Section 301, In the second-to-highest tier of Levi’s Stadium, floats 105 feet above Santa Clara, Calif. It comprises 251 seats — a mere hamlet in the vast 64,000-seat general kingdom of the place, but it was our hamlet, and on the last Saturday in July, we took up each one of those seats and watched, our collective breath held, as Taylor Swift emerged from a bevy of billowing pastel parachutes and rose up on a platform to perform the 47th show of her Eras Tour. A few songs in, she announced, laughing, that her father told her that Santa Clara had named her its honorary mayor during her two-night stay there and that the entire town had been renamed Swiftie Clara. On the way in, we saw the Police Department cheerfully exchanging friendship bracelets with legions of Swifties. The microcosm of Section 301 offered this same sense of sorority. What a nice neighborhood we had moved into, my 15-year-old son, Ezra, and I. Within minutes of sitting down, we were already a community with a shared, ardent sense of purpose.
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The mood was solemn — spiritual, even. I have prayed at dawn at the Temple Mount. I have stood among quivering supplicants at the graves of biblical forefathers. I have walked in trembling silence as I entered farther and farther into the inner sanctums of the Vatican. This was like that, except for girls.
The young women to Ezra’s left wore moody black “Reputation”-era dress and could not have been more than 16. They were speechless and breathless and did not move or sit down once the entire night because they were afraid they might miss something. Three rows back sat a line of tweens in pink sundresses, white cowgirl hats and sparkling cowgirl boots — Taylor Swift’s debut era for her self-titled album. To my right were two men wearing matching T-shirts that said: “IT’S ME, HI. I’M THE HUSBAND. IT’S ME.” Their wives, who were friends, chose (smartly) to sit together on one side. During songs they didn’t know, which were most of them, they talked to one another, using words like “reps” and “C.E.O.” and “acquisition.”
But listen: Over my right shoulder, just above the HUSBANDs and their wives, stood a young man with a glitter heart around his eye, like the one Taylor wears on the pastel cover of the “Lover” album, accompanied by a young woman, I guess his girlfriend, who wore a sparkly purple dress, like the one Taylor wears on the cover of “Speak Now.” If our kingdom was also our high school and our hamlet our homeroom, they were our prom king and queen. On the stage below, Taylor made her way from her “Lover” era to her “Fearless” one, and suddenly she was singing “Love Story,” one of her many early songs in which a girl loves a boy but he doesn’t love her back, or he doesn’t know to love her back because of some other girl who has unjustly commandeered his love. Or, in the case of “Love Story,” she’s Juliet, and there’s so much drama with Romeo’s family, and we all know what’s going to happen if they can’t be together.
But then we get to the bridge, and the story changes. In “Love Story,” just as Juliet is despairing and hopeless, Romeo drops to his knees and tells her he has talked to her father and asks her to marry him. And here, in 301, on our very own balcony, something crazy happens. Over my and Ezra’s right shoulders, just behind the HUSBANDs, THE PROM KING ASKS THE PROM QUEEN TO MARRY HIM! AND THE PROM QUEEN SAYS YES!!!
Does Section 301 go wild! We take pictures and congratulate them. We ask to see the ring. We shake our heads with our mouths open because this night is sparkling and young love is amazing.
“Did you see that?” one of the HUSBANDs asked. I told him I did.
“What are you writing down?” he asked. I told him that I’m a writer for this magazine and that I was writing about Taylor Swift.
“Huh,” he said. “I would think that they’d give The New York Times better seats.”
“You and me both,” I answered. The truth is, I bought these seats on my own.
“Are you talking to her?” he asked. I told him no. I told him I had made my requests but was turned down. My boss, too. Her publicist had politely told us that she was too busy to do an interview. And that’s probably true. Or maybe she has an exclusive somewhere else.
Or — and this was what I’d been thinking lately — maybe we were in entirely new territory. She hasn’t done a traditional magazine profile since 2019. She announced this tour on “Good Morning America” and her very own social-media accounts. She released two pandemic albums, “folklore” and “evermore,” by dropping them into the world with a day’s notice. For “folklore,” she released a full-length film in which she expounds on each song; it was called “Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions,” and it was directed and produced by Ms. Taylor Alison Swift and needed no intermediary to explain it to her audience.
She has become one of a new breed of postmedia celebrities who have set new rules of engagement with both the media and the fans. Technology has risen to meet these new rules, and perhaps there really is nothing I can offer her, that we the media can offer her, that would help her sell more albums or become better known or more successful or more beloved than she already is. Witness this historic cultural event: this no-signs-of-stopping, local-economy-upending tour. Eras is its own news cycle, its own tabloid, its own Tumblr, its own news release and, as we would find out in a few weeks, its own movie set.
