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Staring down 30 at the Taylor Swift dance party

On finding enjoyment, and cringe, in the world’s biggest pop star.

Partygoers at Taylor Swift’s Brooklyn event on May 28.
Arin Sang-urai
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Two weeks ago, Taylor Swift received an honorary doctorate from NYU. One week later I went to a party in her honor in Brooklyn, an event devoted entirely to dancing — and more often, screaming — to the music of Taylor Swift.

The event had nothing to do with her getting a degree; rather, it was part of a popular traveling series called the Taylor Party that has, over the past five months, made stops in cities from Honolulu to Montreal, Omaha to Boston. It’s pretty straightforward: You pay something like $20 to go to a concert venue where a DJ plays literally nothing but Taylor Swift. In New York, where Taylor Parties take place every few months, tickets sell out fast.

There is something inherently cringey about attending a Taylor Swift dance party, but to be fair, there is also something cringey about Taylor Swift herself. There’s the ineffable, just-this-side-of-saccharine stuff: When she first got famous, the then-teenager was known for the “little ol’ me?” reactions she gave when accepting awards despite her glaring perfectionism. She has baked cookies for fans and sent her followers surprise Christmas presents; one time she wrote a Tumblr post about loving plaid clothing and pumpkin spice.

And then there’s the actually-cringey stuff: the tone-deaf music videos, her tendency to decry any criticism as sexist, the whole era where she trotted out various famously beautiful friends in some kind of performance of feminism. For the most part, though, Swift is the normal kind of embarrassing: Upon joining TikTok last summer, fans commented on her — truly quite cheesy — first video, writing things like, “Sometimes I forget she’s a millennial.”

So if Taylor Swift is unapologetically cringe, the Taylor Party is even more so. Most people, at least 80 percent of them women, dress up as Taylor and take photos in front of a giant Taylor Swift step-and-repeat. There are Taylor Swift-themed balloons, and the screen behind the DJ booth plays clips from Taylor Swift music videos on an endless loop. Founded by Pittsburgh-based DJs and nightlife producers Brian Howe, Josh Bakaitus, and Steve Soboslai, the first Taylor Party took place on December 3, 2021. Howe and Bakaitus were thinking of fun theme parties to organize in a post-vaccine world, and the latter had been listening to a lot of Swift’s music.

“He wanted a place where he could hang out and listen to the songs,” explains Howe. Tickets sold fast, and within 24 hours they planned and hosted another party in Chicago. “Based off the numbers and all the social media engagement, it made it really easy for us to start reaching out to other markets,” Howe says. So far, they’ve done about 50 shows, with dozens more scheduled through the rest of this year.

The Taylor Party is not so different from the wave of vaguely nostalgic theme nights that have sprouted up over the past decade. In the early 2010s, nightclubs began hosting a rash of parties dedicated to the emo and pop punk that was topping the charts only a few years previously; they remain big moneymakers to this day. Sign up for newsletters from Eventbrite or Bandsintown and you’ll receive an onslaught of emails about parties coming to your city centered around genres like dubstep, indie pop, mid-aughts hip-hop, or ’80s new wave, using the foolproof method of getting people in the door by offering a dance-ready crowd and the guarantee of a good playlist.

The Taylor Party offers that, sure, but to its organizers, it’s more like a fan convention. “An interesting comparison would be to a Comic Con or a Star Wars convention,” Howe says. “A bunch of people in a room that love one thing, and want to be around other like-minded people without the pressures of the outside world for a limited amount of time.” (Yes, the most-requested song is the 10-minute version of “All Too Well.”)

Arin Sang-urai

Rather than Taylor herself dominating conversations, though, the topics discussed outside the venue were more about attendees’ own feelings, our own histories and humiliations. In line for the bathroom, I meet a 21-year-old who’s in the process of cutting off her ex and has found solace in Swift’s oeuvre. (It’s a cliché to describe the particular intimacy of drunk girls in bar bathrooms, but at a Taylor Swift-themed event, in which everyone has already admitted to a certain level of sentimentality by being here, it is doubly true.) “Ever since I got heartbroken, I’ve never had someone describe that feeling so well,” she told me.

I’ve been listening to Taylor Swift’s music long enough that I’ve experienced most of the emotions she’s articulated over her career — heartbreak, lust, disillusionment, joy, vengeance — but the theme I’ve thought about most recently is Swift’s grappling with her own irrelevance, the fear that women, mostly, experience as they approach an age deemed worthless to society. I spent my early 20s terrified of getting older, convinced that the only value I offered the world was the dwindling resource of my youth.

“Lord, what will become of me, once I lose my novelty?” Swift sings on “Nothing New,” a track she wrote when she was just 22, which is sort of hilarious in retrospect. In the decade since then, and particularly since the pandemic, she’s shifted some of that navel-gazing ennui toward subjects outside of herself — imagined characters, invented worlds — and become a much better artist because of it.

I turn 30 in about three weeks, which means I’ve become very annoying and sentimental about the topic of one’s 20s. It also means that I have a far more reasonable perspective on womanhood and aging than I did a decade ago. It’s much harder, for instance, for me to care about “vibe shifts” or garbage trends or New York’s supposed “hipster wars,” media-invented cultural phenomena that affect precisely 12 people and won’t last beyond a few think pieces, things that are meant to make anyone outside these niche worlds feel woefully out-of-touch and unimportant.

Which is to say I’ve also been much more interested in embracing cringe, or enjoyment for its own sake. Attending a Taylor Swift dance party, or really any themed club night, is sort of an embarrassing thing to do; it’s an admission to the world that perhaps you’re not quite as comfortable in a regular club as you used to be, or that you’re more interested in reliving a bygone era than creating a new one. It can be embarrassing in itself to be part of a fandom for anything, but particularly that of the most famous pop star in the world, a wealthy, white, thin woman who has built a billion-dollar empire by portraying herself as the underdog.

But it’s also hard to think about any of those things when you’ve somehow managed to convince seven other friends, all in their late 20s and early 30s, to join you for the Taylor Swift dance party, and not only to attend but to dress up as various iterations of Swift over the course of her career (I went as her Lover era.) It’s impossible to worry about being cringe when you’re decking out your friend’s face in glitter and making St. Germain cocktails, and it’s impossible to feel stupid when you’re screaming “22” surrounded by a hundred other people who are for the most part emphatically not 22.

While addressing the class of 2022, a sizable portion of Swift’s commencement speech was spent extolling the virtue of unbridled enthusiasm. “Learn to live alongside cringe,” she said. “It seems to me that there is a false stigma around eagerness in our culture of ‘unbothered ambivalence.’ This outlook perpetuates the idea that it’s not cool to ‘want it.’ That people who don’t try hard are fundamentally more chic than people who do.”

This is an incredibly funny thing to say to graduates of NYU, a school I also attended and that is full of the people most terrified in the world of being considered cringe. While I bristle at the hustle porn of it all, or the idea that “hard work” is a more important virtue than anything else, it is also exactly the thing that people obsessed with performing disinterest need to hear most.

The true genius of the Taylor Party, I think, is that it capitalizes on the fact that Taylor Swift is one of the few celebrities who would be the type of person to actually attend a Taylor Swift-themed party if she were not Taylor Swift herself. She’d probably be here too, letting off steam from her advertising job in Red-era heart-shaped sunglasses. She isn’t present, of course, so besides the looped music videos, there isn’t much to look at. Instead we all turn toward each other, gazing at our friends as we scream the songs we know all too well, feeling cringe and feeling free.

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