Taylor Swift is by far the most famous person I have awarded the much-coveted title of Person of the Year to. The previous four entries were far from unknown, but to one degree or another, you had to be interested in them to know who they were. Even Amy Poehler, 2012’s PotY, has a tendency to disappear into her characters, and certainly has a lower profile here in the UK than she does in the States, where SNL put her on more people’s radars.
Those kinds of qualifiers don’t apply to Taylor Swift. Even if they’ve never heard her songs, the vast majority of people will have heard of her, thanks to the tabloid machine. And the number of people who haven’t heard at least one of her songs must now be a considerably thinner wedge of the pie chart, thanks to 1989.
Swift’s fifth studio album wasn’t the catapult that sent her into the mainstream consciousness (that was 2012’s Red, with its peerless “We Are Never Getting Back Together”, and the press at the height of their ‘who’s Taylor Swift dating?’ mania) but it is the one that cements her position as a global pop sensation.
Much has been made of 1989 as her first true pop album, and while there’s elements of truth to that, with guitars swapped for drums and synths and a sound steeped in the legacy of acts from its title year, Swift has always been a pop star, it’s just now she’s embracing that.
In the liner notes that accompany 1989, Swift writes about change and coming into her own, addressing the foreword from “the girl who said she would never cut her hair or move to New York or find happiness in a world where she is not in love”. For all the effort people put into working out which ex-boyfriend every given song is about (answer: all of them, none of them) that seems to be the true theme of the album – Swift realising that she has changed and that she enjoys her new status quo in the spotlight.
In “You Belong With Me”, from her second album Fearless, Swift pines for a boyfriend from afar, criticising his current girlfriend and singing that “she wears high heels, I wear sneakers”. Now, Swift is the one in short skirts and high heels, happy to add a few more inches to her 5’10” frame so she towers over others. It’s worth noting, though, that even back in 2009, Swift played both her ‘self’ and the girlfriend in the video and cover art for “You Belong With Me”.
1989 is a record about confidence and comfort. That’s reflected in the masterful video for “Blank Space”, satirising those who would accuse her of being a vengeful ex. It’s reflected in the absence of duets with artists who can’t compare with her, two of which dragged down Red (fuck off, Ed Sheeran). It’s reflected in the final three bonus tracks on the deluxe version, demonstrating her song-writing process to all of those who complain she’s a manufactured star. And it’s reflected in the build-up to the album’s release.
‘Authenticity’ is one of those ridiculous terms that crops up in music criticism with a cyclic regularity, and Taylor Swift manages to carve through that with impressive assurance. Are her Instagram and Tumblr accounts cynical ploys to engage with the teen girls who form the core of her audience? Was inviting fans to a sleepover at her house and listen to the album ahead of time a marketing strategy?
Whether Taylor Swift is actually the global megastar who still manages to be the cool girl next door, or if it’s just an act, does it really matter? 1989 and everything that surrounds it is a resounding “hell no” to that question.
So often, our artists arrive fully formed, aesthetic and style set in place from the word go. Watching Swift evolve from country singer to true pop sensation hasn’t been an evolution, it’s been a camera coming into focus, refining what was always there until it shines through clearly. It’s been the act of a young woman embracing her power, her status and her agency, and showing the world exactly who she’s become.
It is customary to begin this biog of Tim Maytom by pointing out that he is always my Person of the Year, but that has been aggressively true in 2014. As well as setting up a joint blog about The Wicked + The Divine, we now work together. As a result, I am treated to his witticisms daily – watch out for future bestseller Maytom/Spencer: The Skype Conversations (2013-15) – as well as Twitter, Tumblr and occasionally his own blog. Jealous? You damn well should be.