And we in Section 301 were enthralled by her, even though we couldn’t actually see her from where we were sitting. All we could really see was a tiny figure in an angelic dress, running across the stage down below. Our only proof that she was actually in the stadium was that the people close to the stage seemed to believe that she was, and we chose to believe them. But it didn’t even matter that we couldn’t see her. Our devotion is maximal; her engagement is total. We were in a trance.
“That’s crazy,” said the HUSBAND, who turned back to the other HUSBAND to discuss, I think, baseball.
Now, below, the mayor of Swiftie Clara was sitting at a moss-covered piano for a song called “Champagne Problems.” It’s a song about a woman who turns down a man’s proposal. Some of us in Section 301 shared a knowing laugh-nod because we knew that our prom queen’s rejecting the king’s proposal had been a possible outcome of what we just saw, and we were all very happy that we didn’t have to sit in that particular awkwardness. I looked up over my shoulder at the prom queen again. Her attention was burrowed toward the stage, as she mouthed the words to all the songs in deep concentration.
Credit…Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
The HUSBAND was talking to me again. He was saying he’d heard that Taylor Swift stood to make a billion dollars by the time this tour was through, and was asking if I had, too, but I needed him to repeat the question. I was still thinking about our prom queen, in her purple dress, about the way your life could change in the middle of a song you’d been listening to for years. I was thinking about the notion of dividing a life into befores and afters — into eras; I was thinking about the way that it feels as if you’re always leaving things behind.
Ezra and I had arrived hours before showtime, to a stadium that was already almost completely full. The sun was still bright when we went to take our spots on the merch line, which — how can I describe it? Have you ever seen old pictures of Ellis Island? I told Ezra to stay close.
We thought we were beating the system by ascending to the third level, but the joke was on us. We saw two merch stands, advertising $70 hoodies and $35 T-shirts. We had been warned that the sheer numbers would create the kind of chaos that exhausts a concertgoer before the opening act. I’d read savage stories about fans’ fainting in line or wearing adult diapers.
But our line was peaceful; what nobody talked about when they posted crowd photos on social media was how gentle the experience was, an atmospheric sage-burning in time for the season of this football stadium’s normal, violent uses. Around us, stranger approached stranger and held out a wrist full of beaded bracelets that named various Taylor Swift albums, which were here doing business as “eras,” to choose from; stranger took another era off her own wrist and traded it back, a wordless ritual that everyone understood. Stranger was no longer stranger but friend.
They were dressed as circus ringleaders and fully rendered mirrorballs. They were swamp creatures and zombies. They wore bustled strapless petticoated gowns; they donned black velvet hooded capes. They were girls in the bleachers; they were enchanted to meet you.
The organizing principle of the Eras Tour is that it is a celebration of Taylor Swift’s own eras — how, at 33, she has already cycled through so many periods of identity on her public journey from girl to woman. Her life story is one that you could read about in the reams of magazine profiles that have been written about her over the years, one that even the least Swift-engaged young women across at least two generations have learned by sheer internet use and osmosis: She grew up on a Christmas-tree farm in Wyomissing, Pa., where she would listen to Shania Twain and Faith Hill and LeAnn Rimes and watch VH1’s “Behind the Music” and record demo tapes to send to Nashville. At 12, she sang the national anthem at a 76ers game. Soon after, she called her friends to see if they wanted to go shopping with her, but they all said they were busy. So her mother took her to the mall instead, and there were her friends, hanging out together. Her mother turned her around and took her to a different mall, but you can imagine that Taylor Swift died a little that day, and what she was reborn as was someone for whom there was not enough love and approval in the whole world. She would write a song about the experience, and she would feel better. She would realize that this new person she had become was someone whose best work would come from her reactions to the world, her urgent metabolization of her pain into poetry.
The Swifts moved to Nashville to help support Taylor’s career, and one night, at a talent showcase at the Bluebird Cafe, she caught the eye of a Universal executive named Scott Borchetta. In 2005, Borchetta started his own label, Big Machine, and signed her immediately. It soon became clear that her music could serve the audience segment that country music had long neglected — teenage girls.
“Which era are you?” one of three young women behind us in line asked. Have I mentioned the glitter? It was everywhere, and these three were covered in it.
They were 18 or 19, and the one who asked me was wearing a gold, fringey dress, which connotes the “Fearless” era. “You Belong With Me,” off Swift’s second album, won a Video Music Award for best female video. During her speech, Kanye West stormed the stage and announced that it was actually Beyoncé who had made the best video of the year, leaving Taylor standing there, frozen, stunned and confused for too long a period. You could see in the ensuing years, as she talked about it in the press, that she was slowly coming to understand what really happened on that stage, which was that she had been murdered again, right there in front of everyone she knew and respected.
