On Taylor Swift's Gen Z appeal, whiteness, and what led to Midnights : It's Been a Minute The It's Been a Minute team gives you a sneak peek at the event of the season: BravoCon, where our producer met his favorite housewife, and the Salt Lake City stars spill the tea to host Brittany Luse.

Then, Brittany sits down with Julio Torres, a comedian, actor, writer and creator of HBO's Los Espookys. They discuss the influences behind his unique world-building.

Finally, if you're a Taylor Swift fan, this was a pretty big week, with Swift releasing her 10th studio album, Midnights. It seems that Swift is as big as ever. What is it about her and her music that's so enduring? Brittany sat sat down with an avid Swiftie and Rolling Stone writer, Brittany Spanos – who also teaches a class on Swift. They talk about the artist's evolution and how she's navigated the music industry through the years.

Taylor Swift is peak millennial vibes

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Hi. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm your host, Brittany Luse. Before we get into this week's show, I want to bring you with me to a land where fantasy becomes reality.


LIAM MCBAIN, BYLINE: Here we are at the Javits Center. It's a beautiful fall day.

LUSE: That's IT'S BEEN A MINUTE's producer Liam McBain. And at that precise moment, Liam and I were about to enter into the event of the season, the thing it seemed just about everyone was talking about last weekend - BravoCon in New York City.

We are standing on the precipice of, I think, an experience that's going to change our lives.

MCBAIN: I mean, I kind of hope not. But...


MCBAIN: ...You know, I don't want to see something here that, like, completely changes my stuff around forever, but...

LUSE: Well, I - yeah. I guess I could - I could see that...

Listener, I'm not even exaggerating here. BravoCon kind of did change our lives. We're going to do another show on this later, but I have some tea to share while it's still hot. So my producer Liam and I are big into "Real Housewives."

So who do you want to see?

MCBAIN: Who do I want to see?

LUSE: Yeah, who do you want to see?

MCBAIN: Meredith. Meredith Marks...

LUSE: From Salt Lake City (laughter).

MCBAIN: ...Of Salt Lake City. I'm obsessed with her. I think she's so intriguing. She's just so done with everything, and I love her.


MEREDITH MARKS: Jealousy is a disease, to which I say, get well soon.

LUSE: So, of course, when we spotted her in the press room, he went wild.

MCBAIN: Meredith Marks is right behind me, and I have never felt so starstruck - the boots.

LUSE: Yeah. Wow.

MCBAIN: The boots...

LUSE: OK, it's like a fringe knit outfit.


LUSE: Sickening python boots.

MCBAIN: She's stunning. Yeah.

LUSE: BravoCon is where dreams come true.

And Meredith was kind enough to give us an interview, along with her cast mate Heather Gay. Of course, I had to ask about their other cast mate, Jen Shah, who pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud earlier this year. And they told us something, not about Jen, that really surprised us.

So we all know about what's going on with Jen Shah and, you know, her - all of these things. My question is, how do you feel about being on maybe a very different show than what you signed up for? Or do you - or is this what you signed up for?

HEATHER GAY: I mean, I signed up for a reality TV show about career-oriented women in Utah. So...


LUSE: But did you really - like, come on. "Real Housewives"?

GAY: It's true. We didn't know. We didn't know.

LUSE: This is how the other franchises can get, though.

MARKS: We did not know we were housewives until we filmed the sizzle reel and they sold the show.

GAY: Yeah. It was maybe - what...

MARKS: They announced the name to us after it was all done.

GAY: ...Six weeks before we started filming.

MARKS: They told us it was women and - helping other women in business, TM, in Utah. So I wore business suits. All I did was talk business shop. And I just pulled a full Michele and Romy and just, like, acted like I was a businesswoman, and I got the gig.

LUSE: Am I hearing this correctly that you did not know that you were possibly going to be on "Real Housewives Of Salt Lake City"?


GAY: Not until like, a month or two before filming.

