Taylor Swift Just Had Her Most Epically Creative Year Yet

Commentary: The star has truly entered her auteur era.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
9 min read
Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her foray into directing this year.

Valerie Macon/Getty Images

If you know singer Taylor Swift, you probably also know songwriter Taylor Swift, and you may also be familiar with actor Taylor Swift. But director Taylor Swift and doctor Taylor Swift? We only really met them this year. And if you happened to have missed them, it's not too late to become acquainted.

The past year has been big for Swift. In fact, it's been massive. In October, she released her 10th studio album, Midnights, which became the most streamed album in a single day on Spotify and was the first album to occupy all top 10 spots on the Billboard Hot 100. The following month, when tickets for the US leg of her 2023 Eras Tour went on sale, demand was so high Ticketmaster was forced to apologize to fans for not anticipating the volume of sales, prompting the US Department of Justice to launch an antitrust probe into the company. The tour is on track to gross $591 million in the US alone, according to Billboard.

But the mainstream cultural success of Midnights and the Eras Tour could easily obscure the true story of Swift's 2022, which has been one of creative-wing-stretching and letting her inner nerd fly free. It's become clear over the past 12 months that if your perception of Swift is still solely of a country-artist-turned-popstar, it's outdated. 

"As a songwriter I've never been able to sit still, or stay in one creative place for too long," Swift said in her commencement speech at New York University in June, where she received an honorary doctorate this year. 

This year has arguably seen her travel to more creative places than ever before. Thanks to her film festival appearances, her first awards for directing her short film, All Too Well, and the announcement of her imminent move into directing her debut feature film, this was the year Swift evolved into a full-on Renaissance woman of the arts.

With Lady Gaga and Beyonce as her peers, 33-year-old Swift is far from the only model for this. She's part of an era-defining tradition of women in entertainment who aren't content to stay in their lanes, creatively speaking. Swift has long experimented with other artistic forms, including painting and poetry, but her foray into filmmaking is becoming increasingly central to a career trajectory marked by an innate determination to progress creatively.

Best believe she's bejeweled

It was over a year ago, in November 2021, that Swift released All Too Well: The Short Film, to coincide with the release of the album Red: Taylor's Version. Starring Sadie Sink and Dylan O'Brien, the film brought to visual life the long-requested 10-minute version of her former sleeper hit. 

The film, an intimate portrait of an emotionally fraught relationship, was written and directed by Swift and made her the first artist to win an MTV Video Music Award for a self-directed video. Multiple publications, including Vogue, tipped the film for a 2023 Oscar nomination, but it didn't make the shortlist when it was announced last week.

Even if All Too Well isn't destined for an Academy Award, it's earned Swift a number of high-profile fans in the industry. Director Guillermo Del Toro told W magazine this month that Swift and he met up recently to talk about film and that he'd shared a number of books with her about fairy tales and myths.

"She's a very accomplished director, she's incredibly articulate and deep about what she's trying to do -- and what she will do," he said, adding that their conversation was "most stimulating and gratifying."

Those who've already worked with her in her role as director also have high praise for her skills. "I think Taylor Swift has been miscast," said Ethan Tubman, who's worked as production designer on all Swift's directing projects so far, speaking at SCAD Savannah Film Festival in October. "I think we all know her as a phenomenal singer-songwriter. But she is a director that happens to be a singer-songwriter."

Even though she didn't make the Academy Award shortlist for directing in 2023, she still has a chance in a different category. 

Swift's skill for using her storytelling skills to bridge creative disciplines is already well established, particularly when it comes to writing songs for movies. She's written a number of songs for film projects over the years, including Safe and Sound for the Hunger Games and Beautiful Ghosts for the movie Cats, which she also starred in. But few have been as critically acclaimed as the song Carolina, which Swift released in June for the movie adaptation of Delia Owen's novel Where the Crawdads Sing.

In music publication Clash, Nick Annan praised Swift's work on Carolina for "somehow distilling Delia Owens' work -- in all its breadth and depth -- into a song of real brevity and power." It's already netted her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song and made the Oscar shortlist for the same category, paving the way for a potential Academy Award nomination in January.

Talk your talk and go viral

Not everyone is so impressed with Swift's burgeoning film career. Many people on "film Twitter" were especially perplexed at her inclusion earlier this month in Variety's Directors on Directors lineup (an annual series featuring conversations between top filmmakers). It saw her in conversation with Martin McDonagh, director of the critically acclaimed movie Banshees of Inisherin. 

Film buffs were annoyed by everything from the fact that Swift didn't go to film school (something she's acknowledged) to the fact that her first foray into film is a "glorified music video" (Kyndall Cunningham, the Daily Beast) -- never mind that plenty of successful filmmakers got their start that way. Critics argued that Swift's spot should've gone to a more established woman in film and that Swift's participation was a branding exercise on her part.

"The end goal of this is clearly for Swift to ingratiate herself to cinephiles and get that Oscar nomination she craves," Cunningham said. It's fair to say most artists and celebrities step up publicity when they have a project to promote or in the run-up to awards season. Swift wouldn't be unique in this.