“Oh,” I said to the young woman who posed the question, looking down at my outfit. I was wearing a bootleg gray T-shirt with a design of Taylor’s face wearing sunglasses. The sunglasses reflected back the numbers 1989. “I guess I’m ‘1989’? That was the first album I liked, but ‘Reputation’ is my favorite.”
Her friends were in different eras, too. One was wearing a variation on a fluffy purple dress that a lot of them were wearing — the “Speak Now” era — and the other was wearing a black fedora and black sequin hot pants and a T-shirt that said: “WHO’S TAYLOR SWIFT ANYWAY? EW,” from the “Red” era. Part of the Swiftian ethos is learning how to take something that seems like a diss and turn it into a last laugh.
“The era isn’t the album you like,” the “Red” one said. “It’s the one you are.”
“Like, it’s where you’re at these days, you know?” the “Speak Now” one said.
I nodded. Made sense. Ezra had to go to the bathroom, but so many of the men’s rooms had been turned into women’s rooms for the event that we hadn’t seen one from the line so far. I sent him off.
Taylor released “Speak Now” the year after the Kanye incident. They had become something like friends; they even had dinner sometimes. By then, she seemed to feel bad for him. The world had judged him harshly for his behavior. The literal president, Barack Obama, had called him a jackass. Taylor wrote a song that is almost certainly about Kanye, called “Innocent.” “Who you are is not what you did,” it goes. On a visit to her Nashville apartment, a journalist noticed a framed photo of the moment Kanye interrupted her on the V.M.A. stage, a twisted reminder of either the fact that you can triumph over your own repeated murder or the fact that at any moment of triumph someone will be there to kneecap you.
Ezra returned from the bathroom. “Wow,” he said. “The men’s room was emp-ty.” We’d been in the line for what seemed like hours by then. He’d grown a little bit of beard while he was gone. “It was really nice, actually. Peaceful.”
By the time “Red” came out in 2012, Taylor was still holding on to who she wanted to be: a hardworking, songwriting-obsessed, fan-obsessed country-singing juggernaut. But if this story were one of Taylor’s beloved “Behind the Music” episodes, an ominous voice would come in and say that here was where things started to fray. People were starting to say that she dated too much. They said she cared too much. They accused her of being insincere. Some of the songs on her new album, “1989,” were about old relationships, but a lot of them featured this cartoon version of herself that she was hearing about — the version that stays out too late and goes on too many dates (“Shake It Off”), or the one that has a long list of ex-lovers who will tell you she’s insane (“Blank Space”). She stopped dating, and in the place of male romantic partners she formed a supergroup of famous female friends — everyone from Lena Dunham to the model Karlie Kloss to Lorde to Selena Gomez — and on the tour for “1989,” she marched those friends of hers out onto the stage for everyone to see. Take that, mallrat bitches of Wyomissing!
Her music had changed by then. Suddenly, her slow creep from country sped into pure pop, leaving country behind, wishing it well and taking only its tradition of sinuous storytelling with her. Her voice changed, too. Gone was the yodelly vocal flip of the country singer. By then, we had endured a long moment of female artists whose voices seemed outsize for the body of a regular human: melismatic, with 10 notes to a syllable of a word, or a gravelly voice, where a woman sounds as if she is digging down, grinding something out. Consider Taylor’s approach: a voice so pure and pretty that it makes you wonder why so many of her musical peers and predecessors work so hard. It’s not an otherworldly voice, but a specifically worldly one. She sings how you would sing if you were talking and became so overcome with emotion that your voice was lifted and carried by it. It’s how I would sing if I could.
Now Ezra wanted to check out the concession stand. I gave him some money and sent him off, noting a subtle balding that had begun around his temples. Two women wearing stuffed snakes around their necks came up, and one handed me her phone and asked if I could take their picture.
The snake is Taylor’s biggest and best version of the diss-to-last-laugh boomerang, the “WHO’S TAYLOR SWIFT ANYWAY? EW” writ impossibly large and deadly. After the “1989” tour, in 2015, after the showboating of the friends onstage, after moving to New York and starting a new life, things got weird. In 2016, her friend Kanye resurfaced with a lyric in a new song called “Famous” that went: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.” He made an accompanying video that featured what looked like Taylor Swift naked in bed with him (along with several other naked celebrities), though it was only a likeness of her. Taylor was appalled by it, but Kanye said he had her permission. His wife at the time, Kim Kardashian, released an edited video clip that appeared to support Kanye’s claim. Taylor continued to deny it, and later, when the full video surfaced, it was clear that Taylor was telling the truth.
Now it was war. Kim Kardashian posted snake emojis, and everyone knew she was talking about you-know-who. A crowd at a Kanye show chanted, “[Expletive] Taylor Swift!”
