The Taylor Swift doctrine

By Ken Hersh

Watching America’s greatest pop star in action offers clues about how the United States can get its mojo back.

Taylor Swift performs in Inglewood, California on August 9, 2023. (Photo by Paulo Villanueva/Flickr)

I have something to confess: I am a Taylor Swift groupie. But it’s for reasons that go way beyond her music. 

Hard as it may be to believe, in recent months, this pop culture icon has managed to dominate both the sports world and political headlines. Millions of her patrons spend an average of more than $1,000 per ticket to see her stadium shows all over the world, many arriving dressed up like their hero. Fans of all ages find her captivating. She has expanded the NFL’s audience and inspired sales of more Kansas City Chiefs gear than the players. In January, she even caught the attention of the conspiracy-minded, who decided she was somehow using the Super Bowl for sinister political ends.  

As a 61-year-old man, I am not exactly her target audience. Yet even I have to admit that I’ve watched in awe as she has captured both the adoration and imagination of so many. Clearly there’s more to Taylor Swift than meets the eye. She is not content to just be a good entertainer, nor even the best. She is also a leader. Her role and her choices hold lessons for all of us – including a United States now struggling with a serious crisis of confidence. 

In a recent poll, 76% of Americans reported thinking that their country is headed in the wrong direction. A near majority think the United States’ best days are behind it, according to another survey. And a third poll found more than two-thirds of respondents are unhappy about the 2024 presidential matchup. Someone needs to grab us by the shoulders and shake us to get us out of this funk.  

I nominate T-Swift. 

Many politicians and pundits now argue that the United States, with its over-stretched balance sheet and spotty track record, can no longer be the world’s police officer. But playing the role of global cop is the wrong analogy. A far better analogy for the role of the United States, and the one it already plays, is to be the free world’s player-coach. America is asked to both lead and play the global game of freedom, democracy, and capitalism. It boasts the world’s largest economy, representing 25% of global GDP. It leads the world in innovation and advances in quality of life. It possesses the world’s largest military, with a presence in 80 countries. It manages the world’s reserve currency and its financial infrastructure. If you don’t think the United States is needed on the field, simply ask people in the developed world who count on us, or those fleeing their corrupt or authoritarian leaders. 

Instead of sulking on the sidelines, then, we should learn from Swift how to get our confidence back, exhibit global stage presence, and craft a leadership style best suited to addressing today’s most pressing challenges. All you have to do is watch her, and the lessons become clear. 

Taylor Swift embraces Travis Kelce at the Super Bowl in Las Vegas, Nevada on February 11, 2024. (Photo by Erick W. Rasco/Getty Images)

Use the power of your brand to create a fair rules-based order  

In 2015, Swift threatened to withdraw her music from Apple’s streaming platform in protest of the way the company compensated artists. Well aware of her massive popularity, Apple eventually caved and changed its royalty structure. This resolution has benefited both sides. Swift’s move, it should be noted, wasn’t like President Donald Trump threatening to gut NATO. Rules and institutions remain essential. Swift was always intellectually honest about the importance of streaming and the new order it representsone she wanted to participate in, just on more fair terms. So she returned to Apple Music as soon as they’d agreed on better terms. The lesson: Many institutions aren’t perfect, and a powerful actor can help reform them. But those institutions remain critical they are the distribution channels for our policies. 

Focus on the bottom lineand everyone will benefit  

Swift is keenly aware of her economic power. Behind her threats to quit Apple and, later, Spotify, was her insistence that she should get a larger share of the monetary gains she helped accrue. Not only did she benefit, but her actions benefited other artists. The lesson: As the world’s largest economy, the United States can advance its own interests, knowing that the benefits of trade, immigration, innovation, and free markets will profit its own population as well as billions of other people around the world. The empirical evidence is overwhelming. 

Stay true to yourself  

Despite the haters and the conspiracy theorists, Swift continues to do things her way, without bothering to engage with her detractors. She uses her own distinct voice. The lesson: No matter what your intentions, there will always be those who want to hijack the narrative and bring you down. Ignore them and do your thing; actions speak louder than words.

Always adapt  

The Taylor Swift of 2024 is a very different artist from the singer who released her first album, a set of country songs about teenage romance and insecurities, when she was just 16 years old. Since then, she has frequently shifted genres but produced hit after hit in the process. The lesson: Americans are the world’s greatest engines of innovation, and we must never stop changing. As the world transforms, so must we.

Hard work pays off

The effort Swift is putting into her current Eras Tour is epic. The show runs for three hours and 15 minutes without intermission and involves 16 different costumes. Swift plans to perform it 152 times over the course of 21 months. A full 17 years after the release of her first album, this winner of 14 Grammys didn’t need to take on such a challenge. Yet that’s a big part of what explains her enduring popularity. The lesson: Being the best takes extremely hard work, but that work pays off. U.S. leadership may look different today than it did 70 years ago, but that doesn’t mean it is not still necessaryor worth the effort required. 

Fans pose for photos outside Taylor Swift's Eras Tour show in Tokyo on February 7, 2024. (Photo by Richard A. Brooks/Getty Images)

Be a globalist

Taylor Swift has performed on five continents, and the Eras Tour will take her to 15 countries outside of the United States. In 2023, she had 26.1 billion streams worldwide just on Spotify, making her the company’s most streamed artist anywhere. Wherever she goes, non-English-speakers belt out her tunes. The lesson: Travel the world. Interact with people, economies, and cultures from other countries. Such exposure makes you appreciate both what you have and what others can offer – and often does the same for them.  

Allies are important

Despite her fame and fortune, Swift is still social, albeit discriminating. (Like any superstar, she has to be.) She still knows how to have fun. So seeing her kick back with friends at the Super Bowl was heartwarming. And her budding romance with Travis Kelce looks stunningly normal. Watching him carefully escort her through the crowded field after the Chiefs victory was a nice reminder of the fact that, no matter how powerful you may be, it’s always good to have other strong people on your side. The lesson: No person is an island, and no countryespecially the United States – can survive in isolation. We all need friends. 

Be transcendent

Swift is beloved in both red and blue states. Of the 60-some stops her Eras Tour will make in the United States, nearly half will take place in states that voted Republican in 2020. She has millions of fans on both sides of the aisle – a recent poll found that 52% of President Joe Biden’s supporters and 44% of President Trump’s supporters embrace her and her welcoming concerts remind us that we can share the same space with people from all backgrounds and beliefs. The lesson: We can coexist with our fellow humans in a crowded stadium cheering on a performer without caring about the politics of those sitting around us. Some feelings, like the love of good art, are universal and can bring us together.  

Give back

Swift has always been generous to those who work with her and the communities she touches. She supports a broad range of charities and nonprofits, such as food banks and disaster relief. The lesson: From those to whom much is given, much is required. As the wealthiest country on the planet, the United States, which has benefited so much from international trade, cannot turn its back on the rest of the world. As the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) taught us, humanitarianism not only saves lives abroad but prevents extremism and bolsters U.S. national security at home.  

Freedom brings joy

Swift is endlessly inventive, has a distinctive, evolving style, and clearly loves what she does. The United States remains a great place for people to be creative and pursue whatever brings them joy. The lesson: The desire for freedom and self-expression is universal. That’s why all oppressive, authoritarian, and top-down systems eventually crumble. And it is why the values of freedom, opportunity, accountability, and compassion are worth fighting for.  

Taylor Swift is such an entertainment phenomenon, such a juggernaut, that it’s easy to see her as just that. But doing so misses half her brilliance. I challenge us all to see the lessons that lie embedded in the way she is going about her life – and to emulate them. 

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