Swift Transformation


in Pop Studies • Illustrated by Estelle Guillot


I’ve been on the fringes of music and pop culture for many decades now, immersed in an underground hardcore punk scene that often derides popular music’s influence. That’s not to say that I’ve always ignored or dismissed what’s popular. There are plenty of popular performers and bands I’ve found magnetic and genuinely enjoyed, despite all the accolades and hype. Through my years of playing in hardcore, punk, and metal bands, I can’t deny that some of my first influences came from classic rock, ’80s pop, and oldies hits of ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s radio. Before I ever got into thrash metal and crossover bands leading me to hardcore punk and its family of related genres, some of the first cassettes in my collection were Whitney Houston’s debut, The Monkees greatest hits, the Back to the Future soundtrack (and innumerable other film soundtracks), and the likes of pop vocalists Tiffany and Taylor Dane (i.e., the other Taylor). 

It’s entirely logical that I would’ve eventually been drawn into the fandom of Taylor Swift, especially after experiencing a live show that may have been the most powerful performance I’ve ever seen. As a lifelong musician and fervent music fan, I’ve seen and played a lot of shows across the spectrum from underground to mainstream; everything from basements and backyards to mid-sized theaters and the occasional jumbo-sized arena, where touring artists hang their hats and mark the pinnacle of their success. Most of these shows have been booming and raucous in nature, but all promote community and a shared love for music. I’m a serial band member and a compulsive music enthusiast, who genuinely thrives on music. I typically can find redeeming value in most genres, from blistering metal to bubble-gum pop. Fortunately for her fans, Taylor Swift falls somewhere between these extremes with her pop anthems, country rock roots, and inclination toward folk and EDM alike. Swift showcases this versatility throughout her catalogue of albums and also live on stage.  

At the generous invitation of my wife — a self-proclaimed Swiftie, since before our oldest child was born over a decade ago — my daughter and I held the honor of much-coveted tickets to a Philadelphia show on The Eras Tour. I knew that a pass to see Taylor Swift live carries some weight, prestige, and promise but — going into the experience — I didn’t adequately grasp the rite of passage awaiting me. It was inevitable, given the swell of attention in the media and among fans, surrounding Taylor Swift’s first tour post-pandemic. I was excited and optimistic about the experience, although destined to be “the dad” in the mix.  

My expectations for a Taylor Swift performance weren’t quite anything like that of my exuberant wife and tween daughter, however, who had devoted months in advance of the show deliberating over what they would wear; curating playlists to prepare for the possible twists and turns of an epic setlist; and monitoring social media to see what the acclaimed musician had been doing toward the start of The Eras Tour, a literal tour de force much anticipated by frenzied ticket holders and the array of media outlets. Our speakers and rowhome pulsated with choice cuts from Taylor’s discography; a countdown app on my wife’s phone indicated that we were getting imminently closer and closer to the main event, as the months, weeks, and days passed, leading up to the big event. My son — an old soul at heart — eventually channeled a Jerry Stiller sitcom tone and started blurting out misanthropic statements like, “Enough with all the Taylor Swift!” He knows much of Taylor Swift’s music by osmosis but opted out.  

This extravaganza promised to be a cross-section of Swift’s greatest hits, spanning her meteoric 20-year career from adolescent beginnings in Nashville to her more recent body of work produced in the languid pandemic years. As we entered the gates of The Linc (officially, Lincoln Financial Field), I was green with naivete (ironically, not Philadelphia Eagles fandom) and really without all that much substantive knowledge of Swift’s prolific songbook. I hadn’t crammed like I felt I should have done for such a valuable, coveted ticket. On the day tickets went on sale, my wife waited in an hours-long state of bated limbo, close enough to the Wi-Fi router to ensure a strong signal and no breach in the Ticketmaster connection “online.” Her tenacity proved successful when — after nearly five hours — she miraculously reserved three tickets, much to the disappointment of countless other Swifties who weren’t so lucky.  