This came after a minor Twitter beef with Nicki Minaj and amid a falling-out with Calvin Harris. It seemed as though the entire world had turned on her. Now, they said, it was clear that she had always been a fraud. Now, they said, it was clear that even her feminism wasn’t real; it consisted of lining up her pretty, mostly white friends onstage to take pictures or wear matching bathing suits on the Fourth of July. And what kind of feminism was that video for “Bad Blood,” which features a bajillion famous women, when the song itself is said to be about a grudge Taylor had against Katy Perry?
Taylor is a digital native. She watched this all play out and knew she couldn’t fight the tidal wave that had come for her. She nuked her social media and disappeared. Her website was nothing but a black page. When she re-emerged on social media, it was with a grainy video of — was that … ? It was a snake.
“Reputation,” released a few months later, is an album full not of apology but of confession (real or performed). It is filled with ferocious songs of self-loathing, of admitted (ibid.) manipulations, of a self-awareness so minute that it is uncomfortable to look at directly. Witness “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” another song that is supposedly about Kanye, in which she begins laughing too hard to sing when she talks about forgiving him. Witness “End Game,” in which she sings, “Ooooh, I got some big enemies.”
If you watch the Netflix special that documents the “Reputation” tour, you’ll see there’s a moment when she looks around at the stadium cheering for her. Much has been made about the Taylor Swift Surprise Face, an aw-shucks meme that might have been its own impetus for cancellation in the first place — you’re not allowed to show your surprise at your dominance during your dominance, even if you mean it. But what is the appropriate response to finding out that after your brutal death and your miraculous rebirth, you’re still so, so beloved? You can see in her eyes that she wasn’t just back in her fans’ embrace; she was realizing, night after night, that she never left it.
Ezra returned with some nachos. I don’t want to brag, but he’s a doctor now! He had gotten married and bought a co-op downtown. They toasted me at the wedding, he said, me in this endless line for T-shirts.
I saw someone draped in a sheet, and I wondered aloud if maybe it was someone who was afraid that her boss would see her skipping work for a concert. The young woman in front of me, a college student who had come in from Sacramento and was here for a second night in a row, said, “No, that’s all the people that she ghosted in the room” — a reference to “Anti-Hero,” a single from “Midnights.”
The college student told me that the night before, she’d been “baptized” — her word. She’s in her 20s now, but she has been listening to Taylor Swift since she was a teenager. She used to sing her songs in front of a mirror, alone in her bedroom, and Taylor Swift was a part of her childhood, not just in the way you look back fondly, but in the ways you look back with embarrassment.
“All the ways you’re so ashamed of the person you were right before this moment,” she said. “You could so easily be ashamed of singing Taylor Swift in your bedroom. You could leave it behind. But she doesn’t let you. She says, ‘Look, I’m getting older, too.’ You grow with her. What if we weren’t ashamed of our eras? What if we realized they were always with us, and you just didn’t have to feel shame about who you were?” She started crying; baby, I did, too.
“Mom,” Ezra said, his aging eyes aglow. “Look!”
I turned to see that we had arrived at the front of the line. It was 10 minutes to showtime. We had been in line for two and a half hours, but somehow there was still merch to be had — a miracle! Instead of the T-shirts we were planning to buy, I got us both hoodies. The air was warm, but we were old now, and we got cold more easily than we did before.
The sky turned into smeared unicorn pastels; it was in its “Lover” era now. A perfect moon hung over the stadium, a beautiful satellite suspended over a limitless star. Below us, in a purple dress that looked like a cake topper, holding a blue guitar, Taylor pumped her fist and sang: “Long live the walls we crashed through. How the kingdom lights shined just for me and you.”
I couldn’t stop looking over my shoulder at the prom queen. Was I imagining her middle-distance stare? Please keep in mind that the answer is a resolute maybe with a high probability of probably.
But hear me out: I was thinking about what my new friend from Sacramento told me in the endless merch line. You could watch this concert — you could watch this entire phenomenon — through the eyes of the idea that Taylor Swift frees women to celebrate their girlhood, to understand that their womanhood is made up of these microchapters of change, that we’re not different people than we were then, that we shouldn’t disavow the earlier versions of ourselves, our earlier eras.
If you do look at it that way, you can also imagine why a young woman who tried to share Taylor Swift, this seminal part of her childhood, with the man she loves might have some feelings (again, this is conjecture! I might be making this up based on nothing more than a whim and a projection!) about the fact that he took a song she sang in her childhood bedroom and essentially hijacked it, making it about him and their relationship instead.
“There’s not a lot of sex in this show,” one of the HUSBANDs, the other one, said now. They had switched seats, and he was bored by the “Speak Now” era.