MARKS: I thought it had some TLC play. Sure. Yeah. We'll see where it goes. But never "Housewives."

LUSE: BravoCon is the natural conclusion of this world that Andy Cohen and the housewives have been building for nearly two decades. And we'll dive deeper into that another day. But I want to stick with this idea of world building. Later in today's show, we'll get into the brand that Taylor Swift has built with her signature flavor of Americana. But first, let's jump into the fictional worlds that our next guest is known for...


LUSE: ...Stories that are all about the details, where characters that are typically in the background move to center stage. And all of it is engineered by Julio Torres. He's a Salvadoran writer, comedian and actor.

JULIO TORRES: Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi.

MARKS: He's written a children's book where the objects have feelings, especially a plunger that longs to be a vase. He looks at life through the perspective of hands. And then there's what he's done with the newest season of HBO's "Los Espookys"...


EQUINOXIOUS: (Singing in Spanish).

MARKS: ...Which is set in a fictional Latin American country.

TORRES: "Los Espookys" is a show about a group of friends who engineer horror experiences for clients that want to deceive. So think about, like, "Scooby Doo," but in reverse. They're not solving mysteries. They're creating them.

LUSE: Julio and I talked about the foundations of his craft, like his artist parents and his attraction to supporting characters. But first, I wanted to ask him about his humor in Spanish and whether or not it's different from his comedy in English.

TORRES: I don't think so. I think that what I'm attracted to, which is, like, these observations and, like, the absurd and the surreal, I think that they play in both languages because I think that a lot of the humor of the show is not so much about specific wordplay. With "Los Espookys," it's sort of, like, the visuals and the situations and the way that people behave. It can be, like, a refreshingly dumb show in a good way - a refreshingly, like, oh, this is just silly, and, like, it feels like watching a cartoon.

LUSE: That's a really good way of putting it. And something that I notice from watching "Los Espookys" and also from watching your stand-up special from 2019, "My Favorite Shapes" - your hand acting - and also with your children's book, which centers on the inner lives of inanimate objects - I feel like there's this theme of focusing on things that are overlooked, in a sense.

TORRES: It's not a deliberate choice. It's, like, what ends up happening. As a kid, I was always very into, like, secondary characters, be into, like, things that weren't supposed to be the focus. I don't know. Like, the kind of people that I'm attracted to are the kind of people that wouldn't be main characters. I don't like, like, main character energy.

LUSE: (Laughter) Energy.

TORRES: Yeah. So I gravitate, I think, towards outsiders and the other, and objects are a perfect vessel for that. Because at the end of the day, I'm not a documentarian, right? I'm a writer, so I am the one putting words in people's mouths. With objects, it's easy because it's like they're a perfect canvas. I'm very interested in, like, imbuing meaning and emotion and thought into things that people might overlook as a way of showing them something that is, like, surprisingly, I think, familiar.

LUSE: I notice that objects like chairs or furniture, all these things, even extending outward toward the very handcrafted, very artisanal - I can see, like, the strings. I can see the paint. I can see these really beautifully papier-mache, like, objects. You now have this really beautifully designed television show. Like, it just feels like a little jewel.

TORRES: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

LUSE: Your mother is an architect and designer. Your father's a civil engineer. Design is definitely a part of their lives and how they see the world. How did your parents' experiences and the way that they sort of see the world - how did that inform your sensibilities with regard to working with objects like that?

TORRES: Oh, it's hugely influential. Both of my parents have a really sharp eye for reading people through their homes, reading people through, like, the kind of person that they are based on the kind of furniture that they have, the kind of person that they are based on, like, what kind of remodel they want. I remember hearing of this woman who had, like, a backyard. And she kept, like, making expansions to her home to the point where, like, the pool that was in the backyard became an indoor pool...


