Taylor Swift arriving at the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscars Party. Photo: Getty
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Taylor Swift’s success makes me hopeful for the future of humanity

Poet laureate of women’s inner lives, resolute booster of the girls who love her, healthily selfish, and heartily unconcerned with what the haters think about her: we could all do well to spend a bit of time in Taylor’s world.

There was a moment this year when I decided, actually, the next generation of girls has every chance of doing all right. The moment was the climax of a Taylor Swift concert at the O2 Arena, with Swifty as the ringmaster of a fantastical circus, dressed in red sequinned coat tails and top hat, singing “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – and the audience sang it back. All around me, teens and tweens lifted up their handmade LED signs and flashing torches of allegiance to their heroine, and they raised their voices too and chanted along: “We-ee are, NEVER, EVER, EVER getting back together!” And I thought: you lot aren’t going to take any nonsense from boys, are you? As they spilled out into the night outside the dome, with lyrics painted on their faces, every girl there had been anointed with knowledge most women take several heartbreaks to acquire: guys just aren’t worth the anguish, but you should matter to you.

Swift is probably about to be the biggest thing in the world, and that’s one of the rare events that makes me feel hopeful for our species. Unequivocally, I love her. “Shake It Off”, the lead single from her new album 1989, has debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 (the album is named for the year she was born: implausibly, she’s still only 24, and has been in the business for a decade). Though Swift is surely used to smash hits and sell-out tours, this is likely to be an even more gargantuan form of success as she crosses over definitively from country-pop to POP-pop. “Shake It Off” itself is an endlessly relistenable manifesto of screw-you, as Swift enumerates some of the duller criticisms aimed at her (“Got nothing in my brain”/“Go on too many dates”) before dispatching them magnificently in the chorus: “Just shake it off, shake it off.”  

The video is possibly even more joyous, with Swift scampering to keep up with ever-changing troupes of dancers, and goofily failing, before the screen fills with fan kids freaking out delightfully to the song. It’s the perfect synthesis of the Taylor triple-threat: close to her audience (Swift was one of the first stars to build a fanbase on Myspace, and she still leaves unbearably sweet comments on her fans’ Instagram pictures), not too serious about her public image, and super respectful of hard work and talent. (There’s been justified criticism of the twerking section for insensitivity to the racial politics of white stars using black women’s sexualised bodies as props, but there’s also no doubt that the twerkers – like the ballerinas, the gymnast, the cheer team and the rest of the dancers – have been recruited for being absolutely amazing at what they do.)

Actually, it’s part three of the Taylor equation that is rapidly becoming my favourite thing about Swift: she’s manifestly unfaffed about looking aloof or sexy, but she knows she’s an A-grade songwriter, and she expects her due for it. “They can say whatever they want about my personal life because I know what my personal life is, and it involves a lot of TV and cats and girlfriends,” she said in a recent Guardian interview. “But I don’t like it when they start to make cheap shots at my songwriting. Because there’s no joke to be made there.”

Her last album, Red, has an almost inexhaustible supply of lyrical brilliance – the intoxicating invocation of falling recklessly in love on “Treacherous”, the gleeful celebration of being young and having fun in “22”, the chilly and sly “Last Time” that twists from desperate relationship-saving promise to irrevocable dumping in the last chorus. But I secretly believe that the most heartfelt line of all is one of the sick burns she delivers to the ex in “Never Ever”. “Go and listen to some indie record that’s much, much cooler than mine,” scoffs Swift. She doesn’t care what the try-hard boys think. She knows she’s good.

She knows she deserves to get paid, too. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal about the future of the music industry (Taylor Swift wrote an op-ed for the WSJ! She is truly a renaissance woman), Swift sounded an unusual note of optimism about the financial viability of the recording industry: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” Whether audiences will universally fall into line after a generation raised in Napster libertarianism is unclear, but what matters is that Swift clearly isn’t going to tolerate a set of rules that don’t value her correctly. It’s a principle that she expands on, too: “My hope for the future, not just in the music industry, but in every young girl I meet… is that they all realise their worth and ask for it.”

Until recently, Swift distanced herself clunkily from feminism. “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life,” she told the Daily Beast in 2012, and the world echoed to the sound of Swift-loving feminists shouting “Noooooo! You have made a fundamental error about the nature of both society and feminism there, Taylor!” But last week, she revised this in the Guardian interview: “I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities … I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.” Poet laureate of women’s inner lives, resolute booster of the girls who love her, healthily selfish, and heartily unconcerned with what the haters think about her: Taylor’s world is one we should all spend more time living in.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times