistic vision. Anyone want to make a case that her body of work evinces a great deal of artistic exploration and emotional growth over the course of her career?
To be fair, maybe a lot of songwriters wouldn’t fare well when compared directly to the Beatles, but that’s not necessarily the point. I could easily draft a version of this rant about the decline in listener expectations regarding the songwriting complexities of lesser pop stars from previous generations such as Phil Collins, or pop stars I don’t personally care that much for, such as Madonna. Heck, Sting sold millions and millions of records in the 1980s packed with showy literary references to Paul Bowles, Nabokov, Christopher Marlowe, Nietzsche, etc. One of his big hits even swiped the music from Prokofiev.
Not that I specifically endorse making music that’s difficult to listen to or needlessly pretentious lyrics, but a big part of the problem is that Swift is very, very good at serving an audience that has been conditioned to accept less in terms of musical and lyrical sophistication. Look, you can choose to like Taylor Swift, and I concede she’s so good at the exact thing she does that she’s hard to resist in certain contexts. If the occasional three-minute bursts of Swift make you feel good, I won’t deny you that.
However, the over-the-top celebration of Swift’s success says volumes about the stagnation of pop culture. 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.