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The Taylor Swift machine is completely inescapable – is it a recipe for disaster?

‘Taylor Swift has levelled up into a strata of fame well beyond the tier of superstardom she’s previously enjoyed’  (Getty)
‘Taylor Swift has levelled up into a strata of fame well beyond the tier of superstardom she’s previously enjoyed’ (Getty)

To say that the past week has been a busy one for Taylor Swift is an understatement. She’s had her potential Super Bowl travel schedule discussed by the Japanese embassy. She’s been branded part of a left-wing psyop designed to secure Joe Biden a second term in the White House. She’s been the subject of feverish speculation: was she about to announce the release of a new version of Reputation? Oh, she’s also made Grammy history as the only person to win the Album of the Year trophy four times. And then used an acceptance speech to herald the arrival of another album, The Tortured Poets Department. Exhausting, right? But the events of the past week are not anomalous for Swift. Over the past 12 months or so, she somehow seems to have pulled off an impossible feat: levelling up into a strata of fame well beyond the tier of superstardom she’s previously enjoyed.

Her Eras Tour, a three-hour-plus marathon through her career to date, has become the first tour ever to gross over $1bn. Even if you haven’t been, or watched the concert movie released last October (the highest-grossing film of its kind ever, naturally), you’ll have probably been able to piece together much of the show from the abundance of footage on social media. Her re-released albums earn a flurry of five-star reviews – often a much warmer critical reception than they picked up the first time around. Her relationship with Kansas City Chiefs player Travis Kelce has also meant that a whole new set of cameras are following her every move when she attends his football games; their romance has also been greeted as some sort of archetypal all-American love story. And according to an email I received earlier this week, she’s somehow caused a rise in sales of beads and elastic at the craft chain Hobbycraft, too.

Swift doesn’t just dominate the conversation: it increasingly feels like she is the conversation. She is omnipresent in a way that isn’t supposed to happen these days, our interests apparently increasingly diffuse thanks to algorithms designed to lead us down personalised rabbit holes. Everything from politics to pop culture can be seen through Swift specs. This can result in some pretty bizarre reporting, where every event is refracted and reframed to somehow relate to her. Take the Golden Globes ceremony last month, when actors Emma Stone and Ayo Edebiri’s award wins were breathlessly written up… in terms of Swift’s vociferous approval from the audience. We’ve reached the point where Taylor clapping at something is more of a story than the thing itself. Similarly, if she doesn’t do something – like announcing the impending release of Reputation (Taylor’s Version), for example – that’s a story too.

When did Swift become so utterly ubiquitous? As far back as 2014, around the release of 1989, Bloomberg felt confident enough to declare that “Taylor Swift is the music industry”. It also launched a tour that put her firmly at the heart of the celebrity news cycle, thanks to an array of increasingly improbable cameos and guest performers joining her on stage (Lisa Kudrow singing “Smelly Cat”? Mr Worldwide himself, Pitbull? Sure, why not?).

The 1989 tour broke a string of records; for most artists, it would probably constitute a commercial peak, never to be repeated, let alone surpassed. But Swift’s current success makes it look relatively marginal. The last time I saw Swift in concert was in 2015, when she performed at British Summer Time festival in Hyde Park. I could buy three tickets by turning up to work early to load up the Ticketmaster page – it felt like a military operation then, but pales in comparison to the extreme lengths to which many resorted in order to secure their spot at the Eras Tour. Demand back then was high. But it wasn’t “set your alarms, mobilise the group chat, book the day off work, drain your bank account” high.

