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Could Taylor Swift end our obsession with team allegiances?

In a world torn apart by tribalism, Swift may be the middle ground we all need.

In the early 2000s the renowned literary critic, Harold Bloom wrote a scathing review of Harry Potter that swept through the world. It felt exhilarating to watch the seasoned author of ‘The Western Canon ruthlessly tear apart a populist phenomenon that was read by far more people than most of his canonical oeuvres. Part of the thrill was my ego, however. In siding with this pompous intellectual, I was including myself in those who had the chops to consume the good stuff. It made me feel a bit clever. 

I’ve done something similar with Taylor Swift and I’d like to apologize to the Swifties who’ve been subjected to my groaningly predictable rants about her.

Not only did I get it wrong, but I think Swift may just be the second coming. I’m not religious, and the fervor that’s associated with it is part of its problem, but Ms. Swift may fulfill the other side of the religious coin. The non-zealous kind. You know - the hippie Jesus or the old ladies taking tea with the country vicar and being decent, honest and inoffensive. Taylor Swift is what my mother would refer to as a ‘middling sort.’ Again, that used to be a slight, but I believe it to be a rare and desperately needed species today - especially in the world of celebrity. 

My problem is my conditioning on what famous icons need to be. I came of age during the ‘Cool Britannia’ era in the UK. We had a young prime minister and half a century of stability. It was our rite of passage to be edgy, to seek out conflict, make enemies. Music and entertainment picked fights and dug up things to shock us with. I went to illegal raves in unsanctioned places and then worked in companies that told me to be a black sheep, a disruptor or to break things and only then ask for forgiveness. My heroes were supposed to do their part and rail against things, upset people, offend. Against this backdrop a performer like Taylor Swift offended me, but for the wrong reasons. How dare a singer rise to such prominence without once putting anyone's nose out of joint? Where are my TVs through hotel windows or beheaded bats? Taylor, you’re not following the rules. 

It wasn’t until we ran a study this month and heard from fans (and even non-fans) about their unwavering love for the pop diva that it dawned on me. We might just need Taylor and those like her to save us. Her brand of milk-drinking, shoes-off-in-the-living-room, post-cursing niceness is oxygen in a world that is overdosed on feuds, extremism, and selfishness. And in the hypersexualized world of pop (especially female icons), her grandma-chic energy is heavenly disruption. In our fiercely polarized political landscape that closely resembles an adolescent fistfight, Swift brings humanity and closeness that we’ve been alienated from through divisiveness, fear, and rage. Her neutrality isn’t boring, it’s brave! 

When I start to listen to the language of Swifties I’m filled with hope for an era (excuse the reference) that might just be able to turn things around:

“I try my best to live my life in ways I believe Taylor Swift would. She is always so genuine & unapologetically herself & treats every person with respect & kindness. I can almost always relate something to Taylor Swift.”

The overwhelming message from our participants was that she’s “normal” – in the best way. This message is typically my Kryptonite as qual research is hunting for edge cases and unexpectedness. I’m trained to reveal the weird and the offbeat. But this level of obsession for her normality does start to look rather odd after the 100th mention of it. 

Some participants even admitted to not particularly enjoying her music but are still fans of her. There goes another of my rules:

I'm a Swiftie for sure! This means that I am a huge Taylor Swift fan. I don't always love her music but I love her as a person. She is a fantastic role model and has gotten me through so much in my lifetime. I feel like we're long-distance friends or something. I would defend her to anyone and I know that she is a fantastic person.

But they all agree that it is the fact that she’s a ‘middling sort’ that makes her so compelling. 

“Swift is books and midrange restaurants. What more can you ask for?”

“I think she’s Barnes & Noble‘s. A lot of Swifties are readers and that’s one of the reasons I fell in love with her. Olive Garden is also a good brand fit for her.”

In 2022, another, altogether less democratic, female icon garnered attention from billions for one last time: the Queen of England. In a similar way, I’d spent my entire upbringing showing a hearty (even angry) disdain, not only for her privilege but her utter lack of controversy. Part of my problem with the pomp and circumstance was all the ceremonious stodge. The lack of dynamic disagreement with the past and the failure to do anything. But then she wasn’t there anymore and people of all persuasions suddenly felt something that they didn’t know they’d felt until the moment she passed: we missed her ‘normality.’ 

Taylor Swift isn’t about to pass away (we hope), but she occupies that place of small ‘c’ conservatism, don't rock the boat, stay polite and respectful, don’t get involved where you’re not the expert that the late monarch vacated. And she’s pretty much alone up there doing it. So I may not be moved by her music, but I do now believe that the world needs more of her and those like her. By getting off my high horse for a moment and listening to hundreds of people about their connection to Swift, I managed to change my mind. And there’s nothing more human than that.