By Anne T. Donahue
TIME magazine has spoken: Taylor Swift is the Person of the Year, which, like, sure. Sure! We can all admit that she (along with Beyonce and Barbie) helped carry the economy on her back. We can all agree that she is famous in a way that would make most of us want to perish if that level of fame was something we had to experience. There is no doubt that she holds major cultural clout, and that she’s an excellent wordsmith and a savvy business person.
But Person of the Year? Reader, I don’t know.
Here’s the thing: this year has felt like thousands of years, but many of the worst ones strung together as some sort of hell-tapestry. Personally, I have lost all concept of time. I don’t know how old I am, I usually don’t know what day it is, and when I think about events that happened back in January, I feel like I’ve astral projected into another decade – nay, century. If you were to ask me who my Person of the Year would be, I’d probably panic and say Mary Crosby because I think about her one-liners at least several times a day. Does anybody even want to own this year? What does being Person of the Year even mean?
I think in 2023, there’s never been a less clear answer. Is it money? Power? Cultural relevance? Is it someone we all recognize or quote or whose personal lives we have strange insight to? When I think about Taylor Swift (and I listen to her all the time, so I clearly think about her a lot), I can and do acknowledge that she’s been able to work and rebrand herself in a way that allows her to thrive and adapt to a changing (largely in-peril) industry, while at the same time growing up in front of us, total strangers who know her cats’ names. I have to give credit where credit is due: I would not be able to tour relentlessly, perform constantly, and present myself as a person normal enough to want to be emulated. Taylor Swift is an anomaly, and I think TIME understands that.
Yet my friend Elamin pointed out that less interesting is the discourse around whether T-Swift deserves her TIME-sanctioned accolades, and more would have been the magazine’s dissection of what it means to embody power, financial success, talent, and the “American dream.” And I agree: Taylor Swift is indeed interesting, but most interesting would be the way being Taylor Swift™ makes her feel. A Person of the Year carries weight – is that something she feels she has to live up to? Does she feel trapped by her inability to do anything without us latching on and assuming there’s hidden meaning to her hair/makeup/shoes? Does she ever wish that killing the former incarnations of herself wasn’t documented so publicly? And that, like us, she could fuck up, change, move on, and not have to cite them in every full-length interview?
I think more than ever, we – as consumers of culture – want to take apart the machines we’ve made and understand if they ever wanted to work the way they do. And I also think that’s a natural inkling, considering we’re watching industries die, safety nets disappear, and politicians offer empty buffets of world salad when pressed on, well, anything. We’ve come to understand the structures we’ve been accustomed to weren’t built to last, and to fix or salvage them, most of us have spent the bigger part of 2023 figuring out where it first went wrong.
And that’s the kind of discussion I’d love to have with our Person of the Year: this machine you help hold up, is this what you wanted? Do you even like it anymore?
Obviously, the fascination with Taylor Swift will only grow over 2024. She’ll inevitably release Reputation: Taylor’s Version, she’ll tour more than she already has been, she’ll likely even release new music. But while TIME‘s feature paints Taylor as someone inherently normal despite her grandiose circumstances, I think it’s fair to assume that she is anything but. It isn’t normal to be a billionaire. It isn’t normal to have thousands and thousands of people know the words to your work. It isn’t normal to live in a world very removed from the actual world. It isn’t normal to be Person of the Year. And while her appointment in no way surprises me, I’ll be surprised if the way we receive Persons going forward won’t be forced to acknowledge the growing chasm that exists between us and the ones TIME magazine dubs worthy.
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