There’s So Little To Say About Taylor Swift Being Person Of The Year
9:18 AM EST on December 7, 2023
This week, Time announced Taylor Swift as its 2023 Person of the Year. What this means for Time is that they can plaster the face of the most famous woman in the world on their cover in the hopes that her image will sell magazine copies. What this means for readers is that finally, for the first time in years, we get to read Swift's answers to some questions put to her by a journalist. What this means for Swift is that she gets to once again demonstrate her power.
Taylor Swift spent all of her early career doing plenty of traditional press. She was profiled for magazines. She went on morning television shows. She met with reporters before going on stage. Since Reputation, however, she's done almost no traditional press. So for Sam Lansky at Time to get access, to be able to do something as simple as sit down with her in her living room and ask her questions, is a rare moment.
I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about Taylor Swift. I have seen every one of her tours. I have been both a listener of her music and a critic of it. I have read, over the course of the last 15 years, as we have both aged from teenagers to women in their early 30s, almost every interview she has done. I have written essays about what her songs mean (to me and broadly). I have texted my friends conspiracy theories about her album release drops, and her plans. I am not unbiased here, nor am I uneducated, when I say that there is so little to say about this interview.
Swift just ... doesn't say much. She is clearly well-coached, and clearly thoughtful about the things she wants to talk about, but her power has reached a level now where she doesn't have to say anything at all in exchange for whatever cultural cachet Time has left to give. In this case of this Time interview, Swift didn't even need to exercise her power skillfully. Take this passage, for example:
Here, Swift has told me a story about redemption, about rising and falling only to rise again—a hero’s journey. I do not say to her, in our conversation, that it did not always look that way from the outside—that, for example, when Reputation’s lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” reached No. 1 on the charts, or when the album sold 1.3 million albums in the first week, second only to 1989, she did not look like someone whose career had died. She looked like a superstar who was mining her personal experience as successfully as ever. I am tempted to say this.
But then I think, Who am I to challenge it, if that’s how she felt? The point is: she felt canceled. She felt as if her career had been taken from her. Something in her had been lost, and she was grieving it. Maybe this is the real Taylor Swift effect: That she gives people, many of them women, particularly girls, who have been conditioned to accept dismissal, gaslighting, and mistreatment from a society that treats their emotions as inconsequential, permission to believe that their interior lives matter. That for your heart to break, whether it’s from being kicked off a tour or by the memory of a scarf still sitting in a drawer somewhere or because somebody else controls your life’s work, is a valid wound, and no, you’re not crazy for being upset about it, or for wanting your story to be told.
Something interesting is happening with pop stars right now, that I have not quite figured out how to articulate. Maybe in the future, I will be able to hold it more firmly within my hands. But they have become so good at telling their own personal narratives, and at speaking candidly about the difficulties and trials of fame (which do seem real), that they become completely cocooned from reality. The way that we experience the world, after all, is not necessarily the truth of it. That isn't to say that experiences don't matter, but they aren't the only thing that matters. Lansky is ostensibly a journalist, someone equipped to challenge a star like Swift's personal narrative; here he is happy to not only let it persist, but participate in its reinforcement. There are small things he could have pushed her on, like her calling Reputation "a goth punk moment" when it is not even pop-punk sonically. But there are bigger things, too.
Take this subtle line from Lansky's retelling of their conversation:
"She didn’t realize [the success of 1989] would also give her much farther to fall. Public sentiment turned—sniping about everything from her perceived overexposure to conspiracy theories about her politics. “I had all the hyenas climb on and take their shots,” she says."
Something else (besides haters) happened between 1989 and Reputation: the 2016 presidential election, during which Swift remained completely silent on political matters. The thing about silence is that it grants room for speculation. "Conspiracy theories about her politics" existed because she did not say a word publicly about one of the biggest elections in American history (and certainly of her adulthood). She has since begun to make some political statements, but that does not mean that people were "hyenas" for wondering where her head was at back then.
I'm not trying to rag on Lansky specifically. This kind of deference has defined celebrity profiles for more than a decade. This, however, is bad for everyone. It makes the profiles boring, dull, and lifeless. It's ultimately bad for the celebrities, too. Sure, it may rid them of the danger of saying the wrong thing and getting in trouble for it, but it also denies them the right to be treated like an actual person; it denies them the ability to answer questions they might want to answer, but have not considered.
Ultimately, celebrities don't need traditional media anymore. They can post all on their own. A star of Swift's caliber can expect that major newspapers and magazines will cover her every move whether she gives an interview or not. Perhaps, then, there is something interesting to be taken from this interview. Maybe this is Swift's way of demonstrating just how far her power extends. When she fills an issue of Time with the kind of millennial-inflected nonsense that would make your eyes roll out of your head if you saw it on a friend's Instagram page, she's showing us just how easy it is for her to turn traditional media into just another place for her to post.