Blank space: how Taylor Swift – and an aching sense of loss – dominated music in 2023 (2024)

In truth, when pop music in 2023 comes to be considered by history, it will probably just be remembered as the Year of Taylor Swift. It’s hard to think of a moment in recent pop history when a single artist has so dominated music sales and the media alike, certainly not a pop artist 17 years and 10 albums into her career. At one juncture in July, she had 11 albums on the US chart, four of them in the Top 10, including the No 1 slot; her current Eras tour is the first in history to surpass $1bn in revenue; the accompanying movie is the highest-grossing concert film of all time.

In a feature celebrating Swift being named Time magazine’s person of the year, she was described by singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers as “bigger than Beatlemania and Thriller”. Vogue called her “a fantasy of uninterrupted American progress”. One British tabloid newspaper recently employed a “renowned celebrity psychic and wiccan priestess” to divine when Swift would be taking a break (it was unclear whether the renowned celebrity psychic was being encouraged to consult her tarot cards out of concern for the singer’s welfare or with a certain enough-already weariness).

But Swift notwithstanding, music in 2023 has felt hard to pin down. There were some sizeable breakthroughs – Noah Kahan, Tate McRae, Fred Again, Rema, Central Cee and Mitski were among those hopping up a notch in global popularity, and K-pop singer Jung Kook strongly established himself away from BTS. But no new artist truly skyrocketed into the upper echelons of pop success: the last figure to join the ranks of Swift, Harry Styles, Drake et al was Olivia Rodrigo two years ago.

Blank space: how Taylor Swift – and an aching sense of loss – dominated music in 2023 (1)

As with last year, artists seemed intent on making albums designed to be listened to from beginning to end, in contravention of the latter-day wisdom that streaming has made pop music a world in which only single tracks matter – you could theoretically excerpt songs from Lankum’s superb Mercury-nominated False Lankum and stick them on a playlist, but you’d be missing out on the album’s emotional ebb and flow, highlighted by its interstitial instrumental “fugues”. But there wasn’t the glut of grand conceptual statements that marked out 2022, no equivalent of Beyoncé’s Renaissance, the Weeknd’s Dawn FM or Kendrick Lamar’s . There were plenty of new micro-trends in music – one recent US web article alone alerted the reader to dark plugg, sigilkore, sextrance and murderdrill, among a plethora of fresh subgenres that sounded as if the writer was making them up, but that clearly have some kind of purchase somewhere on the internet – but no obvious, overwhelming musical trend, impossible to avoid because vast numbers of artists were following it. It’s as if music culture is flattened and spread out a little more each year by the rolling pin of the internet.

And yet, looking closely at 2023’s most acclaimed albums, one theme did seem to emerge with surprising regularity. A quite startling number of them dealt with loss in its most straightforward form, in that they were concerned with death and grieving. Everything But the Girl’s Fuse was intermittently haunted by the ghost of Tracey Thorn’s late mother. Julie Byrne’s The Greater Wings acted as a kind of musical eulogy to her chief collaborator and former lover Eric Littman, while you could have taken the contents of Sufjan Stevens’ Javelin as describing a relationship unravelling, until the singer-songwriter took to Instagram on the day of its release to dedicate it to his partner Evans Richardson, who had died in April. Anohni and the Johnsons’s My Back Was a Bridge for You To Cross found the singer reflecting on both a friend’s suicide – “you are dead, I am here stranded among the living” – and the passing of her friend Lou Reed, suddenly alive to life’s simplest pleasures, the taste of water among them, while “on my way towards oblivion”: death, the album kept dolefully suggesting, might actually be preferable to life in a world irrevocably headed towards climate catastrophe and riven with prejudice. As you might expect, given that it opens with a song called Go Dig My Grave and ends with a song featuring the chorus “mourn, it’s the only way we’ll make a sound”, False Lankum is stalked by death: suicides, poisonings, filicide and uxoricide; innocent men sent falsely to the gallows; something that sounds remarkably like a human sacrifice.

