‘The Taylor Swift Experience’: Does a 25-Year-Old Pop Star Deserve a Museum Retrospective?

The line was huge, stretching a city block in downtown Los Angeles, and made up of fewer teens than expected. No Taylor Swift tees or handmade signs could be seen among the crowd, where Hobbit totes belonging to the middle-aged predominated.

I asked a pair at the front of the line, “Are you excited about the Taylor Swift exhibit?”

“No,” one replied. “We’re waiting to see Night at the Museum.”

The scene immediately in front of the Grammy Museum, a block further down the road from the Regal Cinema, was far tamer: a couple dozen young fans, some scattered parents, a few couples. But inside the museum, the fandom bordered on obsession in a way that was understandable, maybe even admirable. Maybe.

The Taylor Swift Experience, the Grammy Museum’s temporary gallery exhibit in honor of the country-turned-pop singer and seven-time Grammy winner, opened Saturday morning. This also happened to be Swift’s 25th birthday. One preteen in line speculated that Taylor might make a surprise appearance. Only a monster would have the heart to tell her that Swift was in New York for Billboard‘s Women in Music event, Z100’s annual Jingle Ball, and her own star-studded birthday party just hours earlier.

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Photo credit: Philip Cosores for Flavorwire
(Philip Cosores for Flavorwire)
Photo credit: Philip Cosores for Flavorwire

Still, the museum made the event a special moment for fans. A large cardboard picture of Swift doubled as a birthday card, and attendees were invited to add their Sharpied professions of adoration. (Nearly all of them featured a heart.) “Don’t sign her face,” a museum employee ordered. Fans obeyed.

“Even though Taylor Swift is a relatively young artist, with all the archives that her family has kept, from baby up until now, there was no shortage of materials I could select,” curator Nwaka Onwusa told me, as she watched fans hop from fixture to fixture, their giggles and squeals forming a constant buzz.

Onwusa has opened a number of exhibits at the Grammy Museum since its 2008 unveiling, and noted that only Mexican-American pop star Jenni Rivera’s had seen a bigger opening turnout. The love for Rivera makes sense, considering Los Angeles’ vast Mexican population and the singer’s then-recent death. Though Swift’s approval rating has never been higher, Onwusa says that not everyone is happy with the choice of Swift to occupy the Grammy’s largest temporary exhibit space until May (or longer, if demand for it convinces the museum to extend the show’s run).

“Of course we are getting that feedback of, ‘Why is this in the space?’” Onwusa said. “But because we are the Grammy Museum, we are not limited to one particular type of thing. We have the opportunity to share stories of all genres of music. Yes, she is the youngest artist we’ve ever featured, but our history with Taylor goes back to 2006. She was our first lender to the Grammy museum. Before we got anything from a B.B. King or whoever, Taylor actually loaned her Tim McGraw lyrics and her cowgirl boots when she was still just coming onto the scene and we hadn’t even opened yet.”

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Photo credit: Philip Cosores for Flavorwire
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C’mon, you can totally imagine Taylor Swift playing guitar picks with her own face on them. Photo credit: Philip Cosores for Flavorwire

Similarly borrowed items were on display in The Taylor Swift Experience. “I expected them to have clothing and books, but I didn’t expect them to have that much,” 20-year-old fan Jorge Juarez said. “They even had clothes she would wear out in New York City.”

But the goods are only part of the exhibit’s success. A big element of the “experience” is achieved through the presentation’s creativity and interactivity, particularly when it comes to celebrating a young star of the digital age. A giant boom box was placed in the gallery’s main hall to play “Shake It Off” on repeat, while spontaneous recreations of the video’s now-controversial moves lit up the Thriller-style dance floor (as seen below). Fans karaoked “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” in a sound booth, then listened to their recording played over Swift’s original version. Swift’s firsthand involvement in the exhibit is evident in the video she recorded for this part of the show.

While some multimedia elements were exactly what you’d expect — Grammy acceptance speeches on loop — Swift’s childhood videos charted her fame in a way that felt genuine. Essentially anything that her mom, whom Swift considers her best friend and biggest fan, recorded was here: coffee shop open mics, family parties, early tours, and sporting events where Swift sang the national anthem.

(Philip Cosores for Flavorwire)
Photo credit: Philip Cosores for Flavorwire
(Philip Cosores for Flavorwire)
Photo credit: Philip Cosores for Flavorwire

“This exhibit is not a promotion of 1989,” Onwusa warned. “We’re doing this exhibit to talk about the making of a pop star. She’s extremely relevant in the entertainment industry, so we wanted to make sure that was the story you are getting. 1989 and the new genre that Taylor is getting into is so new, we’re still waiting to see what that all turns out to be.”

Fans polled at the opening celebrated all eras of Swift, from her country beginnings to her contemporary pop run. Though critics may find fault with canonizing a 25-year-old, the fans agreed, unsurprisingly, that the Taylor Swift Experience was worth the trip. For nearly the same price, how could the empty galleries of Night at the Museum possibly compete?