TORRES: ...Because she just kept - because it's like, she didn't see value in outdoor space. So, like, it's, like, this mentality of the bigger my house, the more successful I seem, right? And, yeah, that's such a personality type. And, like, little things like that always stayed with me. Or, like, that is why I, like, mesh well with, like, wardrobe designers and production designers who are, like, very attuned to those sorts of things. A friend of mine who's, like, very astute - his name is Max (ph) - he posted something about how he was rewatching "The Sopranos" and how Tony Soprano's bedframe was so big that it partly obstructed the painting behind him.


LUSE: That's such a good call-out. I never noticed that.

TORRES: It's such a good detail. It's such a brilliant detail of, like, oh, yeah. They are just, like, buying big stuff. They're not measuring whether or not it fits. They're just, like, buying stuff and it's like, yeah, the big, important guy has a big painting, has a big bed. Never mind that they don't fit.

LUSE: So that makes me think about a character you play on "Los Espookys," Andres. And Andres is - I get a lot of, like, "The Little Prince," the French children's book. Like, he says he's looking for a boyfriend who will keep him in a gilded cage.


TORRES: (As Andres, speaking Spanish).

LUSE: I mean, I feel like that explains his character perfectly. He's this wealthy chocolate heir who's now been down on his luck, and he has to rely on the help of his friends. And I wonder, like, what is it like to play a character that has such a specific way of showing up in the world, specifically a character that seems to expect comfort at every turn, in this moment where I feel like everybody feels, at the very least, a little uncomfortable all of the time?

TORRES: Yeah, he's one of my favorite kind of people to witness, which is, like, a difficult, very particular person. I am attracted to very, like, difficult and inflexible people who are just, like, hyper-focused on one thing and are just sort of, like, myopic and, like, have a hard time seeing the world around them beyond their, like - the thing that they're focusing on. Also, I grew up around people that were, like, very wealthy. And also, I feel like soap operas and telenovelas are obsessed with the wealthy, too.

LUSE: Yeah.

TORRES: And the - and also, like, those portrayals always, like, fascinated me. I mean, like, people who really are conditioned to think that they're the most important thing.

LUSE: I think about this one specific scene from the second season where he's in the grocery store, like, completely - what does he say? He says something about how he couldn't believe that there was food sold there because he feels like the grocery store is the food from restaurants that's been deconstructed.


TORRES: (As Andres, speaking Spanish).

Yeah. It's like he's never fathomed buying ingredients, right? He never fathomed, like, making something. So it's like, he can only see the world from where he's standing. So, like, from where he's standing, he's only seen prepared food. So for him to see a grocery store, it's like, wait. So you took the food that I normally have and then you deconstructed it, and now you're selling that?

LUSE: (Laughter).

TORRES: Like, he can't fathom that life functions the other way around.

LUSE: OK, so, like, you're obviously a very industrious person. You've got this incredible career. You work very hard. I think that's very evident. Is there something that's kind of delicious about playing a character like Andres?

TORRES: Oh, yeah. There's something very liberating about just, like, not caring about anyone else. He's sort of like the dark side of me, I think - like, my, like, different universe shadow self.

LUSE: (Laughter) I think he might be a lot of our shadow selves.

TORRES: Yeah. Yeah.

LUSE: One thing I've been thinking about a lot with "Los Espookys" is that it's set in an unnamed Latin American country. What was behind the decision to obviously have a very specific world in this show, but also - like, that's definitely located in Latin America, but to not give it a specific location?

TORRES: Well, you know, I really like portraying the way that the things feel, not the way that the things are in actuality. So, like, not setting it in a specific country allowed us to come about it through a more, like, abstract and emotional place rather than a - than needing to have, like, faithful reproductions or, like, renditions of something. So then it became this playpen for, like, Ana, Fred and I to bring their own experiences in a way that, like, there's never, like, a wrong answer. There's never a wrong way. There's never a wrong accent. There's never a wrong sidewalk. It's very liberating. And through that sort of, like, Tower of Babel - Latin American Tower of Babel, we found, like, a commonality that, like, feels universal and it's - like, cartoons do it all the time. Like, Springfield is not set anywhere - as in, like, from "The Simpsons"...

LUSE: Right, right, right.

