Wandering through the corn maze at Summer’s Farm in Maryland this past weekend, there were times when I didn’t think about Taylor Swift at all. From eye level, corn is corn; you can’t really tell you’re in a passageway contoured to resemble Taylor Swift’s nose or mouth or microphone to anyone high up enough to appreciate the view (helicopters, satellites, God).
But then there’d be waymarkers featuring Taylor Swift biographical information (did you know she wrote her 2010 album Speak Now all by herself?) where you’d have to answer a Taylor Swift trivia question to make the correct turn (was it her mom or her computer repairman who taught her to play guitar?). Or another maze-goer, usually a kid, would shout something like “Taylor Swift sucks!” At which point it became impossible not to consider what it means to be so famous that your face is a suburban fall adventure for the whole family.
In the cover story for this month’s GQ, Chuck Klosterman makes the case that Taylor Swift is a cultural uniter of historical proportions. “If a record as comparatively dominant as 1989 had actually existed in the year 1989, it would have surpassed the sales of Thriller,” he writes “There’s simply no antecedent for this kind of career: a cross-genre, youth-oriented, critically acclaimed colossus based entirely on the intuitive songwriting merits of a single female artist.”
You can make strong arguments with that assertion, definitely. But the corn maze has me, at least, sold. At Summer’s Farm, previous designs have paid tribute to the Baltimore Ravens after they won the Super Bowl, the 2012 presidential race (bipartisanly), and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It’s hard to think of any other young musician—or even any other young famous person—who could join the ranks of innocuous Americana imagery so easily.
How could anyone survive this level of fame? At one point, Klosterman witnesses Swift taking a call from Justin Timberlake, who asks to play a song with her on a tour stop. She seems flabbergasted, repeating the phrase “this is so crazy.” The first impulse for a lot of people might be to see this reaction as her patented pseudo-naiveté a la the famous Taylor Swift Surprise Face. But Klosterman sees genius here:
Now, inside my skull, I am thinking one thought: This is not remotely crazy. It actually seems like the opposite of crazy. Why wouldn’t Justin Timberlake want to perform with the biggest entertainer in America, to an audience of 15,000 people who will lose their collective mind the moment he appears? I’d have been much more surprised if he’d called to turn her down. But then I remember that Swift is 25 years old, and that her entire ethos is based on experiencing (and interpreting) how her insane life would feel if she were exactly like the type of person who’d buy a ticket to this particular concert. She has more perspective than I do. Every extension of who she is and how she works is (indeed) “so crazy,” and what’s even crazier is my inability to recognize just how crazy it is.
As the profile goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer how powerful that perspective is. Talking about social-media, she precisely diagnoses the public narratives that have surrounded her: “In 2010, it was She’s too young to get all these awards. Look how annoying she is when she wins. Is she even good? And then in 2013, it was She just writes songs about guys to get revenge. She’s boy-crazy. She’s a problematic person. It will probably be something else again this year.” And when he mentions that she’s sometimes called “calculating,” she recoils and then takes aim at the idea that building a career with planning and smarts is a bad thing.
The most fascinating passage comes when she talks about her childhood obsession with episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music:
I would see these bands that were doing so well, and I’d wonder what went wrong. I thought about this a lot. And what I established in my brain was that a lack of self-awareness was always the downfall. That was always the catalyst for the loss of relevance and the loss of ambition and the loss of great art. So self-awareness has been such a huge part of what I try to achieve on a daily basis. It’s less about reputation management and strategy and vanity than it is about trying to desperately preserve self-awareness, since that seems to be the first thing to go out the door when people find success.
It’s both an unsurprising example of a celebrity in a magazine profile trying to communicate humility, and a concise explanation for why Swift has gotten as big as she has—and why she might stay successful for years. Self-awareness about self-awareness might be the signal trait for maintaining sanity in the Internet age, and it’s one that relatively few celebrities—or even normal people—successfully pull off. She’s in the maze, and she’s seeing it from above.