Elvis? Madonna? Michael Jackson? What Makes Taylor Swift the Pop Icon She Is?
Boston University superfans and professors in musicology, marketing, and law on what makes the pop megastar so impressive
Can we now put Taylor Swift in the same pop icon stratosphere as Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Madonna? Or too soon? (For perspective, Madonna was 26 when “Like a Virgin” came out in 1984; Swift turns 34 in December.)
Harvey Young, dean of the College of Fine Arts, says yes, it’s time—she is most definitely a generational talent. “She’s certainly the equivalent of the Beatles or at the least, Paul McCartney at the height of his Beatles fame,” he says. “People forget that she’s been releasing music for 17 years—which means that like her, an army of former teenagers are now heading toward middle-age. Her music was literally the soundtrack to a generation’s most formative years, similar to Madonna or Michael Jackson for folks in their 50s.”
Even if you’re not a Swiftie, you can’t help but be awed by Swift’s achievements:
- She is the first and only woman solo artist to win the Grammy for Album of the Year three times (for her solo recordings).
- Her ongoing Eras Tour is expected to rake in $1.4 billion in sales. Its popularity shut down Ticketmaster temporarily and boosted tourism across the country, as fans traveled to multiple cities to follow her shows. Forbes estimates her wealth at $1.1 billion.
- Her new movie, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, features footage from her LA concerts and has raked in $149 million to date and been credited with reviving AMC Theaters.
- Her new album, 1989 (Taylor’s Version), became Spotify’s most-streamed album in a single day, breaking her own record.
“She’s an advocate, a style icon, a marketing wiz, a prolific songwriter, a pusher of visual boundaries and a record-breaking road warrior,” Billboard writes, summing up the Swift phenomenon. “And she sells a ton of albums… It’s rare to ascend to the pinnacle of pop stardom, as Swift has, and rarer still to impact the business so profoundly.”
We asked BU experts in law, music, and marketing what most impresses them about Swift.
She is a great musician.
Gareth Dylan Smith, a College of Fine Arts assistant professor of music and of music education, has the bragging rights of seeing a then-unknown 18-year old Swift perform in Nashville in 2007, when she opened for country music star Kathy Mattea. He saw her live again in 2011 and 2014, both times noting an improvement, and today, Smith says, her voice has grown only more robust and mature. “She has put the work in and has improved as a singer and musician,” he says. “Yeah, she’s ridiculously successful and wealthy, but she also works really damn hard.”
And he finds Swift’s songs well crafted from a technical standpoint, he says: they have catchy, memorable choruses, carefully crafted lyrics, good dynamics (how loud or soft the music is), and are thoughtfully placed throughout the album. The songs have “different feels and styles that are equally successful,” he says.
On stage, Swift pulls out the banjo and guitar and plays the piano, as well as singing and dancing, with multiple outfit changes. “There’s a lot going on, and she kills it on stage,” Smith says. “And it’s very impressive to do it night after night. You could be good at one of those, and I’d be impressed, but doing all at the same time…definitely impressive.”
She treats her fans well.
Swift is famous for releasing clues (“Easter eggs”) in her Instagram posts about new music, tongue-in-cheek references, past feuds, and more. She also offers her fans presale ticket access for her concerts, as well as first-listens to her tracks. These types of goodies create a “notion of exclusivity,” even though there are millions of fans out there, says Amy Shanler (CAS’96, COM’96,’04), a College of Communication associate professor of the practice of public relations. “That exclusivity is a highly persuasive tool when forming relationships.”
Swift describes the Eras concert as a journey through all of what she calls her musical “eras,” and this use of nostalgia is also a smart way to connect with fans, Shanler says. Even though Swift has grown up with her fans, she “hasn’t rested on her laurels; she continues to push and reinvent herself and create new value for her audiences.” This fact has helped her gain some new fans.
Shanler also says the decision to release a film version of the Eras concert was smart: the concert tickets often cost thousands of dollars, versus the $20 movie ticket price. “Taylor prides herself on her many years of relationships with her Swifties, and given that, she knew that her tour this summer was not accessible to everyone,” she says.
And moviegoers were still able to have a similar experience. In an Instagram post, Swift encouraged “Eras attire, friendship bracelets, singing, and dancing,” giving the whole experience “a concert-like atmosphere,” Shanler says. “She wants to create opportunities for her fans to engage and connect with her.”
She inspires other young artists to be smart businesspeople.
The release of 1989 (Taylor’s Version) marks Swift’s fourth of her earlier albums. The reason? Her ex-manager and longtime enemy Scooter Braun acquired her former record label, Big Machine Records, and therefore owns her first six masters. A few years ago, she set out to reclaim her music by rerecording it, and the project has proven to be a massive success.
Jessica Silbey, a BU School of Law professor, studies intellectual property law, and she says copyright law recognizes two different rights in music: the musical work and the sound recording. Artists usually transfer the rights to the recording company for them to sell and market and then receive a percentage (or royalties) from that. But artists keep their musical work. And anyone can make a cover of a song for a fee.
Silbey says that what is so interesting is that Swift essentially made covers of her own music and is therefore competing with her old albums. “What makes it possible for her to succeed at this business venture is that she has developed a strong fandom,” Silbey says. “She’s telling her fans, ‘Buy my version, buy my cover, don’t buy the earlier version, because I don’t like those people anymore. Protest with your dollars.’”
Not all artists have that power, unfortunately. Silbey, who is also a Yanakakis Faculty Research Scholar, says that some musical artists sign contracts with their record companies that forbid them from doing this for a period of time. But at this point in her career, Swift has a considerable amount of leverage. Silbey says the rerecording project has turned into a “really impressive business maneuver.”
“If you think about the albums as an embodiment of her identity and her performance, she’s really taking back her identity,” Silbey says. “I think this is a huge statement in 2023, after the Supreme Court has taken away the right of bodily autonomy for women and after the #MeToo movement. She is making a huge statement about women’s power and our capitalist system.”
Her music also inspires and reaches fans of all ages.
Look around and you’ll find many Swifties on campus. On Thursday nights, student-run radio station WTBU airs its All Too Unwell show, where they take one song from Swift’s expansive discography to influence a new playlist.
Steve Ramirez (CAS’10), a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, attended a concert recently and had a great time. “I loved it because of how uplifting it was and how much of ourselves we see in her music,” he says. “It’s a perfect combination of positive vibes, reflective and personal, all of which make for music that resonates deeply.”
Jessi Karol (Questrom’27) started listening to Swift’s music over COVID quarantine to connect with her friends who were fervent fans. But once she began to listen and discover new songs, “I fell in love,” she says. “Her albums are all so different and are great for different reasons.”
Sophie Muller (CAS’24) saw the Eras concert in Pittsburgh this summer, after she, her sister, and her dad “fought for their lives” on Ticketmaster. “She’s phenomenal, she speaks to so many people of different ages and walks of life,” Muller says. “You can listen to one song and have it be your upbeat walk to work, and three songs later it’s the saddest, most relatable song… The way that she’s worked towards success is so powerful to see in a woman.”