‘Strong social and emotional bond that people feel with her’
Alexandra Gold, clinical fellow in psychology at MGH and Harvard Medical School
Gazette: Swift appears to have a devoted fan base who feel intensely connected to her and her music. Why is that?
GOLD: There is a strong social and emotional bond that people feel with her. And in general, when people become super fans or part of the fandom, it’s often because there’s something about the object of that fandom, the public figure or celebrity, that does connect back to their identity in some way. That’s often the link.
In the case of Taylor, there’s a couple of things going on. The first piece is relatability. Even though there’s aspects of her that maybe don’t feel very relatable — she’s a celebrity and lives a very different life from her fans — what she is singing about — the lyrical content as well as the emotions that underlie the lyrical content — are very relatable to a lot of people. There’s something that is very common to the human experience.
Another piece is a lot of Millennials, as well as Gen Z now, are fans of Taylor Swift. With the Millennials, a lot of people grew up alongside her. When they were having some of these first experiences, maybe with relationships or entering adulthood, she was doing that at the same time and singing about that. Her life story mapped onto their life story, in some way.
For Gen Z, during the pandemic, there was a lot of TikTok content about her, she was putting out many albums, so a new generation discovered her, and they’re also having similar experiences. Overall, she’s been really important for identity development and growth for a lot of people.
A third piece is aspirational. She is a role model. She is a great example of someone who sticks to their values and shows their fan base that they can reach their goals, whatever those might be. For instance, she’s claiming ownership of her work and has been successful in putting out re-recordings [of her older albums] and doing that despite barriers or obstacles that might be in the way. Seeing someone do something like that could be inspiring for a lot of young people.
And then, lastly, the fan community is a big part of this. People often form their identity around relationships not just with a celebrity, but also with other fans. The fan community that Taylor has around her, people meet their friends through it and people become part of something bigger than themselves. That is really important for them as they grow up and as they go through life.
Gazette: Swift has had to tell some fans to stop harassing people she once dated. Where’s the line between fan and fanatic?
GOLD: I think fandoms are, overall, very positive. That is an important message, that being a fan is a very positive thing. It’s important to be aware of when it’s interfering in other aspects of one’s life — not engaging in other areas that might be important, other relationships, whether time spent online is causing anxiety or stress or negative feelings for people. Trying to defend Taylor against other celebrities, for instance, that’s when it maybe goes into a category of “OK, let’s take a step back and think about what we can do to bring this back to a place where it feels more positive.” Recognize while this is a relationship that’s important to you, it’s not a friendship. And so, if someone starts to feel like there’s a two-way relationship when there’s no evidence that’s happening, that’s also something to be aware of.
‘The kinds of gains you see in an event like a Super Bowl’
Matthew Andrews, Edward S. Mason Senior Lecturer in International Development at Harvard Kennedy School
GAZETTE: You and some colleagues examined the effects on cities and regions hosting mega events. The total economic impact to host cities of Swift concerts on her current tour is expected to hit $5 billion. Does that sound plausible?
ANDREWS: Those numbers, I think, are completely accurate. I would be in agreement with those numbers because those are the kinds of gains you see in an event like a Super Bowl. The thing that is so amazing about the Taylor Swift concert, in particular, is that it goes from city to city, and you see the same kind of impact in city after city. You do see it with some other musicians, as well. But this is something that’s on a scale and a consistency that we haven’t really seen before.