21. February 2024

What’s the big deal? A millennial discovers Taylor Swift

millennial woman listens to music against a yellow brown background

Trying my best not to turn into a grumpy old fart


This last week, I have been called upon to ponder two questions of existential import:

  • What exactly is the Super Bowl and why should I, as a Brit, be interested in it?
  • How has Taylor Swift, by merely turning up to support her football player boyfriend Travis Kelce, managed to dwarf the entire event?

Drop everything, it’s Taylor Swift at the Super Bowl

Forget the war in Ukraine. Forget the potentially metastatic disaster unfolding in the Middle East. Nevermind climate change, inflation, the possibility of a second Trump presidency, or any of the other geopolitical stink bombs going off in the world of 2024. Right now, the Super Bowl and the sheer star power of Taylor Swift are the issues to which I am to apply my (not uneducated) mind.

So to question (1): Wiki informs me that the Super Bowl is the annual league championship game for the NFL. And, as a non-American, it’s fine for me to be about as bothered about it as most Americans are about a British royal wedding. Which is to say, not in the slightest.

The only thing about the Super Bowl which manages to edge into my field of interest is the half-time show, which tends towards the spectacular. One year, it was Beyoncé blasting out “Formation”. Last year it was Rihanna casually doing a pregnancy reveal. This year, it was Usher performing the song “Yeah”…which is basically catnip to older millennials like me. Oh, the memories of zero responsibility, the boundless energy and optimism (and the knees) of our 20s…

But I digress. Back to question (2). Taylor Swift.

In my peripheral vision

It wasn’t like I hadn’t heard of Swift before. I’ve been aware of her for years – ever since one of my favourite bands of recent years, “Walk Off The Earth” covered her song “I Knew You Were Trouble”. I checked out the original, quickly decided it was insipid and less “original” than the cover, and left Taylor to carry on doing her thing. I wasn’t interested.

Every now and again, I’d notice her on the front of gossip magazines at the salon. Mostly because of her new (probably fleeting) romance – which she’d inevitably end up processing on her next album. Oh look – there’s Taylor Swift taking her next album out to dinner! The headlines were so predictable. I saw the process rinse and repeat several times and the formula didn’t encourage me to reassess how I felt about her music.

That she persuaded her parents to move the family to Nashville so that she could pursue her career in music is, admittedly, impressive. That she writes (or co-writes) all her own songs is super-impressive.

As a side note, I couldn’t help but notice the spangly leotards she wears on stage. Swift has clearly attended the Beyoncé Knowles School of Jewel-Encrusted Stage Excellence and I like that a lot. You can’t go far wrong with a sparkly leotard in my books. Go Taylor.

A clear case of Taylor Swift skepticism

And YET. I still did not understand why everyone seems to be going SO wild over her. What is it about Swift’s music that has huge stadiums selling out and the Republicans worried that an endorsement of Biden by her could actually swing the election?

If we’re talking about country stars, I think Alison Krauss has a far finer voice. In terms of lyrics, Swift’s are engaging, but pedestrian. Bob Dylan is hardly quaking in his boots. And, to say she has legions of female fans, her material doesn’t really seem to be singing the song of empowerment.

Long story short: I was just feeling distinctly “meh” about the whole Taylor Swift thing. But listening to myself saying “I don’t get it, Madonna was so much better” while discussing the subject – I realised I’m in clear and present danger of becoming a right old fart. I’m becoming the kind of adult who annoyed me when I was a kid. The kind that said Madonna wasn’t a decent role model for me “because she had no friends” and didn’t behave in the way women should.

It is the privilege of every generation to think that the music of their youth was so much better than the music of today. But I think I should at least try and engage with what is moving young girls these days and listen without prejudice. Just as the gospel of George Michael instructed us back in the prehistoric times we commonly refer to as the early 1990s.

Getting on the case

So, I decided to conduct my own mini-investigation into the Swift phenomenon. When you need quick knowledge, it’s never a bad idea to go straight to the experts. I knew the daughter of a friend of mine was a committed “Swiftie”, so I asked her to provide me with her personal favourite songs for my critical perusal.

Sure enough, within a day, I received a hand-picked list of 8 songs from across Swift’s entire oeuvre AND an album recommendation. That’s true fandom — when any passing enquiry turns into an opportunity to showcase your beloved idol!

Like a keen and conscientious pupil of my new subject, I pop on my headphones and get right down to business. Determined to keep an open mind. After all, the worst that can happen is that I stay with “meh”…

OK, I think I get this

Several hours later, having completed my listening challenge, I can say: I’m a lot more impressed with Taylor Swift than I was before. But I’m still not sold.

It’s pleasant music by a talented and decent musician that I’d happily let my daughters (if I had any) listen to in their bedrooms and sing along to. I might even be persuaded to go with these fictitious offspring to a concert.

The songs are well crafted, catchy and designed to speak to a large audience about the themes in life of universal appeal: friendship, love, heartbreak, yearning. So basically, it’s good pop music with a country tinge to it (especially the early stuff). The video for “Style” is a slick piece of work: stylish, subtle and aesthetically pleasing.

Now to the most important part of any song for me: the lyrics.

