Did you know you’ll soon be able to take a course in Taylor Swift at Queen Mary University of London? There’s already one of these at a university in Belgium: it’s called Literature: (Taylor’s Version), and starts this autumn. In February, academics will gather in Australia for a high-level “Swiftposium”.
In the US, meanwhile, people fret over the pop star’s political power. Last week, with a single Instagram post, she helped register 35,000 new voters in a day. Others concern themselves with Swiftonomics: where Taylor steps, businesses grow and bloom. Three concert nights in Chicago were enough to revive its tourism industry, according to the governor of Illinois. News recently got out that Swift is dating NFL player Travis Kelce. Sales of his jersey are up 400%. “If Swift were an economy,” the president of a major online research company has said, “she’d be bigger than 50 countries… her loyalty numbers mimic those of subjects to a royal crown.”
Great conquerors occupy the mind. A viral TikTok meme claims all men think about the Roman empire at least once a day. As the map turns Swift, a psychiatrist took to the New York Times to remark on how “Taylor-based” her practice has become. Patients lean on her to help them through life’s struggles, and emotionally spiral when Swift concerts draw near. “How am I going to go back to regular life once it’s all over?” they ask.
Swift, like Bob Dylan, to whom she is often compared, is probably a genius. But is she really 50 countries more of a genius than all those almost-Taylors, artists whose economies still amount to the size of a room in their parents’ basements? For Swift stands a Gulliver among Lilliputians: the prize for being one scintilla less talented or lucky is, generally, a life scraping minimum wage. And there’s another world too, perhaps a mere breath from this one, where a 33-year-old Swift still struggles in country music clubs and another artist is reigning king or queen.
The fame economy – in music and the arts – is steeper than that of the most oppressive autocracy. There are a tiny number of winners, on whom unspendable riches are lavished, then legions of losers. On Spotify, artists need 6m streams to achieve the equivalent of a year on the UK’s minimum wage. One per cent of musicians hog 90% of the takings. Gaming looks similar, as do the visual arts. As these industries are increasingly globalised, things are getting worse. There is no striving middle class.
This is a problem because things tend to be better when wealth isn’t concentrated just at the top. Economies are harder to destabilise when they don’t rely on just a handful of people. They are also more innovative.
Swift, like the Rolling Stones, will sell out concerts for the rest of her life, even if the quality nosedives. But how many revolutionary artists have been ground out of the music industry, worn out or out of money? Monocultures are bad for the environment; as we forced golden, waving wheat to take over the planet, other species faltered and failed, rather than rising on their merits.
And the fame market has downsides even for the winners. We evolved, perhaps, to climb to the top of gangs of about 15 to 50. Reaching an apex of millions can give people vertigo. The contrary human instincts to both overthrow and worship those in high places cannot be controlled in these vast numbers, so celebrities suffer from both horrible abuse and sycophancy in equal measures. Those who listen too hard to their critics might fail to survive; it’s no surprise so many celebrities fall prey to drugs and mental health problems. Those who succeed in tuning them out, on the other hand, get complacent. The work suffers.
The arts have another problem. Unlike hierarchies in sport, which are steep but fiercely meritocratic, luck plays a rather large part. Experts can’t reliably pick winners. Elvis Presley was repeatedly rejected by record companies. JK Rowling was turned down by 12 publishers. Much has been made of Dick Rowe’s rejection of the Beatles: “Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr Epstein,” the talent-spotter reportedly told their manager. He’ll forever be known as an idiot. But how, really, was he to know?
Public tastes are fickle and unpredictable. Experiments have shown that people are easily swayed by the opinions of others – when told, falsely, that a song is popular, they tend to like it more. And in a superstar economy, the effects of luck are amplified.
In the script that served as the inspiration for the film Yesterday, a struggling musician wakes to find he is the only person on Earth to remember the Beatles. He performs their back catalogue as his own, and is met with… indifference. He gets nowhere. He eventually abandons the songs and goes back to writing his own music. It’s a nice parable on the arbitrary nature of fame.
But there’s a further parable in what happened to the script itself. The writer, Jack Barth, didn’t have the status to take this fresh idea all the way to the screen. After he sold the script, it was run over by the Richard Curtis juggernaut, who altered it so that the Beatles plagiarist does hit the big time on the strength of the songs, but in the end gives it all up to settle down with Lily James. (In interviews, Barth also claims Curtis minimised his contribution.) The fame economy ate up a new idea and spat out a familiar one. A famous writer got more famous. A fairly unknown one remained unknown. It’s not enough, after all, to be talented.
Whether Swift – or Curtis, or indeed the Beatles – “deserve” this fame is the wrong question. But we should worry about a culture that elevates so few, so far, and does so little to nurture the rest.
• Martha Gill is an Observer columnist