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Pop queen, power broker, hater vanquisher—Taylor Swift’s star has never been brighter. On a trip to her childhood home, she wonders: What (on earth) will she do next?
BY NOW YOU KNOW that the past few years have been extraordinary ones in the life of Taylor Swift. Even if you have only casual knowledge of Swift’s music—there may be six or seven souls left on the planet who can’t sing all the words to “Shake It Off”—you’re aware that Swift has become not only one of the most successful recording artists ever, but also an unrivaled power broker who has prevailed in a volatile media economy and brought today’s music overlords to heel. Swift’s 2015 stare-down of Apple—she declined to put her hit album
on Apple’s nascent streaming-music service when the company said it would not pay artists during its initial launch; Apple changed its policy immediately and paid everyone—was a seismic example of a single artist’s toppling corporate might. At 26, Swift is world famous, wealthy, critically celebrated, a style influencer, and a cultural movement unto herself, recognizable everywhere she goes. She also has two awesome cats.
And yet today, in this chapel atop a hill in Reading, Pennsylvania, Swift is none of those things. She is the maid of honor at the wedding of her childhood friend Britany Maack. Swift and Maack have known each other since Swift was ten days old and have stayed close—there are grainy home videos of the two romping around a crib together and, more recently, photos of them sitting side by side at the 2014 Grammys. Last spring, after Swift accepted Britany’s invitation to be maid of honor via Instagram—kids today!—she took Maack to Reem Acra, where Britany got fitted for her custom hand-embroidered silk-taffeta wedding gown and Taylor for the blush-pink, cap-sleeved chiffon maid-of-honor dress that she has on today (the fitting was also Instagrammed, naturally). Swift has even known the groom, Benjamin LaManna, since kindergarten—she admits to having had a little crush on Ben way back then, when he was “that kid who sat next to me in class with the bowl cut and the Lego lunch box.”
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Swift hasn’t been to Reading in more than a decade; she was fourteen when she moved with her family to Nashville, on her way to becoming a celebrated country singer-songwriter and later blossoming into one of the biggest pop acts in music history. Returning to the place where you grew up can be a bit of a mind-bender for anyone, and Swift is no different. During a car ride earlier in the day, she excitedly pointed out landmarks: the creek where she and Britany used to play as kids; a weathered tree house in the front yard of the former Maack family home; the piney woods she and her friends used to think were haunted.
“It’s such a surreal, emotional thing,” Swift says. “When you’re a little kid, you’re riding the same roads to school every single day, hundreds of times. When you come back, you snap into that strange nostalgia.”
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And the church! There are nuns here at Sacred Heart Chapel who taught Swift in kindergarten. Many of the wedding guests have known her for just as long. To them, Swift is not the superstar who, a handful of days ago, stood on a stage in Los Angeles and accepted a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, the first woman to win that prize twice. No, that maid of honor, currently fussing over and straightening out the train of the bride’s gown, is Taylor—Scott and Andrea Swift’s older kid, Austin’s big sister, who grew up barely a five-minute drive away and used to go for ice cream at the Friendly’s down the street.
To be clear: I’m not saying the people in this church aren’t aware that Scott and Andrea’s kid turned into, you know,
—it’s hilarious to watch the flower girls try to keep it together, and the nuns seem pretty jazzed, too—but that’s not the story today. Britany and Ben are. And the only evidence that the maid of honor is you-know-who is the paparazzi who have gathered at the bottom of the hill, hoping to snag a photo with their long lenses.
A treasured footnote to the Taylor Swift backstory is that she spent much of her childhood being raised at, of all places, a Christmas-tree nursery called Pine Ridge Farm. It is the kind of quaint, Norman Rockwell–ian detail that sounds a bit too precious, too good to be true. Weren’t her parents in finance? Didn’t she grow up in the burbs? How was this possibly real? Come on.
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It’s the morning of the wedding, and I am riding in an SUV with Swift and her mother, Andrea. Andrea is powering down the road, and Swift, dressed in a caramel-colored Reformation jacket and a pair of black jeans, is sitting passenger side. This area around Reading and its adjacent town, Wyomissing, is rich with pastoral roads marked by open fields and stone homes, and the kind of rolling countryside that makes you want to saddle up and ride a horse—which Swift did as a child.
“That was kind of my mom’s thing,” Taylor says. “She really wanted me to be a horseback rider, and I did it competitively until I worked up the nerve at age twelve to tell her I didn’t really love it like she loved it.
“I just wanted to make music and do theater,” she says. “So I’ve been a big disappointment.”
“I’ve gotten over the bitterness, finally,” Andrea says sarcastically.