“That’s because this isn’t for you,” I told him, and I found myself getting angry as I spoke. “She wasn’t created to please you like the other women pop stars. She created herself to please me. She escaped the machine where women are only allowed to be pop stars if they don’t anger or threaten men. This just isn’t for you.”
He squinted his eyes and furrowed his brow and pursed his lips and nodded like he understood, but I didn’t care, and I turned away.
The HUSBAND wasn’t exactly wrong, though. No matter how grindy or seductive Taylor’s dance moves can be, she is also making funny faces while she does them. During “Vigilante [Expletive],” where the choreography isn’t not like a burlesque show, she has a move where she puts one leg up on the seat of a chair. Sometimes, when she performs it, she puts her hand on her chest, fingers pointing south, and starts to slide it down as she sings, “Lately she’s been dressing for revenge.” But as her hand passes her solar plexus, she gives a scandalized “What? Me?” look and laughs with her audience. Her dancing is a combination of intricately executed choreography and the kind of literal-gesture dancing that has you put your thumb and pinkie to your head to indicate a phone call.
It’s a form of dancing I haven’t done in front of anyone for years; it’s the kind of thing I used to do with a group of other young women or girls when there were no boys around, or at least no boys we cared to impress. That’s what this entire concert reminded me of — time I spent in my own teenage bedroom, singing songs and pinballing between sexy stripper moves and goofy square dancing. Maybe that’s what Eras really is: the acknowledgment of girls as people to memorialize, of who we are and who we were, all existing in the same body, on the same timeline. You are your sluttiest version, your silliest version, your most wholesome, your smartest, your dumbest, your saddest, your happiest — all at once.
I looked back again at the prom king and queen. He meant well, the poor guy. He knew how much she loved Taylor Swift, probably, and that song in particular. I wonder if she’d seen that TikTok/Instagram Reel where the entire wedding is jump-singing “Love Story,” and maybe one night she turned to him and said: “Look at this. Isn’t this something?” Maybe a plan began to hatch in his head, and he stood over the computer during the Ticketmaster fiasco and figured out how to get two tickets. He landed in the republic of Section 301 knowing, just knowing, that this was going to be the moment. He was going to give her what she wanted. If you listen to Taylor Swift enough, you would think that this was what we wanted.
But listen more carefully. Read the liner notes. Decipher the codes. Know your Taylor Swift history. Her songbook is really only minimally about romantic love, and the best part of romantic love, which is its moment of revelation. It’s maximally about the other things that happen to a person in life: about the sometimes-questionable, sometimes-great, sometimes-tragic aftermath of that revelation, but it’s also about loss and betrayal and friendship and revenge.
Witness Taylor Swift, in a white dress with sleeves that became what appeared, from where I was sitting, to be wings whenever she ran or danced, singing “My Tears Ricochet” — a song that poses as a love song but is really about a different kind of devastation.
She begins curled up on the floor, standing only as her backup dancers, dressed in funereal black, join her. She starts to walk slowly, and they follow her, looking down. In 2019, Scott Borchetta sold Big Machine — and, with it, her masters — to the talent manager Scooter Braun, a man she hated. According to a Tumblr post she wrote in June that year, Borchetta’s company did give her the opportunity to get the masters back, but also insisted that, in exchange, she had to make a commensurate number of new albums, a kind of indentured servitude. She refused, and later announced that she would be rerecording her albums. The originals would be available still, but the new ones, the kosher ones, would be demarcated as “(Taylor’s Version).”
“My Tears Ricochet” is a heartbreaker. I cannot remember a song about business malfeasance that is so affecting, that would cause 64,000 people to scream on your behalf. It is one of the fiercest and best-crafted songs I’ve ever heard.
Especially the bridge. Taylor Swift loves bridges: The internet is rife not just with lists of and debates about the best bridges of her songs, but with videos of people sing-screaming those bridges as they run alongside the mechanism that’s recording them. In particular, she loves the kind of bridge that changes the nature of the song, as in “Out of the Woods,” a song about a doomed relationship where the bridge returns to the perspective of not yet knowing it’s doomed, or “the 1,” where someone breezily catching an ex-lover up on her new life shifts to the tenser question beneath the interaction, about where exactly the relationship went wrong.
The bridge in “My Tears Ricochet” goes like this:
Imagine an entire football stadium singing about what a jerk you are. Imagine dozens and dozens of entirely-sold-out football stadiums singing about what a jerk you are.
She has so far released three rerecorded albums. Some people say that she sounds older, or that she has less of the original emotion that fueled the songs in the first place, but that doesn’t account for what an interesting postmodern experiment the whole enterprise is — Eras as proof of concept, a woman looking back on her youth to remember what she is made of, not with shame but with curiosity and even delight. It had never occurred to me to look back on even my most carefree and innocuous eras with anything but shame.