TORRES: ...But you understand that they are a middle-class American family in a mid-sized city. Sometimes the beach is a drive away. Sometimes it's snowing. Like, who cares, right? But it's, like...

LUSE: Yeah.

TORRES: ...Those details are sort of besides the point. What matters is, like, showing what it's like to live in that context.

LUSE: I like that idea. I have one last question.


LUSE: Your name on Instagram is @spaceprincejulio.


LUSE: Space prince of where?

TORRES: I think of nowhere or - like, you know what? I - no, I think it's, like, sort of, like, traveling. Like, I'm here for a little bit, but I don't know where I'll be next. I like the idea of just, like, passing through.

LUSE: I like that. It makes me think, like, interdimensional, like, different realms...

TORRES: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I like that.

LUSE: ...As opposed to, like, beyond geographical.

TORRES: Yeah. Yeah.

LUSE: Julio, thank you so much for joining me today. It was so much fun to talk to you.

TORRES: Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you.


LUSE: Thanks again to Julio Torres. The second season of his brainchild "Los Espookys" is out now on HBO. Next, we enter the world of Taylor Swift. Is it timeless or simply stuck in time? We'll find out after the break.


LUSE: If you're a Taylor Swift fan and on our team - there are a few of them...


TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Meet me at midnight.




LUSE: ...This was a pretty big week. Taylor's 10th studio album just dropped, and it's called...


SWIFT: (Singing) Midnight.

(Singing) Midnight.

(Singing) Midnight.

(Singing) Midnights.

LUSE: ..."Midnights." It's synth-y, pensive pop. And unlike her previous two albums, where she focused on fictional storytelling, "Midnights" takes us back into Taylor's psyche.


SWIFT: (Singing) I find it dizzying. They're bringing up my history, but you weren't even listening.

LUSE: Taylor Swift achieved seismic fame as a teenager, and an entire generation grew up with her, singing along to her songs about young love and dreams and heartbreak. A lot of these people, Taylor included, are now in their 30s. And yet, Taylor Swift is as big as ever, and her fans still want more, which makes me wonder, what exactly is it about Taylor Swift and her music that's so enduring? I put the question to my friend, Rolling Stone writer Brittany Spanos, who herself is an avowed Swifty (ph).

BRITTANY SPANOS: I became a fan on "Fearless."

LUSE: This was, like, 2008, right? The one with "Love Story."

SPANOS: Yeah, and I was, like, 16 around that time.


SWIFT: (Singing) It's a love story. Baby, just say yes.

LUSE: If that's not enough cred for you, Brittany also teaches a course on Taylor Swift at New York University. So today, you're all going to get a crash course on Taylor Swift - how she's grown over the years, how she hasn't and how she's navigated the music industry throughout it all. Together, Brittany and I will figure out whether Taylor is an artist who's timeless or stuck in time. And, of course, we'll touch on her years-long beef with Kanye.

A couple quick notes. We recorded this conversation before "Midnights" was released. Also, we talk about a song with vulgar language that some listeners might find offensive. But we started with what Brittany says is the secret to Taylor's lasting appeal.

SPANOS: I think, you know, there's one thing to continue releasing great albums, right? It's, like, one thing to sort of release albums that still get critical acclaim and still keep your fans happy - that, you know, kind of keep you creatively happy. And that's because she's a songwriting nerd. She's a very good songwriter. But I also think she's really attuned to the industry in a way that, like, sometimes makes people distrust her. Like, I think she cares about, you know, the changes in the industry. She's very in touch with social media. She's an artist who kind of has come up through every possible social media platform you can use.

LUSE: Right.

SPANOS: She grew her fan base on Myspace. She was using Tumblr way past its prime.

LUSE: (Laughter).

SPANOS: Twitter - like, she's now on TikTok. Like, she is commenting on people's videos. She's - you know, she's interacting with them. She's using TikTok the way that, like, other people are using TikTok...

LUSE: Right.

