Joke all you want, but the songs hit hard
Taylor Swift’s The Eras Tour is trending toward an opening weekend gross of over $100 million, which would immediately make it the highest grossing concert film of all time. It’s not a surprise when you look at the success of the tour it’s based on, which sold the most tickets ever for an artist in a single day and is projected to earn $2 billion by this month. The show’s set list spans the many “eras” of the 33-year-old Swift’s career, with room for hits like “You Belong With Me,” “Bad Blood,” and “Anti-Hero.”
While Swift’s songwriting and genre curveballs have defined the many eras of her still-early career, so has public fascination with her non-artistic life. In particular, Swift’s romantic history has grown to mythological proportions, her reported relationship with NFL player Travis Kelce making as many headlines as the The Eras Tour box-office records. Photos and videos of Swift attending Kansas City Chiefs games went viral, as so many paparazzi photos of the musician and her current flames have in the past.
The joke is that Swift will inevitably write a song about Kelce once they break up, part of a recurring punchline that has followed Swift for over a decade now. Just searching for “Taylor Swift break up song” on Twitter unleashes a barrage of mockery in anticipation of it. A cursory online search shows people already using ChatGPT to “find out” what one would sound like.
But what might be mockery to some is a reason for adoration to others. That openness about relationships and their (extremely) likely problems? For Swifties, that’s the draw.
Objectively, Swift has written a ton about break-ups. In “Tim McGraw,” the first song on her self-titled debut album, her in-song character hopes that a high school boyfriend remembers her every time they hear a song by the country artist. The track was apparently inspired by real-life events. Raw, autobiographical songwriting is not a new thing, for Swift or any artist. There are few more prominent sources for the emotion of modern art than getting dumped. But Swift’s popularity has turned her into the patron saint of rejection, to the extent that every hit song inspires detective work from her fans in order to dissect just who the lyrics are about.
“Last Kiss”? Reportedly inspired by her late-aughts love for Joe Jonas. “Back To December”? Twilight series star Taylor Lautner. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”? Her paparazzi-filled time with Jake Gyllenhaal. “I Knew You Were Trouble”? Her Gyllenhaal again, or possibly John Mayer. Even Kanye West, who didn’t date Swift and simply publicly feuded with her for a while, apparently got the treatment in “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” The list goes on.
As such, Swift’s career has become Rear Window for people that like celebrity gossip, despite her typically remaining publicly vague on whoever she’s supposedly throwing under the bus in her songs. It’s certainly treated that way by those who laugh about her array of romances. New significant other? They’re going to eventually hear a verse or two about how they messed up. And as Swift enters her mid-30s, a time when society nudges most people toward the idea of “settling down” if they haven’t already, the joke gets a little more mean. It’s a woman on a cycle of bad dates, a reputation that Swift has spoken about numerous times, ranging back to tracks like “Shake It Off”: “Got nothing in my brain… I go on too many dates/But I can’t make ‘em stay/That’s what people say.”
Her detractors may wonder why Swift hasn’t gotten married or found “the one” yet, but consider the numbers: 19% of women between 30 and 49 are single (32% are single between 18 and 29). And according to a 2011 study, unmarried people between the ages of 18 and 35 had a 36.5% chance of breaking up over a 20-month period. Her songs about ongoing romantic quests the hard truths of finding love hew get closer to reality than most traditional media.
Even if you’re not calling it quits, most relationships will have at least some brand of problems along the way, problems that get magnified when you’re in the public eye like Swift is on a constant basis. Swift’s ability to croon about them, through a high school lens in her first album Taylor Swift, all the way to her most recent record Midnights — in which she daydreams about a past relationship in “Maroon,” wonders about her own romantic choices in “Midnight Rain,” and mentions unrequited love in “You’re On Your Own, Kid” — is one of the reasons why Swift’s audience remains so huge. Just as one makes art about failed romance, there’s something intensely freeing about Swift’s mix of country-infused guitar ballads and brash pop epics about how much it sucks to be left stranded or be unsure about your relationship.
For Swift fans, the appeal doesn’t really lie in the break-ups (Though there are few better sensations than shouting a song at the top of your lungs when you’ve got the blues because it nails exactly how you’ve been feeling). Rather, it’s all an ode to the general messiness of relationships, something Swift has turned into perhaps her finest art. For those that have stuck with her since the beginning, back when she was promoting through MySpace and held up as the future of country music, all the way until now, as she snaps photo ops with Beyoncé at her film’s red carpet premiere, her consistency in admitting that relationships can be hard is far more important than mean-spirited allegations that she flirts too much.
The reviews for Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour are glowing, with a focus on how great concert films celebrate artists and are the next-best thing after the real-life tours. And why wouldn’t they be? Swift has proven herself to be the Break-Up Whisperer for multiple generations of her fans, and has channeled her music to reflect something that most people are bound to run into. In “Anti-Hero,” Swift sings “I have this thing where I get older, but just never wiser.” That’s poignant; the chaos of connection means that we’re all likely to run into things that confound and embrace us in equal measure. If Swift can remain a voice for dealing with that, Swifties wouldn’t have her music any other way.