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The night Taylor Swift conquered Europe The all-American Venus is keeping mass culture alive

'Out of the many, one.' Julien de Rosa/AFP/ Getty Images

'Out of the many, one.' Julien de Rosa/AFP/ Getty Images


May 10, 2024   5 mins

I’m just off the train at Nanterre, a suburb west of Paris, and walking down a pedestrianised avenue to Paris La Defense Arena, a hulking, 40,000-capacity quadrilateral that’s the largest indoor arena in Europe. “Welcome to New York”, sings one of the most recognisable voices of the 21st century from the speakers lining the road. The dissonance is fitting. If Taylor Swift can rearrange politics, geopolitics and economics, why not geography?

The Paris La Defense Arena is where, last night, Swift began the European leg of her Eras Tour, which sprouts records and superlatives like Midas makes gold. The 2023 dates made it the first concert tour to ever gross a billion dollars. It’s forecast to double that this year. After sweeping through Asia — where a minor diplomatic incident went down when Singapore offered government subsidies to get regional exclusivity — Swift has now reached the old world. Four shows in Paris and 51 across the continent in total, ending with a five-night run at Wembley Stadium in August. She’s not the only American in town. Both the Eurostar from London and Paris itself ring out with well-projected US accents. Forget the doomy warblings about Washington’s geopolitical ebb: the spring sun is out, the dollar is strong and Europe is America’s playground.

Concertgoers — mostly young, mostly female — are in sparkly dresses, cowboy boots and glitter. The few guys here are dressed down to the point of invisibility; tonight, humanity joins those few species of birds and insects where bright colours are for babes only.

Swift is scheduled to start at eight. Two minutes beforehand, a clock on the giant screen which stretches across the back of the stage counts down — and right on time, we begin. As the arena lights dim, the tens of thousands of swaying smartphone cameras illuminate, like a phosphorescent ocean. Dancers shimmy out trailed by billowing fabric, which they manipulate to form a kind of liquid clam shell. And out of that, like Botticelli’s all-American Venus, emerges Taylor Alison Swift, 34, of West Reading, Pennsylvania, USA.

Taylor Swift inspires love, dedication and obsessive fandom. In me, she has kindled about a decade and a half of mild but increasing curiosity. There are seven Swift songs I recognise from their titles, and none come after 2014. My musical knowledge of her petered out when she was merely a very big star, and in an era where culture was coherent enough for everyone to absorb a certain level of commercial pop. Then I started seeing her in Bloomberg and the Financial Times, attached to stories about inflation and foreign policy.

Taylor Swift’s current era — dating, it seems, from the pandemic onwards — is out-and-out imperial. She was last year’s best-selling artist worldwide, and the year before that too. Her current relationship, with the puppyish American footballer Travis Kelce, is theorised by the more batshit US conservatives to be an elaborate psyop to boost Joe Biden in this year’s presidential election. The European dates of the Eras Tour are the first after the release of her latest album, The Tortured Poets Department, in April. It was not a critical success. “Sylvia Plath did not stick her head in an oven for this!” read a review in Paste magazine — anonymous, because writers who criticise Swift can reliably expect online death threats from fans. Nevertheless, upon release it smashed multiple streaming records.

After the opening number, Swift pauses, for half a minute at least, to take in the sound of the crowd. Blown up to a giantess on screen, Swift looks overwhelmed, as if she hasn’t experienced this reaction before. She has, hundreds of times. But each and every member of the audience must be broken free of the billions of dollars of revenue they represent and made to feel seen. After the pause, Swift extends her wrist, as if offering it up to be kissed, and says: “Enchanté.”

The Eras Tour, as its name suggests, cycles through each of Swift’s “eras”, or albums. The various stage setups reference cityscapes, forests and, at one point, a surreal landscape of steel cages sunk into the ground either side of an open highway. Periodically, Swift sinks down a trapdoor in the middle of the stage, into what must be her era-shifting chamber, then remerges, moments later, from an ingenious new position and in a different outfit. I get the sparkly costumes now, because this is very much what Swift goes in for herself. Sparkly hot pants, sparkly ball gown, sparkly miniskirt with sparkly thigh-high boots — even what looks like a sparkly dressing gown. The battalion of dancers go through endless outfit changes too, but no-one’s allowed to sparkle quite like Swift.

Singing and dancing her way through a typical Eras setlist lasts between three and four hours. Swift began her career writing and performing country songs in Nashville, Tennessee, where music is whittled down to a perfect product. These days, she embraces an opposite but equally American approach: superabundance. Song piles upon song. And every great American genre seems to get a hearing: pop, rock, country, folk, rap, R&B (slow and sultry), R&B (fast and spiky). I almost expect a banger inspired by Washington DC-style hardcore punk.

Not everything works. An hour in, we’ve entered the era of Folklore and Evermore, her pandemic albums. It’s ballad central: wafty and witchy and, to be honest, a bit snoozy. But then we go back in time to 1989 (or 2014, which is when that confusingly named album came out). She launches into “Shake It Off” — one of my precious seven songs — and my subconscious flashes up memories of chugging brilliant blue alcopops in sticky student nightclubs. It’s glorious.

Swift is big in the way that no other modern superstar is. Orders of magnitude bigger. The logarithmic scale could have been invented for her. This bigness manifests in the thousands upon thousands who attend her concerts, and the probable millions that try and fail to get tickets. But out of the many, one — e pluribus, unum, as a teacher might have put it to Swift in an American history class around the turn of the millennium. At one point in the show, Swift compliments the crowd. “I’m making extreme eye contact with everyone; I’m dancing with everyone; you’re so present,” she says. “And it means the world to us as performers.”