Swift’s cultural domination seemed to wane a little in the aftermath. She was smarting from another well-publicised row with Kanye West; Reputation and Lover, still wildly successful by all other standards, didn’t quite hit 1989’s peak. But her cachet then stepped up a gear thanks to two events. In 2019, impresario Scooter Braun bought the master recordings for her first six albums, a sale that Swift said “stripped me of my life’s work, that I wasn’t given an opportunity to buy”. The globally famous artist genuinely felt like an underdog, a decade’s creative work taken from her by industry power players. And so she decided to gradually re-record each one of them, releasing the first in 2021; the process, Swift argued, was also about reclaiming what had been taken from her. A potential career crisis was transmuted into a great story, one that fans could really get behind. Swift has always carefully dropped clues into her songwriting, but thanks to “Taylor’s Versions”, her every move has become an Easter egg for fans to puzzle over like Bletchley Park cryptographers.

Record breaking: Swift is the only person to have won four Album of the Year Grammys (Getty)
Record breaking: Swift is the only person to have won four Album of the Year Grammys (Getty)

And in the summer of 2020, when the world was shut inside during the pandemic, she dropped a surprise album, Folklore. It showed Swift in a more meditative mode, telling emotionally acute stories from imagined perspectives. It was intimate, pared back and felt like an appropriate soundtrack for a time when our lives seemed to shrink. The album put paid to the persistent (and incorrect) criticism that Swift only wrote about her own relationships, and seemed to win over another swathe of fans who’d previously shrugged her off; her sonically similar follow-up Evermore, released a few months later, doubled down on this new strain of success.

With those two records, the four “Taylor’s Versions”, her 2022 album Midnights, and the forthcoming The Tortured Poets Department, Swift will have released eight records in four years. If it feels like she has constantly been in promo mode, that’s because, well, she’s had a lot of work to sell (she’s marketed each re-record like a brand new record, with a load of merch to match). It’s not just Folklore’s fresh sound that has drawn in a new set of fans. Re-releasing her back catalogue has been like a signal boost, introducing her work to a younger generation and making it current: how many other artists could score a No 1 with a 10-minute version of an album track released almost a decade before, as Swift did with “All Too Well”?

Swift has always been carefully attuned to her own levels of fame. In the (in)famous 2016 call between her and Kanye West, she notes: “I feel like right now, I’m this close to overexposure.” In 2024, she has far exceeded the level of fame she was experiencing back then (and she’s probably extremely aware of this). But there are no signs of her dialling things back, as she might have done previously. In fact, she’s more present than ever, and seemingly far less guarded when it comes to her love life too.

PDA: Taylor Swift’s high-profile romance with Travis Kelce has generated a flurry of headlines (Getty)
PDA: Taylor Swift’s high-profile romance with Travis Kelce has generated a flurry of headlines (Getty)

In some ways, this feels like the logical result of her public persona. Taylor has always presented herself as the every-girl (“she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” to quote her 2008 track “You Belong with Me”). She is not a star whose image is built on mystique and distance but on closeness and relatability (though you might take the latter with a pinch of salt). Keeping this up requires visibility: we need to see her cheering from the football stands, dancing at awards shows and going out to dinner with a revolving line-up of friends. Ordinary-ish things, with a liberal smattering of celeb glitter.

Of course, it’s a long-held double standard that by simply existing in the public eye, women are seeking attention, making too much noise, doing too much. Perhaps Swift is challenging that, in all her ubiquity. Perhaps we’re just in the middle of a well-deserved victory lap. But you do have to wonder: isn’t it exhausting for her? What is the goal here? Shifting a few more limited edition vinyls?

And while being popular shouldn’t be a problem, the issue is – as some (brave) commentators have poked their heads above the parapet to point out – that there’s a risk of Swift becoming untouchable, her every move gushed over. This becomes all the more complex if Swift’s every action is framed – by some reporters, by her PR machine – as an act of empowerment. If we see her career this way, then it becomes almost uncharitable to question, let alone criticise, say, a billionaire rolling out endless merch tie-ins for her re-recording projects. In building her up and up and up, another, bigger backlash feels like a genuine risk too.

Instead, we should want critics to unpick her work thoughtfully and propel her to even better things, rather than applauding her without question. It’s great to have “Taylor’s Version” out there, but it shouldn’t be the only story.