On July 7, 2014 an international newspaper granted one fitfully lifelike automaton, model no. "TAYLOR SWIFT," a public forum to deduce her way to a rudimentary theory of "money."
"Music is art, and art is important and rare," Swift wrote in an op-ed on the Wall Street Journal website, approaching the money problem through the avenue of "music," an equally difficult abstract concept that she had already mastered. "Important, rare things are valuable," she continued methodically, before sprinting to her aha moment: "Valuable things should be paid for," with money. Yes, but how much should we pay?
Though Taylor Swift has, for years, demonstrated a thorough awareness of money's existence, the fundamental concept of its value remains elusive to her. Is a burrito worth 90 dollars or 90 million? Can a penny buy a man his dreams? When you make it rain, do you actually make it rain? How much does a doorknob cost?
In fact, Taylor Swift's wagers, donations, and gifts display so little connection to any common understanding of the U.S. dollar that it may be helpful to consider her as an independent economic entity. Below, we have constructed rough timeline charting the economic performance of the Taylor Swift dollar (TSD), a volatile young currency whose value fluctuates more violently than Bitcoin, over the course of three years.
May 2012: Taylor donates $4,000,000 to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
$1 TSD = $0.0000875 USD = One (1) blade of verdant Tennessee zoysia grass
Among Taylor Swift's most high-profile philanthropic donations ever was a $4 million contribution to Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012. While there's no reason not to donate $4 million dollars to a country music museum, the Country Music Hall of Fame is an institution that is not well known for its financial woes. Perhaps Swift, in her flailing early attempt at wrangling with the dollar, assumed she was making a standard-sized donation—giving the same perfunctory amount that everyone gives.
Of course, we economists know that the standard for donations to culturally irrelevant mausoleums for bygone pop music was established 500 miles away, in Cleveland, where $350 gets you a large-sized brick on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's public plaza. This, surely, is more along the lines of what Taylor had in mind when she wrote her check—because what is the Country Music Hall of Fame going to do with four— four—FOUR—million dollars? (They built a Taylor Swift-themed music education center.) Running the numbers, this currency conversion from Taylor Swift to U.S. Dollars puts a pre-Red-era TSD at a dismal eight thousandths of a cent. An inauspicious start.
July 2014: Taylor gives fan $90 for a Chipotle birthday burrito.
In the summer of 2014, the single Swift buck in your pocket wouldn't get you much beyond a piece of old-timey candy or a single half-inch screw, which is to say: the value had soared to disappointing new heights. In July, a young woman approached Taylor Swift in Central Park for a photo mentioning, at some point during their brief interaction, that she planned to purchase a birthday burrito at Chipotle later that day. Upon hearing this, Taylor Swift promptly handed the girl $90 in cash from her wallet. According to FastFoodMenuPrices.com, most Chipotle burritos are currently valued at $8.71 USD in the state of New York, putting the TSD at just under one tenth of the American dollar's value. How big does Taylor Swift think a burrito is? (Note: Taylor Swift allegedly told the fan to go "somewhere nice," after handing over the cash, but to many people—including, almost certainly, someone who would choose to celebrate a birthday there—Chipotle is plenty nice, thank you.)
October 2014: Taylor (possibly) donates $4,000 to a fan with no home.
Don't forget to look before you fall. I've found time can heal most anything, Swift sings on "Fifteen," a song about her friend Abigail losing her virginity. Sure enough, by October, the TSD stronger than ever, and climbing steadily. That month, a Taylor Swift fan named Brandon created a GoFundMe page alleging that a "serious fight" with his father left him "disowned, cut off...kicked out" and homeless, according to a Cosmopolitan report. One $2,000 donation left on his page was marked with the initials T.S. Two smaller gifts, of $1000 each, were signed with initials that matched the names of Swift's two cats, Olivia Benson-Swift and Meredith Grey-Swift. Online hives of Taylor Swift fans concluded that their queen was behind the money; if they're right, that puts the Swift dollar at about $3 U.S.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Taylor's home base of Nashville—coincidentally where Brandon appears to have been living in October—is $979. Taylor, in her infinite generosity, almost certainly intended to give Brandon enough for a one-year lease, which comes to about $11,750, not including broker's fees and security deposits. The Swift economy was awfully strong if 4,000 TSD was enough to pull that off.
January 12, 2015: Taylor sends $1,989 to a fan with student loan debt.
