A record number of Americans are likely to watch this Sunday’s Super Bowl, probably only half of whom will be following the actual game. The other half will be scanning the luxury boxes for tantalising glimpses of Taylor Swift, the country’s most famous pop star, whose romantic alliance with Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce has united two tribes in a way that might have seemed impossible.
Welcome to the new America. In this strange new country, Taylor Swift fans are interested in football, while American football fans have been obliged to take cognisance of the existence of Taylor Swift, and even grudgingly admit that at least some of her music is actually quite good.
The Swift-Kelce singularity has already proved so powerful that there are dark mutterings from corners of the American Right that the celebrity couple is part of a plot to get Joe Biden re-elected, engineered by the US Department of Defense. Donald Trump is said to be personally miffed by Swift’s popularity, and to privately insist to unnamed advisors that his fan base is larger than hers.
Trump is right to take Swift seriously. I encountered America’s reigning pop princess on the last leg of her Eras tour — the music event of the summer, soon coming to Europe, with tickets selling for $1,500 and up — through a music-lover friend who, proclaiming himself tired of my unthinking prejudice against his teeny-bopper idol, offered me a ticket to see her show in Seattle. I alighted from my Uber outside the Lumens stadium in the company of a mother, in her 40s, and her daughter, in her mid-teens, wearing matching white glittery dresses. The middle daughter, in her early twenties, wore black, with a row of maybe a dozen friendship bracelets on her right arm.
By compelling the allegiance of all three generations, Swift has become the closest thing that America has these days to a national hero who connects the entire country, the country-club set included, together, and to a common mythos. F. Scott Fitzgerald would have loved Taylor Swift. A little bit cracked, a little bit reckless, bound for disappointment, but protected by invisible cushions of race and class, her tragedy is at once pre-ordained and, at the same time, affirms the country’s battered-but-still-existent social order. If “Cruel Summer”, Swift’s summer radio anthem, isn’t exactly Cole Porter, it’s easy to imagine F. Scott humming the tune.
But Taylor Swift is also something more than a pop star. Neither a brilliant singer nor a gifted dancer, she is the author of memorable lines and couplets that seemingly emerge from a stream-of-consciousness story-telling voice whose seeming artlessness is a calculated effect of her craft, of which she is a master. Her persona is a disenchanted version of the girl-next-door, who is overly labile, loses control of her emotions, gets dumped, and then pours out her simmering anger and hurt to her diary, as well as to her millions of fans, for whom she serves as a kind of substitute for family. What makes her persona stand out from the usual run of injured females is her awareness of her own failings, which is in turn the whetstone upon which she sharpens her daggers, which she thrusts into the eyes of those who have injured or betrayed her. Her actual family is an upscale affair, consisting of her young brother Austin; her mother Andrea, a former marketing manager at an advertising agency; and father Scott, a stockbroker-turned-vice-president for Merrill Lynch, who manages his daughter’s money.
Awaiting her arrival, the crowd was an explosion of cut-off-jean shorts over fishnets, prom dresses, glitter tops, shimmery metallic leggings, glittery tiaras, henna tattoos, rainbow glitter tops, glittery cowboy hats, and more glitter. It was like Planet of the Apes for Women Wearing Glitter. Perhaps half the crowd were seriously overweight, which is more or less the same ratio I’d expect to find among the men at a football game. Where male football fans wear team jerseys, the Swifties are dressed for a summer prom, proving once again that the audience for female finery is other females. Maybe one out of every 10 here is a man. Relations between the sexes are cordial.
Swift’s opening act was the Haim sisters, who rock a more physically and mentally healthy Sarah Silverman-type vibe. What they lack, however, is the comedienne’s awareness of her own brokenness, which was the source of her charisma and wicked sense of humour. Silverman knows that the world can be a mean, cruel place. Where young American men are generally forced to internalise the lessons of their own insignificance in unpleasant ways by the time they hit puberty, young women are encouraged by schools, older women, and every form of entertainment on the planet to believe they can have it all. To believe otherwise is to let down the side, which consists of all other women on the planet. The result being, at least here in America, the near-certainty that young women will fail to achieve even basic levels of happiness, as the gap between their expectations and reality proves impossible to bridge. Which is where Taylor Swift comes in.
Part Khaleesi warrior goddess, part stripper, part show pony, part Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, part sorority sister, part Country Western singer, part Daisy Buchanan, part woman scorned, and part broken toy, her presence is effortlessly authoritative. She just stands there, commanding the stage. Through the power of her persona, one she has assembled with her own magpie creativity, she takes colourful bits of string from the nests of her producers and song-writing partners and fuses them together in a way that is always uniquely her own.