Soon we arrive at a clearing with a barn and a small farmhouse. This is the place, they tell me. Taylor and Andrea have not made any calls or arrangements about visiting. It’s going to be a random drop-in from a pop star, like the Taylor Swift Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes or something.
Taylor notices a man stepping into his car in the driveway. We pull up alongside, and Andrea rolls down her window. Taylor leans over. “I used to live here,” she says brightly.
The man immediately gives what can only be described as a Holy crap–it’s–Taylor Swift look. “I know,” he says, as if on cue.
Everyone laughs. The man’s name is Dave Schaeffer, and he has lived here with his wife, Debbie, for about six years. He invites us to have a look around, and we all pile out.
“This must really bring back some memories,” Dave says.
“Yeah, this is crazy,” Taylor says. She surveys the fields behind the driveway, which include a small grove of pine trees her parents once planted. They now look tall enough for Christmas at Rockefeller Center. “It’s beautiful.”
This is where, Andrea tells me, Taylor Swift was brought home from the hospital in, well, 1989—I guess everyone knows the year of Taylor’s birth by now. The split-rail fence that’s still standing—Scott and Andrea built that themselves. Scott, a stockbroker, actually purchased and lived on the property before he’d met Andrea; on their first date, she came to a party he hosted in the farmhouse.
Debbie comes outside and introduces herself. “I always thought you might want to stop by,” she says. “But I never wanted to bother you.” The Schaeffers confess they lived here for a while before they learned about the famous former resident. “The pizza guy told us,” Debbie says. “We had no idea.”
She invites everyone inside. As we step into the cozy two-floor home, Taylor takes out her phone and starts filming. There’s the living room where the Swifts put their family Christmas tree. There’s where they once put the piano.
Casey, Dave and Debbie’s daughter, arrives. She actually owns the house with her husband and lives nearby. She’s thrilled but also beside herself that her two daughters are away skiing for the day.
“You want to see your room?” Debbie asks Taylor.
We go upstairs into a small corner room where a tiny Taylor used to demand three books and five songs every night. Taylor gathers the family together to make a quick video for the Schaeffers’ granddaughters, Siena and Tarah.
“Hi, Siena and Tarah,” Taylor says cheerily. “This used to be my room. We wish you were here so bad.”
I can’t lie: All I can think of is Siena and Tarah returning from their ski trip to learn that Taylor Swift was hanging out at their grandparents’ house, and deciding right then they will never go skiing ever again.
On the ride back, Andrea and Taylor sound almost overcome by what has just happened—by the sweet and polite and utterly un–freaked out mood of the whole experience. “My faith in humanity is restored,” Taylor says.
And then she turns her head quickly away from the window: paparazzi.
YES: I SHOULD NOTE that when we arrived at the farm, we were informed by a couple of Swift’s security people that there were at least a trio of uninvited photographers who had followed us to the location to catch some hot, sexy farm-visit action. To Swift, this is about as surprising as . . . what is the exact opposite of surprise? This is her constant state. She lives with it, adapts to it. Just a few years back, Swift was so excited about relocating to New York City—it was the creative basis for
—but when she’s in the city now, within a couple of days, there is a circus of photographers outside her apartment building.
“But that kind of happens everywhere,” she says. The wedding ceremony has finished—Britany and Ben made it official to applause—and Swift and I have huddled downstairs at the church during a break before the reception.
I ask her: When was the last time you were in a place where nobody in the press had any idea you were there—no reporters, no photographers?
“Mmmm, Colorado’s good,” she says. “If I go somewhere and stay in a house, nobody knows.”
Swift says she is ready to lie a little low. After the wedding, she will go to New York, where she will be spotted dining with her friend Lena Dunham, and then be seen a week later in Los Angeles with her brother, Austin, and her friend Lorde at the
Oscar Party. As for future plans . . . who knows? For the first time in years, Swift is not sure exactly what is next. She is very much OK with this.
So what the hell are you going to do with the rest of your life, Taylor Swift?
“I have no idea,” she says, with a sigh that’s more blissful than anxious. “This is the first time in ten years that I haven’t known. I just decided that after the past year, with all of the unbelievable things that happened . . . I decided I was going to live my life a little bit without the pressure on myself to create something.”
Do not freak: Swift is not abandoning making music. Those who know her know this is chemically impossible. (“Her not being creative is one of the last things I’d ever worry about,” the musician and producer Jack Antonoff tells me later.)
“I’m always going to be writing songs,” Swift says. “The thing is, with me, I could very well come up with three things in the next two weeks and then jump back into the studio, and all of a sudden the next record is started. That’s an option, too.”