One can enter Swiftiedom at any level: avocation or vocation, background music or full-time job. Being a Swiftie at the highest level means access to an all-consuming, all-absorbing empire of evidence, where all the questions have answers, all the mysteries are solved, where you get to feel excited and smart and involved with something bigger than yourself without ever looking up from your phone.
Let’s go straight to that level. That’s the level where we read the codes she leaves in her liner notes with random capital letters to equal the name of the guy that the song is about or a secret message. The level where she seems to indicate to her fans which album is being recorded next via a series of hidden images in an Instagram post. The level where, as I began writing this, legions of fans were crunching and computing and tabulating data to determine if (and why and how) the number 112 is significant when it comes to predicting the releases of her rerecordings.
Take the single “Karma,” off “Midnights.” In it, she sings, “Karma is my boyfriend, Karma is a god, Karma is the breeze in my hair on the weekend. … Spider Boy, king of thieves, weave your little webs of opacity.” As I write this, I have been glitter-pilled enough to not be able to see anything but this: “Boyfriend” is a song by Justin Bieber. “God is a woman” is one by Ariana Grande; so is “my hair.” Now: “sweet like justice,” a lyric in that same song. “Sweetener” is a Grande album; she has a perfume named Sweet Like Candy. “Justice” is a Bieber album.
On to “Spider Boy”: Both Grande and Bieber were clients of one Scooter Braun, who also shares his initials with Scott Borchetta. The song is called “Karma”! By the way, Grande and Bieber were among the clients reported to have dropped Scooter Braun as their manager on the day I wrote this sentence, which was also the anniversary of the announcement of the “Reputation” album. (Additional reporting by 1,000 TikTok accounts and a million other sources I found on the internet, which was originally built for the military.)
This is the kind of thing you need to understand before you can begin to parse what happened with Karlie Kloss.
People had been telling Taylor Swift for years that she looked just like the model, that she reminded them of her, that they should meet. Her first public mention of Karlie Kloss is in a 2012 Vogue cover profile, where Taylor says that she loves Karlie Kloss and would like to bake cookies with her. Karlie tweeted in response to the Vogue quote: “Your kitchen or mine?”
The two became inseparable, taking pictures, dressing alike, dancing at concerts. Taylor gave a journalist a tour of her apartment in TriBeCa that included a room where Karlie stayed when she was over. Taylor sang at two Victoria’s Secret fashion shows, the two of them sharing looks and holding hands at various points.
But then in 2016, Karlie Kloss punted on a press question about Kim Kardashian, saying that Kim had been “a lovely person to me in the past.” This was right after Snakegate; were things starting to fray? Then, in 2018, Karlie married Josh Kushner, and TAYLOR WAS NOT THERE. But you know who was? SCOOTER BRAUN! WHO IS KARLIE’S FORMER MANAGER!
A theory surfaced (one that I will continue to believe no matter what you tell me) that in a supplementary photo in the “Reputation” album, Taylor’s left eye had been replaced with Karlie Kloss’s left eye. What is “Reputation” but an album of coded regrets? What is revenge but exchanging an eye for an eye? I am worried I will be fired for even printing a draft of this theory, but I have examined this from all sides. The evidence is overwhelming!
Consider the song off “evermore” called “it’s time to go.”
That’s proof enough for me!
Then there’s “Maroon,” the beautiful second song on “Midnights.” It begins with the story of waking up the morning after a drunken night. But even before the first verse is up, it’s clear that the story is a sad memory: “I see you every day now” is that first verse’s wistful last line.
It goes on to recount a breakup, and the various colors of those memories, the hues of residual anger and loss, but mostly the sadness that’s left when the blush of love colored pink fades: “I feel you no matter what,” it goes. Then, almost in a yell, “The rubies that I gave up!”
Its bridge is a simple two lines repeated:
I can’t remember the first time I saw the hashtag #kaylor; it’s as if the fan theory that Taylor and Karlie were in a romantic relationship always existed, with all its half-clues and song codes and blurry video that asks if they’re kissing. And maybe, I don’t know, sure. But it’s too simplistic to think of “Maroon” as a traditional romantic breakup song. I do think it’s about Karlie Kloss, though. Like all of Taylor’s songs, even the ones that absolutely probably are about her masters being sold to Scooter Braun, it’s built like a love song. But I would submit that this isn’t for subterfuge, or even to make the song more traditionally relatable. Instead, if this song is about Karlie Kloss, it is about the devastation of losing a best friend.
I’m not sure why it never occurred to me that there should be more songs about things that aren’t romantic love, why I never thought we deserved more examination of the complex emotionality of the parts of our lives that exist outside it. I’ll tell you, I never think about any of my ex-boyfriends, not ever. But I do think about the times I’ve been screwed over in business by the people who were supposed to be taking care of me. And I do think about the best friends I’ve lost in my lifetime — I wake with their memories over me. If I wrote songs, I’d write about that.
