Taylor Swift Likes to Work
And game recognizes game
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Last week, I was off the internet save an occasional scroll of Instagram. There, the news reached me: Taylor Swift may or may not be dating a very good and handsome football player named Travis Kelce. We know this is true because she showed up in the luxury box to watch him play — and while there, she hugged his mom. I mean, this is great gossip. Wholesome, low-stakes, so many avenues for speculation — as always, Swift knows how to give her fans what they didn’t even realize they wanted.
But let’s fill in the blanks a little. First off, you should know that Swift is in a lull between dates on the most successful tour ever. The theater experience of that tour comes out next week, but that’s already packaged and shipped. In November, she’ll play three shows in Brazil, but then she’s off until early February, when she heads to Tokyo to begin a sold-out worldwide swing through the summer, eventually heading back to the U.S. and Canada in Fall 2024. Swift is a person who likes to work. There’s no judgment here; I like to work too. But right now, she’s not.
The other important piece of information is that Swift recently ended her relationship with Joe Alwyn, who sportswriter Devin Gordon aptly describes as “a soft-spoken actor who was in stuff you haven’t seen.” In contrast to her previous, very public relationships (with Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner, John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Conor Kennedy, Harry Styles, Calvin Harris, and Tom Hiddleston) Swift and Alwyn’s romance was kept quiet. They dated in quasi-secrecy for a year before getting spotted together at an Ed Sheeran show. Over the course of their six year relationship, they were only very occasionally caught by the paparazzi; the most overt shows of affection were the appearance of Alwyn’s name (under the pseudonym William Bowery) in the musical credits on Swift’s albums.
You could attribute this relative secrecy to Alwyn’s preferences, or the pandemic, or you could see it as a general retrenchment after overexposure. Swift — and/or Swift’s publicity team — understood that there comes a certain point when the celebrity-consuming public grows weary of news of even its most beloved figures. Which is precisely what had happened to Swift in 2016, in the wake of the release of 1989, her breakup with Calvin Harris, and her fledging relationship with Tom Hiddleston, which began with footage of them dancing at the Met Gala and peaked with shots of Hiddleston wearing an “I ♥️ T.S.” tank top at the beach with Swift’s friends on the Fourth of July.
Swift and Hiddleston’s relationship fizzled that Fall, which is when Swift purposefully receded from the spotlight — at least for a year. She started quietly seeing Alwyn, and re-emerged in August 2017 with cleared social media accounts for the release of “Look What You Made Me Do,” the first single off of Reputation. She toured; she released another album; she appeared in the filmic adaptation of Cats; she fought with former manager Scooter Braun and her former label, Big Machine, over the right to buy the masters of her recordings. She was vulnerable and likable in Miss Americana, a documentary that followed her over several years of her career. She was in control of the narrative.
Then Covid hit. Swift’s tour was canceled, and like pretty much everyone else, she went into seclusion. In hindsight, it was one of the best things to ever happen to Swift’s career: she released two surprise albums, Folklore (July 2020) and Evermore (December 2020), that felt like presents. They were soft, lyrical, critically acclaimed — and told stories of figures that weren’t necessarily her but still felt like echoes of her. She also began the process of re-recording her masters (that were still held captive by Big Machine), releasing “Taylor’s Version” of Fearless and Red in 2021, while also working on her latest album Midnights (released in October 2022), and Taylor’s Version of Speak Now (July 2023). Like I said: she likes to work.
And again: right now, she’s not. When Swift re-starts the Eras tour, it’ll presumably be the same (or only slightly different) from the routine she’s already refined over the course of dozens of shows in the U.S. She’s announced the forthcoming release of 1989 (Taylor’s Version) but the work on that one’s done. She could start working on a new album, and probably already has (she’s a pretty classic Eldest Daughter, and Eldest Daughters are never idle). So what can she work on? A relationship — or at least the PR management of one.
