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FT editor Roula Khalaf picks her favorite stories in this week's newsletter.
On a rainy November afternoon two years ago, a line of flamboyantly dressed people wrapped around several city blocks on Manhattan's Upper West Side. There were sequined blazers, pink tutus, cottage cardigans and people dressed head to toe in red, holding bouquets of red roses. When passers-by asked what they were waiting for, they objected: they were bound by secrecy.
They entered an AMC movie theater where they were handed “All Too Well” handkerchiefs. After an hour of waiting, Haim's sister appeared and then Taylor Swift in a purple velvet suit striding down the sticky movie theater aisle like it was a red carpet. People started sobbing. Swift told the 400 fans they had been chosen to hear her perform “All Too Well,” perhaps her most popular song, in full for the first time. “These things have always been between you and me,” she said.
Such is the lore of the Taylor Swift universe. By then she was already a famous pop star – loved by legions of fans, mostly girls and women. But in the two years since, Swift, now 34, has unlocked a new level of fame. The number of “likes” of streams and Instagram increased fivefold. Next week, he's on pace to tie Elvis Presley for the second-most weeks in possession of America's best-selling album. From there he only follows The Beatles.
For Taylor Swift, 2023 was one of the biggest years for any artist in music history. Earning about $2 billion, her sheer dominance has been compared by the industry magazine Billboard to the “fab four” in 1965 or Michael Jackson in 1983. At a time when record executives worry about how hard it is to keep listeners' attention, Swift to she existed on her own planet. The Federal Reserve noted that her tour boosted the economy through hotel bookings, with cities such as Chicago and Minneapolis breaking records for the number of rooms occupied during her visits. One line at the end of the song — about making friendship bracelets — boosted sales at craft stores across the US. Several universities, including Harvard, have created classes about her. In Argentina, fans queued for a spin for five months to get as close to the stage as possible for a Swift concert.
For nearly two decades, Swift's life has been extensively dissected. It narrates each phase, each wrapped into an album with its own sound and aesthetic. Some basic facts: Taylor Alison Swift was born on December 13, 1989 in suburban Pennsylvania where her family owned a Christmas tree farm. Her parents, who worked in finance and advertising, named her after the musician James Taylor, preferring a gender-neutral name so that future employers would not discriminate against her. Swift says her mother, who has suffered recurring bouts of cancer in recent years, is her “favorite person.”
After years of begging from young Taylor, Swift's family moved to Nashville when she was 13; here she signed a songwriting contract with Sony. She soon displayed the defiance and ambition that defined her career. Following the success of her 2008 album Fearless, some critics questioned whether she wrote her own lyrics. She wrote her next album, Speak nowalone, without co-writers.
That defiance was reared on its head again a decade later when her music catalog was sold to one of her enemies, Scooter Braun, in a deal financed by private equity groups. Swift condemned the business as: “very powerful men using $300 million of other people's money to buy, like, the most feminine work”. She spent the last few years painstakingly recording duplicates of her first six albums.
As an artist, Swift bridges the sensitive songwriter with the celebrity playwright. Suddenly, she's a mega-star billionaire who can be thrown into a private jet at any moment; and a writer who likes to spend time painting “lonely houses on the hill”. Swift has a millennial fixation on success. She is a chronic thinker. “I still regret a lot of things,” she said he said in 2019. “It's like a daily ritual”.
Before the pandemic, music executives began whispering that Swift was past her prime. Instead, the isolation provided a massive boost to her career: she couldn't stop writing songs and released two surprise albums in 2020. This music was a departure from her more pop hits – softer, more lyrical. In Swift's words, it was a way to escape the reality of 2020, into a fantasy land of “tall trees” and “lacy nightgowns that will make you look like a Victorian ghost.”
She has since entered supercharged pop-star mode, releasing seven albums in the past three years. In an industry dominated by men in leadership positions, Swift's power surpassed them all. In 2019, she said: “I'm sick and tired of pretending I'm not running my own business. . . it's a different part of my brain than the one I use to write”.
Even when Swift isn't working, it's working. On days off from touring, she is often photographed walking into a recording studio or one of New York's bougie Italian restaurants surrounded by a gaggle of famous friends. Writer Anne Helen Petersen summarized these trips: “Taylor's he doesn't make an album, he makes gossip”.
No one is more aware of her own expiration date than Swift. It's motivation to keep showing up. She told us as much in one of her pandemic songs called “Mirrorball”: “All I do is try, try, try. I'm still on the trapeze, I'm still trying everything to keep you looking at me.”