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Foto: Rosa Rafael

What makes Taylor Swift so popular (that she can even drive politics and economics)?

Irene Schoenmacker,
4 juli 2024 - 13:46

This weekend Taylor Swift’s sold-out concerts take place at the ArenA. What makes this superstar so beloved and special? UvA scholar Maryn Wilkinson has been researching the singer for years. “Swift is an unprecedented greatness.”

She’s only 34, but Taylor Swift’s influence is unprecedented. Her popularity seems to know no bounds, her concerts are invariably sold out, and her influence on American politics as well as the global economy is astounding.


Thursday, Friday, and Saturday she is at the ArenA with her Eras tour, where fans already start getting in line early in the morning. Camping is not allowed in Amsterdam as it is in other cities. It is also the week of a conference on celebrities at the UvA. University lecturer Maryn Wilkinson, who has followed Taylor Swift since the beginning of her career, is part of a special symposium on Swift.

Tell us. What makes Taylor Swift so hyper-popular right now?

“She, along with Beyoncé, is the star of this generation. Taylor Swift has handled her career very cleverly. She comes from country music, where authenticity is very important: you sing the truth about life from a working-class perspective. Pop music, on the other hand, is more artificial, has synthetic music, and is more commercially oriented. She has navigated this very cleverly. She attracts different generations, millennials as well as Generation X and Z.”


“Swift is a woman and a girl at the same time, which is a deliberately created persona. Her songs, which she writes herself, feel personal because of the subjects and connect very well with the emotional experiences of girls and women.”


How did Swift manage to make the transition from country girl to superstar?

“She does that by proverbially putting on a coat of zaniness, that is, by enveloping herself in a kind of goofiness and clumsiness. In the clip of “Shake It Off,” for example, she tries to participate in all kinds of dance styles and keeps failing, just barely. In other words, the message is that she doesn’t fit the picture, but she tries anyway. That has a recognizability that has universal appeal.”

The Taylor Swift effect

The Eras tour, with which Swift is also at the ArenA this week, set a new record with €1 billion in sales, it was reported in December 2023. No world star has managed that before.


According to The Washington Post, she will keep over $4 billion from the entire tour. The newspaper writes that the tour alone in the U.S. alone provides a $5.7 billion boost. “Enough to give every person in Pennsylvania, where Swift is from, $450,” the newspaper says. “Or to give every American $20.”


The U.K. estimates that Swift's performance will bring in about 1 billion pounds, in tickets, clothing, accommodation, and travel.


It was announced in April that Taylor Swift is now on Forbes’ list of billionaires, albeit at spot 2545, with an estimated wealth of $1.1 billion. In 2023, she was named Times Person of the Year.

So is it all just contrived?

“Remember that Taylor Swift is a multi-million dollar industry. My colleagues and I were just talking about it this week. It’s not hundreds of people who work for her, but probably thousands by now. Taylor Swift, like Beyoncé, is the CEO of her own brand, a brand that is very well controlled. You shouldn’t underestimate these stars. These are top businesswomen who know exactly what they’re doing.”


Former President Donald Trump reportedly fears her. How far does Swift's political influence extend?

“In 2018, Swift had her first political coming-out, a very tentative one, in which she spoke out about the midterm state elections for the senate race in Tennessee. In it, she spoke out against the Republican candidate, who was against women's rights and gay rights - in other words, basic rights and issues that were also personally close to her heart.


Within 24 hours, 65,000 young people had registered to vote. So her impact should not be underestimated. In 2020, she had her picture taken with a bowl of cookies with Biden 2020 on it. But it's all proceeding very carefully. I call it political-light, in addition to being feminist-light.”


“Remember that in country music, originally, it is not appreciated when politics mixes with music. Dolly Parton explicitly doesn’t get involved in politics, and the Chicks, formerly the Dixie Chicks, did so and got canceled. Politics is for the elite, is the thinking, and besides, you can't impose it on anyone because it’s not authentic. In the documentary “Miss Americana,” you can also see that her management warned her not to speak out for fear of losing a lot of fans. That didn’t happen in the end.”

“It’s crazy that Taylor Swift hasn’t spoken out politically for so long”

Has there ever been a superstar with such political clout before?

“Yes, indeed, Taylor Swift is certainly not the first. Think of Jane Fonda, Lady Gaga, or Madonna: all activist stars. It’s crazy that Taylor Swift hasn’t spoken out politically for so long. But the situation is precarious. Beyoncé is cautious about it and very aware of the range within which she can operate. You’ll never see Taylor Swift bash Trump in an interview, either.”


So it’s kind of unprecedented what Swift is doing, right?

“Bill Gates, Elon Musk: these kinds of men with star status have actively interfered in politics before. So your question now suggests more that it's unprecedented for a female pop star, who deliberately presents herself in a girly way, to do this. And that's exactly the fine line I was just talking about. It’s tricky balancing what she should and shouldn’t do. Pop stars and the popular culture that goes with them should be fun, decoration, and something with frills, above all.”


Are you a Swiftie yourself (a fan of Taylor Swift, ed.)? 

“Yes and so is my five-year-old daughter. I know all her songs and am a big fan of what she does, but I’m going to see her live for the first time on Saturday in the ArenA.”


Can you be a fan and research your hero at the same time?

“I do research on popular culture, especially politics and feminism. In other words, I look at the representation of women in popular culture. I’ve been following Swift since 2005 when I first saw her and thought: She’s going to be big. I enjoy researching something that intrigues me. It is precisely within that fascination that I am enormously critical.”


I read a lot about Taylor Swift's influence on the economy with terms like Taylornomics and Swiftflation. How will Taylor Swift's arrival affect Amsterdam?

“Unfortunately I am not an economist, which is why such a symposium is extra fun because you get to meet people from all kinds of fields. But I do know that in England, for example, interest rate cuts were postponed because of the effect her Eras tour had on the economy. The effect is huge. The tour has 50 trucks, for example. It’s a huge invasion in every city where she performs. She is an unprecedented quantity, even bigger than stars like Justin Timberlake, Harry Styles, or even Madonna.”