SPANOS: ...Like, to create these sort of, like, aesthetic videos. So she uses all these things in a way that allows her fans to sort of feel like they can really, really connect with her, and that's kept her really relevant. Like, I have a 10-year-old sister who, like, is a big fan of hers. Like, you know, it's like crazy.

LUSE: So, OK, I'm glad you brought up, like, the multigenerational aspect of her fandom and how she's really put a lot of effort into growing a younger fan base.


LUSE: You're teaching college right now. You're teaching a class about Taylor Swift. I imagine a lot of your students are Gen Z.


LUSE: What's the Gen Z read on Taylor Swift? Did they have opinions about her before they came to your class?

SPANOS: Yeah. I mean, it was an interesting mix of students for that class. I would say, you know, like, half the class were, like, pretty hardcore Swifties (ph), and then there was a mix of students who either had a very preferred portion of Taylor's music, you know, and there were some who just didn't listen to her at all. It's pretty reflective, I think, of how, you know, our generation of Taylor fans sort of have interacted with her. You know, you can either look at her as extremely cringe, and her music is kind of corny.

LUSE: (Laughter).

SPANOS: Or you can be like, I relate to this a lot, and this is like - this speaks to my soul. But yeah, I think, you know - I think they didn't really understand the cultural history, the political - the sociopolitical and cultural elements that have molded Taylor and molded her as a millennial woman because they grew up after that.

LUSE: Yeah, I was going to say, like, how much did you have to explain about the era that produced Taylor Swift so they could see her in proper context?

SPANOS: A lot. The biggest one, I would say, that shocked me - like, I was like - actually two of them. One was feminism in pop music. They did not realize that artists did not publicly claim feminism in pop music...

LUSE: Oh, wow.

SPANOS: ...For a long time. And Beyonce doing the VMA performance, I think, was the biggest turning point, right?

LUSE: Where she had - where she did that whole medley, and she had feminist, like, emblazoned on the stage behind her.

SPANOS: Yeah. That was a huge turning point in pop music. Taylor, of course, came out of that.

LUSE: Right.

SPANOS: And the other was Kanye because they had no context for Kanye, really.

LUSE: (Laughter).

SPANOS: You know, they didn't have that heartbreak of losing Kanye because Kanye's been the way he is today for...

LUSE: The entire time.

SPANOS: ...The entirety of their development.

LUSE: I want to stay on this moment, specifically, between Kanye and Taylor for a second. So, you know, the 2009 VMAs - Taylor is about to accept her first-ever VMA. And she goes to begin giving a speech, and Kanye, like, totally takes over the stage.


YE: Yo, Taylor, I'm really happy for you. I'm a let you finish. But Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.


LUSE: Ruins Taylor's moment. I remember watching it at home on TV. That was honestly probably also one of the last surprising things that happened in an award show, I think, until the slap.

SPANOS: Yes (laughter).

LUSE: But I remember thinking, like, this isn't going to last beyond a week. But it turned into this huge beef between Taylor and Kanye that played out over years. Like, could you walk us through...


LUSE: ...The aftermath of that moment, quickly, and how that feud unfolds over the next few years?

SPANOS: Yeah. I mean, I feel like that's the villain origin story for both of them, right? Like, that's, like, what turned them both into the Joker in some ways.


SPANOS: Like, they both kind of have, like - that really changed both of them. I mean, there was a lot of weird stuff. And, you know, for the most part, they had gotten over it, right? They did their responses. Taylor wrote "Innocent." Kanye did "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." It ended, really. You know, they didn't - nothing really happened again until, at their most popular - "1989" and post sort of "Yeezus," right before "Life Of Pablo," Kanye and Kim are married. They reunite at the VMAs. They make amends. And then, of course, "Life Of Pablo" comes out, and there's a big miscommunication over a song lyric.


YE: (Singing) I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.

SPANOS: I get the pain from both sides, right? Like, Taylor is really mad about a specific lyric, and Kanye keeps insisting he told her about that lyric. Me and Taylor could still have sex is what he thought she'd be angry about. But she was mad that he said, I made that bitch famous. And that...