The appeal for me was mostly a chance for a family outing and a sociological observation of the whole event — but also to see opener Phoebe Bridgers, who I’ve been following ever since her impressive debut with 2017’s Stranger in the Alps. I was pleased to see Bridgers added to the bill, although not entirely surprised, since she and Swift are both respected singer-songwriters with a prior collaboration on record for Swift’s 2021 Red (Taylor’s Version) track “Nothing New.” It was an example of how an indie artist can offer even a celebrity performer access to fan circles previously out of range. This was one of my first hints at Taylor Swift’s extraordinary use of strength in numbers. 

In the hours leading up to the event — remaining comparatively tranquil but mildly aloof in relation to my companions — I fumbled through my T-shirt collection and opted for a monochromatic Phoebe Bridgers T-shirt to pay homage to the lesser-known opener. Suffice it to say that my outfit paled in comparison to everyone else’s more profound, colorful display. 


Our show night was Taylor’s third and final of a Philly residency at The Linc — and our daughter’s first big concert event, where she was bejeweled with colors representing the Lover era and equipped with noise-canceling headphones. The spring East Coast weather was perfect for the open-air venue and absolutely everyone was primed.  

We advanced through the throngs of fans inside The Linc where, at one point, I held a modest merch haul, equally overpriced food and beverages, and my wife and daughter’s things while they waited in line for the restroom before the show began. While on standby, another mom complimented me with a smile in solidarity: “Dad of the year.” I was flattered — surprisingly without shame, but with buoyant pride — but significantly naïve to the rush of emotion that would overtake me in the coming hours and days following Taylor Swift’s performance. I felt like an interloper going in — a longtime fan of fast, heavy, obscure outsider music, but also the stereotypical dad, married with school-aged children, and piloting a Subaru station wagon to this particular show. So much of my identity and existence has been rooted in going against the grain, defying the mainstream, but middle age has me asking the question: Why do I feel the need to do this especially when — in this case — the music of Taylor Swift answers so many of life’s existential questions? Perhaps I should just relent and release.  

Without question, the show held up to the hype, where pop fandom would play out like a hardcore punk matinee on the scale of a Lilith Fair or Grateful Dead mecca. Attendees responded to the call of duty and dressed the Swiftie part impeccably well in the same way contemporary punks and metalheads don tattoo sleeves and black T-shirts. Many — mostly younger — fans exchanged their crafted bracelets alluding to lyrics from Swift’s “You’re on Your Own, Kid,” featured on 2022’s Midnights. This proved not all that different than the ubiquitous safety pin, back patch, or shaved head found in punk circles for many years now. And — as one would expect — Swifties flocked to the merch stands, not unlike fans at a hardcore show (although, to be fair, the prices for Taylor’s clientele are notably steeper and the selection much less modest). 

Taylor Swift and her troupe delivered an indefatigable 3 ½-hour Mother’s Day performance to more than 60,000 people — mostly women and girls wearing their hearts on their sleeves and those friendship bracelets on their wrists. This didn’t even include the estimated 20,000 additional diehard fans gathered outside the stadium in adjacent parking lots, who appeared in social media posts, belting songs in unison from outside the arena in voices amplified enough that Taylor likely heard them — or at least felt them — inside the arena. These fans certainly would’ve joined the party inside, if it hadn’t been for the limitations of prices, seats, and a Ticketmaster distribution debacle preventing a whole segment of the fanbase from ever accessing online ticket sales. Suffice it to say that nothing would stop the inexorable fandom of Swifties eager to join the celebration — not even the walls of a Philly sports coliseum.   

Swift demonstrated excellence in her command of the audience — both inside and outside the venue — delivering a Herculean and mesmerizing performance reminding me of something a prudent, ambitious bandmate from formative years in the hardcore scene had once said: “They call it a show for a reason.” He intimated that we should purposefully pepper more zest and prowess into our stage presence. The showmanship this bandmate conjured is something that stems from a passion for music but, surprisingly, isn’t entirely innate to most performers; it comes by putting in time in front of a crowd — something that Swift, clearly, has grown very comfortable doing. An audience is interested in seeing performers do something that they themselves generally never would or could pull off. The thrill is in seeing a performer break boundaries in an act of social transgression against mundanity, but also in the exhilaration of witnessing people on stage lead a crowd with the confidence and action that the average bystander doesn’t necessarily have tucked in their back pocket. 