Quite simply, I am obsessed by language. I live and breathe it and spend a lot of my time both professionally and privately exploring ways of using it (why else am I here, writing this?). And when you’ve spent as long as I have getting up close and personal with words, you know more about how far you can push and play around with language until it finally strains and breaks.

Now, Swift is a good songwriter; I’ll give her that. In “Willow” and “August”, she hits some truly poetic home runs that had me deeply impressed (“And I can see us twisted in bedsheets/August sipped away like a bottle of wine/’Cause you were never mine”).

There is an art to creating this sort of music. Swift has mastered it, delivers consistently and has coined a billion-dollar career off the back of it. Good for her.

A gentle lyrical stroll

But I like my music more challenging. If Taylor Swift’s songs are a gentle stroll through the countryside that everyone can easily partake in, I’m still going for the lyrical base jump of Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco.

These are ladies who have spent their lives pushing the limits of what words can do in a song.

The crowds that trek out with them to these wilder moors of musical creativity are much thinner — no packed stadiums here. In fact, their concerts have something of the witch’s coven about them.

Think of Tori Amos hammering furiously away at her piano in “Precious Things”, singing “No one dared /No-one cared to tell me/Where those pretty girls are/Those demi-gods/With their nine-inch nails and little fascist panties/Tucked inside the heart of every nice girl”. It’s thrilling, dangerous stuff — but a girly sleepover with pyjamas, Oreos and chit-chat about boys it is emphatically not.

Difficult music makes you think and go exploring. It raises your pulse and makes you live. That is the mast to which I’ve nailed my musical colours. Unless she takes a seriously different tack in her career, I don’t think that Taylor Swift’s music is ever going to do this for me.

Selling out to commercial victimhood

Another little bone of contention I have with Taylor Swift is the lack of an empowerment message in her material. While not all music intended for the ears of young girls looking out into the world has to be empowering, listening to Swift does make me wonder if women have gone into reverse as far as emancipation is concerned.

Case in point: “The Man”. This seems to be a particular favourite among Swift fans – and their mums who’ve already been out a while in the world of work. Essentially, it’s about the double-standards women face in the world: being harshly judged and criticised for behaviour that men get a pat on the shoulder for.

It’s not that the song doesn’t contain a (giant) grain of truth. It does. I should know: I spent my 20s and early 30s working in a male-dominated industry in a conservative country where traditional gender roles are still firmly entrenched. If I told you that I didn’t get frustrated about the kind of treatment Swift is singing about in “The Man”, I’d be lying. In truth, it drove me crazy. I often came home, frustrated, thinking “f*ck you all”. It was one of many reasons why I threw in the towel in 2015 and became self-employed.

So, the song does put its finger on a sore point that needs tending to. But it still comes over all wrong from a female billionaire at the pinnacle of her career with the world at her feet and clearly calling all the shots.

What it feels like is the kind of opportunistic victimhood that has become far too trendy in the last few years. Speaking out about problems and prejudice has become less about moving society forward and more about grabbing attention (and money) for oneself. By penning “The Man”, Taylor Swift has placed herself at the milder end of a professional victimhood scale which ends with the likes of Meghan Markle and Jusse Smollett.

It’s toxic and unhelpful and I want no part of it.

When it came to empowerment, Madonna did it better

I maintain: Madonna did us millennial ladies a far better service on this front. She never sang about women being judged unfairly or subjected to a double-standard. She didn’t have to. We could all see the blowback she got for doing what she did and pursuing her own goals and artistic vision.

Sure, sometimes she clapped back at her detractors. But crucially: she just kept going. And that’s what Madonna is still doing — out on a world tour aged 65. Clearly looking like someone who’s fought the good fight to stay at the top of her field for four decades. Even if I’ve been rather disapproving of Madonna lately, I can’t help but admire the grit, gumption and sheer endurance she has.

In terms of female empowerment, she was the real deal. She gave us girls a pep talk and showed us how to hold our own before sending us “over the top” into a world we knew wasn’t going to give us an easy ride.

Millennial female stars like P!nk, Lady GaGa and Beyoncé all came from this mould and sang from that hymn sheet: keep doing your thing, keep fighting, focus, don’t whinge.

Our girls need to come out swinging

I don’t like to think that little girls are going out into the world with the negativity and the expectations of “The Man” fixed in their young minds already. They should be coming out swinging, thinking they can do it and believing that they are just as strong and deserving as their male friends. They’ve got to feel that any unfair judgment that happens to them is an outrage and against the laws of nature — not the fulfilment of a prophecy absorbed through their headphones before they even got their period.

If there’s one thing I can tell these young ladies from my own life, it is that retreating into victimhood and whinging about your lot is easy — but you don’t do yourself (or anyone else) any favours with it.

Life’s tough and often unfair. Roll with the punches. If you get tired, learn to fight smarter, not harder. Pick your battles. Keep going.

But what do I know? I’m an old fart.


Related articles:

Fans saying “Madonna looks dreadful” is a sign her mission is accomplished

The vein on my arm and the unconscious need to be “ladylike”

Confessions of an awkward woman

Gen Z slang? I’m here for it!


Photo credit: Peus80 on Envato Elements