Never Growing Up: Evaluating Nostalgia and Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour
BY ANNICA GROTE
It’s impossible to ignore Taylor Swift in 2023, no matter how hard you might try. Whether you’re an avid listener or a firm hater, even if you hardly engage with her online or off, she’s everywhere. It’s difficult to talk or even think about music or culture today without immediately bringing up Taylor Swift, the biggest name in pop since who knows when. No matter which album is your favorite, it is hard to avoid the fact that we are living in the era of Taylor Swift, singer, songwriter, capitalist queen, and pop star to end all pop stars. With the commencement of the Eras Tour in March, Taylor Swift’s name has been floating around our lives and the internet nonstop.
The Eras Tour has had an unprecedented impact on essentially every corner of contemporary culture. The tour has been valued at nearly 5 billion dollars, and economists have noted its effect on industries ranging from public transit to bead sales. Coverage of and surrounding the tour has been widely shared on social media and in think pieces across countless platforms. Her July performance in Seattle even caused seismic activity. What distinguishes the Eras Tour from other Swift concerts is its content: instead of playing just new songs, Swift performs a show consisting of songs from all ten of her studio albums—her ‘eras’—each with unique and elaborate choreography and lighting cues. The concert is, in many ways, the culmination of a turbulent few years for Swift, who is in the process of re-recording her first six albums after a dispute in 2019 with producer Scooter Braun.
Part of Swift’s continuous rise to unfathomable fame is her appeal to nostalgia, especially for the millennials and gen-Zers who make up the majority of her fan base. Swift has continued to release music as recently as last year, but with the popularity of her re-released early albums, her success has relied a great deal on reminding her fans how much they used to love her. It feels, sometimes, like Taylor Swift is famous because Taylor Swift has always been famous.
“It’s the way it connects me to the people I’ve grown up listening to her music [with],” said Dahlia Lyss, a senior and longtime Swift fan. “There are plenty of things I wouldn’t listen to on my own except for the fact that I listened to them with my mom.”
Other artists have hopped onto Swift’s nostalgia bandwagon, too. Recently, the Jonas Brothers embarked on their 2023 North American tour, which promises songs from all “five albums every night,” and other artists are following suit. It’s far from uncommon for musicians to include older songs in their live setlists, and reunion tours have been going on as long as there have been bands to reunite.
But the Eras Tour is not simply a “nostalgia tour,” as Stephan Pennington, a musicology professor at Tufts, puts it, since Swift isn’t washed up and is still releasing new music that her fans want to hear live. “That would be very sad,” said Pennington. “If this is the case—that people are engaging with her only for nostalgia purposes—that is tragic, and it says a whole lot about our current era.”
The Eras Tour is not just to promote her newest album, since she’s going back into the “vaults” and performing a carefully-curated selection of re-recorded hits, with two “surprise” songs each night. So the Eras Tour is something else. But why look back now? And why do it in such an extravagant way?
In a sense, the career retrospective—and especially Taylor Swift’s—is the perfect vessel for the mega-popstar to come to terms with the troubled conception of self that necessarily exists at her level of fame and notoriety. Swift has been incredibly famous for half of her life, and every move she’s made has come under public scrutiny—a lot of scrutiny—since she was a teenager.
Over the past seventeen years, Swift has cultivated a mass of devoted fans, albeit one that has changed shape a great deal since her early days. As Swift’s musical influences have changed from country to indie to pop and back again, and especially as her public image increasingly began to eclipse her singing and songwriting over time, the size and demographics of her fan base have fluctuated over the years. In this way, the Eras Tour can be looked at as a (very successful) attempt to unify the masses of people who have ever, at any point, enjoyed her music. To do so, she has to account for every version of herself that they have ever known.
Throughout her nearly two-decade career, Swift has faced backlash for being too political and for not being political enough, for being a radical feminist and for being misogynistic, for being a serial dater and for being something of a prude. Some of her earliest controversies—the 2009 VMAs encounter with Kanye West, for example—studio album, Reputation, was all about reinventing her image, and even her recent re-released EPs are an attempt to redefine her past. This continuous scrutiny does something to a person, as evidenced in the 2020 documentary film, Miss Americana, which offers a glimpse into the life of the woman behind the act (and which is perhaps itself another attempt by Swift to redirect her narrative). But despite the backlash, she’s never left the public eye, and her music remains at the top of the Billboard charts week after week.
In a sense, it’s the very qualities that make Swift such a perfect pop idol that destabilize this aspect of her identity. Swift—who Pennington calls the “girl-next-door” type—is a kind of icon of white femininity. She is exalted for aligning with the standards of Western beauty and propriety, but at the same time, it’s this alignment that makes criticism unavoidable. She is, of course, a talented songwriter and businesswoman, and she has been extraordinarily lucky and has worked incredibly hard, but her identity can’t be ignored. In a way, her entire career has been an attempt to contend with this identity, to control her narrative by preempting criticism or by redeeming herself. Swift’s identity as a woman puts her at a disadvantage in music and media industries defined by men; at the same time, her whiteness allows her to evade criticism that might be fatal to her career were she a woman of color. As long as the racial and patriarchal structures that define American life also define our entertainment, Swift will always be a controversial figure, but never too controversial not to be famous.
Swift’s ability to continuously redefine not only her current public image but that of her past selves is key to her unwavering success, as is the parasocial relationship she builds with her fans. This kind of “performed intimacy” is not new, according to Pennington, but has become more intense because of social media. Because of her confessional songwriting and how she engages with fans online, people feel like they know Taylor Swift, the person, instead of Taylor Swift, the musical act, the name in lights, the lyrical persona.
“I feel like I know Taylor Swift, even though I’ve never had a conversation with her in my life,” said Stephanie Bromberg, a junior and
attendee of the Eras Tour in Atlanta, GA. “Especially with something as vulnerable as songwriting—you feel like you know their whole desires and dreams.”
This performed intimacy is what’s so appealing about Swift right now–and what always has been—but it’s also what makes her identity so problematized. It makes sense, in a way, that she feels the need to look back at who she has been—who her fans have known her to be, really—in order for her to figure out where she’s going next. There may be a ‘real’ Taylor Swift behind the face we see on her album covers, the “I” that sings of lost loves and insecurities in her song lyrics, the “Taylor Swift” that appears in headlines—but we will never know her.
“It feels to me like the Eras Tour is for her,” said Pennington. “I think she’s trying to take control of her narrative in certain ways, for herself and with herself. She’s trying to do identity work in some kind of way.” “I’d like to be my old self again/ But I’m still trying to find it,” Swift sings on her landmark track “All
Too Well.” She wrote the lyrics when she was just twenty-two, already firmly established in the music industry but on the precipice of even greater success, still trying to navigate life in the public eye. It’s difficult to imagine what Swift will do after the Eras Tour ends next November: she’s only 34, but in pop-years, she’s ancient. Regardless of where she goes next, it’s hard to believe that the Eras Tour won’t be the defining moment in Swift’s career, and it seems like that’s how she wants it.
Whether you love her, you hate her, or you’re indifferent, the unbelievable scale of Swift’s fame, the scope of her reach across generations and cultures and industries, is not to be taken lightly. She may be looking to the past, but she couldn’t be more aware of the future