But probably not for the moment. “I would really like to take a little time to learn things,” Swift says. “I have lots of short-term goals.”
“I want to be a well-rounded person who can make a good drink.” (I can confirm from the wedding’s cocktail gathering that Taylor Swift enjoys an Old Fashioned and knows how to make one.)
“To be able to save somebody if they’re drowning,” she says. She’s completely serious. “So CPR, all the various kinds of chest compressions. People tell you little tips, but that’s different from actually taking a class and getting certified.”
“I do things like this,” Swift says. Once, “I got it in my head that I couldn’t do a split, and I was really upset about it. And so I stretched every single day for a year until I could do a split. Somehow I feel better knowing that I can.”
I ask her if she’d ever consider launching a fashion line.
“Theoretically, yes,” she says. “But I would want it to be something that was relatable and accessible and everyday. I don’t see it being couture. I would want it to be reflective of my style. And a lot of things I wear are not highly expensive.”
In May, Swift will cochair the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s 2016 gala, for the exhibition “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology.” It is a topic Swift—easily one of the biggest style icons of the social-media era—understands better than most, from technology’s ability to shape trends to its growing influence on creativity and design.
Swift’s personal style has, not surprisingly, matured over the course of her career, migrating from the early days of sundresses and, as she describes them, “bedazzled cowboy boots” to the vintage fifties vibe of a few years ago to the sleeker, street-conscious look she favors now. “I can look back at an old photo and tell you roughly what year it’s from,” Swift says. “Going through different phases is one of my favorite things about fashion. I love how it can mark the passage of time. It’s similar to my songs in that way—it all helps identify where I was at in different points of my life.”
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Her style has never been deliberately provocative or fad-chasing—on the contrary, there’s always been a kind of effortless appropriateness to Swift, a quality she shares with her friend the Midwest-raised model Karlie Kloss—and yet it’s easy to see a curiosity about new things. Recently Swift cut her hair into a sharp bob, and she’s been seen strutting in a pair of Gothy, over-the-ankle Vetements boots that look stolen from the closet of Siouxsie Sioux. As usual, the changes are small, recognizable—a genius of Swift’s, from music to everything else, is experimentation without alienation. Swift’s style never tries too hard or appears publicity-craving; everyone’s already paying attention, anyway.
Because I’m a hopeless cheeseball, I can’t help asking: Being part of this wedding, does it make Swift think about being married some day? For the past year, she has been seeing the Scottish DJ-producer Calvin Harris. Harris is not here with her, but in early March, he and Swift will post cutesy notices on social media—his on Snapchat; hers on Instagram—commemorating the one-year status of their relationship. Soon after, both will post photographs of an idyllic, whereabouts-unknown vacation in the tropics, with ts + aw written in the sand. (Harris’s given name is Adam Wiles.)
“I’m just taking things as they come,” Swift says. “I’m in a magical relationship right now. And of course I want it to be ours, and low-key . . . this is the one thing that’s been mine about my personal life.”
Swift’s friend Lorde thinks that Swift can only withdraw from music for so long. “We talk about this—in order to do good work, write these deeply personal records, we’re constantly in a place of metacognition. Sometimes it can feel like you’re a scholar writing a thesis about your own brain,” Lorde says. “So I think she’s going to try to pick up some new skills, maybe take courses in something. Tay is a big fan of taking time off until about month two—and then she gets this look in her eyes, and I know all the
and frozen yogurt and mooching around is about to go out the window.”
Here on a basement floor of the country club, where the bride is adjusting her gown, Swift and I hear the cocktail party gaining steam. A pair of bridesmaids stroll by. Swift gives them high fives.
“Honestly, I never relax, and I’m excited about being able to relax for the first time in ten years,” she says.
Swift takes a sip of her Old Fashioned. “I feel relaxed right now.”
JUST A FEW DAYS before, Swift had been in the thick of it. In her Grammy acceptance speech for Album of the Year, she’d offered stirring words to women in the audience, but also made what was presumed to be a less-than-veiled reply to Kanye West, who’d released a new song in which he’d bragged he’d made Swift famous and tackily theorized the pair would one day have sex. The story pinged around on social media for the next 72 hours and generally made me want to put a metal pail on my head and bang it loudly against a wall.
Hadn’t this whole Kanye vs. Taylor nonsense—which began, of course, seven years ago, when West barged into Swift’s MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech to argue that Beyoncé should have won—been declared over? Taylor Nation was aghast. Austin Swift posted an Instagram video in which he casually tossed a pair of West’s Adidas Yeezy sneakers into the garbage.
