Since 1927, TIME has chosen a Person of the Year, the editors’ assessment of the individual who most shaped the headlines over the previous 12 months, for better or for worse.
As a tradition, Person of the Year springs from the Great Man Theory of history, a belief that individuals have the power to transform society. The selections over the years have tended to follow certain patterns. The person chosen has typically been a ruler over traditional domains of power. He—and yes, usually it has been a “he”—is very often a politician or a titan of industry. Fourteen U.S. Presidents, five leaders of Russia or the Soviet Union, and three Popes have all been recognized.
And yet the person whose singular influence was revealed throughout 2023 has held none of these roles—or anything remotely similar. Every year contains light and dark; 2023 was a year with significant shares of darkness. In a divided world, where too many institutions are failing, Taylor Swift found a way to transcend borders and be a source of light. No one else on the planet today can move so many people so well. Achieving this feat is something we often chalk up to the alignments of planets and fates, but giving too much credit to the stars ignores her skill and her power.
Swift is the rare person who is both the writer and hero of her own story. Her path is untraveled, something she’s known for some time. “I can’t find anyone, really, who’s had the same career trajectory as mine,” Swift told us in 2014 when she first appeared on the cover of TIME upon releasing her fifth album, 1989. “So when I’m in an optimistic place I hope that my life won’t match anyone else’s life trajectory, either.”
While her popularity has grown across the decades, this is the year that Swift, 33, achieved a kind of nuclear fusion: shooting art and commerce together to release an energy of historic force. She did it by embracing what she does better than anyone, entertaining and writing songs that connect with people. Now she becomes the first Person of the Year to be recognized for her success in the arts, in a year when we were reawakened to questions about who makes and who owns our cultural expressions. Swift is also a symbol of generational change: she is only the fourth solo Person of the Year born in the past half century.
In the 17 years since her debut, Swift has notched more No. 1 albums than any other woman in history. This year alone she had three. She was everywhere in 2023, filling stadiums and breaking records, which meant we were forced to find novel ways to measure the magnitude of her reach. Seismograms were deployed to show the literal impact caused by her fans. As Swift reportedly became a billionaire, countries’ gross domestic products became the yardstick for her financial contributions. University classes to study Swift’s lessons in literature, business, and law were announced. Swift was showered with keys to cities and street signs changed to her name.
In 2023, world leaders and mayors competed to bring her monumentally successful Eras Tour to their jurisdictions. Swift has become a feature of American soft power: a U.S. diplomat told me how meaningful it was to get Swift to agree to play in his host country. And Swift, as we now know, has had a Midas touch, improving the fortunes of every place she visits and business she celebrates. Just ask the NFL about its millions of new fans. Or your secretary of state: tens of thousands of fans registered to vote after she encouraged them on Instagram, spiking visits to Vote.org. “She’s done a great job of sticking to her guns and being vocal and political in the ways that she wants to,” says the Chicks’ front woman Natalie Maines.
At the same time, much of what Swift accomplished in 2023 exists beyond measurement. She mapped her journey and shared the results with the world: She committed to validating the dreams, feelings, and experiences of people, especially women, who felt overlooked and regularly underestimated. They know she respects her audience, and trusts them with her story. She held up a mirror to her own life, helping people better see themselves. She embraced her past, foibles and all, and in doing so encouraged others to do the same.
While Swift’s success can feel like a counterweight to traditional forms of power, the secret to her mastery has ancient roots. She is writing her own myth, informed by her own journey. And it has been an epic. So many have turned to those tales because they’ve been so disappointed by the storylines that emerge elsewhere in society. Any student of that Great Man Theory of history knows how deeply intertwined it is with centuries of sexism and the exclusion of women from power. Indeed, this isn’t the first time Swift has been part of TIME Person of the Year; in 2017, she was among the “Silence Breakers” we recognized for standing up and speaking out against discrimination, harassment, and assault faced by too many women for far too long.
Swift has been both avatar and author of shifting narratives, never more so than in 2023. Where do they take us? It might look something like what Swift has created, making a space for 70,000 people, night after night, to experience joy together. What is a higher form of influence, after all, than giving millions of fans, young and old, the time of their lives, where they can revel not only in Swift’s voice but in finding their own? These moments were all the more magical for taking place as we exited a pandemic, rediscovering the communal experiences that were so recently taken from us.
For building a world of her own that made a place for so many, for spinning her story into a global legend, for bringing joy to a society desperately in need of it, Taylor Swift is TIME’s 2023 Person of the Year.
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Write to Sam Jacobs at email@example.com