What Does It Mean To Be Great?

After a revelatory encounter with Taylor Swift, T Australia’s columnist proposes a rubric for cultural excellence.

Article by T Australia

Taylor swift greatness_1The performer Taylor Swift embodies a distinct kinds of greatness. Image courtesy of Nenikputri23/ShutterStock.

They come every year, as inevitable as Christmas: the best-of lists. What were the greatest movies of 2023? What were the greatest books? The greatest albums and songs? The greatest video games? Each November and December, a thousand critics publish their professional verdicts in every category, and then a million readers flock to social media to agree or disagree, often vehemently, as though lives were at stake. The ranking of pop songs — is “Padam Padam” better than “Dance the Night”? — suddenly becomes a vicious blood sport. 

All these lists are subjective, of course. This is what makes them fun to read: they offer a glimpse of another person’s (sometimes appalling) taste, against which we can measure our own. But every year I read through the lists and find myself asking some basic questions. What does it even mean to be “great”? What makes something “iconic”, a label that is thrown around so freely these days it seems to have lost all meaning? Once, a person had to represent a culture or era to be deemed an icon, like Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot. Now, all you have to do is go viral on TikTok.

Few of us are cultural critics, film historians or expert musicians, but we all have an instinctive sense of greatness. I may not personally appreciate “The Magic Flute”, but I know from his obvious skill that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one for the ages. There are people who were so freakishly good at what they did — William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy — that they may as well be aliens. There is something almost unearthly about them. Prince is probably another example, along with the Beatles, Virginia Woolf, Akira Kurosawa; figures who will still be discussed and revered in 300 years.  

Below this rarefied canon, however, matters get a little murkier. Part of the problem is time. It takes years, decades even, for the glow of newness to wear off so something can be properly appraised. History is littered with examples of movies and books that were once decorated with awards and which now seem woeful, like a beautiful coach that time revealed to be a pumpkin: “Crash”, or “Gone With the Wind”. On the other hand, there are writers and artists who have never won big — no Oscar or Booker — but who will probably outlast all of us. Gerald Murnane springs to mind, an Australian writer most Australians have probably never heard of, though some consider him a worthy candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

It seems to me that there are several metrics against which we could measure greatness. (Whether these metrics are themselves great, or good, or indeed quite bad, is something I leave up to you to determine.)

Something is great, first of all, if it captures a shared feeling, or sensation, in a way so original that it seems to speak directly to you, putting into words or pictures or sound something you have never been able to articulate yourself. This, indeed, is why the Norwegian author and playwright Jon Fosse was awarded the Nobel in 2023: “for his innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable”, as the jury wrote. In the novel “Septology”, Fosse expresses ideas about God, mortality and human nature in ways so startlingly strange — the book is a single sentence unfurling over 667 pages — that he seems to have reinvented the medium itself. 

Something is also great if it expresses a sensibility that has been honed to a fine point, if it is the product of a perspective that sees things more clearly and precisely than most people are capable of doing. I’m thinking here of Martin Scorsese and “Killers of the Flower Moon”, his new film, about the (true) murders of Osage people in Oklahoma by white Americans covetous of their oil money. Scorsese’s movie is uncomfortable, unflinching — and utterly honest. It challenges the viewer to really stop and consider how deep the rot goes, how complicit the whole society is in the subjugation of Native peoples. It is hard to imagine many $300 million epics that are so damning in their conclusion, which is what makes it great. Scorsese’s artistry is unparalleled.  

Something is great, by another metric, if it shows a level of craft and attention that elicits awe. Beyoncé is great in this way, with her boundless work ethic and flawless execution. So is Taylor Mac, the American artist who recently performed a concert that systematically went through the American songbook, decade by decade, for 24 hours straight. (The audience ate and slept in the theatre.) This kind of greatness is the same kind shared by an Olympic athlete: endurance, determination and expertise. 

And something is great, last of all, if it consistently brings people an inordinate amount of joy. This is how I would measure Kylie Minogue, whose voice is hardly excellent (or even particularly good), though her greatness, I think, is incontestable. Kylie has consistently delivered joy for four decades, which makes her a marvel.

I look back over 2023, in part to write a best-of list of my own, and one thing stands out above everything else. I am a little hesitant to admit it, lest I lose what little street cred I have, but Taylor Swift’s “Eras Tour” has proved to be a phenomenon for a reason. I am in no way a “Swiftie”, but I went with friends to see the concert in May at Gillette Stadium outside Boston. I was one of 60,000 people in the audience that night. I expected an inoffensive romp through a discography intended for teenage girls, but what I got instead was craft and attention, and extraordinary endurance. What I got was lyrics that seemed, judging by the reception they received, to express some things that many people were feeling. What I got was a sensibility — Taylor’s — that was nothing if not honed to a fine point. And what I got was joy. For three and a half hours, every person in that stadium was on cloud nine, waving lights in the air, showered with sparks. It was, I must grudgingly admit, truly great. 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 30 of T Australia with the headline: “Above All Else”