Swift and Alwyn quietly broke up back in March. It was purportedly amicable and, like the rest of their relationship, private — to the point that neither ever publicly confirmed the split. In May, she was linked with longtime friend and 1975 frontman Matt Healy. Whatever that was, it fizzled quickly. But Swift, who adores an Easter Egg, seemed to be having fun playing around: both she and Healy mouthed the same message onstage at different shows; she invited him to sit with her dad at one of her shows; she allowed herself to get papped leaving a recording studio with Healy by her side. (Like other celebrities at her level, Swift absolutely knows how to avoid the paparazzi when she wants to — it’s not that she’s calling the paps so much as acting with the understanding that she will be photographed).
Swift seems to also be having fun with Kelce — a man who previously agreed to a whole E! show about trying to find him a girlfriend (Catching Kelce, lol). A man who started a podcast with his brother where they talk about football and pop culture and his failed attempt to give Taylor Swift a friendship bracelet with his number at her concert. A man who’s won two Super Bowls, sure, but who’s also hosted Saturday Night Live and recently signed with CAA — which is what sports figures do when they’re planning on parlaying their athletic success into a post-retirement entertainment career. A man who stared up the luxury box, saw Swift, and (seemingly) muttered “DAMN SHE’S RIGHT THERE!”
Game, as they say, recognizes game.
Then there’s the fact that Kelce’s a beefy football player (a real contrast to every single dude she’s ever dated), that Swift showed up in the luxury box to watch the game with his mom and yelled LET’S FUCKING GO when he scored, that she went to dinner with his brother’s wife [AHP EDIT: NOT HIS BROTHER’S WIFE — BUT THE WIFE OF TEAMMATE] and brought along Blake Lively and Sophie Turner just to make it even more complicated, that she invited Hugh Jackman (?!?) and Antoni from Queer Eye to come to last week’s game — I mean, let’s be clear. Taylor’s not making an album, but she is making gossip art.
Which isn’t to say the whole thing is fake. Swift’s probably actually dating Kelce. But she’s also feeding that part of her that loves and needs to work. Managing the PR around this dalliance isn’t annoying to her; it’s fun. Which serves her well: some celebrities understandably hate that aspect of their work. But Swift, who’s had to navigate this reality since she was 17, knows how good she is at it. She understands what audiences want most is a celebrity relationship that plays out like it’s high school. She gets that the best, most addictive part of a relationship is the beginning. And she knows exactly how to give it to them, mom-hug and all. Why wouldn’t she revel in her mastery?
When it ceases to be fun, and the discourse about the relationship and its effect on Kelce’s game begins to spiral out of her control, my guess is she’ll pull back. Maybe they’ll keep seeing each other, they’ll just do it in private. Or maybe she’ll just get bored and go back on tour — aka, back to her favorite sort of work, which will also eventually include writing a song that explicitly or opaquely references what went done. Whatever happens, she’s way too savvy to let her image get sabotaged by a bunch of football gossip.
As I read through various timelines of Swift’s career, I found myself rereading the GQ profile of Tom Hiddleston, published a year after the end of their relationship, in which he explains how he ended up wearing that I ♥️ T.S. tank top on the beach that Fourth of July. The profile was remarkable then, and is remarkable now. You come away from it feeling like Hiddleston was at once embarrassed by his naiveté of how audiences would react to their relationship and deeply sad about his inability to navigate the scrutiny.
Hiddleston also seems to understand what made the entire thing fall apart. “A relationship always takes work,” he said. “A relationship in the limelight takes work.”
Hiddleston couldn’t handle that work. Alwyn avoided it altogether. In Kelce, Swift has found someone who — at least in this moment — loves to work as much as she does. ●
My tremendous gratitude for the insight of Work Appropriate producer Melody Rowell, the most knowledgeable Swiftie I know, who helped me think through several aspects of this piece. All mistakes in the gossip or T-Swift timeline are mine alone.
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