The sun is shining on the cobblestone streets of New York City’s South Street Seaport. It’s a beautiful day to stare at the early childhood books, tour costumes, and handwritten lyrics of pop phenomenon Taylor Swift.
To enter “The Taylor Swift Experience,” presented by the Grammy Museum, I cut in front of a line of eager exhibit-goers waiting on a modest red carpet outside. This is what it must feel like to be Taylor Swift. I’m greeted by a room full of staff and security, methodically prepping the “Experience” for its East Coast debut.
The first thing I see is an iridescent piano that looks like it belongs in a futuristic production of The Little Mermaid. This is one of the many never-before-displayed items that I have been promised a peek at: the custom-built piano Swift commissioned for her 1989 World Tour. An accompanying placard confirms that, yes, this piano was designed to look like a shell. Now that that’s settled, I proceed to the “Childhood” display case.
Every well-curated exhibit tells a story, and “The Taylor Swift Experience” is no exception. At the beginning of The Experience, a well-meaning sign outlines exactly what we’re meant to take away from this extravaganza. Apparently, the exhibit “is about the making of a modern music mega-star.” Our heroine, Tay-Tay, “is a remarkably savvy businesswoman” with “both a vision and a plan for a future that is as bright as her present.” She has “broadened her artistic reach, going beyond the confines of country and into the wild, unpredictable world of pop without missing a beat.” And “The Taylor Swift Experience” will show us how she did it.
Unfortunately, this exhibit isn’t half as insightful as it purports to be. The offerings on display are a meager collection of outfits, hand-written lyrics, and concert footage. For the low price of nine dollars, average Americans can look at The World of Pooh, a book that Swift presumably read during her youth. There’s also her old saddle (“In addition to singing, writing poetry, and performing, Taylor Swift also enjoyed riding horses as a youth”), and family photos from Swift’s childhood home in Reading, Pennsylvania. But the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same. The “hooded sweater gown” that the newborn baby/future pop star wore home from the hospital is an early prototype of the many onesies Swift has sported in her “laid-back” and “relatable” Instagrams. Old clothes are arranged with all the fanfare of an under-stocked and overpriced Williamsburg thrift store. Fluorescent lighting illuminates every sequin on the two-piece ensemble Swift wore to perform “Welcome to New York” during the 1989 World Tour (TBT to when Swift was our most embarrassing New Yorker).
The exhibit quickly marches us through albums and accomplishments. In the “Grammys” case, headless mannequins model Swift’s awards show ensembles. These outfits—really all of the performance outfits at “The Taylor Swift Experience”—are remarkably ugly up close. I for one do not remember Swift wearing white shorts, a military mullet coat (complete with lace ruffles), and a matching bedazzled cane and top hat to the 2013 Grammys. And that’s not the type of thing I’d usually forget. If nothing else, being two inches away from the cheap-looking black one-piece Taylor wore to teach Katy Perry a lesson in “Bad Blood” made me respect her even more. I had no idea how hard Taylor Swift had to work to make these clothes look good.
I walk up a set of stairs, surrounded by huge blown-up images of Taylor Swift magazine covers. I feel her eyes on me as I enter a dark room, decorated with but one tastefully-sized picture of Swift. There are rows of chairs set up, where fans will dutifully congregate to watch footage that they could find for free on YouTube. The best part of this compilation of concert footage and awards show acceptance speeches is the little details—the specific directives that I would like to imagine Taylor scribbling by hand in a lengthy note to the Grammy Museum curator. For example, we are reminded throughout the exhibit that Swift has the only writing credit on Speak Now. We are told this in innumerable redundant asides—sly references to “Speak Now, which Taylor wrote entirely by herself.” I feel the presence of Taylor most acutely in these moments, which remind me of the detail-oriented “anonymous sources” that feed Swift-related stories to the tabloids, sources which I firmly believe to be Tay-Tay herself calling from a burner phone.
But “The Taylor Swift Experience” is not completely devoid of revelations. In one video called “Taylor Swift: In Her Own Words,” you can’t help but notice just how well Swift prepared herself for stardom. Every image of her outside of the maternity ward features the budding songstress performing, writing lyrics, or adorably opening gift-wrapped instruments. Even the humanizing moments—Taylor as a flushed teenager freaking out about her meteoric rise, Taylor goofing off in the studio—feel rehearsed. Of course, the concept that Swift has been meticulously building her brand since birth only makes me admire her more. Taylor can lean as hard as she wants on her goody two-shoes image, filling this exhibition with records of her charitable giving and heart-shaped doodles on loose leaf paper. But for what it’s worth, I much prefer the conniving, vindictive control-freak.
In one slip-up, Swift essentially admits that she started recording pure pop music when Red failed to win the 2014 Album of The Year. Then there’s the moment when a wide-eyed Swift accepts her 2012 Grammy for “Mean,” smugly noting, “There’s really no feeling quite like writing a song about someone who’s really mean to you, someone who completely hates you and makes your life miserable, and then winning a Grammy for it.” Now that’s a girl I’d like to talk about boys and bake gluten-free brownies with.
Unfortunately, the majority of this exhibit made me feel like I had just gotten in a near-fatal car accident and awoke from my coma only capable of recalling the most boring aspects of Taylor Swift’s career. Where are all the infamous interactions between Swift and her longtime nemesis, Kanye West? Where’s the dirt on all of her celebrity friends and exes—the boys who have served as her lyrical fodder, and the girls who launched the squad heard ‘round the world?
With this dreadfully, almost deliberately dull exhibition, one gets the sense that Taylor Swift really is fascinating in spite of herself. A famous control freak, Swift has scrubbed her premature retrospective free of even the faintest whiff of controversy. It would be difficult to leave “The Taylor Swift Experience” with any more insight into the songstress herself. But even that is remarkably on brand. Taylor Swift is, more than anything else, a symbol. Her ongoing saga with the Kardashian Wests has fed into a larger conversation on race and celebrity in America. Her decision to surround herself with Victoria’s Secret models and Lena Dunham has made her a key figure in the confusing world of pop culture feminism. Swift may refuse to be political, but she has been thoroughly politicized. And her unwillingness to be entirely candid and authentic, as if that’s even possible, has only fueled the conversation. Despite her best efforts, Taylor Swift is not another bland, likable twentysomething writing pop songs about her exes. In aiming for palatability—the mindless “fun” and cutesy artifacts of “The Taylor Swift Experience”—Swift has somehow become one of our most intriguing celebrity enigmas.