LUSE: Right.

SPANOS: ...Is what the entire thing is about. And it has caused them great grief and strife. It's just - I mean, if you look through everything, it's just kind of, like, a real sort of - someone should have sat them down.


LUSE: That's good. At the time, Kanye was definitely on...


LUSE: ...His villain tear.

SPANOS: Right.

LUSE: Still, I haven't been a Kanye fan in some time, but I remember being frustrated with Taylor because, actually, I had been a fan of Taylor Swift up until that whole situation.


LUSE: Because it felt like there's this huge moment with this Black man and this young white woman. I understand that Kanye was being obnoxious and rude and awful. To me, it did not merit years of what felt like a development of a real victim sort of image. It felt sort of like this, like, white lady, woe-is-me, woe-is-me thing. It felt like their whole feud was playing out right as this moment in American politics where explicit racism and white supremacy are cresting...


LUSE: ...Again (laughter). I don't know. As a Black woman and a Taylor Swift and an early Kanye fan, how did their conflict - how did it affect you?


LUSE: Like, how did you think of it?

SPANOS: I feel like when we think of the feud - right? - and, like, how she's the most popular she's ever been - she's also the most hated she's ever been. There's a lot of controversy over the fact that she writes about these men in her life. And, like, that idea that she plays a victim comes a lot from the fact that her songs are written about these, like, real-life situations that we're seeing play out a year before the albums get released.

So when the Kim and Kanye thing - and of course, Kim is, like, in the best graces of her career at that point - her stepping in and defending Kanye, when that happens, that puts a complete nail in the coffin of everything. Like, that is, like, a shattering type of moment where it's like, how do you come back from that? You know, and this is happening in 2016. It's a little bit like - she becomes very absent during one of the most contentious elections in American history. She...

LUSE: Right.

SPANOS: You know, I think that's - that amplified it because she was so maligned at this point for a lot of reasons. The optics of her as a white woman kind of being in this feud with a Black man - you know, it doesn't look good, I think, especially because of her coming from country music. And she's very, like, pro-America in a lot of ways. Like, she did, like, Fourth of July parties. She was the all-American kind of dream type of...

LUSE: Her documentary is titled "Miss Americana."

SPANOS: Right. And, I mean, you know, that led to a lot of empty space when she was silent, where people were like, oh, she's silent because she's pro-Trump, or is she a white supremacist? You know, like, stuff like that. And Nazis started to attach themselves to her. Nazis loved Taylor Swift in 2016.

LUSE: Yikes.

SPANOS: So, like, it's just a lot of - you know, a lot of that empty space kind of just bred a lot of questions. So, like, I paid attention long enough where I was like, I don't feel like this is, like, where she stands on this, but it is sort of like - you're seeing enough stories. You should say something. She waited a long time to do that. I think she waited a really long time.

LUSE: Coming up, Brittany talks about being a Black fan working through Taylor Swift's whiteness. Also, what makes an artist iconic?


LUSE: I want to go back to Taylor's positioning as a white woman. You know, because she puts herself in her work, her privilege, her experiences and her biases show in her approach, you know, especially in the music videos. Like, the way she would make brunettes the villains...


LUSE: ...Like, in the "White Horse" video or "You Belong With Me." In the "Wildest Dreams" video, she finally makes a brunette the hero, but then she's, like, romanticizing colonial-era Africa.


LUSE: I want to know what your take is. And again, as a fan, how do you navigate it when she does things like that?

SPANOS: I think it's hard because she does come from country music. She was on a country label for so long. She only had people behind her who were from the country music scene, and the country music scene is, historically, just geared towards white audiences. There's only a handful of artists of color who have broken through in that scene. That is a part of it that sort of amplifies the whiteness of Taylor a lot. I also think - I don't know. Like, I don't think anyone who became famous really young is really smart when it comes to the political dynamics in that way. Like, I think that you're sort of blinded very early by a lot of privilege and a lot of that, especially when you're a white artist.