Other albums were less explicitly concerned with death, but were still suffused with loss. The Ballad of Darren was an unlikely album with which to launch Blur’s triumphant, celebratory – albeit temporary – comeback. It was understated and sounded crestfallen, filled with songs about sundered friendships and rueful reflections on the band’s past career, haunted by a very fiftysomething kind of nostalgia in which the warm glow of youthful recollection was underscored by the sense that things had changed irrevocably, and not necessarily for the better. It subsequently emerged that Damon Albarn had written its lyrics as his marriage collapsed: “I have lost the feeling that I never thought I’d lose”; “furthermore, I think it is just too late”.

But in 2023, artists didn’t have to be of a certain age to feel like that. Olivia Rodrigo is barely out of her teens, but her multi-platinum Guts was an album regularly consumed by regret and the sense of time passing: the overall message of Teenage Dream or Making the Bed was that celebrity had stolen her youth; it came studded with self-loathing at her apparent ingratitude, the belief she was “playing the victim”. On Mitski’s brilliant The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, the singer-songwriter – whose relationship with fame has proved tricky enough in the past to provoke announcements of retirement – came to a kind of accommodation with her own celebrity, albeit one that involved a regretful accounting of the things most people take for granted but which celebrity involves giving up. On closer I Love Me After You, she depicts herself alone, making the most of solitude, because any kind of “normal” life is out of the question.

Blank space: how Taylor Swift – and an aching sense of loss – dominated music in 2023 (2)

Outside of personal losses, other albums suggested that we are living in an era defined by loss. It’s clearly there in the aforementioned Anohni and the Johnsons album. Young Fathers’ Heavy Heavy depicts 21st century Britain as a place where common sense and decency have gone out the window, replaced by grasping self-interest (“I wanna win, I saw what I saw, I keep walking the line”); the paeans to hedonism, excess and even love on Jessie Ware’s That! Feels Good! or Caroline Polacheck’s Desire, I Want To Turn Into You are framed as an escape from a dimmed world: the former’s lead single was called Free Yourself, the latter features songs called Welcome to My Island and AWOL on a Thursday. Something similar informs the title track of Yaeji’s With a Hammer, which yearns for “a restart button to life”, an escape “from the now”: “Need time to rest and heal / but he says it’s already time to wake up from my dream”.

The question of why loss has become such a popular theme in pop in 2023 hangs heavy. Perhaps it has something to do with living in a post-pandemic world, where life has more or less returned to normal, but remains haunted by the sense that things aren’t quite the same as they were; things have changed, but looking at the news, it’s hard to conclude that they’ve improved. The experience of living amid the climate crisis, its existential questions sat beneath even more immediate wars and human frailties, will find an expression somewhere. These albums of loss are unlikely to be the way 2023 is remembered, but the theme is there nonetheless.

Blank space: how Taylor Swift – and an aching sense of loss – dominated music in 2023 (2024)


What is the message of Blank Space? ›

Inspired by the media scrutiny on Swift's love life that affected her girl-next-door reputation, "Blank Space" portrays a flirtatious woman with multiple romantic attachments. It is an electropop track with a minimal arrangement consisting of synthesizers, hip hop-influenced beats, and layered vocals.

What is the Blank Space chant? ›

(In the “Blank Space” music video, Swift hilariously used a golf club to destroy a car.) She then screamed “Syd-ney” into the microphone and said, “Let me hear that back,” as the chant repeated itself. Swift then continued singing the rest of the song.

What is Taylor Swift's tone in Blank Space? ›

Taylor Swift wrote few that are similar to this song. Tone: The overall tone is sassy tone. She wanted any relationship and see if it is a good one or bad relationship experience in different type of guys.

What records has Taylor Swift broken in 2023? ›

Swift's most recent rerecord, 1989 (Taylor's Version), became her 13th No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 in November 2023, extending her record for the most leaders among solo women. To date, only The Beatles and Jay-Z have more, with 19 and 14, respectively.


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