“Her fans don’t just adore her; they end up adoring each other.”

Yes, it’s what the pro that she is would and should say. But in the moment, it sounds sincere, or at least well-meaning enough to discourage any attempt to prod at its veracity. For three hours and seven minutes — this ends up being a comparatively brisk performance — Swift assembles her fans, usually only joined up by the spindly limbs of social media, into a physical community. These fans don’t just adore her; they end up adoring each other. Inspired by one of her stray lyrics from 2022, they now make friendship bracelets to trade with strangers at shows.

Truly mass culture in its most tribal form barely exists anymore. The all-consuming influence of the internet has degraded it in two substantial ways. Algorithmically generated feeds on everything from Instagram to Netflix have given us all tastes which are similar but slightly different — amid this torrent of content, it’s harder for youth tribes such as punks or New Romantics to cohere around sets of cultural tenets. And the isolated and antisocial manner in which we consume what these feeds serve up — on our phones, alone — acts as a barrier to shared experience.

But Swift is one of mass culture’s last bastions. And she presents a very good case as to why we should cling on to what’s left of it. She, like few others, can out-muscle the brute force of the algorithm and bring people together to commune around her music — some of which is good, and some of which isn’t, but that’s hardly the point. The point is the ecstatic crowd in front of her.

Her last song is, again, one I don’t know. It’s an up-tempo electropop number with sugar-rush synthesiser lines, and as it plays, we’re dazzled with sparkles, primary colours, fireworks and confetti — all that is good in the world. Swift bows with her band and her dancers, then bows alone. Then she descends, for the final time, into that hole in the stage, to get ready to cast the same spell tomorrow.


Josiah Gogarty is assistant editor at The Knowledge, an email news digest, and a freelance writer elsewhere.

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M Shewbridge
M Shewbridge
13 days ago

Sounds horrendous, but then again, I’m not the target market.

What surprises me is I’m from the same planet as the target market.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
13 days ago
Reply to  M Shewbridge

Now I’ve engaged with “Tay-Tay” and her music a bit more, I do realise why she’s popular. She’s written some genuinely nice lyrics (try out “August”).
But with the best will in the world, I don’t get the extent of the hype around her.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
13 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Seems like a form of market / media monopolization.
New acts don’t get space to breathe & can’t even begin to find the same media leverage or support when starting out.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
13 days ago

Swift is big in the way that no other modern superstar is. Orders of magnitude bigger. The logarithmic scale could have been invented for her.
Clearly I am not her target audience, but her success baffles me. Regardless of lyrics, of image, or even of marketing – successful musicians should make good music. Given that she is by far the most successful of her generation she should be producing great music – at the very least, catchy music – but no.
Her songs have no chorus, no hook, no interesting melody to speak of. They have no range either. It’s all so bland. Each song seems wholly indistinguishable from the last.
What am I missing?

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
13 days ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

“What am I missing?”

Youth? And probably being female.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
10 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

These days you can call yourself a woman and government bureaucrats will eagerly nod. Libraries will hire you to read at children’s hours.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
10 days ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Youth.

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
13 days ago

Jumpin’ Jehosaphat – concerts three to four hours long you say? How can schlockpop possibly sustain that? Last time i looked, the average rock performance was lucky to top an hour and a bit! Very entertaining read, mind you, mucho kudos to its author!

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
13 days ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

There are a few precedents, Springsteen 3-4hrs; Hawkwind similar and I seem remember reading the Dead managing 7-8 hours. That must have been riveting, without “assistance”.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
13 days ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

I saw The Rolling Stones in 1981, and the concert was three hours long.

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
13 days ago

I’ll stick with the old music, much of it from Manchester, Old Man that I am – Smiths, Moz, New Order, Joy Division, Oasis, Stone Roses, the Cure, and Radiohead, a number of others.
Occasionally a more recent band comes out that I truly like – the Killers, a generation later, or Lord Huron, who’s new. And of course there’s decades of jazz, and two centuries of classical to enjoy. My fellow Americans have the rock and roll of the 1950s to the 1990s as well.
But attending a Swift concert strikes me as about as much as fun listening to three hours of commercial jingles.
I’m obviously not in their target market, either.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
13 days ago

You’ve similar taste to me (aside from Oasis unless it’s their earliest stuff), and I’m never going to be a Swifty either. But there’s a lot worse out there, and there was a lot worse back in the 80s and 90s too.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
13 days ago

Saw Zeppelin on their last Amercan tour, 4/17/77. They did three hours (including an acoustic set) with no opening act. Oh yeah, and the music wasn’t a bunch of soulless, calculated piffle.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
13 days ago

The level of subservient sycophancy in this groveling puff piece is truly nauseating. Why unHerd continues to post content about this overhyped, calculating hack is beyond me.

Jamie
Jamie
12 days ago

A very nice piece. The comments remind me of how old and bitter the boomers have become, hauling out all the old male rockers resentfully. Have at it: truly Taylor is not made for you. She defines genius but will not cast pearls before swine.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
12 days ago
Reply to  Jamie

That’s some low bar you have for ‘genius’.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
11 days ago
Reply to  Jamie

Let’s not get carried away. It’s great bubblegum but Joni Mitchell she definitely ain’t.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
11 days ago

This trick of selling mediocre, overfabricated bubblegum pop by selling bad breakup stories to young women on social media while blaming men for disrupting her career.
What a fabulous commercial trick but aesthetically the Empress has no clothes. She is sub-Madonna and doesn’t even have Tiffany’s catchy tunes.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
10 days ago

Now that old-timey superstar Madonna has descended to vile, aged strumpet status, it’s good to see someone fill her shoes but with sparkles added.