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Why is Taylor Swift so popular?

The pop star is currently the most listened-to artist on the planet thanks to her legion of devoted superfans. But what’s behind her mass appeal?

What lengths would you go to for your favourite musician? Hours spent refreshing a web page? Queuing in the rain for a meet-and-greet? If you could see yourself camping for five months outside a venue to get the best seats at their show, then that’s exactly what a group of Taylor Swift fans have been doing in Argentina. The pop star has been an inescapable force in music for a long time, but excitement around her does suddenly seem to be reaching fever pitch – literally.

Owen, who is 21 and lives in Buenos Aires, has been camping outside the city’s Estadio Mâs Monumental since June to get the best view for her Eras tour. The stadium has general admission seating, meaning you don’t get a designated spot with your ticket. “We’re insane,” he tells Dazed, alongside a laughing emoji. “Argentina [is] insane for her.” A group of 50 people stay in a shared tent in shifts, using an Excel spreadsheet as a rota to fairly spread the load. “We do not literally live in these tents for five months, but we do spend many hours here,” he says.

He’s spent around 200 hours under canvas, often staying overnight from midnight to 10am, but his “sisters” and fellow Swifties have clocked up many more minutes, he says. His camping experience has gone smoothly, he says, even on the days that Argentina’s Club Atlético River Plate team play at the stadium and the street is filled with football fans. “After all, they are fans just like us,” he says, adding that people often yell at them: “‘Go to work!’”

Swift has rarely performed in Latin America, and this is her first-ever appearance in Argentina. “The level of excitement we have for this show and seeing it for the first time in the country is too much, we still can't believe it,” Owen says. He reveals that tents were even put up when there was just speculation about a possible show in his country. “It was not confirmed but there were already three tents outside the Monumental,” he says.

This intense dedication to a singer-songwriter isn’t limited to South American Swifties, nor Swift alone. Brian L Donovan, who teaches a class on the pop megastar at the University of Kansas, The Sociology of Taylor Swift, says that “if there was general admission seating for the US shows I have no doubt that US fans would do the same thing.” Fans of Harry Styles and Dua Lipa have been known to do the same thing (Owen says that girls in his group already knew each other from some of these tents), and camping and barricade culture is nothing new. People would sleep overnight to secure tickets for The Beatles, and fans have been following the Grateful Dead on the road for entire seasons – and in fact, plenty of parallels have been drawn between Swift and the bearded musicians’ cult followings. Hanging out with people who like the same things as you is, after all, fun.

But what inspires this fervent, life-disrupting dedication to someone – especially an artist who is so immensely popular and well-liked? Amazingly, over half of US adults identify as Swift fans, and demand for her music, merch and tickets is far exceeding supply. Donovan, who is working on a book about Taylor’s fanbase, believes that Swift inspires this deep devotion due to the vulnerability and relatability of her songwriting. “I interviewed several Swifties who said that her lyrics are as if she read their diaries,” he says. “Part of Swift’s genius is her ability to offer personalistic details about her own life in ways that feel nearly universal”.

Dr Gayle Stever, a professor of psychology at Empire State College who has studied fandoms for 35 years, says with devoted fans there are “three most common motivations”: the celebrity’s talent, physical attractiveness or ‘sexiness’, and hero or role model qualities. “Taylor Swift would easily inspire fans on all three motivations. She is very talented, attractive and philanthropic, from what I’ve come to understand. She’s a ‘good person’, which is always a formula for a devoted fan base. We – the public – decide this based on what we observe and yes, as the cynic would point out, we don’t know them as private persons,” she explains. “I’d argue that this is not different to how we get to know anyone, whether a media personality or our next-door neighbour. We only know what they choose to show us, and we create attributions based on those perceptions, something called ‘parasocial perception’.”

For Swift fan Laura, who is 33 and from Somerset, it’s down to her being the same age and generation as the pop star. “As she has released albums so consistently over my teenage and then adult years, it’s often tracked to being at the same stage and experiences in life. Taylor has evolved massively over her twenties and thirties, and her capacity to constantly reinvent herself is something that fans – especially women – can feel inspired by because it shows you can keep bouncing back, whether after a breakup, a professional disappointment, or just after getting older and not being the youngest and sexiest thing any more.”

