Terry Wyatt/Getty Images; Amy Sussman/Getty Images; Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images; Pablo Arellano Spataro/HBO; Photo Illustration by Kaz Fantone
If you’re a Taylor Swift fan, this was a pretty big week. After more than 15 years as a name in the music industry, Swift has dropped her 10th studio album, Midnights. For all her longevity, it seems that Swift is as big as ever. What is it about her and her music that’s so enduring? Host Brittany Luse sat sat down with an avid Swiftie and Rolling Stone writer, Brittany Spanos, who teaches a college course on Swift. They talk about the artist’s evolution and how she’s navigated the music industry through the years.
You can listen to the full episode – which also features scenes from this year’s Bravocon and an interview with Los Espookys creator Julio Torres – at the top of the page, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
Taylor Swift’s multigenerational appeal
Brittany Spanos: It’s one thing to release albums that still get critical acclaim and still keep your fans happy, that keep you creatively happy. And that’s because she’s a songwriting nerd. She’s a very good songwriter.
But I also think she’s really attuned to the industry in a way that sometimes makes people distrust her. I think she cares about doing well and she cares about the changes in the industry. She’s very in touch with social media. She’s an artist who kind of has come up through every possible social media platform you can. She grew her fan base on MySpace. She was using Tumblr way past its prime. Twitter. She’s now on TikTok, commenting on people’s videos. So she uses all these things in a way that allows her fans to feel like they can really, really connect with her. And that’s kept her really relevant. Like I have a 10-year-old sister who is a big fan of hers.
Brittany Luse: You’re teaching a college class about Taylor Swift. I imagine a lot of your students are Gen Z. What’s the Gen Z read on Taylor Swift? Did they have opinions about her before they came to your class?
Spanos: Yeah. It was an interesting mix of students for that class… You can either look at her as extremely cringe and her music is kind of corny, or you can be like, “I relate to this a lot and this is like this speaks to my soul.” But I think they didn’t really understand the cultural history, the sociopolitical and cultural elements that have molded Taylor as a millennial woman because they grew up after that.
Luse: Yeah, I was going to say, how much did you have to explain about the era that produced Taylor Swift so they could see her in proper context?
Spanos: A lot. One was feminism in pop music. They did not realize that artists did not publicly claim feminism in pop music for a long time. Beyoncé doing the VMA performance, I think, was the biggest turning point.
Luse: Where she did that whole medley and she had “feminist” like emblazoned out on the stage behind her.
Spanos: That was a huge turning point in pop music. Taylor, of course, came out of that. And the other was Kanye [West]. They had no context for Kanye, really. They didn’t have that heartbreak of losing Kanye because Kanye’s been the way he is today for the entirety of their development.
The whiteness of Taylor Swift
Luse: I want to go back to Taylor’s positioning as a white woman. Because she puts herself in her work, her privilege, her experiences and her biases show in her approach. Especially in music videos. Like the way she would make brunettes the villains, in the “White Horse” video, or “You Belong with Me.” In the “Wildest Dreams” video, she finally makes the brunette the hero. But then she’s romanticizing colonial-era Africa. I want to know what your take is. And again, as a fan, how do you navigate it when she does things like that?
Spanos: I think it’s hard because she does come from country music. She was on a country label for so long she only had people behind her who were from the country music scene. And the country music scene is historically just geared towards white audiences. There’s only a handful of artists of color who have broken through and in that scene. That sort of amplifies the whiteness of Taylor a lot.
I also don’t think anyone who became famous really young is really smart when it comes to political dynamics in that way. I think that you’re sort of blinded very early by a lot of privilege, especially when you’re a white artist. So I don’t think she even realized how much of a representative of, like, white culture she had become until 2016, until Nazis and white supremacists absorbed her because she was so absent. And because she had not said anything, it was easy for them to just be like, well, she must be on our side. So I don’t think she realized that until later because she stopped having those 4th of July parties. She started really speaking out more. I think she just thought she was doing her little storytelling. Like, I don’t think she genuinely knew that that’s what was happening.