So I don't think she even realized how much of a representative of, like, white culture she had sort of become until 2016, until Nazis and white supremacists absorbed her because she was so absent and because she had not said anything and because of what she represented for so many years that it was easy for them to just be like, well, she must be on our side. Yeah. So I don't think she realized that until later because she stopped having those Fourth of July parties. She started, like, really speaking out more. I think she just thought she was doing her little storytelling. Like, I don't think she genuinely knew that's what was happening.

LUSE: You know, there's this idea - Taylor Swift gets into this in "Miss Americana" - this saying that celebrities are frozen at the age they get famous, and that's kind of what happened for her. I see this in Taylor Swift's styling. Like, I was looking at recent photos of Taylor, like, in the studio with Zoe Kravitz working on "Midnights."


LUSE: And she was wearing skinny jeans, which Gen Z has determined is cheugy (ph) or extremely corny...


LUSE: ...Not cool for a few years now, and, like, a sweatshirt that you could find at Target, which is, like, fine - and, like, Nike's...


LUSE: ...Like, regular, old - like, the kind that you'd wear to go for a walk or whatever. A lot of what she wears and how she presents herself fits perfectly into 2000s mainstream style. All of that is fine.


LUSE: Now, she's one of the most successful pop artists of all time and has access to world-class stylists. It almost seems like - it feels to me like she's resistant to looking contemporary...


LUSE: ...Or too fashionable. And I think you can actually see a similar effect across the subjects of her music. A lot of the lyrical content of her two most recent albums were a lot of throwback references that felt very, like, '40s, '50s, '60s Americana.


LUSE: I wonder - in an attempt to achieve timelessness, it seems to me that Taylor Swift, in a way, is stuck in time. I mean, that's my read.


LUSE: But how does that track for you?

SPANOS: So she separates her songs into three categories, which is, like, the nerdiest thing you could do. So she has the glitter gel pen songs, quill pen songs and the fountain pen songs. Quill pen songs are, like, the period piece songs. Like, she loves, like, old movies. She loves, like, period piece type of novels. And a lot of "Folklore" and "Evermore" has songs that are based on a different time. "The Last Great American Dynasty" is about...

LUSE: Oh, yes.

SPANOS: ...The history of the house that she lives in in Rhode Island.


SWIFT: (Singing) They picked out a home and called it Holiday House.

SPANOS: She has, like, the glitter gel pen songs, which are, like, the "Me"s and the "You Need To Calm Down"s and the "Reputation" songs that are very over-the-top pop songs.


SWIFT: (Vocalizing).

SPANOS: She has the fountain pen songs that are kind of, like, the more modern songs, like "All Too Well," where it's, like, stuck in a specific moment.


SWIFT: (Singing) ...Wind in my hair. I was there. I remember it all too well.

SPANOS: You know, I think that is always going to stand the test of time as, like, to be able to craft a really good song. With the styling part of it, I just don't think she's ever cared too much.

LUSE: But she has co-chaired the Met Gala, which I know is kind of like a celebrity event.


LUSE: But still, like, that's quite an association to have.

SPANOS: That's an association, for sure. I think that was - what? - 2016. Like, that was, of course, a moment when she was sort of doing her most experimentation with, like, high fashion and doing, like, a lot more events than she had ever done. "1989" was about Taylor doing all the things that, like, would make her a pop star in that sphere and completely separate herself from, like, the Nashville ideas and completely enter what being a big, sort of huge synthpop star, like all the other stars of that era were. And so doing something like the Met Gala made sense.

I feel like she stepped back from that. Like, by "Lover," she kind of moved back to sort of, like, comfier - you know, like, more kind of casual wear. Like, she's never seemed to care too much about doing, like, a lot of high fashion-y stuff. So I think that's - it's hard to sort of see that as, like, her just kind of being stuck in time with that. There's a lot of other parts of her image that she likes to control and care about very deeply.

