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How three female artists lead this summer's billion-dollar pop culture revival

This summer, three women at the peak of their powers lead a spectacular pop culture revival. Beyoncé, left, performs onstage during the Renaissance World Tour in May 2023. Margot Robbie stars in Greta Gerwig's <em>Barbie </em>movie. And Taylor Swift performs during The Eras Tour in March 2023.
Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Parkwood/Getty Images; Warner Bros. Pictures; John Medina/Getty Images
This summer, three women at the peak of their powers lead a spectacular pop culture revival. Beyoncé, left, performs onstage during the Renaissance World Tour in May 2023. Margot Robbie stars in Greta Gerwig's Barbie movie. And Taylor Swift performs during The Eras Tour in March 2023.

Updated August 14, 2023 at 7:24 PM ET

It was a last-minute impulse purchase. Two hours before showtime, I watched resale prices finally begin to fall for the extremely sold-out opening night of Taylor Swift's six-night "residency" at Los Angeles' SoFi stadium. Even as a non-Swiftie, it has been impossible not to follow the feverish local coverage of international pilgrimages, friendship bracelet-making, and traffic warnings. But that split-second pop culture purchase was, for me, pure irrationalism.

With no fringe or Eras-themed ensembles in my closet, I rushed to my single seat through a sea of sequined, screaming squads with trepidation and a dull white button-down. Would I, a fortysomething South Asian man with passing knowledge of Swfitism be identified as an unwelcome interloper? Instead, my very gracious neighbor schooled me on how to wear my allotted LED bracelet, and soon I was alight in the same neon pink as the sea of humanity around us, Swift finally emerging out of parallel technicolor hues. The big tent revival swept away any fears, differences, doubts.

For three and a half hours, I too was part of the zeitgeist – a final chapter in a summer of spectacular pop culture revival led by three women at the peak of their powers.

Greta Gerwig, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, and Taylor Swift have been the bona fide superstars of this American summer, transcending their own previous triumphs to reach unprecedented new heights.

#HotGirlSummer is now more specifically #BillionGirlSummer, with Barbie already the first woman-directed film to gross more than a billion dollarsand Beyoncé and Swift's dual stadium tours estimated to gross similarly dizzying amounts, each pumping even more into fledgling local economies around the country.

In a city without a center and isolating car culture, for one week Taylor Swift transformed LA's stadium into a cathedral – an in-person congregation for hundreds of thousands. Soon Beyoncé will bring her roving "Renaissance" to the same stadium for three nights. Across Los Angeles, cinemas are still packed with squads of women and let's not deny it, many men – dressed in 50 shades of pink laughing and crying alongside Barbie's quest to become whole again.

A few weeks ago my colleague Brittany Luse hosted an episode of her show It's Been a Minute lamenting the death of the summer song that dominated and unified pop culture in our idealized millennial memories. As a guest thinking aloud with Brittany on the show, I wondered whether the shift from '90s and early 2000s broadcast monoculture into a streaming era Airpod "me" culture meant there were still summer anthems but only of an atomized, individual variety that reflect our splintered cultural and political lives.

That rumination, however, was before the Barbie, Beyoncé and Swift trilogy went pied piping their way through state after state, shattering records and creating an entire communal economy of irrational exuberance.

Let's turn briefly to the matter of crass capitalism and excess marketing underlying the feel-good fuzzies of corporate pop. It's been impossible to avoid the incessant social media coverage of this trinity of pink extravaganzas. Even my Pakistani immigrant father is texting me about how to join the Verified fans waitlist for Taylor's next dates. Despite the exorbitant prices for concert tickets, travel and even local movie theater outings – not to mention endless product tie-ins for all manner of merchandise — is this feverish demand simply consumer madness? Is it the cumulative decline of seriousness and taste that pretentious critics lament?

The answer is a resounding no. The hype surrounding Barbie, Beyoncé's Renaissance, and Taylor's Eras tour is commensurate with the sheer amount of resources, time and attention so many Americans of all races, genders and ages are devoting to being part of this moment. Critical acclaim has followed each of these works, layers of meaning are being made. They are an undeniable triumph of women's creativity and ownership. Nobody I know of is asking for refunds.

The roaring return of big tent monoculture follows the ennui of lockdowns. It is pop at its collective and connective best – the very opposite of the culture that has defined the recent past – a splintered, atomized state of streaming individualism that seemed to be a permanent new state of affairs.

At a deeper level, the roaring return of big tent monoculture follows the ennui of lockdowns. It is pop at its collective and connective best – the very opposite of the culture that has defined the recent past – a splintered, atomized state of streaming individualism that seemed to be a permanent new state of affairs. The promise of streaming allowed for a kind of hyper-specificity that ensured incessant algorithm based devotion to the platform of delivery. Insularity, it turns out, has its limits. With at-home viewing no longer the only medium for entertainment, I'm certainly not alone in craving the very opposite.

The ongoing strikes in Hollywood have only added to a downturn for streaming's eminence as new shows have slowed for the first time in years. Years of niche and challenging TV that supplanted cinema and boosted corporate profits have been unmasked as rooted in extractive labor practices.

Critics like myself often raved about shows that are radical in form and representational progress, but many of these kinds of works hardly aim for or achieve mainstream success. Narrowcasting satisfies individual tastes, but doesn't always build bridges to those beyond one's own tribal allegiances. As new TV grinds to a halt, and a post-pandemic world feels fully open for business, in-person extravaganzas are meeting audiences where they are, and where others also are.

On a national level, a once relentless wildfire of political crises has also changed course. In the doom-scrolling era of the Trump presidency and the subsequently brittle politics of the pandemic, defiant narratives about identity, pain and reckoning became recurring and natural themes. For many makers and consumers, entertainment could offer catharsis and defiance. But in the glow of a post-pandemic summer that feels like the calm before a brewing storm, the heavy notes and sharp edges of overly political pop seem out of season. Billion dollar blockbusters can't succeed with borders.

In the communal ecstasy of sold-out 'Barbie' screenings and stadium séance of Beyhives and Swifties – the mood is strategic and intentional inclusion.

In the communal ecstasy of sold-out Barbie screenings and stadium séance of Beyhives and Swifties – the mood is strategic and intentional inclusion.

What Geriwg, Swift and Carter-Knowles have created in each of their new masterworks are gated dreamworlds. Swift in her moss-covered cottage of Americana folklore turns stadiums into fireside chats for any romantic, Beyoncé's House of Chrome is a black queer club as a spaceship of alien superstars soaring above the fray – and Barbieland is a pastry inversion of the real-world's patriarchy: a Palm Springs-style fantasia where walls don't exist, convertibles are always top-down and Supreme Courts marginalize men for a change.

There are serious political undercurrents to all this, but the mood at the experiential level is buoyant, escapist and even comedic. Hovering on the distant horizon are Presidential elections and reminders of climate catastrophe but here is a ticketed invitation to get dressed, join the festivities and for the duration, release the wiggle, to quote the "Renaissance."

The closing note of each of these spectacles is a kind of transfer of energy, exuberance and American optimism that has been absent from public and cultural life for years.

Winter is of course coming. But in the interim, there has been a remarkable sense of sunshine this summer. Even those not in attendance have felt the afterglow of the women at its center. Not a cruel, but a communal, collective, and yes, glorious summer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

For one week this summer Taylor Swift transformed LA's SoFi stadium into a cathedral — an in-person congregation for hundreds of thousands.
Bilal Qureshi / NPR
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NPR
For one week this summer Taylor Swift transformed LA's SoFi stadium into a cathedral — an in-person congregation for hundreds of thousands.