Taylor Swift is a master of weaving her public-facing love life, her star image, and her art together, and she’s in the middle of an incredible maneuver. Did you ever see a gossip press sight as cinematic as Taylor Swift driving off in a convertible with Travis Kelce?
Here are the basics: Taylor Swift is the heartbreak queen pop star in the midst of one of the most successful music tours in history. Kelce is the tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, considered one of the greatest of all time. This year, he’s beginning to break through to mainstream fame following a moderately successful podcast and a well-received turn hosting SNL in March. His whole vibe is probably best captured by “Straight Male Friend,” the SNL sketch he did with Bowen Yang: sweet, not particularly deep, always down to race.
Kelce has been angling after Swift in public for a few months now. In July, he attended her concert and said he tried and failed to give her a friendship bracelet with his phone number on it. On a guest appearance on the The Pat McAfee Show podcast last week, Kelce publicly invited Swift to come to one of his games. Swift apparently took him up on it.
Swift spent Sunday watching Kelce play football from his private suite, screamed “LET’S FUCKING GO!” in his mom’s ear when he scored a touchdown, and then walked out of the arena with him to drive off into the night. The result was a delectable gossip feast.
Is this whole thing one big calculated publicity play? Look, probably it is, at least a little bit. Swift’s got her forthcoming 1989 rerelease to hype up; Kelce has a podcast to sell. These headlines are a win-win for both of them. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t information to mine here.
Swift used to put her love life at the center of her public image. In the early 2010s, the gossip sites were full of incredibly fake-looking shots of Swift strolling down the street sipping maple lattes with Jake Gyllenhaal or frolicking in the ocean with Tom Hiddleston. Those images would later encode themselves into some of Swift’s most vulnerable and emotionally authentic songs.
Strategically capitalized letters spelled out MAPLE LATTE in the liner notes for “All Too Well,” telling Swift’s fans exactly who called her up again just to break her like a promise. The pap shots and the songs were part of the same story, and the story was both her art and her commercial product. The pictures looked so perfectly posed as to be impossible to believe in; the songs were so intimate as to be impossible not to believe in. It was pop image-making on a very high level.
In 2017, however, Swift vanished from public view. When she re-emerged, she was fully enmeshed in a relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn, and their love affair would be private. Paparazzi shots were minimal. They declined to answer questions about their relationship in interviews. Alwyn barely shows his face in Swift’s Netflix documentary Miss Americana. When he co-wrote songs with her, he did it under a pen name. Swift has dedicated love song after love song to Alwyn, but the gossip press isn’t part of the story she told her fans about him.
Swift and Alwyn announced their split this spring. Since then, Swift seems to be enjoying making her love life part of her image-making again. It’s as though she’s dating her way through the high school boyfriend archetypes: first a spring fling with an edgy artistic bad boy, and now a situationship with a sweet himbo jock. Each new image she creates is part of the story she’s telling her fans about herself.
Right now, Swift is feeling her Miss Americana self, embracing the high school tropes she never got to live out during her life as a child star. After spending her teen years positioning herself as an outsider — the one wearing T-shirts on the bleachers, watching the cheerleader with her high heels — Swift is now cosplaying as the head cheerleader on a date with the football star, the prom queen on the dais with the prom king. She’s leaning into the most giddy and teenaged and Aaron Spelling-teen-soap parts of her image, building a vision of herself as sweet and straightforward as cotton candy.
If it all seems a little hard to believe right now, just wait for the songs to come out.