For too long, the prevailing wisdom in entertainment criticism has been that music targeted to young women was less important, more fluffy. In 2021, Vox’s Constance Grady noted that the Beatles weren’t taken seriously until their fandom moved beyond the initial hordes of faithful, screaming girls and gained the attention of more mainstream (read: male) listeners. The band became “one of the most influential rock bands in history, and the girls who loved them first were treated as the punchline of a tired joke.”
Sixty years later, every time I read a headline about Taylor Swift, I can’t help but feel like those girls, now in their 70s and 80s, have been vindicated.
Swift, who debuted at 16, is in the Top 10 of Forbes’ highest earning performers. Her recent “Eras Tour” grossed more than $2 billion in ticket sales just in North America. An Instagram appeal to fans garnered more than 35,000 new registered voters. Current beau Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce saw sales of his official NFL merchandise shoot up a staggering 400% after Swift came to a game. She even inspired a run on ranch dressing after she was seen snacking on what appeared to be the creamy white dip while watching Kelce play.
Her original teen girl fans are now in their 30s, like her, and have been joined by an almost equal number of men. Together with her, they’re a powerful economic and cultural force. You don’t have to like Swift’s music. But you have to take her seriously.
“Her impact isn’t just in music, or on teenage girls. It’s on the whole world,” said 15-year-old Gianna Roberts, whose dad, Anthony Roberts, is a Baltimore City College High School classmate of mine. “It’s music for young girls, but you can’t look away.”
A personal confession: I’m a bigger fan of Swift’s cultural influence than her music, though I think “Shake It Off” and “All Too Well” are brilliant. And as much sway as she has over her fans, there was a disappointing episode in 2021 when she tweeted her disapproval at what she called a “deeply sexist” line about her dating history in Netflix’s “Ginny and Georgia.” Some Swifties responded by racially attacking young actress Antonia Gentry, who uttered but didn’t write the line, on social media. To this day, Swift has not called them out.
“I didn’t like that,” said Maya Hood-Wilson, a Baltimore School for the Arts graduate, my goddaughter and my own personal Swiftie. “I don’t love everything she does, and some criticism of her is valid, but I do love that she is very expressive about her love life, and her feminism, and that’s resonated a lot. People have talked about her singing so much about her exes, but why shouldn’t she? She’s an artist.”
Swift’s resonance in her fans’ lives is the secret not only to their connection to her, but to each other. “Everyone is just so nice. Everything smells like perfume,” said Ellie McDonald, 15, about a recent Swift show she attended. “It’s very pretty, a bunch of women, gay guys, teenage girls with their dads and boyfriends. Everyone’s giving out friendship bracelets. It was the best three and a half hours of my life. It’s good that someone at her level of fame can be so relatable.”
That relatability has made her a newly-minted political force. For years, Swift was mum about political and social issues, creating speculation that she might be a secret conservative, given her country music origins. But in 2020′s Netflix documentary “Miss Americana,” she revealed her liberal leanings, passionately telling her father that she wished she’d spoken out against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016.
“I would say she has gotten me into politics,” Gianna Roberts said. “Before I watched [”Miss Americana”] it didn’t affect me, but seeing how emotional she got, I thought, ‘This should be important to me, too.’”
Gianna’s dad Anthony spent a lifetime protecting democracy in the U.S. Army, ultimately becoming a major. But even he’s impressed with Swift’s ability to influence younger generations to continue that work with a song and a strategically placed social media post. “As a parent, this tells me the world today is much more like the world I want for my kids,” he said. “It’s not a perfect country, but for a young woman to have this degree of influence says that we are making progress on what I fought to defend.”
For Mount Washington’s Molly St. James, whose kids Ellie and Poppy grew up listening to Swift on the way to school with their dad, Ian McDonald, “part of my objection was that she was not willing to engage politically. I thought she was just another thin blond. But I listened to her entire catalogue, and she’s the real deal.”
The family all went to see Swift in Philadelphia in 2018, a week before Ian was diagnosed with colon cancer. He died a year later, and St. James thinks that continuing the Swift connection with her kids has helped them all through their grief. When tickets for the “Eras Tour” went on sale on Ian’s birthday, she thought it was a sign that “for sure we’d get tickets. We did not.” But she found a more expensive option through secondary sellers, joking that she “sacrificed their college educations” for them.
The young fans confirmed that Swift’s influence isn’t just political. St. James said that Ellie had watched football with their dad but had no real interest until Kelce and Swift started hanging out. And Gianna Roberts did an interview for her high school paper with one of the lawyers who brought the suit against Ticketmaster after the company’s disastrous 2022 rollout of Swift’s tour tickets, “which was absolute chaos,” she said. “Harry Styles was on tour, and it was hard to get a ticket for him, too. But he didn’t make the same headlines, because of the importance that Taylor has.”
Look, every interest isn’t positive, with the Andrew Tates of the world bringing out the very worst in young men. Having that sort of power over developing minds and souls is an important thing, and I think that, despite a few mistakes, Swift seems to be taking it seriously and doing it right.
I hope those Beatles fans are watching this unfold with their grandkids and nodding.