Taylor Swift: a pop star at the peak of her powers

On a rainy November afternoon two years ago, a queue of conspicuously dressed people wrapped around several city blocks in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. There were sequinned blazers, pink tutus, cottage-core cardigans and people head-to-toe in red, holding bouquets of red roses. When passers-by asked what they were waiting for, they demurred: they had been sworn to secrecy. 

They entered an AMC cinema where they were handed tissues branded with the song title “All Too Well”. After an hour of waiting, a Haim sister appeared, and then Taylor Swift, in a purple velvet suit, strutting down the sticky cinema aisle as if it was a red carpet. People began to sob. Swift told the 400 fans that they had been handpicked to hear her perform “All Too Well”, perhaps her most beloved song, in its full length, for the first time. “This stuff has always been between me and you”, she said. 

Such is the lore of the Taylor Swift universe. At the time, she was already a famous pop star — beloved by legions of fans, mostly girls and women. But in the two years since, Swift, now 34, has unlocked a new level of stardom. Streams and Instagram “likes” have quintupled. Next week, she is set to tie Elvis Presley for the second-highest number of weeks holding the top-selling US album. From there, she trails only The Beatles. 

For Taylor Swift, 2023 was one of the biggest years for any artist in music history. Earning some $2bn, her utter domination has been compared by industry magazine Billboard to the “fab four” in 1965, or Michael Jackson in 1983. At a time when record executives agonise over how difficult it is to hold listeners’ attention, Swift has come to exist on her own planet. The Federal Reserve noted her tour had bolstered the economy through hotel bookings, with cities such as Chicago and Minneapolis breaking records for hotels rooms occupied during her visits. One sentence towards the end of a song — about making friendship bracelets — boosted sales at craft stores across the US. Several universities, including Harvard, have created classes about her. In Argentina, fans queued on rotation for five months to get as close to the stage as possible for Swift’s concert. 

For nearly two decades, Swift’s life has been dissected extensively. She narrates every phase, each one packaged into an album with its own sound and aesthetic. Some of the basic facts: Taylor Alison Swift was born on December 13, 1989 in a suburban Pennsylvania town, where her family owned a Christmas tree farm. Her parents, who worked in finance and advertising, named her after the musician James Taylor, favouring a gender-neutral name so future employers would not discriminate against her. Swift says her mom, who has suffered recurring bouts of cancer in recent years, is her “favourite person”. 

After years of begging from the young Taylor, the Swift family moved to Nashville when she was 13 years old; here, she scored a songwriting contract with Sony. Early on, she displayed the defiance and ambition that have defined her career. After the success of her 2008 album Fearless, some critics questioned whether she wrote her own lyrics. She wrote her next album, Speak Now, alone, without co-writers. 

This defiance reared its head again a decade later, when her music catalogue was sold to one of her enemies, Scooter Braun, in a deal financed by private equity groups. Swift slammed the deal as: “very powerful men, using $300mn of other people’s money to purchase, like, the most feminine body of work”. She has spent the past few years painstakingly recording duplicate copies of her first six albums.

As an artist, Swift toggles sensitive songwriter with celebrity dramatist. She is at once a megastar billionaire, who at any given moment could be whisked into a private jet; and a writer who likes to spend her time painting “lonely little cottages on a hill”. Swift has a millennial’s fixation with achievement. She is a chronic overthinker. “I regret a lot of things all the time”, she said in 2019. “It’s like a daily ritual”. 

Before the pandemic, music executives had begun to whisper that Swift was past her peak. Instead, isolation provided a massive boost for her career: she couldn’t stop writing songs, releasing two surprise albums in 2020. This music was a departure from her poppier hits — softer, more lyrical. In Swift’s words, it was a way to escape the reality of 2020, to a fantasy land with “tall trees” and “lace nightgowns that make you look like a Victorian ghost”. 

Since then, she has entered a supercharged pop-star mode, releasing seven albums in the past three years. In an industry whose executive ranks are dominated by men, Swift’s power has surpassed them all. She said in 2019: “I’m sick and tired of having to pretend like I don’t mastermind my own business . . . it’s a different part of my brain than I use to write”. 

Even when Swift is not working, she’s working. On days off from her tour, she is often photographed entering a recording studio or one of New York’s bougie Italian restaurants, surrounded by a flock of famous friends. Writer Anne Helen Petersen summarised these outings: “Taylor’s not making an album, but she is making gossip art”.

No one is more aware of her own expiry date than Swift. It’s a motivation to constantly reinvent herself. She told us as much, in one of her pandemic songs, named “Mirrorball”: “all I do is try, try, try. I’m still on that trapeze, I’m still trying everything, to keep you looking at me”.