If you already thought that Taylor Swift was eye-rollingly earnest, her comments in her Time magazine Person of the Year profile will only confirm that. “I’m collecting horcruxes,” Swift says, describing her mission to painstakingly re-record her first six albums, after the masters were sold. “I’m collecting infinity stones. Gandalf’s voice is in my head every time I put out a new one. For me, it is a movie now.” Cue plenty of online muttering about how it’s possible to be one of the biggest artists in the world and be completely cringe at the same time.
Harry Potter. Marvel. Lord of the Rings (it’s the Gandalf name check that really puzzles me: does she hear Sir Ian McKellan shouting “You shall not pass” every time she lines up a new re-release?). The cumulative effect is, well, a bit naff, as Twitter (sorry, X) users have pointed out in their droves since the interview was published yesterday. “This is one Madewell cardigan short of the most millennial sentence ever uttered,” writer Hunter Harris noted in her pop culture newsletter Hung Up.
It’s not the only slightly eyebrow-raising line to feature. Taylor’s new boyfriend Travis Kelce initially shooting his shot by mentioning her on his podcast? “Metal as hell”. Alright, Jack Black in School of Rock. The re-record of her sixth album Reputation? “A goth-punk moment of female rage at being gaslit by an entire social structure.”
Lines like these have been quote-tweeted to oblivion, used as proof of the singer’s inherent cringe factor. But why is anyone remotely shocked? Taylor has always embraced and owned that very cringiness – it’s a crucial part of her appeal. This is a musician who started out singing about Romeo and Juliet (in ‘Love Story’) and played a “good” nerd version of herself alongside a “bad” popular version in an early music video (for “You Belong With Me”). Who talks at length about her cats (one of them, Benjamin Button, features in her Time photoshoot). Whose very public (and undeniably cringe) relationship with Tom Hiddleston was hard launched through pap shots closely resembling something from a Nicholas Sparks weepie. Who has a spoken word breakdown featuring the lines “to the fella over there with the hella good hair” in one of her biggest songs, for god’s sake!
And yet, she gets away with it, just – because Taylor’s work is fuelled by an earnestness that might not be particularly cool, but is very real all the same. Unfortunately, stewing over the emotional detritus of a dead relationship is cringe. Obsessing over a first encounter with someone is cringe. Vowing revenge on an ex’s new partner is cringe. But it’s also painfully recognisable behaviour, and Swift’s genius is to package it up beautifully, without trying to sandpaper away those embarrassing edges. And although it might not come across in isolated interview quotes, she does have a certain self-awareness about how her work is perceived too (it’s in those asides like “who’s Taylor Swift anyway, ew?” in ‘22’ and that “indie record that’s much cooler than mine” in ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’).
Her Eras tour has been an exercise in learning to get up close and personal with the parts of your past that might make you squirm – leaning into the cringe, you could say. The 180-minute show is divided into sections honouring her albums, including work she wrote as a teenager. She unironically embraces the ambiance of each of them – wearing fairytale princess-y dresses for the Speak Now segment and playing out high school romantic dramas of Fearless with emotion. It’s the unabashed acceptance of her musical legacy to date, I think, that’s made the Eras Tour so successful.
When she delivered a commencement speech at New York University last year, Swift implored the graduates in the audience to “learn to live alongside cringe”, as it’s something that’s “unavoidable over a lifetime”. She’s right – there are worse things to be than a bit naff, and Taylor has made being cringe an art form.