The TSD's meteoric rise showed no signs of stopping in January, when Swift gave a fan named Rebekah Bortniker $1,989 dollars in an effort to help pay off Bortniker's student loans while promoting her own album, 1989. A nice gesture in theory, but the average debt for a member of 2014's college graduating class in $33,000—and a paltry two grand barely makes a dent. If an economic despot like Taylor was looking to make a significant contribution to her superfan, we can reasonably surmise that she intended to cover at least a quarter of Botniker's debt. Assuming Bortniker owes something close to the national average, that figure would be roughly 8250 USD. In this scenario, it would appear that Taylor believes the value we all know as $8250 can, in fact, be represented by 1,989 one-dollar bills. That puts the Taylor Swift dollar at more than four times the value of its American counterpart.
January 23, 2015: Taylor posts a photo of her bellybutton to Instagram and says it's worth $100,000.
Just 11 days later, a single Instagram photo sent the Swift dollar plummeting. There was Taylor, in a bikini, frolicking with friends on a fancy boat. There was her bellybutton, never before seen, shamelessly out under the eyes of the Lord. And, as a splash of sea spray lightly kisses the face of a Haim sister before evaporating in the Hawaiian sun, there was the value of the Taylor Swift Dollar evaporating into the air.
Recently, Swift revealed that she published the photo because she saw a paparazzo approaching. "Okay so they got pictures of us in our bikinis, like I don't want them to make like $100,000 for stalking us," she said during an interview on BBC 1. "So we're like, 'Get up on the bow of the boat, we're taking better bikini shots, so they don't make as much money on theirs.'"
Extravagant though it may seem, 100,000 USD is a fair and level-headed assessment of the value of a pap shot of Taylor Swift in a bikini. Consider that the first photos of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's newborn twins reportedly fetched between $11 and $14 million, and that Matthew McConaughey and Camila Aves got $3 million for pics of their kid. Camila Aves isn't even famous!
Maybe Taylor Swift understands money perfectly after all—as long as it relates to her own extremely valuable personal brand.
February 2015: Taylor gives $50,000 to New York City public schools because she loves New York.
Taylor Swift recently made good on a promise to donate all proceeds from sales of her song "Welcome to New York" to the titular York's education department, dropping a $50,000 check in the DOE's coffers. That seemingly anemic number basically checks out against "Welcome to New York" sales figures, but given Swift's $200 million net worth, the DOE's $25.9 billion budget, and the free marketing boost Swift pulled from the charity ploy, a bigger donation was probably in order. (There are over 1,700 schools in the New York City public system, equating Swift's donation to just under $30 per school. Thanks, Tayla.)
Since we're talking about someone who gave $4 million to a country music museum, let's assume Taylor meant to give something like $500,000. That would put the value of the TSD at ten times that of the USD. The historic rally continues, but is TSD deflation getting dangerous?
"This is not a one-time donation," Swift's publicist told the New York Times earlierthis. "Taylor will continue to donate the proceeds she receives from the sale of the single 'Welcome to New York' to N.Y.C. public schools."
It's a nice thought. But considering the TSD's frequent and unpredictable oscillations, there's no telling what it really means.
Unspecified date: Taylor appraises the value of a relationship with an ex-boyfriend as less than $10 and one six pack of beer (roughly $11).
$10 TSD and 1 (one) six pack = (Priceless) USD = 1 (one) meaningful human relationship
Alongside the official Taylor Swift discography exists a kind of shadow canon: unreleased songs, bootleged and leaked, then traded among devotees like Grateful Dead concert tapes. Super Super Grateful Thank You Soooooo Much I Seriously Love It Dead concert tapes, if you will.
One such mystery song is "Ten Dollars and a Six Pack," which exists online only in fan-made cover versions. Despite its unofficial status, it is a Taylor Swift song through and through, and as such it is about a relationship gone bad—in this case, a relationship over which Taylor Swift and her best friends forever made a friendly gentlemen's bet. Some excerpted lyrics:
So I guess I owe my friends ten dollars and a six pack
Got myself a big country serving to pay back
Now I'm going to have to listen to my mamma's "I told you so"
But you weren't even worth all that, ten dollars and a six pack
According to Swift, this relationship wasn't worth the measly ten bucks and six Budweisers she promised to pay her prescient pals if it all went south. (Frankly, to me, the relationship sounds decent: Other lyrics reveal it "lasted three months and a half" and involved "[going] fishing a lot.")
How much are Taylor Swift Dollars worth? Enough to buy the fleeting feeling we call love?
Probably something closer to 3 USD.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]