You could say that Eras is cynical; you of course would discourage disavowing your past if you needed to remarket it to your audience. But look around this stadium. You don’t enrapture an audience like this unless you’re saying something real — something these legions of girls and women have been waiting to hear: that we are more than the moment on the balcony, where romance awaits. We are also everything before and after that. What Taylor Swift knows is that it’s fun to sing about boys and men and romance, but that those moments when we stand on a balcony as the person we desire gallops toward us, or the moment that we win the affection of a person despite his allegiance to another, are only the smallest parts of a woman’s life, no matter what the movies tell you. The ways that our trust and loyalty are weaponized against us is also the dominion of femaledom — the pain we feel over it, the way we can’t ever quite forget. Those things are worth singing about, too.
It is probably true that Taylor Swift was too busy to talk to me. (It is also possible she didn’t like something I wrote about her in the past?) It is almost certainly true that she didn’t want to talk to me — celebrities rarely do. But what is definitely true is that she didn’t need to talk to me. On the day I wrote this, Taylor Swift had 468 million followers across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, whereas The New York Times had a mere 92 million. Absent the usual publicity contract obligation, I honestly can’t see a reason that someone who has revolutionized the relationship a singer can have with her fans should want an intermediary. Certainly she has sold enough albums without our help.
But also? I don’t know if I could tell a story about Taylor Swift that’s better than the story she tells about herself, through every song, every dance, every video, every social transmission. She is a master not just at the revelation of information but the analysis of each revelation, the scrutiny of that analysis, the contextualization of it all. The way this concert has consumed the world is the living embodiment of one destabilizing question to me: How could I interpret Taylor Swift better than she does, better than her fans do online, every day, without my interference or input? They’re reading her codes, hunting down her clues, complying with her wishes, finding themselves in her world — a place that someone like me used to have the privilege of visiting alone.
She is inventing all of this in real time, and like other great inventions that cut out middlemen, this one might catch on. I’ve watched in recent years as our biggest stars have forgone sitting for interviews in favor of Q. and A.s with an equally famous friend, with an agreed-upon set of softball questions, or, worse, an Instagram post.
This isn’t a loss for them; for the most part, they’ll be happy when the entire profile format is eradicated. I know this because over the last couple of years, I was on a leave of absence from The Times, and I worked with the exact kind of people I’d written about for years — actors, directors, producers — and sometimes, when we got to chatting, they would tell me about the time they were profiled and it ruined their life, or a relationship, or caused an embarrassment that they carry with them still. Sometimes they told me about a lie they told an interviewer because they were scared or trying to misdirect the journalist. Not one person I ever interviewed seemed to understand why the public was so interested in them personally. They spent their time defensive, waiting for a sneaky question or worrying how I would subvert something innocent they were saying.
So the loss isn’t theirs, but ours — or maybe it’s just mine. Because I like writing other things, but I love writing celebrity profiles. To me, there’s no better way to understand the culture, and to understand the culture is to understand the world — to learn about ourselves by learning about the people we chose to celebrate, the people we voted to represent us in our own imaginations. I don’t know, maybe I’m just too in my earnestness era. Maybe I’m trying to call something a cultural shift when really it’s just a personal one. And it’s not even a big one: If profiles are over, I could, I don’t know, cover whatever else it is that this magazine covers. I could go anywhere I want, just not home. What I’m really saying is that once you go deep-state on Taylor — on the theories, on the codes, on the meanings — once you allow yourself to start thinking of your life in terms of eras, you can’t help but find yourself in your very own Taylor Swift song.
Far below us, Taylor Swift was singing about an affair. “Look at this idiotic fool that you made me,” the lyric goes, and I screamed it along with everyone else, but my voice cracked, and I found that I was crying again.
“What’s wrong?” Ezra asked.
“You wouldn’t understand!” I sneered at him. “You’re just an old man!”
I stood up so that a woman dressed as the scarf that Taylor Swift left at probably Jake Gyllenhaal’s house during her “Red” era could pass me on her way back from the concession stand. If this place looks a little like a comic-book convention or a clown car, that’s because there are no transitions in eras. Eras end definitively and violently. They come while you’re just trying to do your job and live your life, and one day you’re sitting in Section 301, and you realize that the transition happened without you ever even realizing it.
If I did write songs, that would be the bridge.
A little after 11:30 that night, the mayor declared her term over. The stage turned dark, and she sent the moon home, and the sovereign state of Section 301 of Swiftie Clara dissolved into a diaspora.