Taylor Swift has this on the ready with back pockets for her back pockets. She’s been training for it since childhood and as a juvenile pop icon. Part of her magic is with her mass appeal to audiences at her beck and call — and across a spectrum of genres. Swift puts on a show and her fans respond in harmony. They appear in throngs, outfitted with their thematic costumes, lyric hymnals, and cameras on the ready. Fans “break the internet” and clog all the social media feeds, slow traffic on the streets, add extra trains to subway schedules, and provide headlines for the late-night news. When Taylor Swift releases a new single or album, it’s a major event in and of itself, involving shrewd marketing and a demonstrably earnest commitment to her fans and the music that speaks to them.

Swift also knows how to work a crowd as only an iconic band leader and celebrity can do. At this point in her career, an elaborate stage design supports this. She can walk or run the plank of an extensive catwalk stage, floating in a sea of fans on the grounds of a football field without any fear of falling off course. However, her engagement with the audience in this way — and from every angle possible on the lower level — isn’t all that different from what I’ve experienced in intimate punk venues with the best in hardcore punk vocalists. They connect with their crowd in a comparable way.  

One particular frontman — Matt Caughthran, raging vocalist for the L.A. punk outfit The Bronx — comes to mind; he shows no fear of the audience or dance floor. The connection with the crowd is his push to perform harder and closer, indicative of a symbiosis in hardcore punk music between performers and their audience. At a handful of Bronx live shows, I’ve watched Caughthran call on spectators to feed the energy alongside himself on the ground level, after hopping over audio monitors at the foot of the stage and trailing a mic cable into the pit of people singing along at his cue. He’s able to ignite any sized crowd from small clubs to massive festivals, building climax, fury, and exaltation alongside his band at key points of must-play songs like “Knifeman” or “Shitty Future.” Of course, just as Taylor Swift stands on the shoulders of giants like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Bryan Adams, and Stevie Nicks; Caughthran and countless other punk band leaders similarly pull inspiration from the likes of Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, Kathleen Hanna, Iggy Pop, and the Bad Brains’ legendary and fearless H.R. 

As soon as Taylor and her ensemble launched into a set of approximately 45 songs spanning the eras of her album catalogue, it appeared that concertgoers — much like Taylor herself — would give it everything they had. The sizable audience knew every word of her vast roster of pop hits (and even the deep cuts). People threw up their hands, screamed joyfully, and danced with no intermission throughout the event. This isn’t unlike what I’ve seen and participated in at hardcore shows, where the audience runs on pure adrenaline and defaults to survival mode. If security would’ve permitted, Swifties on high in the nosebleeds would’ve rushed the stage from every arena angle — not just for a moment with an icon — but to lean into the mic, sing along at full throttle, and dive from the foot of the stage into the arms of any lower-level onlooker willing to catch a fellow fan (all of this out of pure exhilaration translated into physical expression). At one point, my wife joked that people were about to start moshing; they probably were somewhere, since the rafters were swaying in our section of The Linc.  

From our bird’s-eye view, it all felt ethereal as if we would be hooked by the melody and communal vocals and lifted up into the sky. It was invigorating and cathartic to witness and join in this mass wave of emotional release, camaraderie, and inspiration — all elements of what I’ve cherished about being a small part of the hardcore punk scene through the years. There’s also a spiritual component in the congregation and community of people, the self-reflection, and the connection to something much bigger than ourselves.  


It was rare. I was there. I remember it all too well. 

