Wednesday Wisdom

June 18, 2024

Embrace Your Eras

By Patrick Cragg

Embrace Your Eras

Reflect

It gets more difficult, as you move through the eras of your own life, to keep track of what’s popular. This is especially true when it comes to music. One minute you’re a regular at gigs and music festivals, the next you’re looking at the lineup for Glastonbury or Reading and wondering: who are all these people? How can an act be big enough to headline a festival and yet I’ve never heard of them? How did I get so out of touch?

But in 2024, finding the centre of the musical universe is about as hard as finding the sun in the sky. Nothing in popular culture – perhaps nothing in the history of popular culture – is quite as big as Taylor Swift.

Taylor’s record-breaking success – in her singles and albums and the almighty Eras tour, currently juggernauting its way across the UK – is the kind of thing that isn’t really supposed to happen any more. Hasn’t popular culture fractured into a million little niches? Aren’t albums a bit old-fashioned now in the age of streaming and TikTok and broken attention spans?

Taylor seems like an icon from a bygone time. Think Michael Jackson. Think Live Aid. Think Metallica playing to 1.6 million people in Moscow. That’s the level of huge we’re talking about.

So what does it mean, for us and our children, to be living through the Swift Era?

The film critic Mark Kermode tells the story of a Hollywood dinner he attended in the 90s. He’s explaining to one woman at the table everything that’s wrong with a new movie called Titanic and why it’s destined to be a flop. He doesn’t realise that the woman he’s talking to is Sherry Lansing, the top Paramount studio executive behind the movie. “Your problem,” she tells him after he’s finally finished, “is that you’re not a teenage girl.” Titanic went on to gross a billion dollars and almost as many Oscars.

Time and again, popular culture made for a predominantly female audience is dismissed or underestimated and goes on to be huge. Frozen. Mamma Mia. Twilight. Bonus points if you leave a trail of sneering, unimpressed male critics in your wake. Not all Swifties are women, of course, but the female-centredness of the Taylor phenomenon is one of its defining aspects.

Back to Glastonbury festival: prior to this year they’ve managed exactly four female headline acts on the main stage this century. It’s always been a battle for female artists to get the representation they deserve. But Taylor Swift unapologetically creates a space for girls and women. It’s notable that the symbol of the Eras tour is friendship bracelets: if you read the social media feeds of anyone lucky enough to have attended, they talk about the music, but they talk about the sense of community at the concerts just as much.

And of course, at the centre of the Taylor phenomenon is Taylor the musical artist and her catalogue of very, very good pop music. As a songwriter she has a gift for a tune and a turn of phrase, but also for that magic blend of the universal and the specific that is the hallmark of great songwriters. A song like 2012’s All Too Well might be just four simple chords and the oldest story in the book – a love affair that seems like perfection until the moment you get your heart broken – but the detail of the storytelling is as vivid and personal as leafing through someone’s diary.

Motivate

At the 2019 Billboard Women In Music award show, Taylor Swift was recognised as “Woman of the Decade” and gave a remarkable, utterly scathing speech about her experience as a successful woman in the music industry: essentially, whatever you do, people will have a problem with it. “I became a mirror for my detractors,” she said. “I would keep accommodating, over-correcting, in an effort to appease my critics.”

It comes down, in her view, to a choice: “Who lets that scrutiny break them, and who just keeps making art?”

These, to me, are the deeper themes in Swift’s songs that give them a wider relevance and meaning to anyone who listens carefully. Emotional resilience. The futility of trying to please other people. The pressure of expectations.

The narrator of the song Champagne Problems from 2020’s Evermore turns down a romantic marriage proposal in the full glare of expectant family and friends. Whatever her reasons for refusing, other people dismiss her as simply being “wrong in the head”. As the title of the song suggests, as soon as she fails to live up to expectations they stop taking her seriously as a person. In the song Blank Space (2014) and its video, Taylor plays with her public image as a manipulative serial dater – one of the stereotypical roles that the media assigns to women who dare to openly enjoy themselves. Blank Space is maybe Taylor’s best ever song: catchy, gossipy, both empowered and vulnerable, high on the rush of love and desire but angry underneath it all.