Stuck in time, or timeless?
Luse: There’s this saying that celebrities are frozen at the age they get famous. And that’s kind of what happened for for her. I see this in Taylor Swift’s styling. A lot of what she wears and how she presents herself fits perfectly into 2000 mainstream style. All of that is fine. Now, she’s one of the most successful pop artists of all time and has access to world-class stylists. It feels to me like she’s resistant to looking contemporary, or too fashionable. And I think you can actually see a similar effect across the subjects of her music. A lot of the lyrical content of her two most recent albums were a lot of throwback references that felt very like ’40s, ’50s, ’60s Americana. I wonder if in an attempt to achieve timelessness, that Taylor Swift, in a way, is stuck in time. I mean, that’s my read. How does that track for you?
Spanos: So she separates her songs into three categories, which is like the nerdiest thing you could do. She has the glitter gel pen songs, quill pen songs and the fountain pen songs. Quill pen songs are like the period piece songs. Like she loves old movies, like period piece type of novels. She loves kind of all that stuff. And a lot of folklore and evermore have songs that are based in a different time. You know, “The Last Great American Dynasty” is about the history of the house that she lives in and in Rhode Island. She has like the glitter gel pen songs which are like the, you know, like “ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down” and the Reputation songs that are very over-the-top pop songs.
She has the fountain pen songs that are kind of like the more modern songs like “All Too Well,” where it’s like stuck in a specific moment. You know, I think that is always going to stand the test of time, is like to be able to craft a really good song. With the styling part of it, I just don’t think she’s ever cared too much.
Luse: But she has she has co-chaired the Met Gala, which I know is kind of like a celebrity event. But still, that’s quite an association to have.
Spanos: That’s an association for sure. that was 2016. That was a moment when she was sort of doing her most experimentation with like high fashion and doing a lot more events than she had ever done. 1989 was about Taylor doing all the things that would make her a pop star in that sphere. And so doing something at the Met gala made sense. I feel like she’s stepped back from that. She’s never seemed to care too much about doing a lot of high fashion stuff. So it’s hard to sort of see that as like her just kind of being stuck in time with that.
She’s always been really fascinated by the way that teen girls’ minds kind of develop these fantasies and develop relationships. She’s still unpacking that, what it meant to become famous at a young age. I think every artist is still dealing with that. We see Britney Spears talk about that on Instagram every day still. And I think that’s the same thing for Taylor.
Luse: When I thought about timeless pop music, I thought immediately of Dolly Parton and Mariah Carey. Those are two people who are very much of their respective times. Dolly Parton’s appearance was the butt of many jokes. Mariah Carey’s appearance was the butt of many jokes. I mean, I love both of them, so they weren’t they weren’t jokes for me! But especially with Mariah Carey’s resurgence of the past couple of years – she got [into] the Songwriting Hall of Fame, she released her memoirs. And I think people are taking her seriously in a way that for a while they didn’t. I wonder if a part of timelessness is for a period seeming stuck in time, if there’s a lull where people almost see you as a joke. And then when you’re still doing it in 10 to 15 years, you’re iconic.
Spanos: Yeah, I mean, every pop star sort of has that one image that is that enduring part of them. If you were to do a police sketch of Dolly Parton, we would all say the same things. It would all look the same. You know, she’s changed over the years. But there is like a basic structure to it, right? That’s what makes an iconic artist iconic. The people who don’t last the test of time you can’t do that with.
This episode of ‘It’s Been a Minute’ was produced by Barton Girdwood, Jessica Mendoza, Liam McBain, Janet Woojeong Lee and Jamila Huxtable. It was edited by Jessica Placzek. Our executive producer is Veralyn Williams, our VP of Programming is Yolanda Sangweni and our Senior VP of Programming is Anya Grundmann. You can follow us on Twitter @npritsbeenamin and email us at email@example.com.