Is Taylor Swift pop music’s last great troublemaker? Or has it always been the done thing for the Time magazine person of the year to use their illustrious anointing to air old beef?
For the magazine has indeed chosen Swift as the 2023 Time person of the year. The global music phenomenon joins the roll call of presidents, popes, peacemakers and 2022’s pick, the Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Swift is the first to feature for contribution to the arts, and the first woman to be honoured twice (she was part of a group of #MeToo “silence breakers” in 2017).
You start reading the interview, expecting the standard hyper-controlled mega-celeb PR puffery. Then, suddenly, in the vast glossy acreage of words, Swift starts slating Kanye West (now Ye) and his then wife Kim Kardashian for a complicated situation that dates back 14 years (when West gatecrashed Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards, saying her award should have gone to Beyoncé).
For the benefit of the oblivious, years later, Ye released the song Famous, containing lyrics about how he and Swift might end up having sex (“I made that bitch famous”). Swift denied approving (all) the lyrics. Kardashian released a recording indicating she had consented. It later transpired the recording was (allegedly) edited, but not before Swift was denounced as a snake (cue a global infestation of snake emojis on social media).
While the situation sounds appalling, I’m puzzled: why is Swift serving years-old shade to Ye and Kardashian?
Now, with no names mentioned, Swift talks in the Time interview of “career death”, “hiding away”, “getting cancelled within an inch of my life and sanity”, “having my life’s work taken away by someone who hates me”. While the situation sounds appalling, I’m puzzled: why is Swift serving years-old shade to Ye and Kardashian? And, in all of the inappropriate places, her Time person of the year interview? In contrast to the heightened eminence of the occasion, you could be in a nightclub toilet eavesdropping on someone having a bitch. What 21st-century pop culture icon does this?
Her talent aside, is Swift changing what a megastar should be, how they should behave in a public space? And, considering the times, isn’t it rather refreshing?
I’d be terribly old and very late to join the “Swifties” (Swift’s uber-loyal fans, who turn every slight against their self-actualising queen into online Armageddon). Just Swift’s recent triumphs make the head spin. The mega-selling albums. The ongoing Eras tour, for which demand crashed the Ticketmaster site, and which boosted local economies, and is reported to be the first to cross the billion-dollar mark. She has just been announced 2023’s most streamed artist. The list sprawls on.
The upshot is a life spent under constant surveillance. Her relationships (she’s now with American football player, Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce) don’t so much play out under the glare of media scrutiny, as fry, scorch and carbonise there. Every utterance is monitored, tagged and sent back out into the wild to multiply. Swift knows this, but she still refuses to keep her trap shut.
Indeed, this isn’t Swift’s first gobby defiant rodeo. She has taken many stands, including when music manager Scooter Braun acquired the rights to her early material (another complicated situation). Ignoring those of us who shrugged, sighed and patronised (this is how the music industry works, suck it up, sweetie!), Swift rerecorded the lot to wrest back control. Moreover, creatively, an entire wing of Swift’s oeuvre is devoted to barely veiled allusions to her exes: the art of songwriting deployed as a form of witchy sage-burning, post-relationship cleansing ritual – and why not?
In some ways, this goes beyond Swift, and becomes about the wider machinations of modern artist-engagement. The escalating PR interference (“Move on!”; “Next question!”). The no-go areas. The roadblocks put in place to ensure nothing interesting is ever said or (God forbid) printed. In this stifled era of celebrity as a gated community, Swift’s Time interview is equivalent to her throwing a grenade, then walking away whistling.
This time, the PR gatekeepers might have had a point. Considering Ye’s public disgrace (after he made antisemitic and other remarks, companies withdrew collaborations and endorsements), it isn’t the time to blow the dust off an ancient spat, and thus re-entwine your brands. One might also question the optics of weaving a story of great personal suffering as you become Time person of the year and continue your billion-dollar tour.
It does a soul good to see this streak in someone so famous. The unstoppable mouth, the mob-level demand for vengeance
In fact, some might view Swift’s behaviour as brattish, petty, a hurling of toys out of the pram, a sign that, in some ways, she has (gasp!) morphed into a bit of a monster. To which the only logical response is: even if she has, in a weird way, it’s kind of great, isn’t it?
Beyond journalism, it does a soul good to see this streak in someone so famous. The unstoppable mouth, the mob-level demand for vengeance. The refusal to drop the beef. Even if you did feel inclined to frame Swift as some sort of Catherine de Medici of pop (the female revenge fantasy made flesh, that can’t be placated), in this climate of cringing, self-censoring, mealy mouthed celebrity bland-outs, it feels like a radical, revolutionary act.
Then there is the age factor. Most pop-hotheads/motormouths grow out of it. At 33, Swift should have “learned”. She should be at her self-censoring, brand-protective zenith. Instead, recent events suggest her outbursts were not the excesses of youth. For good, ill, and everything in-between, this is how La Swift rolls; it’s who she is.
All of which makes Taylor a lot more interesting for this newly minted Swiftie. Even more than a mega-successful performer, pop-culture comet, and Time person of the year 2023, she’s been her authentic self all along. Isn’t this all we ask of artists?
• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist