IN 1984, THERE was no bigger pop star on the planet than Michael Jackson. Hot off the back of Thriller, the highest-selling album of all time, Jackson was possibly the most famous man alive. From São Paulo to Saint Petersburg, if you asked any random person on the street who he was, they would know.
Previously only The Beatles and Elvis had reached such heights. Right behind Jackson were Prince and Madonna, icons in their own right, with legacies more enduring and less problematic than Jackson’s would turn out to be.
Still, it’s hard to top Jackson’s absolute peak of fame in the early to mid ’80s, a solar-flare-baiting pinnacle you can get a feel for in the documentary, The Greatest Night in Pop, currently screening on Netflix. Among luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Kenny Rogers, Cyndi Lauper, Diana Ross et al, all of whom met up for one night in early 1985 to record the charity song ‘We Are The World’, it is Jackson’s star that burns brightest.
If a similar project were to take place today, in which the biggest recording artists in popular music assembled in a studio—Kanye West attempted to pull off something similar but less wholesome in the video for his song ‘Famous’—there’s no doubt who the biggest star in the room would be. It is, of course, Taylor Swift (even in the ‘Famous’ video, made in 2016, Swift is probably tied with Kim Kardashian for third-most-famous, after Donald Trump and George Bush; if that video were made now, she would probably surpass both Bush and Kim K, if not Trump).
Swift currently boasts levels of fame, power and influence that even Jackson failed to achieve. The 2023 Time Person of the Year, Swift had more than 26.1 billion streams worldwide on Spotify in 2023, off the back of her Eras tour, the highest grossing tour of all time, and first to generate over $1 billion in revenue. The cinematic release of Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour was also the highest grossing concert film in history, earning $261.6 million in global box office, knocking off Jackson’s This Is It.
Swift’s achievements in the recording industry would require a diligent, or more likely obsessive, music curator to catalogue (not that we’d have trouble finding one of those) but her popularity and ensuing influence are now spilling over into other domains.
Her budding romance with Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end, Travis Kelce, threatens to break Instagram every time Swift takes to the stands to cheer him on. It will be interesting to see how the platform’s algorithm copes should Kelce’s team win the Super Bowl and the haloed couple embrace on the field—should she actually be able to make it to the game from the Tokyo leg of her Eras tour.
Rumours that Kelce might propose to Swift after the game, which would probably destroy the internet as we know it in a dinosaur-ending, meteorite-level cataclysm, were hosed down by the tight end, who said, “I’m focused on getting this ring [the championship ring], and that’s all that my mind’s focused on right now.” That hasn’t stopped fans placing bets on it happening.
In uniting sport and pop-culture, the Swift-Kelce relationship has been a boon for the NFL, a behemoth in its own right. Swift’s attendance at Kansas City Chiefs’ games to support her boyfriend has seen an average of 17.9 million people tune into NFL games this season, according to Nielsen, a 7 per cent increase from a year earlier and the highest regular-season average since 2015.
But Swift’s influence doesn’t end there. The 34-year-old has repeatedly demonstrated an astonishing ability to transform the fortunes of fashion brands, her recent endorsement of a dress from independent UK label, Little Lies, resulting in an immediate sell-out. Meanwhile, Friendship Bracelets, the jewellery-swapping craze that took off at Eras shows is set to hit our shores when Swift arrives here for her first concert in Melbourne on February 16.
Swift also helps create stylistic trends; her elevated mix of girl-next-door and comfort chic has seen her catapult preppy dressing, sporty pleated mini-skirts and boyfriend shirts with socks and loafers onto a million Etsy accounts. This has an almost immediate commercial impact, on top of the seismic effects of her album, touring and merch sales. Forbes estimated that the Eras tour would generate close to US$5 billion in consumer spending in North America alone.
This is an unprecedented sovereign-state level of soft-power influence. But if you really want to get an idea of how big Swift is right now, then look to the political domain. Reports that Swift will endorse Joe Biden in a move many believe could tilt the US election are currently infuriating Republican media pundits, some even concocting deep-state conspiracies that the NFL is rigged so that Kelce’s team wins and Swift declares her allegiance to Biden on the national stage.
As deranged as that is, political analysts believe Swift could be a factor in the December Presidential race. A survey last year by Morning Consult found 53 per cent of American adults are Swift fans. The singer basically owns the female 18-34 demographic, a weakness for likely Republican candidate Donald Trump. A mega cohort of Swifties could also shore up Biden’s youth vote.
“If you’re having trouble with younger people, and you need to do something, what better way to cure the problem, or at least show that you are sensitive to it, than to get Taylor Swift out?” Democratic party consultant Hank Sheinkopf said recently.
Swift previously kept her political allegiance to herself until she endorsed Tennessee Democratic senate candidate Phil Bredesen in 2018, and then endorsed Biden in 2020.
Where does this all end? Does it end? Since bursting onto the music scene way back in 2006 as a 16-year-old country singer, Swift has shown a Madonna-like capacity for reinvention and has somehow managed, according to The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh, to enjoy three “imperial stages” of creative excellence by the age of 34.
Just a few years ago Swift had genuine rivals in popularity and impact in the still mighty Beyonce and sightly fading Lady Gaga. Before them, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera sat at the top of the pop-musical firmament. And before them Madonna, who managed to stay relevant as a cultural force for decades.
Swift has already passed the age of 27 (she’s 34) in which many rock stars—Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, among others—passed away and were subsequently immortalised and deified, escaping the indignities of ageing, not to mention the desperate battle for relevance that often results in cringey collaborations with younger stars.
The alternative is a graceful, gradual exit from supernova-level stardom to become a beloved, slightly daggy icon, like say, Paul McCartney or Barbara Streisand. Under this scenario, someone else will come along and just as Bey grudgingly ceded the pop crown to her, so Swift will give it up to the next in line.
Be that as it may, in an increasingly splintered and divisive world, we may never see the monolithic level of stardom that Swift has achieved in the past year and will perhaps look back on the ‘Eras era’ and wonder how one woman could unite and influence so many.