In 2023, nothing has had quite the same effect on popular culture as Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour. Beyond a mere pop spectacle or musical showcase, it has become a “mass cultural movement” that both reflects and contributes to the present pop zeitgeist. As a performance, anthology, personal history, economic entity, and site of mediation between one of the most famous celebrities in the world and her fans, the tour merits attention for what it reveals about our current moment, especially in a world grappling with the aftermath of the sexual revolution and multiple waves of feminism.
Historians tend to write of “feminisms,” describing the differing streams and branches of feminist thought within a movement that is not homogeneous and is notoriously difficult to define. In examining the Eras Tour and Swift’s body of work, we can likewise locate varying modes of feminist analysis. Comparing two specific songs on the Eras setlist, from their lyrics to the concert performances, throws into sharp relief the difference between a feminism based on a consumerist, “girlboss” fantasy and one rooted in the reality of interdependent relationships and sexual asymmetry.
A few songs into the first “era” of the show, Swift dons a glittering Versace blazer and performs a song from the 2019 Lover album called “The Man.” This is possibly the most explicitly “feminist” song in Swift’s discography, described by critics as a “scathing assessment of gender inequality in pop culture.” The song’s premise is a thought experiment: what if Taylor Swift were a man, not a woman? What would be different? The concept provides a hypothetical ground from which to attack gendered double standards in the music industry and the media via lyrics that imagine how Swift’s behavior and success would be received and critiqued differently if, as she sings, “[she] was a man.”
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In the song and accompanying music video, which Swift produced and directed herself, she constructs a male alter-ego who is, in the eyes of the public, “complex,” “cool,” a “boss” and “fearless leader,” an “alpha type,” someone who hustles, puts in the work, and is allowed to play the field before finding someone to commit to: someone “just like Leo, in Saint-Tropez.” Implicitly behind this imaginary character is the real, female Swift, whose success and merit are in “question,” whose long list of ex-boyfriends is not “okay,” and who, if she bragged about her wealth and fame, would be “a b**ch, not a baller.” One line is particularly telling: “What I was wearing, if I was rude / Could all be separated from my good ideas and power moves.” Swift highlights the more integrated nature of the female celebrity persona: her clothes, manner, remarks, and relationships are given equal, if not more, attention than her career. All these are assessed as a whole package, making it harder for her than for her male counterparts to escape media criticism.
The most interesting aspect of the song is its concern with behavior, what is “okay for [Taylor] to do.” In the music video Swift, with the help of some disconcertingly effective makeup, prosthetics, CGI, and comportment coaching, plays a male protagonist who is toxic masculinity personified. In scenes that echo The Wolf of Wall Street, the male Taylor Swift’s character behaves atrociously and is rewarded with applause and attention. In interviews, Swift said that with the video, she “wanted to show a heightened reaction of how the world reacts to someone who’s male, hot, rich, young, and cocky” and “how there’s immediate approval and benefit of the doubt given, in a ridiculous way.” The satirical music video is ridiculous, and it is meant to be so. But the song nonetheless highlights the reality that when female celebrities act like libertines, they are criticized much more harshly than their male counterparts who engage in the same behaviors.
The song’s subsequent critique of this double standard is misplaced. Its complaint is not that such behavior exists in the first place, but that women have a harder time getting away with it. Would things be better if women and men could be equally rude, promiscuous, and act like jerks with no consequences? As Sophia Martinson notes in an article analyzing the music video and song, “perhaps the collective cultural response to male versus female promiscuity is ‘unequal,’ but is giving equal affirmation to both truly desirable?” In other words, does Swift truly wish she knows what it is like to “brag about raking in dollars / And getting b**ches and models?”
The song does not challenge but instead reinforces, or at best resigns itself to, the male libertine norm. This is an all too familiar failing of feminist thinking. Erika Bachiochi, Mary Harrington, and others have written on these feminisms that prioritize absolute autonomy to the benefit of the market and the detriment of our relational nature and capacity for virtue. This stream of feminism insists on rights as ends in themselves; on the absolute freedom to choose; on women’s becoming atomized individuals who can do anything that they want and everything that men can do and have done for decades, often translating to climbing the corporate ladder (and, often, abandoning one’s offspring to do so).
The performance of “The Man” at the Eras Tour firmly places it within this stream of feminism that primarily serves the interests of the market and measures liberation in dollars. The set and costumes are undeniably corporate. Swift sings, dances, and stomps around a set fashioned into a high-rise business complex, bossing around her colleagues, kicking up her heels, and climbing sparkly ladders and staircases until she reaches the very top. If this is feminism, it looks suspiciously like unbridled capitalism; one that imagines a world in which nothing stops women from getting rich and powerful all by themselves. Dripping with crystals and flexing her biceps before a crowd of thousands, in this performance, Swift could not appear more removed from the experience of real women. She is enacting a fantasy world that few inhabit.