“Part of Swift’s genius is her ability to offer personalistic details about her own life in ways that feel nearly universal” – Brian L Donovan

Laura feels that Swift has – unfairly – earned a reputation for focusing on past relationships in her songs, emphasising that her lyrics tackle “bereavement, revenge, female friendship, self-love and self-hate, having a relative with cancer… and some are fictional stories. I think [my] dedication partly comes from her music being a resource to deal with such a range of emotions and experiences. Also, her persona is quite an unusual combination of stately and goofy, which I suppose makes her both a good model and somewhat relatable.”

Donovan namechecks this “goofy relatability” in his assessment of Taylor’s popularity, saying that her “celebrity persona is not calibrated to the straight male gaze” and “unlike pop stars of past decades, her persona is not centred on sexiness”. Then there’s her impressive cross-generational appeal, he says. “For younger fans, she stands as someone to whom they aspire to be. For older fans, her lyrics are like a nostalgic journey into the past.” The fact that she’s called attention to sexism, sexual double standards and gender inequality have made her connect particularly to womens’ experiences. “Taylor Swift has made mistakes over her career, but her acknowledgement of those missteps has only made her more likeable.”

Examples of intense fan loyalty to Taylor abound. There’s the story of the Taylor fan who heroically went to prison for refusing to join the IDF, and continued to tweet updates for her followers from behind bars. Accounts have been set up to monitor the movements of Taylor’s private jets. In the past, Taylor fans have been rewarded for their intense dedication – the 1989 era saw her inviting fans to her house and interacting with them on social media, and in 2014 she sent personal ‘Swiftmas’ gifts to hand-picked fans. But as her celebrity has grown exponentially, this type of behaviour clearly isn’t sustainable long term.

“What’s odd about the Taylor Swift fandom is that it’s arguably the largest fan base in the world, but it still has elements of an underground subculture,” says Donovan. “Taylor Swift fans have developed inside jokes, rituals, and lore that one might find in an alternative subculture, but her fandom is simultaneously a hegemonic monoculture. The unique thing that sets Swifties apart from other fandoms is the endless hunt for ‘easter eggs’. From the very beginning, Taylor has engaged her fan base with messages and clues. This has created a dense intertextual web of meaning for fans to decode and enjoy. Like rave subcultures, there’s an ethos of kindness and respect that permeates the Swiftie community, but with more sobriety.”

At a time when fanbases arguably have more power than ever, with the ability to mobilise and weaponise on social media, and Doja Cat actively wars with her own fans, some are wondering about the toxicity of fan culture. There are questions about whether fans are becoming too entitled – one example being Swifties writing an open letter demanding Taylor break up with Matty Healy (a wild imposition, whether or not you agree with their reasoning). Some see this type of idol-worshipping excessive, and in the context of camping, some say it ruins the experience for others, is unsafe, and even trivialises the experience of homeless people (at a time when the UK’s Home Secretary has called living in tents a “lifestyle choice”).

When it comes to fan dynamics, hierarchies persist and some describe feeling disgruntled about being unable to be a casual Taylor fan – even in the use of ‘Swiftie’, a defining label rather than a signal of liking a couple of songs of hers. In a Substack post titled ‘Why does everyone have to be a super fan these days?’, journalist Laura Capon wrote about feeling like she didn’t see her fan credentials as ‘valid’ enough to even attempt to buy an Eras tour ticket. For Donovan, there’s a clear distinction between being a Taylor Swift fan and being a Swiftie: “Swifties have subcultural capital that distinguishes them from regular fans, for example, what to shout at different points in specific songs.”

In relation to the recent news of newspaper chain Gannett appointing a Taylor Swift reporter, writer Dan Ozzi said, “I do think that Taylor Swift fandom inherently comes with some degree of brain rot. No disrespect to my Swiftie friends, but I don’t know anyone who enjoys her music a normal amount, without also expressing cult-like symptoms.” But he adds: “that’s fine. It’s cool to like things.” Displaying devotion is a rite of passage for young people – whether it’s raving, video games or films. For Owen and his camp, it’s simply a genuine expression of excitement he and his friends have for her music. “We are just a group of strangers united by Taylor,” he says. “It sounds crazy – and it really is – but the love for her, and for the art she gives us, is very strong.”

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