By the time she retired, the mayor had donated enough money to a local food bank to make a significant impact to the 500,000 people it feeds per month, as she did in every city she visited. She had increased tourism spending by an average of $3 million for each night she was there, relative to the nights when the stadium hosts a football game. She had made a material passive contribution to the economy of Santa Clara by selling out its hotel rooms and crashing its rideshare apps. It’s estimated that her mere presence contributed more than $30 million to the local economy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wanted in on some of that action, so he tweeted at her to add some of that sweet Taylor Swift microeconomy to Canada; she complied by setting some dates in 2024.
Autumn approached, and the wind picked up and blew all the glitter from the concert into the ocean, but just this once, the fish weren’t angry. The usher I saw trade bracelets went home and wondered why football fans couldn’t just enjoy themselves the way the Swifties did, why they had to get drunk and fight. Men with leaf blowers went out to extinguish all that the wind had left behind of the glitter, to transition the stadium back to its football era.
And the police went back to arresting people. And a young woman lovingly hung a stuffed snake on her mirror. And the college student from Sacramento put Taylor back into her Spotify rotation, right there at the top. And the HUSBANDs, who I hope, along with everyone else in Section 301, will forgive me my hyperbole, went home and worked on their lats, and Ezra and I went home, too, but I still wear a beaded bracelet a woman gave me that says REPUTATION, and when I look at it I think: How the kingdom lights shined just for me and you.
And Taylor Swift arrived in Los Angeles, the next stop on her U.S. tour. She was to play the first of six shows on Aug. 3, which I hope by now you know is Karlie Kloss’s birthday, and what song that is not part of the regular Eras set list did she play as a surprise? SHE PLAYED “MAROON”! She played a song that we think is about Karlie Kloss ON KARLIE KLOSS’S BIRTHDAY, and we were expected to go to sleep that night and to work the next day and care for our children and generally function amid the legion of algebraic calculations we were making in our heads.
And then, at her last Los Angeles show, two crazy things happened. One was that she wore a series of previously unseen blue outfits, and blue is associated with “1989” for some reason, and this indicated that SOMETHING WAS GOING TO HAPPEN, and IT DID. She announced that since she was a teenager — I’ll say 19 — she has always wanted to own her own music, and that now, on this day in August (which is the eighth month of the year), and this is the ninth day of that month, she would be releasing the rerecorded “1989” in October.
If that is not enough — and it is, it is — let me tell you the other thing that happened:
KARLIE! KLOSS! HERSELF! SHOWED! UP!
Yes, Karlie Kloss, who might not have been a romantic entanglement but could yes be called the love of her life, same as any of our best friends, came to the stadium and danced in the bleachers. The chaos this caused, the time I lost.
And meanwhile, I saw on TikTok that a woman whose handle is @nikkiking23 solved the 112 thing, and by this far in the story I will declare it basically undeniable. (SHE IS RELEASING ALBUMS IN 112-DAY CYCLES BECAUSE 112 IS THE NUMBER OF SONGS THAT WERE SOLD TO SCOOTER BRAUN WITHOUT HER PERMISSION!!!!!!!!!!!)
And I sat at home, trying my best to return to those feelings I had in the stadium. I sat in the bathroom, on the floor, going through TikToks every night that recounted the concert. I was in my “folklore” era by then, pensive and thinking about my life. I pitched an idea to my editor about the Real Housewives of New York trying to unionize. In the mornings, I waited till everyone was out of the house, and I sang songs from “Reputation” — dirty but also silly. I haven’t done that in years.
And somewhere in Northern California, the prom queen of Section 301 of the kingdom of Swiftie Clara opens the closet door in her bedroom and touches the purple dress she was wearing the night she got engaged, but really the night she was at the Taylor Swift concert. She puts on the dress and picks up her hairbrush and puts on “Love Story,” and she sings the song that was playing when she got engaged, the song that was a little bit taken from her that day even as it became a monumental part of her own permanent history. But even as she sings, even as she finds the old pleasure in the song, she remembers her time on the balcony of Section 301. She understands for the first time that those balcony moments are more fun to wait for than to live. Because once you live them, there starts a backward-counting clock in which the bedroom is no longer yours alone, and singing “Love Story” in your purple dress will make less and less sense.
And that’s when her pink landline phone rings. She answers it, and it’s Taylor and me, conference-bombing her. We tell her that we’re sorry that she has to move on. We tell her that it’s sad that you don’t get to decide to leave your eras, that the leaving is done for you. Time only moves forward, we say into the phone. You can’t be a girl forever — they won’t let you, and we all three have to grow and move on constantly. You will always have to leave a place before you’re ready. You can go anywhere you want, we tell her in a reprise, just not home.
She cries into the phone, and we let her, me and Taylor — Taylor Swift, who sings the song of us all, who says all of this better than I ever could. I’ll tell you, I like being a woman OK, but long live being a girl.