Taylor Swift stands out in every way. Recently, her Eras Tour movie broke the record for the highest-grossing concert film in box office history, surpassing Michael Jackson’s 2009 film This Is It. She was the only artist to have a new album, rather than an older one, in the UK’s Top 10 albums of 2023 (although it was a re-recording of her 2014 hit 1989). Last year, she became the first woman to have four albums in the US Top 10 simultaneously, dethroning Barbra Streisand for the most No. 1 albums by a woman. The Eras Tour also made history by earning over $1 billion, and in October, Swift herself was estimated to have reached billionaire status. In November, a US publication even hired a dedicated reporter solely for covering Swift, although many entertainment media professionals essentially have the same job given her immense success.
Aside from her success in the world of commerce, 34-year-old Swift also stands out in how she manages her relationships with her fans and the public. In a time where other popular musicians willingly subject themselves to endless interpretation and speculation – Harry Styles thrives on mystery, while Beyoncé’s PR strategy seems to be to never apologize or explain – Swift takes a unique approach. She understands the potential satisfaction and commercial opportunities that can come from catering to unexpected elements of her fanbase. That’s why she rarely gives interviews, but instead chooses to drop subtle hints for her fans to decipher her next moves. This allows them to feel actively involved in her work, while she ultimately leads them to the conclusion she desires. Her puppet-master-like control is a clever tactic, especially for someone who is constantly in the public eye and aims to avoid becoming overexposed. It allows her to maintain a sense of distance while still being in the spotlight on her own terms.
Sometimes, the gentle demeanor of a celebrity fades away and the firm control they have over their own story becomes evident when people make assumptions that are not in line with their narrative. Recently, the New York Times published a lengthy article speculating that Swift may be hiding her true sexuality and should come out for the sake of her LGBTQ+ fans and marginalized musicians. This is not new information for dedicated Swift fans, many of whom believe in the “Gaylor” conspiracy that she has been in relationships with women. However, fans eagerly analyzing lyrics and timelines online to find confirmation of their beliefs is one thing. Having a prominent publication write a prescriptive and critical article is both insignificant and troubling – it feels like an old-fashioned outing disguised as social responsibility, and reduces sexuality to a set of behaviors. As a much more insightful NYT article on queerbaiting stated last year: “While some celebrities may use ambiguity to their advantage, it’s not fair to force everyone to reveal their identity.”
Unexpectedly, the typically unseen members of Swift’s team, known as “a person close to the situation” according to CNN, responded to criticism. They stated, “Due to her tremendous achievements, there is currently a void in people’s ethics when it comes to Taylor.” They also noted that the same article would not have been written about male artists like Shawn Mendes, whose sexuality has been scrutinized by fans. It appears that certain journalists are willing to ignore any boundaries when it comes to writing about Taylor, regardless of how invasive, false, and unsuitable it may be, all while claiming it is simply their “opinion”.
The reaction was almost as forceful and misguided as the original article. Male performers like Shawn Mendes and Harry Styles have been the target of intense speculation about their sexual orientations: the writer from NYT has previously written a similar piece about Styles, and Mendes has spoken about the pressure of constantly discussing his identity. (He stated, “I thought, ‘You guys are lucky I’m not actually gay and afraid to come out.’ This is something that can harm people.”) It’s highly unlikely that the astute Swift included the numerous references by accident: if you present an opportunity, don’t be surprised when it is taken. Responding to an exaggerated essay in such a serious manner may also serve as a criticism to fans who have found comfort and connection – or even just harmless amusement – in imagining that Swift’s seductive song “Dress” from her album Reputation is about her former close friend, model Karlie Kloss (“I don’t want you like a best friend!”), instead of its more probable inspiration, her then-boyfriend Joe Alwyn.
Now more than ever, being a popular music star is a result of collective imagination. Taylor Swift may be one of the few remaining stars who appeal to a wide range of people, including older generations who may only have a vague idea of who she is. Her actions are often featured in tabloids and even mainstream award shows, but they never cause much controversy. Despite this, her fanbase is made up of unique groups, each with their own interpretation of who she is. With the help of social media, members of these sub-groups can connect and create their own versions of Taylor’s reality. This can lead to a sense of community, but sometimes also creates a sense of entitlement. The version of Taylor that I personally enjoy may be different from others, as she may come across as vengeful and self-critical. Others may appreciate her loyalty to her friends, her honesty about her struggles with disordered eating, her silliness, her strong business sense, or may relate to her in other ways that align with their own identities. All of these relationships with Taylor are considered valid, even though they are not based on a personal connection. Some may argue that Taylor’s public image is a carefully constructed fiction where she is the main character, but why shouldn’t this be seen as just as valid as any other fictional character?
Swift’s constant evolution and personal touch make her a captivating star, especially in light of her highly controlled media presence and carefully crafted breadcrumbs that have become somewhat tiresome and predictable. (Does her snake-inspired dress at the Golden Globes hint at the upcoming release of Reputation (Taylor’s Version)? Is the pope Catholic?) However, for many observers, this weariness resurfaced when reading her recent interview for Time’s person of the year cover, which lacked a critical lens and seemed focused on validating her perspective – specifically, that she was “cancelled” after her feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, despite it resulting in one of her most successful albums to date. Instead, there is much more interesting territory to explore where Swift’s self-perception intersects with public perception. The most lasting images of Swift from the past year show her as a standout figure on stage during her Eras tour, adorned in dazzling sequins. While she undoubtedly stands out on her own, it is within the chaotic and ever-changing world of pop fandom and stardom that the greatest rewards can be found.