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Taylor Swift Is the Antidote We Need in the Age of Donald Trump
A generational talent, yes—but also kind and tough.
WHEN A HARD DAY’S NIGHT CAME OUT during the first throes of Beatlemania, my cousin and I were dropped off to see it in a suburban theater. We happily screamed our adoration of John, Paul, George, and Ringo (mostly Paul, tbh) in what amounted to 87 minutes of tweenage catharsis. The theater was half empty, which should have been our first clue, but it was only later that I realized most of the screaming was on the sound track.
I had a flashback to that moment last weekend during an early evening showing of Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour. The screaming, tearful, overcome fans onscreen—over 210,000 at three of six sellout concerts recorded for the film at SoFi Stadium near Los Angeles—immediately brought me back to the inexplicable emotional punch of the Beatles era. It was the same, but also completely different. These were not girls expressing unrequited puppy love for a few cute guys. They were devoted to a strong, successful woman who loves them back. That seems a lot healthier than obsessing over the hair-tossing male superstars of my girlhood.
Swift is an icon, a big sister, a mentor. She’s also an emphatic win for second-wave feminism and its legacy of smashed stereotypes, economic empowerment, and anti-discrimination laws. You have to be a woman of a certain age to think to yourself “sisterhood is powerful” as Swift and her female dancers line up onstage, arms across each other’s shoulders, a wall of solidarity; to think “our bodies, ourselves” while watching women of every shape, size and color own that stage.
Beyond all that, as meaningful as it is to second-wavers like me, Swift is a sorely needed role model for our times. Her triumph is not just her well documented business savvy, musical gifts, or the way she has worked for years with the nonpartisan voter-registration group Vote.org, urging her fans to participate in U.S. democracy. It’s even bigger than that, though it sounds so simple: Swift is a nice girl, not a mean girl. A sweet, considerate person who picks up the trash at a family gathering. “I don’t think she got the diva memo,” Ed Kelce, father of current boyfriend Travis Kelce, said this week in an interview with People magazine. She is the girlfriend who meets the parents, whether their famous son is an actor or a football player.
Swift is nothing but nice throughout Eras, from her special moment mid-concert with the late Kobe Bryant’s young daughter to the many times she thanks her fans for buying tickets to a three-hour-plus live concert (twice as long as A Hard Day’s Night!) that spans all of her musical “eras,” proving that it wasn’t a harebrained obsession. “It’s only because of you that I get to do that,” she tells them. By the end, she’s asked them for just one more song’s worth of their time, as if she’s imposing on them for yet another favor. As TMZ reported, Swift is also kind to those working for her. She gave $100,000 bonuses to the fifty or so Eras Tour truckers who drove her equipment around the country, and unspecified but “very generous” bonuses to others on the tour, including band members, dancers, lighting and sound technicians.
I remember mean girls from junior high school, and I’m sure they’re still around. Swift is the antidote we need, especially now. She shows young girls, women, and her many male fans that you can be a rich celebrity while also treating others with kindness and respect. You can give away extra money to people who work for you, instead of stiffing them for what they’re owed. You can be strong without threats and intimidation. You can show that kindness is not weakness. In the age of Donald Trump, these are all lessons that bear repeating.
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That said, it’s not kindness that got Swift this far, this fast. It’s her iron will, focus, and self-confidence. She started writing songs at 13—in fact my favorite concert moment was the acoustic “Our Song,” which she wrote for her ninth-grade talent show. Twenty years later, Swift is making new “Taylor’s Version” recordings of her first six albums to reclaim ownership of her early songs and now, with Eras, has released what’s essentially a Taylor’s Version concert film. She and her team, led by her father, made and distributed the movie their way—cutting out Hollywood, partnering directly with AMC theaters, maximizing profit and breaking box office records.