Swift’s craft as a songwriter comes from her rootedness in the themes and rhythms of country music, which is the genre in which she began, and which she has seamlessly adapted to pop. The marriage of these two forms allows Swift to escape the emotional confines of pop, and channel the stresses and resentments of a generation of women who are hopelessly torn between the demands of the workplace and ingrained ideas of romance and femininity, and above all by the knowledge that the scripts don’t match, and never will match. Swift’s job in the culture is to take the toxic life-trap these women feel caught in and reflect it back to her audience while still making them feel special. Her songs mirror the brutal inner monologues of a generation of caged female animals who grew up with the language of girl power and are now unwilling to either fully endorse their condition or abandon the possibilities of romance with men.
Swift has a charming way of presenting her life as a movie while at the same time fully inhabiting the characters in her songs. She’s a better actress than Madonna, in part because her persona rests on being the girl next door rather than Superwoman. This persona is convincing because she suffers. She suffers because she wants too much, often from men whose inadequacies force her to settle for less, or much less, until she explodes, and leaves them long drunken answering machine messages, or stalks them at bars, or becomes obsessed with their new girlfriends. Costuming aside, she’s pure Nashville.
Swift is America’s Female Id, taking the feminine emotional range and insight of country music and injecting it into pop without compromising the virtues of either. “Oh wow, you know,” she said at the Lumens, returning to her safe place, which is her 70,000-strong audience. “Musically speaking, we’ve got a lot to catch up on. It’s been five years. But let’s not talk about me anymore. Let’s talk about you. There are performances I see in this crowd tonight that are Tony Award-level.”
What separates the performer from her audience is not that her inner life is any more elevated. It is that she’s a hugely talented songwriter who works incredibly hard at her craft, and there is something endearing about Swift’s need to keep making that point plain. “I’ve been writing songs since I was 12,” she said, matter-of-factly. “My way of coping with stuff is that I go through something, and then I write songs about it.” The fact that the stories in her songs are real is part of what makes them good though, just like any rap star, a fact she underlined by launching into “champagne problems”, a song inspired by her ill-fated liaison with Conor Kennedy, RFK Jr’s son. She’s a nightmare dressed like a daydream, or so the song says. “She would’ve made such a lovely bride,” she sings. “What a shame she’s fucked in the head.”
Maybe she is, and maybe she isn’t. Maybe it’s all her fault. Or maybe it’s the guy’s fault. Either way, it’s impossible not to be struck by the perfect construction of the line, and by the delicate emotional line that the song walks — between seeing herself through the eyes of her detractors and admitting that she is nuts and being a survivor who in the end will always win out, by turning the pain of being unwanted into pop chart success. Swift is a talented emotional acrobat who is continually walking lines that are finer than they look, feeling from the inside while describing herself from the outside. The combination of those talents makes her a star.
If it was exhausting, for a man in the audience, that nearly three hours of non-stop female emotional shadowboxing and politicking, there is also no denying how completely Taylor Swift has mastered the art of being a pop star, at a moment when Americans in general, and single American women in particular, seem paralysed by a pervasive uncertainty. Meanwhile, Swift is free to return to her roots. Which brings us to folklore, the alt-country pop record she released in 2020, at the height of Covid lockdowns.
“I hit my peak at seven feet / in a swing / over the creek / I was too scared to jump in,” she sings to a childhood friend, before wondering if there is still sweet tea to drink and other beautiful things left in this world.
This is Taylor Swift taking her stand. She’s still the most famous woman in the world, even if her job — as a songwriter and a pop star — is to be miserable. She can be famous and live in a mansion by the sea in Rhode Island, a safe distance from the Kennedys, but she can’t have it all. The rules won’t allow it.
Swift never stops trying, though. Her Nashville work-ethic, like her lunges at her exes, root her in a place that Americans look to for salvation from their present ills. Not to billionaire fantasies about colonising Mars, or the insistence on abolishing borders and gender, but to the Fifties America of Leslie Gore, where women could still call out the men who betray and control them, and assert the fierceness of their own inner lives, with the assurance that there is some greater form of structure, which, regardless of the constraints it imposes, might offer an alternative to being alone. After spending the past 50 years tearing down the structures of families, churches, local government, ethnicity, gender, nations and borders, a very large number of Americans now find themselves struggling to find rhythm and meaning to their lives.
The idea that Taylor Swift, of all people, can find happiness cheering for her boyfriend, a burly, bearded football star seems well-deserved. It is also an embodiment of the kind of healing synthesis that is hard to find in Trump’s angry bluster, or Biden’s senile ramblings, or activist campaigns to shut down bridges and highways, or mandate the exclusive use of electric cars, or otherwise force one’s views and practices on others. What Taylor Swift finally has for herself is what a large majority of Americans want for themselves. Or maybe it’s all a clever promotional stunt, cooked up by Swift’s handlers and the country’s most popular sports league to sell their respective products. Which would also be entirely and even comfortingly American.
“Hi, I’m the problem,” she announced in Seattle bluntly, before softening the blow with an eruption of glitter. “When I walk in the room / I can still make the whole thing shimmer.”