When Taylor sang about being 22 she called it “miserable and magical”. Isn’t bouncing between those two extremes what life is like for most of us? As an artist she captures that feeling of disorientation and gives it a voice.

The concept of the Eras tour is so powerful because it perfectly matches Taylor as an artist who has reinvented herself over and over again, and a global audience who have grown up with her music and, thanks to COVID, have had to wait a very long time to see her play live. Imagine the fan who was studying for their GCSEs during the Reputation tour in 2018, and is now the other side of university; or someone about Taylor’s age who was there at the beginning of her career in 2007 and now has a career and a family. The idea of “eras”, of celebrating your triumphs as well as exorcising your personal demons by airing them in a communal space, is a powerful reflection of the part that music plays in our lives, keeping our past selves alive in the present.

There’s something compulsive -- and awe-inspiring -- about Taylor’s work ethic. This is a woman who has vowed to re-record six whole albums of existing music to take their listeners (and streaming revenue) away from the record executives she thinks have mistreated her work. Whose latest album release comprised thirty-one new songs detailing the emotional fallout of a breakup. Whose current touring show pushes towards three and a half hours in length.

But as Taylor says: “just keep making art”. Art that expresses joy, desire, youth, experience, regret and anger all at once. Being creative is an act of defiance and resilience.

Support

Art doesn’t exist to teach us lessons, but the art we consume is part of who we are, and part of the world we make for ourselves. What, then, can we pass down to young people from our Taylor fandom?

Embrace your eras. Change is part of life. It’s liberating to know that we can reinvent ourselves. School can be hard and frustrating, but once we make it through to university or work we can start anew, in a new place, with new people. Experiences and relationships that are painful now won’t last forever.

Equally, we do young people a favour when we encourage them to enjoy their current phase of life instead of focusing on our expectations for their future. Talk to young people about the life you had before they arrived: how you got your career started, where you travelled, how you learnt to be yourself.

“Haters gonna hate”. Taylor was right about this! Learn to distinguish people who are critical friends – who give us the honest feedback and motivation we need to improve – from people who are just jealous of all success and want to validate themselves by doing other people down.

Find your niche. I’ve told countless students this. Whatever you’re into, be unafraid to get really into it! If you love Taylor Swift, listen to all 274 of her songs and have an opinion on the lyrics and hunt down the recurring symbols and "easter eggs". If you love anime, hunt down every obscure old move you can find and start a social media feed all about them. Pursuing your interests will lead to opportunities and friendships in the future.

Keep making art. One of the best things we can do for children is encourage them to try different creative outlets: painting, writing, drawing comics, making music, designing games, anything. Teach them that what they make doesn’t need to be perfect.

Learn an instrument. If there’s a Taylor Swift fan in your house, and they don’t own a guitar, then quietly add one to their next birthday list. Thanks to YouTube channels like Justin Guitar it’s never been easier to learn the basics, and most of Taylor’s songs can be played with just a few chords. Who knows – one thing might lead to another, and they might get the itch to write songs of their own…


Are you a Tooled Up member?

Tooled Up can't necessarily turn your child into the next Taylor Swift, but we can help encourage some of the qualities that make her so inspiring!

Members can begin by exploring some of our resources on resilience, starting with Dr Kathy Weston's webinars on raising a resilient child and a resilient teen. This activity on reframing disappointment can help younger children, while this resource on good things encourages young people to celebrate what's going well.

There's plenty of research into the part that music can play in young people's development. Read about the ways music improves cognitive performance, and listen to this podcast on music and emotional development. In this interview, we talk about nurturing children’s sense of curiosity, wonder and creativity.

And of course, Taylor wouldn't be Taylor without a bit of heartbreak. Read our advice on dealing with your teen's first love!