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Dispatches from the present


Anti-Hero Worship


Can we even call Taylor Swift a pop star anymore? She certainly was one in 2011, when I saw her perform Speak Now and touched her hand, which was cold as ice. Since then, her status has more come to resemble that of an evergreen cult leader. Criticisms of various sizes recoil off her exterior, long hardened from years in the limelight; her thighs are somehow increasingly luminous with age.

As the events of the last couple weeks indicate, though, the world is more unequipped than ever for the magnitude of her influence. The Eras Tour’s presale fiasco appears to have been the starting move in a Rube Goldberg machine, activating a series of increasingly staggering events: first tweets by politicians across party lines condemning Ticketmaster’s monopoly, then public disclosure of an investigation from the DOJ, and now a forthcoming Congressional hearing.

Why the surge of millions of fans onto Ticketmaster’s website at once? Although a Swiftie myself, I confess I too am not sure why this massive cohort of people, mostly women and girls, half millennials, across nationalities and walks of life, flocked to watch Taylor retrace her sixteen-year discography: Is it the relief of getting to hear “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” in real time? To relive their emotionally saturated teenage years? To reunite in person with Taylor after three album-filled years of her being off tour? To catch her and Phoebe Bridgers in one smooth sitting?

My friends who tried—and largely failed—to get tickets say they wanted to be there, physically, with her. They wanted to experience the feeling of communal release and overcoming that is the core of Taylor’s brand. She has always sold easy catharsis—through confession, comeuppance, having the last say in a conflict. Her music is a bandage for the more predictable plight that typically comes with being a (probably straight) woman, but really anyone who has ever been vulnerably in love. There is no easier, more widely accessible creed today than Swiftism—but what happens when the culminating event of your faith comes at a steep, or impossible, cost?

I didn’t try for Eras because I knew the odds were low and because I don’t love massive concerts; streaming Midnights repeatedly and pirating Bleachers’ version of “Anti-Hero” (a masterpiece) before it dropped on Spotify well sufficed for me. (I also believe that, like her old albums, her old vocals were better too.) So after signing up for the presale lottery I sent my verified fan code to my friend’s sisters, who tried for three days straight and didn’t get anything.

Platforms of such scale exhaust our resources and exhaust us. One writer suggested that, to curb the Ticketmaster craze, Taylor should publicly stream the Eras Tour: a nice idea but, as we all know, the aura intrinsic to live performance is a nonnegotiable part of its appeal. A UChicago economics professor offered the less concessive solution of “paperless ticketing,” which is essentially like selling plane tickets: attaching an (ideally) reasonable price and a name to each purchase and barring the option for resale, hence staving off scalpers. While a great proposal whose implementation is long overdue, this does still leave hordes of desiring fans without tickets; as Ticketmaster wrote in a statement, to meet the demand Eras received “Taylor would need to perform over 900 stadium shows (almost 20x the number of shows she is doing)…that’s a stadium show every single night for the next 2.5 years.”

It’s a kind of tragedy of the commons: the more fans pursue Taylor Swift’s live performances, the more unpleasant and costly the experience of obtaining access to them has become for everyone. Perhaps the world is not equipped for Taylor’s stardom, and she should scale down for the betterment of society. Would we all be better letting go and moving on? If being a Swiftie remains worth it, I’ll wager that the Eras Tour, at least, isn’t.

At the same time, it seems that the more Swifties coalesce, the more fun we have baffling everyone else. Fans and mere onlookers alike, we’re all circling around this unanswerable thing: Why is Taylor Swift, of all the talented musicians and songwriters in the world, still so popular? With each new release of hers I feel ready to finally move on, to grant myself breathing room from my own relentless and grossly uncritical embrace of every slate of her reflective, lovelorn songs. But often, lately, I am held back by a moment: a dear friend swaying to the music, another nodding to Taylor’s unassuming words, a third visibly unfastening at the sound of her velvety, familiar voice, and I start to get it. You don’t need to think too much with Taylor; you just need to listen, and odds are you’ll become enchanted.

So, ticketless Swifties: seek solace among yourselves, for the steely-eyed megastar herself will only increasingly become ever beyond your reach. Luckily, the best part of being a Swiftie is not hearing her voice live or snagging the best view of the stage; it is discussing, contemplating, loving, critiquing, singing and dancing to Taylor Swift with one another.

“What if I told you none of it was accidental … I laid the groundwork and then, just like clockwork / The dominoes cascaded in a line,” sings Taylor on “Mastermind,” a track from the new album. The eruptions on Ticketmaster might be read as such a cascade, as a sign: to let what has happened happen, to admit defeat on one stage and to move away toward something else more manageable. Still, a friend says she knows she will get her hands on tickets, even if she doesn’t yet know how. I hope for her sake it works out.