It wasn’t so long ago that Taylor Swift was, by all accounts, taboo. She used to be the hush-hush scandal of girlhood, the shameful secret nestled in shoeboxes under beds. If someone asked if you were a “Swiftie,” you’d start sounding a bit like a nervous politician, “No! Not me! I did not have Spotify relations with that woman!”
Then, Taylor Swift became the poster child of being girly, and feeling good about it. Her music—the Red-blooded pop, not the sweet, “Love Story” strumming—became the soundtrack of a certain brand of 2010s female solidarity. “Yes, I listen to Taylor Swift, because I love being girly! And pink! And romance!” Suddenly, liking Taylor Swift was feminist, and disliking her was a depressing signal that you were stuck in the old ways of feminine self-loathing. She was untouchable, almost a Messiah, immune to the common pitfalls of trashy celebrity life.
It seemed that the myth of Taylor Swift had cooled and solidified for good. Sure, she was a talented musician with a knack for good business decisions, but that was all beside the point. Taylor Swift had effectively become a litmus test for the state of America’s girls. All the perennial debates surrounding her, questions of whether love songs were outdated or empowering, or whether conventional femininity was burdensome or uplifting, were symptoms of the confused, fractured realm of the American girl. Do I need pink? Do I need men? No one could figure out Taylor Swift, because no one could figure out where girliness fit in, and where it fell out.
Then, something weird happened. A wave of cultural amnesia seemed to roll over America, washing away the fraught myth of Taylor Swift and making her, well—cool. She was no longer just the lovesick girl from Nashville, the princess of #girlpower, or even the Madonna of millennial women. She was no longer just one thing. She remained a decidedly female phenomenon, but no one seemed to overthink it. Liking Taylor Swift was neither a sign of weakness nor a sign of enlightenment. It was just something people did.
This amnesia, of course, was backlit by Swift’s year-long “Eras Tour.” The tour is an undertaking of such unimaginable dimensions that even mainstream news outlets regularly report the numbers, as if it were a matter of military spending or budget cuts. “Tonight on the evening news…Taylor Swift has made $300 million…146 shows…5 continents…” She’s doing six shows in Singapore alone. For a marathon stretch of three hours, she takes the stage in front of crowds decked out in feather boas and glitzy cowboy boots, most of whom had forked over at least $150 to get in on the action. Fans drive off swearing it was the best show of their life.
Taylor Swift looks so grown-up when she performs, so beyond any allegations of vapid girliness. It’s clear that her appearance is carefully negotiated; she is, of course–-perfectly slim and perfectly blonde—the zenith of a timely beauty that is neither affronting nor easy to miss. But she’s come back with muscle and age, with a womanliness that hides no secrets. She’s 33 now, shredded, and the big boss around these parts. She re-released her music with a razor-edge apostrophe, tagging them “Taylor’s Version.” She bought the rights to her brand. She gives out bonuses if she pleases, $100,000 to every truck driver on tour, and she handles the lights, the logistics, the money, a kind of P.T. Barnum turned Girl Boss. It does nothing to compromise a sense of orthodox femininity that is kept very carefully intact. Swift’s womanhood is self-ownership.
And this newfound womanhood is more of the predestination variety than anything else—to claim that it’s a facade or a scheme is downright conspiratorial. Musicians go mad over trying to change with the times, but Taylor Swift simply had to grow up. Her fans are getting MBAs and flaunting high heels in the office. Why can’t she? Girliness is gone, left in the 2000s. Womanhood is here. Her womanhood is chic, slick, and gloriously nonchalant—Darwinian in the sense that it’s perfectly evolved, and readily overlooked. She’ll take care of it. She’ll make it happen.
Things are looking good for the fringe-cut Phoenix. It’s not astounding that she proved everyone wrong, but it’s astounding that she proved everyone wrong, and that no one seems to remember or care enough to say anything. Maybe, we all know that it doesn’t really matter. That the noise of Taylor Swift’s career—whether she’s this or that, a cultural arbiter or a fleeting starlet, a white-washed feminist or the new voice of women—has been demoted to radio static, probably for good this time. Fretting over details seems so useless that even misogynists have grown weary.
The other day when Taylor Swift performed in Seattle, her three-hour concert triggered seismic activity across the Puget Sound. She probably kept performing. If she’s amassed enough fans to rattle the lithosphere, no amount of squabbling will undermine her celebrity. Taylor Swift is on top of the world.