I tell Swift the whole thing reminded me of Al Pacino’s famous line as the aging Mafia don Michael Corleone in
Swift knows exactly where I am going and finishes it:
“I think the world is so bored with the saga,” she goes on. “I don’t want to add anything to it, because then there’s just more.”
I get why Swift would not want to fuel the dispute, but it’s not hard to see a connection between West’s credit-taking and the long tradition of men being dismissive—actively as well as subconsciously mansplainy—of the hard work and success of women. This is something Swift has become hardened to, having spent much of her early years being mainly recognized not for her songwriting gifts (which just about everyone now agrees are rare and special) but for who she was dating, her fame distilled into what Swift calls “my incredibly sexist Men–of–Taylor Swift slideshows.”
“You know, I went out on a normal amount of dates in my early 20s, and I got absolutely slaughtered for it,” she says. “And it took a lot of hard work and altering my decision-making. I didn’t date for two and a half years. Should I have had to do that? No.
“I guess what I wanted to call attention to in my speech at the Grammys was how it’s going to be difficult if you’re a woman who wants to achieve something in her life—no matter what,” she adds.
The day after the awards, Swift went shopping at Barneys in Beverly Hills—“I was like, ‘I’m going to buy some nice shoes today’ ”—and says she was approached by a number of women, mothers in particular, who thanked her. “Their response was really beautiful. You never know what anyone’s response is going to be. So when it’s good, it’s really nice.”
Swift has reached a level of fame at which unsolicited drama just finds her. The Men–of–Taylor Swift slideshows have calmed down, but she now takes grief for her “squad” of celebrity female friends, who, depending on the jab, are either too glam or too phony or some combination of the two.
“Ugh,” Swift says when I bring it up. “I’ve had people say really hurtful things about me, and so I’ve kind of learned how to gauge it: ‘This is, like, low-to-medium-level hurtful.’
“There are a lot of really easy ways to dispel rumors,” she explains. “If they say you are pregnant, all you have to do is continue to not be pregnant and not have a baby. If the rumor is that you have fake friendships, all you have to do is continue to be there for each other. And when we’re all friends in fifteen years and raising our kids together, maybe somebody will look back and go, ‘That was kind of ridiculous what we said about Taylor and her friends.’ ”
It’s as if Swift has become so big, so enticing a target, that she is no longer a mere person but a cultural symbol from which anything can be demanded. Jack Antonoff describes Swift’s status as “almost like being president.” He adds, “She’s the biggest, but a lot of people have been the biggest. Not a lot of people have been the biggest and the best, and she is.”
All of that feels a million light-years away, here, back home, among friends, at Britany’s wedding. Before we part, Swift makes a request: She needs to practice her maid-of-honor speech. Now.
And so, in a basement corridor at the country club, Swift recites her maid-of-honor speech, which she has memorized.
I don’t have to tell you that Taylor Swift’s maid-of-honor speech is great. Of course it’s great.
HERE’S ONE OTHER THING about this wedding: Britany and Ben made the brilliant decision, which apparently is becoming a bit of a thing with twenty-first-century nuptials, to politely ask their guests to not bring their phones. So from the ceremony to the receptions and the toasts, people actually paid attention to the bride and groom—they focused, laughed, existed in the now. “All of our guests were present,” Britany tells me later. “I truly attribute this to everyone unplugging from distractions and enjoying the moment.”
When the time comes, Swift grabs the mic and delivers her maid-of-honor address with the unperturbed calm of someone who does this kind of thing before 50,000 people. She tells the story of having a crush on kindergarten-era Ben with his bowl cut and Lego lunch box. She talks about how, as toddlers, Britany was the physical one, and she was the verbal one. “Essentially what you had were these two babies who each made up for what the other lacked,” Swift says. “One couldn’t really walk. One couldn’t really talk. And interestingly enough, we assume those exact personas to this day when we are drunk . . . give us an hour.”
A few beats later, Swift has everyone teary when she talks about the “real love” she sees between Britany and Ben. “Real love doesn’t mess with your head,” she says. “Real love just is. Real love just endures. Real love maintains. Real love takes it page by page.”
Later on, there will be cake. Later on, there will be dancing, those flower girls getting a story that is going to totally blow their classmates’ minds at school on Monday. Later on, the wedding band will entice Swift to the stage, where she will sing “Shake It Off” for her childhood friend on her wedding night and an audience that for the first time in history isn’t waving 10,000 smartphones in her face. The night—the whole weekend—is storybook warm. You know the old Thomas Wolfe novel
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