LUSE: But even still, though, like, I still feel like there's a very present, ever-present girlishness about her that almost feels as if she has yet to break, I think, into that - Miley Cyrus, for instance - there is still - I feel like with Taylor, there's this - I feel like she hasn't broken through and had her sort of, like, I don't know, complete switch-up moment. Maybe that's not for her to have, but...

SPANOS: I disagree. I think it depends on what you think of a switch up, though. Like, I think, like - I think a lot of those artists felt the need to sort of take back agency of their bodies and of their physicality and of that. They needed to take that back because they had been sexualized in a way, not of their own agency or by their own choice in a lot of ways. For Taylor, I think that moment for her was "Red." I think it dealt with a lot of anxieties of getting older. You know, a lot of her songs prior had been steeped in fantasy and steeped in the idea of love as a fairy tale. And, like, you know, that fairy tale breaks down, of course. There was still - there was many breakup songs about that. But in "Red," it was a very real sort of pain.


SWIFT: (Singing) And I just want to tell you it takes everything in me not to call you...

SPANOS: Dealing with kind of the nonfairy tale-ness of relationships and of love. So I do think she's had that. But to the girlishness and the preserved-in-amber type of thing, she's always been really fascinated by the way that teen girls' minds kind of develop these fantasies and develop, you know, their relationships. You know, she's still unpacking that, like, what it meant to become famous at a young age. I think every artist is still dealing with that. We see Britney Spears talk about that on Instagram every day.

LUSE: Still. Still. Yeah.

SPANOS: And I think that's the same thing for Taylor. I think that's very real.

LUSE: Something that I've been thinking about - like, I - when I thought about like, timeless pop music, I thought immediately of Dolly Parton and Mariah Carey. Like, those are two people who are very much of their respective times. Dolly Parton's appearance was the butt of many jokes. Mariah Carey's appearance was the butt of many jokes. I mean, I love both of them.


LUSE: So they weren't jokes for me. But I especially - like with Mariah Carey's, I think, resurgence of the past couple of years where people are - like, you know, she got in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. She released her memoirs. And I think people are taking her seriously in a way that for a while they didn't. I wonder if a part of timelessness is, for a period, seeming stuck in time, where people are like, are - is she still wearing that?


LUSE: Is she still singing about this? Is that what she's still talking about? I wonder if there's a lull where people are kind of like - they almost see you as a joke, and then when you're still doing it in 10 to 15 years, you're iconic.

SPANOS: Yeah, I feel like it's - you know, every pop star sort of has that one image that is kind of that enduring part of them. If you were to do, like, a police sketch of Dolly Parton, we would all say the same things. It would all look the same. It might be a - you know, she's changed over the years, but there is, like, a basic structure to it, right? That's what makes an iconic artist iconic. And the people who don't last the test of time, you can't do that with.


LUSE: Brittany, thank you so much. This was very, very enlightening. You know, I'm not - I'm definitely not a Swifty.

SPANOS: (Laughter).

LUSE: But I feel like I got a really good download from you today.

SPANOS: Thank you for one of many opportunities I have had in my life to scream about Taylor. I love them all.


LUSE: That was Brittany Spanos, who covers music, fandom and pop culture for Rolling Stone.

OK. So as I said, we taped that conversation before the release of "Midnights." But now that the album's out and I've given it a few spins, I may have to revisit some of my comments about Taylor's girlishness. This album could mark the beginning of her grown woman era, especially this song.


SWIFT: (Singing) ...In the mirror. It must be exhausting always rooting for the antihero.

LUSE: Now, this might be a version of Taylor I can root for.


LUSE: This episode was produced by...




MCBAIN: Liam McBain.




LUSE: ...Is our editor. Engineering support came from Carleigh Strange and Gilly Moon.


LUSE: ...Is our executive producer.


LUSE: ...Is our VP of programming. And our big boss is NPR's senior VP of programming...


LUSE: Thank you so much for listening. Until next time, I'm Brittany Luse. And you're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR.

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