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The Eras concert movie is Taylor Swift leveling up

She’s preserving herself at an unprecedented echelon of fame.

Taylor Swift attends the “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” concert movie world premiere on October 11, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
John Shearer/Getty Images for TAS
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Taylor Swift has finally reached her saturation point. You can see that she’s been aiming for this kind of fame since her first single, “Tim McGraw,” in 2008: the kind of status where people are forced to take your greatness for granted when they talk about you. You might say that Madonna isn’t to your taste, but you never say she isn’t a great pop star. That’s where Taylor Swift is now.

Swift’s gravitational force right now is so undeniable that she’s got the NFL orbiting her, not the other way around. Her new concert film is set to make $125 million when it opens this weekend; the concert tour itself is the most profitable in history. Records keep toppling before her like dominos. As the New York Times breathlessly reported, Swift has had more No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 over the course of her career than any other woman. Ten of her albums charted this year, and she’s the first living artist since 1966 to have four titles in the Top 10 at the same time.

In an era when the music industry is splintered and the monoculture is gone, Swift has managed to reach the kind of scale we were supposed to have left behind in the 1980s. And the tipping point, the final thing that pushed her over the edge, was paradoxically the least and most Swiftian thing possible: live performance.

The Eras tour is really what did it. Swift has been enjoying a few years of nearly universally rosy press coverage since 2020, when she gave that lockdown year the gift it needed with the stripped down acoustic folk songs of Folklore and Evermore. Still, she hasn’t toured since the fraught Reputation era of 2017. With the Eras tour, Swift is demonstrating the enormous physical presence of her fan base — and delivering a performance that practically everyone, it seems, is impressed by.

“The concert had been unbelievable,” marveled the Atlantic, “but so was the fact that this one human woman planned to do it again the next night, and for many after.”

“The amazing thing about the Eras Tour is that it’s so forward-facing, a complex pop history that’s so rich and deep and multilayered, but one that’s still being rewritten right before our eyes, week after week,” said Rolling Stone in a rave review. “And there’s no doubt this mastermind is at the absolute peak of her creative powers, after 17 fairly relentless years. This show makes an excellent case that in so many ways, Taylor Swift’s era is really just beginning.”

“The Eras Tour represents the apotheosis of what a pop superstar tour can be,” declared Variety, adding, “If it proves nothing else — and it proves plenty else — it’s that Swift… can… sing.”

The idea that Taylor Swift can sing was actually up for debate pretty recently. In fact, the idea that Taylor Swift is a good live performer at all was up for debate. Not so long ago, the conventional wisdom on Swift went something like: sure, she can write a catchy hook, but the voice is nothing special and the live performances are strictly for teen girls.

Back in 2015, Jia Tolentino described the 1989 tour as “the safest possible fantasy” for “streams of girls and mothers, all adorable and almost all white, who had come to the annual Taylor Swift Young Leadership Conference.” Gawker called it “nearly two hours of video projections, poor gyrating, and tiresome, inarticulate pre-song speeches.” People who took music seriously listened to Swift albums and had opinions on her songcraft, but only the fangirls went to Swift concerts.

Now, that’s all changed. The Eras tour is so big that it’s pushed Swift over the top into a new level of fame. She’s turned what was supposed to be her greatest weakness as a musician into an asset.

The switcheroo is both surprising and also really not. Taylor Swift, she of the A-student earnestness and compulsive perfectionism, loves this move. You might call it her signature.

“I do things like this,” she explained to Vogue in 2016. Once, she said, “I got it in my head that I couldn’t do a split, and I was really upset about it. And so I stretched every single day for a year until I could do a split. Somehow I feel better knowing that I can.”

At the beginning of her career, people theorized that Swift was a producer product who couldn’t sing. She took voice lessons and wrote every song for her next album, Speak Now. When she was positioned as a piece of pop ephemera who didn’t have any substance, she wrote Red and effectively shifted the narrative about her to focus on her songcraft. When people said Red wasn’t tonally consistent and the way she constantly got papped with her boyfriends was annoying, she wrote 1989, still arguably her tightest album, and promoted it accompanied by a squad of girlfriends.

“If enough people say the same thing about me, it becomes fact in the general public’s mind. So I monitor what people say about me, and if I see a theme, I know what that means,” Swift told GQ in 2015. “I’ve had it happen twice before. In 2010, it was She’s too young to get all these awards. Look how annoying she is when she wins. Is she even good? And then in 2013, it was She just writes songs about guys to get revenge. She’s boy-crazy. She’s a problematic person. It will probably be something else again this year.”

Each time Swift pulls off one of these switcheroos she levels up as an artist, and her star image shines a little brighter as a result. One of the themes of Taylor Swift’s career from the beginning has been that she wasn’t a great live performer. She worked on it like she was stretching for a split until she could prove it wasn’t the truth.

I would be remiss, though, not to note that the Eras tour isn’t the only reason people are talking about Taylor Swift right now. Currently, she’s dominating social media because of her relationship with football star Travis Kelce, a media management masterclass if ever there was one. It’s offered her the mixed blessing of making her inescapable online.

On the one hand, Swift is currently drowning in free publicity courtesy of the NFL, which is using her song lyrics and image to promote itself as hard as it possibly can. On the other hand, her newfound alliance is courting a certain amount of political criticism. Progressives are upset with her for letting the NFL use her clout to smooth over its many image problems (CTE, domestic violence, racism).

The publicity spree has also made Swift vulnerable to some good old-fashioned American misogyny. Hardcore NFL fans have started booing when ads for her concert film play during games. “If Taylor Swift is going to be taking over our Sunday’s [sic] I’m going to need to see a sex tape,” wrote Barstool Sports’s Dan Katz on X. None of this is Swift’s fault, per se, but it does suggest that people are starting to think it’s funny to say that they’re sick of her, and that spells danger for a public figure.

Swift has always had an exquisitely modulated sense of what her image can take and what it can’t. “Right now, I’m, like, this close to overexposure,” she confided to Kanye West on a fateful phone call in 2016, just months before she was overexposed into scandal. This week, she’s started skipping Sunday night football games.

With the concert film, Swift is making a record of her image at this precise moment in time, at a peak she’s never before reached, preserving it in amber. A celebrity’s star image is a living and breathing conversation between artist and fans, individual and society. Right now, Taylor Swift is showing us what it means to be fully in control of that conversation.