How big is Taylor Swift really, when you compare her to other pop icons?

While I think it’s too soon to say she’s the greatest of all time, you can definitely compare her to Madonna, Beyoncé or Kylie Minogue at their peak. But that being said, what is happening in recent weeks is unprecedented. Her world tour is huge and completely sold out. And yes, Beyoncé can say the same thing, but with Swift it’s all just a bit bigger.

Simone Driessen is assistant professor in Media & Popular Culture at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication. She did her PhD on research into the loyalty of fans of mainstream pop music, including those of the Backstreet Boys. She is also a founding member of an international research network on Taylor Swift and her fans.

How did she – having starting out as a fairly average country singer – become so big?

By constantly adopting a new look, actually. This is quite literal: for each tour, she took on a slightly different identity or used a different colour. for the album Lover, for example, she used a lot of pastels and soft but vibrant colours such as pink and light blue. The album folklore, by comparison, features many shades of grey. So she was always reinventing herself. This meant her fans were able to grow along with her, and as a result, she is now standing onstage as a grown woman, not a 34-year-old playing a 14-year-old.

She also makes very clever use of social media. For such a high-profile celebrity, she has quite a mysterious private life, but she does leave all kinds of Easter eggs – hidden messages – which her fans then go looking for. These can be song lyrics that refer to the release of her next album, for example, or to an event in her life. Sometimes fans may see things that are not there, but some messages are ones she has very intentionally planted.

Lately, she all of a sudden seems to have this huge influence outside her music; why is that?

Yes, it’s really crazy, because she never wanted that. She remained politically silent for a very long time, whereas her ‘peers’, such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Beyoncé, have been speaking out for much longer. You also have to remember that it was quite scary for her to speak out politically – you can lose a lot of fans doing that. To give an example: The Chicks (formerly The Dixie Chicks) expressed negative views on George Bush on the eve of the Iraq war. This led to them being blacklisted by several radio stations, selling fewer tickets and losing sponsorship deals.

Swift herself only began speaking out in 2018. At first, it was still very cautious: she didn’t even urge fans to vote for a particular candidate, but simply made it clear that she stands for certain values. She called for a more feminist perspective in US politics and expressed support for the LGBT community. This was ahead of the US midterm elections, two years into Trump’s presidency. So that did cause a commotion, especially in the country music scene.

Until that point, had there been any reason to think she was conservative?

Well, she started out as a country singer, of course, and her father is a devout Christian. It also didn’t help that she was totally the ‘girl next door’ type, with that cute blonde hair. This was also literally used in memes by the alt-right, to reinforce the image of the ‘Aryan princess’. That bothered her for quite a long time.

Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Is that why she has become such an attractive focal point for conspiracy theorists?

She has since become exactly what conservative people do not want to see. She’s the opposite of a trend we’re seeing now, the ‘trad wives’ – women who embrace motherhood and believe that as a woman, you should stay at home and take care of your husband and the children. Swift is a free-spirited woman who’s ‘getting up there’ in age: at 34 years old, she has no family and doesn’t seem to be making any moves in that direction. Instead, she spends every night on stage in front of an audience of millions, making billions of dollars and doing whatever she feels like. Meanwhile, according to the conspiracy theorists, there are all secret messages hidden in her music. That makes her an appealing target for saying she’s Biden’s pawn and she is being used for propaganda purposes. These conspiracy-minded people choose her in order to benefit from her success.

So that’s why, with the presidential election coming up in November, conservative America is in such a state of panic right now. They’re waiting to see if and when she will speak out again, for instance at the recent Superbowl. Why did they actually think she was going to say something there?

I think because that seemed like the right time to launch a campaign spot for Biden, but it didn’t happen. She is also now in a relationship with American footballer Travis Kelce, who played in the Superbowl. He also appears to be a fairly progressive individual in an otherwise quite conservative sport. This makes him the target of all kinds of conspiracy theories. Kelce also got vaccinated against COVID and appeared in a Pfizer commercial. That did not go down well with many football fans, who tend to be conservative. Those fans worried that Taylor and Travis were going to use their status as a ‘power couple’ to make a political statement. Which, of course, would have been quite a good time to do so, because tens of millions of viewers tune in to watch the Superbowl.

It was also said that Swift expressing support for Biden would be disastrous for Trump. Why is that, seeing as everyone already knows she leans toward the Democrats?

There is no way to measure the extent to which her support will have an impact on the election. But during previous elections, you could in fact see a shift when she called on people to vote. In those instances, the voter turnout was higher than expected. So the right is afraid that if she urges people in swing states (states that could go to either Trump or Biden, ed.) to vote, it could lead to a victory for the Democrats. That makes things like Swift’s visit to the Super Bowl very scary for them.

I would think it’s especially scary for Swift herself, to have so much influence attributed to her.

To me, more than anything, it seems incredibly intense. I also think I would ignore stuff like this if I were her, but of course she can’t. Sometimes she reveals that public opinion can sway her actions. Before dating Travis, she was very briefly with Matty Healy, lead singer of the band The 1975. He was controversial because he had made racist and misogynist statements in a podcast. The Swifties jumped on this and said: Taylor can’t be with him because then that means she also supports those statements.  At that point, there seemed to be a moment of panic on Swift’s part. She was not seen with him again after that and CDs of their collaboration were pulled from shops. She has never confirmed or denied that this was the reason; the relationship may simply have run its course.

Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Are most of the conspiracy theories coming from her opponents?

No; you also have groups like the Gaylors – fans of Swift who think she is at least queer in some way, but might be gay. They say evidence of this is hidden in certain songs. The song Lavender Haze is said to be an outreach to the lesbian community. In the song Dress, for example, she sings about a dress, and according to the Gaylors, you wouldn’t use those particular words unless you were actually talking about the female body.

I don’t want you like a best friend
Only bought this dress
So you could take it off

From the song Dress

The Gaylors also believe this because, for a while, Taylor was spending a lot of time with a friend, model Karlie Kloss. The two took road trips together and even lived in the same house for a while. However, the relationship rumours were denied by her management following a New York Times article. Karlie is now married to a man, but none of that matters to the Gaylors.

What is your personal favourite conspiracy theory surrounding Swift?

I actually like them all, but one theory I find particularly entertaining says that she is now with Travis specifically in order to procreate, and that she will then give birth to the antichrist. This sounds absurd to our ears, but you shouldn’t underestimate how big the shift to the right in America has been in recent years and how much some people are now living in their own reality. Once you are in such a bubble, it is difficult to break out of it. If you already believe that there is a paedophile network operating from the basement of a pizzeria (a well-known QAnon conspiracy theory, ed.), for instance, then it’s not such a big step to believe that Taylor Swift will give birth to the antichrist.


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