Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion. He co-hosts the podcast “They Call Us Bruce,” and is co-author of the bestselling book “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now” and author of “THE GOLDEN SCREEN: The Movies That Made Asian America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
There’s a whole cottage industry in pop culture essay writing dedicated to trying to unpack why Taylor Swift is so successful. Is it because she’s the epitome of Americana? Or the ultimate vehicle for “millennial vibes”? Champion of the underdogs? The final girlboss?
In fact, her popularity is anchored in the way she manages to be all of these things, and none of them for very long, pivoting effortlessly from persona to persona and position to position; shedding her skin when necessary (like the “snake” she was famously compared to by Kim Kardashian) to reveal fresh new colors beneath.
Constant reinvention is a given in pop iconhood, as countless prior and peer artists — from Michael Jackson and Madonna to Britney Spears and Justin Bieber — can attest. But no one else does it with the same casual, frictionless aplomb as Swift; her self-shifts don’t come off as acts of extravagant pick-me theater in the mode of Ariana Grande, or explosive artistic statements a la Beyoncé. Instead, they’re more like chord changes; variations in the key of Tay — eyebrow-raising, but never too extreme or off-putting. Which means that throughout all of her evolutions, she has remained accessible, approachable, personable and projectable; a cool hang for the guys, trusted bestie to the girls.
This careful balancing act has been a key reason why she’s stayed relevant across a career of nearly two decades. And it’s why she’ll undoubtedly reach the milestone of best-selling female solo artist of all time (at over 180 million albums sold according to ChartMasters.org, only Celine Dion at more than 220 million and Madonna at 250 million stand in her way).
The truth is, though, simply selling albums almost seems quaint now as a benchmark of Swiftian achievement. She’s now increasingly being spoken about as an economic force of nature, a transformative creator advocate, organizer and innovator and arguably the most influential — perhaps even the most powerful — figure in the music industry.
It was Swift who, in reaction to Scooter Braun acquiring the company controlling her early music masters, chose the almost unthinkable path of re-recording her old albums one by one, creating versions of her classic songs that are now under her direct control. The move isn’t just an act of revenge against someone whose actions she’s referred to publicly as “bullying.” It’s a rebel stroke that cuts at the heart of the recording industry’s power over creators, and one that was only possible because Swift is songwriter on all of her original music, and because of the uniquely equitable contract she signed with her current label, Republic Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group. Under the terms of that contract, Swift demanded full ownership of all of her master recordings going forward, plus a royalty of at least 50%.
That said, it’s another clause in the agreement that demonstrates the full weight of Swift’s power: In an unprecedented move that seals her status as a kind of Joan of Arc for creator rights, she said she also got Universal, a major investor in Spotify, to agree that if it were to ever sell any of its shares, a non-recoupable split of those profits would be shared with Swift and all other fellow Universal recording artists.
Swift has used the occasion of her reinvention of her musical past to launch an extended global performance circuit, the “Eras” tour, which could become the most lucrative music tour in history. It will, all in, represent a $5.7 billion boost to the US economy according to the Washington Post, while injecting a profound degree of monetary stimulus into every city hosting her, given that her fans collectively spend around $93 million per show.
In Los Angeles, where she played six sold-out nights at SoFi Stadium, the tour generated enough money to support 3,300 jobs. And Swift generously showered her staff with spiffs, giving each of her tour truck drivers $100,000 in the summer, and providing other bonuses to her sound techs, backup dancers, catering crew and other staff, to the collective tune of $55 million. She can afford it. Already a billionaire, Swift stands to personally make as much as $4.1 billion from the “Eras” tour, according to estimates cited by the Post.
That doesn’t even include the money she stands to earn from the concert film she shot while on tour, “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” which in yet another example of I’ll-do-it-myself disruption she paid for out of her own pocket as an independent production, eschbewing studio involvement, and subsequently distributed it via theater chain AMC. It has already earned more than $250 million at the box office, reportedly just under 60% of which will go straight to Swift’s production company, which will get another revenue bump when the film hits streaming platforms for rental and download on Dec. 13, Swift’s 34th birthday.
Many have pointed out that her outsized success has nepo baby roots — the daughter of a Merrill Lynch stockbroker, she grew up on an 11-acre Christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania, and her dad helped to boost her early success by buying part of her original label, Big Machine Records. Swift would have had a much harder road in her path to stardom, which began when she moved to the country music mecca of Nashville, had she not been White, a privilege she herself has acknowledged in recent years.
Still, it’s Swift’s undeniable talent, her resourcefulness and her (blond) ambition that have gotten her where she is — that is to say, the very top. I admit to personally being a begrudging fan, not just of her music, but her incredible sense of enterprise. I take mental notes with every new move she makes — and if someone else doesn’t write a bestselling business tome detailing the lessons would-be moguls should learn from Swift’s savvy, I will. Are you ready for it? Keep an eye out: “The Tao of Tay: The Swift Path to Success,” coming soon to better airport bookstores everywhere.