No one will ever mistake Swift for Everywoman, but it’s a tribute to her talent and audience connection that nobody in the theater laughed when she referred to herself as “a lonely millennial covered in cat hair” at the time she wrote Folklore, a surprise album released a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s an amalgam of glamorous, grounded, and professional. Closeups of her fingernails tell a story. Each is a different color, from black to pink to glittery, but they’re cut short—the mark of serious pianists and guitarists like Swift, who plays both.
Strength, resilience and self-respect (okay, and revenge) are common themes in Swift songs. “Shake it off,” she writes of players, haters, liars, fakers, cheaters, and heartbreakers. There’s the famous “We are never, ever, ever getting back together” to an “exhausting” boyfriend. At one point in the film, Swift and her dancers swing glowing golf clubs at a digital car. Message: We are not helpless. That was completely clear early on when Swift flexed her bicep in a pose familiar to those of us who overuse emojis: 💪.
Ten years ago, Swift bought a historic Rhode Island home called Holiday House for $17.75 million in cash. Then she wrote “The Last Great American Dynasty” about Rebekah “Betty” Harkness, who had lived there after the death of her husband, Standard Oil heir William Hale Harkness, and about herself. Men considered Rebekah a “shameless” woman who “had a marvelous time ruining everything,” in Swift’s lyrics. She goes on, “Holiday House sat quietly on that beach / Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits / And then it was bought by me. / . . . There goes the loudest woman this town has ever seen / I had a marvelous time ruining everything.”
IT’S TAKEN ME AN EMBARRASSINGLY long time to understand the Swift phenomenon. I was horrified by her 2016 romance with Tom Hiddleston—she a lightweight pop singer (or so I thought even then, after she’d won dozens of national and international music awards), he a British actor best known for playing Marvel’s antihero Loki but only known to me for his intense performance in an edgy TV adaptation of John LeCarre’s The Night Manager. “Such fear, such dread, and such a dazzling script,” one reviewer wrote. Another called Hiddleston’s character “the most charming, intelligent, seductive spy on television.” And he was serious about Taylor Swift? Why yes, he was, and in fact, she may have been the one who “put the brakes on” HiddleSwift after three short months.
Three years earlier, I had posted what I remembered as an obnoxious tweet belittling Swift. It was during the 2013 Country Music Awards and I was massively annoyed that Alison Krauss and Vince Gill had been pressed into service as her “backup band.” It seemed like sacrilege at the time. The unearthed tweet is actually kinder and gentler than I remembered. While I knew how I felt about my idols versus this upstart twentysomething, “amazing” and “#torchpassing” don’t sound particularly negative.
Watching the CMAs clip now, it’s obvious that Swift was a generational talent even before she managed to remake the business models for the music and film industries and become a stellar voter-registration pitchwoman. The song is “Red,” the lyrics and melody are exquisite, and so is the way so many country stars—following Swift’s lead—melded their voices and instruments into a thrilling, even chill-inducing performance.
The Eras film, so clearly a significant cultural moment, seemed like my own right moment to finally learn to love or at least understand Taylor Swift. So I talked my husband, my niece, and her boyfriend into going to see it with me. My niece, at nearly 24, had grown up with Swift as a part of her life and silently sang along through the film. She knew all the words. She had been to a live Eras concert with her sister in Chicago, and was wearing the t-shirt to prove it.
Seeing Swift on screen, my niece said, “I felt the same euphoric rush I’d felt in the stadium. There she was! A real, live person! Singing the words to songs she’d written about intimate parts of her life, and had the bravery to share with so many people—people who have then applied those words to their own lives.”
My husband, who had to be heavily lobbied to attend, ended up smitten with the adorable little girls running up and down the aisle and impressed by Swift. “Why isn’t she on Mount Rushmore?” he asked. The boyfriend, also a hard sell, said he usually watches football on Sundays but was surprised by how much he enjoyed the film. “This was a good tradeoff,” he said. “Being a contrarian about Swift is no longer fashionable because you can’t get past her talent.”
My niece, by the way, has come up with the perfect plan for our next get-together. We’re all going to watch A Hard Day’s Night.