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29 June 2015

The gospel according to Taylor Swift: how her vulnerability leads to power

Pop's woman of the moment forms a friendship with fans through her honest lyrics and disarming stage presence.

By Simon Parkin

Taylor Swift, country music’s beloved daughter and, now, in the shimmer of her recent evolution, pop music’s queen, embodies a constellation of talents. The brightest of these, at least in the arena setting, is an ability to make the vastness of her live production claspingly intimate.

As she played Hyde Park on Saturday to a sell-out crowd of 65,000, in the handsome bruise of a London summer dusk, she often appeared on the verge of heroic tears. Seemingly, her professionalism, forged through years spent working in the crucible of Nashville, was almost defeated by the scale of the occasion.

She would, as she put it to the audience, “remember this night for the rest of [her] life”. And so too would we, she said, with a wink thrown back over the shoulder, which, rendered in the panoramic expanse of the stadium screen, felt illogically personal.

Martin Amis has spoken about how novelists are able to tell the types of people who attend a book signing apart. You need only look in the eyes, he says, to tell who is queuing to meet someone famous, who is there to strengthen an investment in a hardback first edition, and who, as their eyes strain to convey meaning, has come to tell the writer that, through their work, they found communion. Swift must be dazzled on stage each night by the light of tens of thousands of such meaningful stares. You spoke to me, they urge. How did you know? I’m not alone.

This is the reward for the vulnerability she puts into her work: the candour of the country singer. Vulnerability puts you at risk, whether it’s an emotional wager made over a cup of coffee or one sung into the ears of millions of listeners. And doubly so for a female artist. “A woman writing about her feelings from a vulnerable place is [often seen as] over-sharing or whining,” Swift recently said.

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But vulnerability also creates the opportunity for a kind of closeness that cannot be established any other way. There is a difference between the Swiftian, and the followers of those more aloof pop stars, the Gaga-ites, the Minage-ians.

Swift strengthens the sense of friendship through points and smiles aimed at the crowd (“I see so many faces that I recognise!”) and through her patter (“I have only two criteria for friends: you have to like me and you have to want to spend time with me. So I guess you are all my friends.”)

But it’s through the songs themselves that the deeper bonds are formed.

The singer has been lampooned for the way in which she’s used her break-ups as song-writing fodder, a caricature reclaimed in Swift’s recent single, Blank Space. But older listeners are wrong to dismiss the feelings she conjures in her work as juvenile. Suffering isn’t relative. The messy divorce will have more wide-ranging repercussions than the high school split, and the pain will usually last longer, and in more complicated ways – but in the moment? We each suffer as much as we are able. Age or experience rarely comes into it. Whenever an artist sings of heartbreak, it resonates. We have that in common, or at least we think that we do, and that is all that matters.

Swift has drawn power and prestige from her unique relationship with her fans. Her interactions feel personal and honest; there is no Swift-poser manning the Twitter account, and she picked out and wrapped the presents she sent her fans last Christmas herself.

It’s not a cynical move for profitmaking – and any nascent star would be well-advised to avoid copying her example to that end. As a result, Swift’s fans listen closely. There is trust.

Perhaps for this reason the singer has been wary of championing any particular cause. As a younger woman, she once claimed that she was not a feminist, a stance since changed. “Misogyny is ingrained in people from the time they are born,” she said, in a recent interview with Maxim. “So to me, feminism is probably the most important movement that you could embrace, because it’s just basically another word for equality.” 

She did not make reference to Pride on Saturday, which had partied its way through London a few hours before her show started, nor any of the world’s current crises. Swift prefers to turn her commentary inwards, in the hope of finding commonality there. In doing so, she does not squander her power.

Some would contest the claim that Swift, despite a quiver of flawless, Max Martin-produced hits, is the saviour of pop. But on Saturday night, as she stood, messiah-like, on the tip of a 50-foot catwalk as it rose into the sky, to deliver a five-minute pep talk on self-esteem, she proved herself as a leader of the waves of teenage girls that parted before her.

The twang of Swift’s country music heritage has been largely eliminated in her pop reinvention, but the Tennessee spirit is still there: polite, open-hearted and, of course, ever eager to turn the debris of a ruined relationship into a memorable lyric. And so too is the Southern preacher spirit.

From her impromptu pulpit near Speaker’s Corner, Swift delivered a powerful sermon.

“It’s never been more apparent to me how difficult it is to feel good about yourself in 2015,” she said. “Every day we go online – and trust me, I love the internet – but, we scroll through the highlight reel of other people’s awesome lives. But we don’t see our own highlight reel… just the behind-the-scenes doubts, fears and concerns. No voices are as mean as our own voices are to ourselves.” A pause. Then: “You are not somebody else’s opinion of you. You are not going nowhere just because you aren’t where you want to be yet. You are not damaged goods just because you have made mistakes in your life.”

As one YouTube commentator put it the next day: “I was there. I cried my eyes out. I just can’t even.”

In other words, Swift is a role model in a gold-sparkle catsuit. She is able to tap into the experience of being a young woman growing up in a world made four-dimensional with the arrival of the internet and its multitude of grotty parishes.

She didn’t use the word ‘feminism’ on the night, but the movement’s most widely-shared aims sounded clear in her rhetoric. Let’s be supportive of one another instead of being competitive, she said, before showing a video in which a gaggle of Swift’s slightly less famous friends voiced their support for the singer. 

Swift brought five of these friends on stage during the penultimate song – Serena Williams, Cara Delevingne, Kendall Jenner, Karlie Kloss and Gigi Hadid. This ceremony had mostly been earned. Here were her friends, sharing the moment with her and with us. What could have been a scene of celebrity back-slapping was transformed into something virtuous.

As an adult man, I found the Taylor Swift concert to be a curious experience. Men are present in Swift’s production but only as a subordinate theme. There’s the mostly-male band and a dozen occasionally topless dancers, with whom Swift sometimes dances – albeit with a Nickelodeon-esque degree of emotional and physical distance.

And there is no lust in her act, even as passion abounds in song and strut. But ultimately, the men are secondary. Even in her songs, Swift is newly defining herself through her relationships with women, rather than in relation to feckless men. In doing so she sets a powerful example for her audience.

This is Swift’s moment and she knows it. “This is one of those nights where I’m taking mental snapshots to remember for life,” she said. Hers has been a lifetime of moments. She has been awarded 220 awards to date, including seven Grammies, and she will have her pick of collaborators for years to come.

But, the week after she convinced the notoriously cloistered Apple to change its business model, something is surely about to change. Her decision to name her most recent album “1989” (the year of her birth) was, in part, a statement of aesthetic intent (those synths, that 808). But it also demonstrates that she is aware of time, of age and of change. This will all come to an end – as must all of our triumphant, Hyde Park-style moments.

At 25, Swift has departed the emotional landscape of adolescence. Now begins the walk into the hardier, more idiosyncratic territory of her thirties. Her act, her age, her audience and her message may never again be so perfectly aligned.

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