All Too Well,Red (2012) and Red (Taylor’s Version) (2021)

One of the most impressive and poignant songs in Swift’s set that night was the 10-minute rendition of “All Too Well,” which she released as part of the 2021 reimagining of her 2012 album Red. It wasn’t until I watched a live video snippet on my phone days after the show that I fully realized just how electrified the crowd had grown, belting these lyrics word-for-word, draped in memory and nostalgia over a love affair gone amiss. There was a red scarf left behind, a blushing beau, and a red traffic light signaling a stop or possible danger ahead. The sound of a crowd of so many tens of thousands of fans drumming up these words was something to behold. I was honored to have joined the moment live and in person from a humble place in the cheap seats of our hometown stadium (and one that Swift herself claimed a dear venue “just 40 minutes up the road” from where she grew up in rural Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia, overhearing her own dad’s Sunday football cheers over televised Eagles games). 

The entire event and the swell of emotion I felt in its aftermath helped me to better appreciate Taylor Swift as a masterful and prolific creator of songs speaking to a majority population — not to mention an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist, performer, and visionary. As she noted in between songs and from her interaction with fans on social media, Swift has positioned herself in a state of grace among her legion of supporters, where many share feedback and affection all while she retains full control of the soundboard. “Mother is mothering” is something her fans have posited in online forums — and Swift is happy to inspire, comfort, and surprise the crowd. At one point during her set, she even alluded to this ongoing, virtual dialogue. 

Listening to many of these songs live — and, in many cases, for the very first time — gave me a fresh perspective on the root of Swift’s majesty. I was able to hear the best of the best fan favorites compiled and compacted into several hours, but it was the crowd participation and energy that called my attention to what’s at the core of Taylor Swift’s music: the lyrics. Throughout her two short decades of sinuous eras, Swift has managed to pen hit after hit — each one with a nostalgic, homemade flavor and many with a memory motif. She draws on remembrance and longing — largely in relationships past — using elements of material culture, place, and illustrative metaphors. This is nothing new in music and lyricism, but Swift’s whole persona, physical command, and voice make these themes relatable to a listener. Live, the connection was palpable, whether it was part commiseration or shared victory.  

Back when we were still changin’ for the better 
Wanting was enough 
For me, it was enough 
To live for the hope of it all 
Cancel plans just in case you’d call 
And say, “Meet me behind the mall” 
So much for summer love and saying “us” 
‘Cause you weren’t mine to lose 

august,folklore (2020)

Seeing my wife and daughter lead the charge there also warmed my soul. It was inspiration for me to see them connect with a music creator in this way. Music is a language we all speak in our household, although no one performer has been able to achieve the degree of connective thrust that Taylor has through emotive, memorable music and lyrics alongside an unusual cultural tsunami. It made me reflect on what our young daughter’s own heartache stories and nostalgia will one day mean to her and how she’ll eventually use that to propel herself forward in a world not without challenge — and maybe even inspire others like Swift does for so many listeners. 


I now have my own memories in the afterglow of a unique and powerful show, where this unlikely spectator came to connect with a megastar’s music through the people I love. Combing through photos and video of The Eras Tour documented on social media and in the form of a concert film evokes my own nostalgia, where I reflect on past mistakes, rewards, and how the relationships I now hold sacred are right with the world. It also makes me think about the legacy of so many performers, big and small, who’ve scoured planet Earth in search of a connection with audiences who not only like them but get them and the art they create. 

In her music video-turned-short-film for “All Too Well,” Swift (who also made her filmmaking debut here) begins with a quote from Pablo Neruda’s choice poem, “Puedo Escribir” (translated to English as “Tonight I Can Write” or “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines”): “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” Few have said it better and more essentially than Neruda, but Swift has an audience and impact beyond any reach a conventional poet could ever imagine. Taylor Swift uses her own narrative tales and performance to take these memories, embellish them, and make the love last just a little longer for everyone. 

I’m not necessarily crafting friendship bracelets or following YouTube channels dedicated to Taylor Swift, but now I really comprehend — and have willingly embraced — the fanfare around her stardom. I’m listening to her back catalogue, watching the unrelenting stream of posts, indulging in the concert film, and feeling curious about future record releases and the direction of a living legend. So, sure, you can call me a Swiftie.•


Brian Kantorek is a lifelong Philadelphian and occasional writer, musician, editor, and producer for various media. He works in Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University, where pop culture conversation abounds.