In the end, she showed up well prepared to engage critically with McDonagh's work and with due humility for someone early in a film career. "Every time I sit down with someone like you who's making work that I adore, that I respect, it's educational for me," she told him.

Those determined to gatekeep the film industry from Swift should be aware that their skepticism will likely only make her more determined. She's faced the same resistance in the music industry over and over, ever since she was a plucky tween with a dream dropping karaoke demo CDs into the mailboxes of music executives across Nashville. And we all know how that turned out for her -- with a world-dominating music career spanning multiple genres and decades.

In the song Karma, from her new album Midnights, Swift addresses the longevity of her career head-on. "Ask me why so many fade, but I'm still here," she purrs, as the words, "I'm still here" echo in ascending keys, reiterating her point.

Karma may or may not play a part in Swift's continued success, but one more easily attributable factor is her almost scholarly approach to learning and refining her craft. Doing her homework to interview McDonagh was far from a one-off. The same diligent prep work was in evidence when she interviewed Pattie Boyd for Harper's Bazaar in 2018 and Paul McCartney for Rolling Stone in 2020.

What if she told you she's a mastermind?

Make no mistake, Taylor Swift is a polymath, an eternal student of the creative process in all its guises. It's perhaps appropriate, then, that this year NYU awarded her an honorary doctorate of fine arts. 

The validity of honorary titles is hotly debated, especially in academia, and certainly it does no harm to NYU's global reputation to have a star with a track record of filling stadiums speaking at its commencement ceremony. But Swift makes no secret of her penchant for constant learning. 

Since the earliest days of her music career, she's diligently studied music, musicians and the music industry. She may be so prolific these days that she makes turning out hit albums look easy, but almost everything we need to know about this skill can be traced back to the way that, as a kid, she famously practiced her 12-string guitar until her small fingers bled, after being told it would be too complex for her, all while avidly studying documentaries about country artists.

Now she's doing the same thing with film. During both the Toronto International and Tribeca Film Festivals this year, Swift listed a vast array of influences (from Kramer vs. Kramer to Marriage Story) and discussed the ways in which the extensive time she's spent on the sets of more than 60 music videos provided fertile ground for learning the many skills she's needed to gradually take on more creative control in film projects.

"It wasn't like I woke up one day and I was like, 'You know what I want to do? Direct,'" she said at TIFF. Instead it was a "baby steps" process, which started out with her meddling with edits and getting involved in writing treatments around 10 years ago, before later moving into writing shot lists and taking on the role of co-director.

"The lists of things I was absorbing became so long that I eventually thought I really want to do this," Swift told Mike Mills, who interviewed her at Tribeca.

It helps that she tends to seek out collaborators who can also function as mentors. She spent hours talking with Lana Wilson, who directed her documentary Miss Americana for Netflix, Swift said, and she's also credited her longtime music video director Joseph Kahn as someone she's learned the process from as he brought her initial concepts to life on camera.

In Swift's NYU commencement speech, she talked about how she grew up picturing a typical college experience for herself. In lieu of this, she opted for a career that requires a lifetime of refining her writing skills to maintain her creative edge.

"Everything I do is just an extension of my writing, whether it's directing videos or a short film, creating the visuals for a tour, or standing on stage performing," she told the NYU audience. "Everything is connected by my love of the craft, the thrill of working through ideas and narrowing them down and polishing it all up in the end."

That's a real legacy

All this insight into her artistic process is another reason 2022 has been an unusual year for Swift. In spite of launching a hit album, she's spoken in public far more frequently than she's sung over the past 12 months. Live performances by the star have been rare, and have largely been a surprise footnote during the course of another event. 

Next year will be very different. It'll be consumed by a tour that's already the most hyped cultural event of 2023. It'll be a year of bejeweled leotards, leaning down from the stage to grasp the hands of fans, and racking up endless hours of physically and emotionally demanding performance time.

Yet, as we learned this month, Swift is also in line to direct her first feature film with Searchlight Pictures, the studio behind The Shape of Water and Nomadland (both of which won Academy Awards for best picture and best director). In addition to writing a record-breaking album this year, Swift wrote a full-length screenplay that she'll take the creative lead on, adding scriptwriter Taylor Swift to her long list of potential monikers.

"Taylor is a once-in-a-generation artist and storyteller," Variety quoted Searchlight Presidents David Greenbaum and Matthew Greenfield as saying. "It is a genuine joy and privilege to collaborate with her as she embarks on this exciting and new creative journey."

With, this year alone, Swift's creative fingerprints all over a critically acclaimed album, plans for an already record-breaking tour and an upcoming movie project from a studio with serious credibility, we're witnessing an artist who's morphing into an auteur before our eyes.

"I definitely feel more free to create now," Swift told McDonagh, explaining the rapid pace at which she's currently putting out work. "The more art you create, hopefully the less pressure you put on yourself. It's just a phase I'm in right now."

A phase it might be, but just as when she made the jump from being a country artist to a pop star, the liberation of jumping headfirst into moviemaking seems to have set something new in motion for Swift. While her Eras Tour marks a culmination of all her career accomplishments up to and including 2022, a new era also began for the star this year. And if past trends are anything to go by, the best of Swift may still be yet to come.