Thirty-three is the age our drive and ambition peaks, a recent study claimed. And if Taylor Swift is anything to go by, that’s pretty accurate.
Bang on schedule at the age of 33, the US pop star has been named Time’s Person of the Year. Even as she was pitted against other big names – King Charles and Barbie to name a few – this year’s Time announcement felt like one of the easiest ones to call. Almost 20 years since she moved with her family to Nashville to pursue a career in music, Swift has built an empire that Forbes Magazine recently valued at around $1bn, at the same time as she’s earned her peers’ respect as one of the most talented artists of her generation.
“I don’t give Taylor advice about being famous,” Stevie Nicks told Time in an accompanying profile feature on Swift. “She doesn’t need it.”
Arguably no one understands the perilous highs and treacherous lows of the music business as much as the “Anti-Hero” singer. As the main character in her own story, she’s also been cast as the villain on several occasions, most memorably in 2016 when she suffered the fall-out from her infamous feud with Kanye West and his then-wife, Kim Kardashian.
Riding high in her self-described “imperial phase”, off the back of the success of 2014’s pop breakthrough 1989, she became the subject of vulgar lyrics in West’s song “Famous”, then mass controversy when she denied approving them for release. Kardashian leaked a brief snippet that appeared to show Swift getting on board, then all hell broke loose. Has any pop star at her level suffered a similar fall?
“Make no mistake,” Swift told Time, “my career was taken away from me. I’ve been raised up and down the flagpole of public opinion so many times in the last 20 years. I’ve been given a tiara, then had it taken away.”
In its place, though, she put a crown of her own making. She wore it proudly for her 2017 “comeback” album, the critically polarising reputation, a dark R&B and electronic-influenced record that saw her fling everything back at her detractors. It was on this album that she owned her apparent villainy, facing down her ego in the surface of a cracked mirror.
“I did something bad,” she crowed on a single of the same name, “then why does it feel so good?” On another track she declared, “Look what you made me do” — the deliciously camp lead single was titled the same, and interpolated Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy”. In that trilling falsetto she pledged to learn from placing her trust in the wrong people.
But there were stark moments of vulnerability, too. Caught up in the cautious bliss of a new relationship on “Call It What You Want”, she reflected on how her “castle crumbled overnight” because “she brought a knife to a gunfight”. Over stuttery trap beats she relished a newfound secrecy in her life, away from the glare of the paparazzi, the social media sniping, the media’s hot takes.
And despite fearing the backlash to the album would define her for the rest of her life, she was — for once — going to trust in her own instincts. Tired of being made to second-guess her creative decisions, she got out of her record deal with label boss Scott Borchetta, who signed her to Big Machine Records when she was a teenager.
Swift has been busy breaking records on her international, sell-out Eras Tour, but she revealed in her Time interview that she first began thinking about those artistic transitions back in 2009. “I realised every record label was actively working to try to replace me,” she said. “I thought instead, I’d replace myself first with a new me. It’s harder to hit a moving target.”
It meant dipping into all of her past incarnations at once: she was the lovestruck teen on her self-titled debut, then the fairytale princess on Fearless. Speak Now, which she wrote completely solo (aged 20) to prove the doubters wrong, included songwriting that stands up even to her most recent masterpieces, while Red was filled with the rage and passion of a young woman scorned. Each album has come with a new image, a new narrative. And now she’s back at the summit, revelling in what she calls “the breakthrough moment” of her career: “And for the first time in my life, I was mentally tough enough to take what comes with that.”
Clearly, she’s tough enough to put in the work to keep getting better. In the same Time interview, she revealed that on show days she would run on the treadmill and sing the entire setlist out loud. She took dance training because she recognised that it wasn’t her strongest skill. That sense of fortitude has brought her out of hiding, too – whether for dinners with friends, or date nights with her new boyfriend, Kansas City Chiefs tight-end Travis Kelce. She’s earnt her success – now she’s having fun with it.
Swift has also dismantled the music industry’s misogynist assertion that there’s only room for one woman at the top, most recently by supporting Beyoncé at the London premiere of her new Renaissance concert film. When Beyoncé – whose own fans had frequently pitted them against one another, something echoed in Swift's fanbase too – earlier turned up to Swift’s Eras movie premiere, she also wrote a moving statement about how the Lemonade artist had influenced her own approach to building an empire. As Swift, Beyoncé and the female-led Barbie movie have come to dominate not just pop culture, but business and the economy as well, something palpable has shifted.
“What fuels a patriarchal society?” Swift asked Time. “Money, flow of revenue, the economy. So actually, if we’re going to look at this in the most cynical way possible, feminine ideas becoming lucrative means that more female art will get made. It’s extremely heartening.” Wherever she goes next, Swift’s phenomenal legacy – as a songwriter, artist, businesswoman, influencer – is indisputable.