Swift offers a sharp contrast against this glitzy, no-consequences, corporate ladder feminism with her performance of “illicit affairs,” an understated track from her 2020 album folklore. The performance at the Eras Tour is so resonant that it renders the feminism of “The Man” shallow and trite in comparison. “Illicit affairs” offers its own feminism, one that remains firmly grounded in sexual and social realities, and honestly assesses the burdens disproportionately borne by women in real relationships.
The song explores the experience of a young woman participating in a clandestine affair, presumably with a married man. It is written in second-person narration, which gives it both a narrative immediacy and a pensive, reflective quality. When I first listened to folklore, “illicit affairs” was a standout to me for its refreshing honesty about the way that extramarital relationships so often fail women. “What started in beautiful rooms / Ends with meetings in parking lots,” Swift sings. The metaphors describing the affair are numerous and vivid. It is “a dwindling, mercurial high,” “a drug that only worked / the first few hundred times.” It is born from a single glance but then “it dies and it dies and it dies;” it tells the truth “one single time” but then lies and lies and lies. The protagonist is left feeling empty, spent, invisible; like she doesn’t even exist.
The bridge has the most potent lyrics of the whole song, shifting into a raw first-person account of the affair’s emotional aftermath:
And you wanna scream
“Don’t call me ‘kid,’ don’t call me ‘baby,’
Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me
You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else
Don’t call me ‘kid,’ don’t call me ‘baby,’
Look at this idiotic fool that you made me
You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else.”
The false promises of the affair—the colors she now can’t see, a language she now can’t speak—have rendered her feeling like a mess and a fool. Rather than depicting extramarital sex as an empowering choice, the song shows that this decision has caused lasting hurt. While Swift may not have intended it, the paternalistic nicknames that the protagonist rails against—“kid” and “baby”—also serve as reminders of the procreative consequences of sex, and the reality that these often fall on the woman to bear alone.
Only this bridge and the song’s outro are included on the Eras Tour setlist, playing right after “august,” a song about another less-than-legitimate romance. While the studio version of “illicit affairs” is wistfully pleading, on tour Swift belts out the bridge on her knees in a passionate and almost vindictive live performance. The warm colors of “august” fade to a somber black-and-white as Swift transitions to “illicit affairs,” performing it in a way that took fans by surprise with its vocal power and devastating emotional depth, an effect only enhanced when performed in the rain. It pulls back the veil and peers into an experience of betrayal following sexual intimacy outside of commitment. The tour performance draws attention to the intense vulnerability of the song’s storytelling and, I argue, its underlying feminism.
The song squarely faces reality, is rooted in the female experience, and honestly assesses the way women are harmed by the lies of libertine, no-consequences attitudes to sex and relationships. The outro, “and you know damn well / for you I would ruin myself / a million little times” is a candid acknowledgment of the fact that like it or not, sex comes with strings. Its feminism does not insist on independence and autonomy. It points out that in relationships, we are not atomized individuals acting of our own accord with no obligations or duties toward one another. Rather, our actions affect others because we are deeply relational. Corporate girlboss fantasies ignore our relational natures and the complex web of human interdependence in which we live and move. The empathetic storytelling of “illicit affairs” approaches a far more realistic picture of what it is to be a woman. This grounding in reality lends the song a powerful yet vulnerable authenticity that commands attention. Consumerist feminist fantasies tremble before it.
The Need for a Resonant Feminism
These songs and their performances embody two different approaches to the classic work of feminism, which is evaluating cultural interpretations of sexual asymmetry. “The Man” is, at best, a misplaced critique of double standards, and, at worst, a childish demand for permission to behave however one wants. It is resigned to poor behavior and still grasps at an imaginary world, in which there are no consequences, obligations, or imperatives toward virtue; one where women’s being able to serve the market and treat sex as a casual pastime is the pinnacle of liberation. What it calls for is paradoxically both unattainable—a fantasy world—and too low an aim. Women need a grounded feminism that calls for a higher standard for both men and women. Before that happens, we need to be real about who women are, and part of that is acknowledging, as “illicit affairs” does, how aspects of the sexual revolution continue to harm women and relationships between the sexes.
As one writer puts it, “Swift’s presence in mainstream media as a woman who isn’t afraid to cry, admit she’s wonderstruck, or be vulnerable in front of the world is more feminist a stand than singles like ‘The Man.’ . . . Her songs feel authentic.” A feminism stuck in a fantasy will never resonate in the hearts and minds of real women. Only from the ground of gritty, embodied realism can a new, truer feminism take root.