In defense of Taylor Swift's performance in "Cats"

Now that "Cats" is on Netflix, we should reevaluate it as "Cats: Taylor's Version." It's a lot more fun that way

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 27, 2024 1:13PM (EST)

Taylor Swift in "Cats" (Universal Pictures)
Taylor Swift in "Cats" (Universal Pictures)

When she posed for Time's 2023 "Person of the Year" cover wearing one of her three cats draped around her neck like a boa, Taylor Swift seemed to cement her status as, in the words of New York Magazine, "America’s foremost Cat Lady." But if you really want to pinpoint the 12-time Grammy winner's apex as a feline icon, you need to go back five years, to director Tom Hooper’s unhinged cinematic adaption of Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Cats." But don't think of the movie as "Cats." Think of it as "Cats: Taylor's Version." It's a lot more fun that way.

Her total and unembarrassed commitment to this legitimately goofy, unsettlingly CGI-enhanced production is a thing to behold.

Riding on a wave of acclaimed adaptions like 2012's Oscar winning "Les Miserables," 2014's successful "Into the Woods" and two "Mama Mias," the long awaited film version of one of the most beloved, longest running West End and Broadway musicals of all time seemed a solid bet back in 2019. But "Cats" is an . . . unusual show. For starters, it's based on a book of poetry, T.S. Eliot's "“Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats." And as such, it's about singing cats. 

You know this, going in. Yet the cinematic adaptation is still really something else. I remember attending an early press screening of the then much-hyped, star-studded musical, and all of us in the audience blinking back into the daylight as if we'd just emerged from a fever dream. It remains one of the oddest movie-going experiences of my life, and Taylor's number, "Macavity," is a showstoppingly bizarre highlight of a showstoppincgly bizarre movie. At the time, I described it by writing that "If 'The Island of Doctor Moreau' had a baby with that Gaspar Noe movie about the dance troupe that gets dosed and has a murder orgy, it would look just like this scene," adding uncomortably, "There are people out there, walking among us right now, who are definitely going to masturbate to it." I watched "Cats" again recently – after Netflix acquired it – and I stand by this.

Yet as Taylor Swift has spent the past few years reevaluating her body of work, she's invited her listeners to do the same, and why shouldn't that include "Cats"? Revising her early albums and embarking on a retrospective "Eras" tour, she's shown how an artist's work and our own relationship to it change over time. I don't know if I can in good conscience encourage anyone to watch or rewatch the movie in its entirety, but I do absolutely recommend a second look at what Swift is doing there. 

First, there's her onscreen performance as Bombalurina in the musical's slinkiest, most Fosse-friendly routine. She floats in on a golden crescent moon, sprinkling catnip from a very Judith Leiber-like rhinestone shaker. She shimmies in heels, she purrs in a quasi London accent, pronouncing "there" as "thuhr." It's mesmerizing, to say the least. Does she have a Broadway belt like her costar Jennifer Hudson? Oh no. Does she make it her own flirty, don't-give-a-hoot thing? Absolutely. The way she sings "His coat is dusty" and then says, as an aside and in her American accent, "from neglect," is pure Swift. And her total and unembarrassed commitment to this legitimately goofy, unsettlingly CGI-enhanced production is a thing to behold. It's camp in the best sense — what Sontag must have had in mind when she described the state of being "bad to the point of enjoyable." 

Like the album "Lover," which had dropped earlier the same year, Swift's contribution to "Cats" feels a part of a shifting phrase in her life and career. "Lover" had been the follow-up to 2017's divisive "Reputation," a fresh declaration of hope, romance and independence. On the cusp of turning 30 and freeing herself from her former label Big Machine Records, Swift would with "Lover" drop a Pride month banger with "You Need to Calm Down," mark her own solo directorial debut (the ambitious video for "The Man"), and create one of the biggest sleeper hits in pop history with "Cruel Summer." This is the Taylor of 2019, and it's the Taylor we see in "Cats" — an artist reaching for a new height of creativity and artistry, and who will do it prowling around like a little kitty cat if she damn well wants to.

Swift's other, often overlooked contribution to "Cats" is the only new song in the adaption. Cowritten with Andrew Lloyd Weber, "Beautiful Ghosts" is sung by the central feline Victoria in the film, and Swift in the closing credits. Even among Swifties, this one's a deep cut, a bittersweet ballad to lost dreams and missed opportunity. On the Taylor Swift reddit sub, one poster sums it up by calling it a "super underrated song [that] definitely deserves more love." It is also, like the whole "Lover" album, peak U.K. Taylor era, as she sings of being "too young to wander London's lonely streets alone and haunted." A lonely and haunted cat, by the way. It's nevertheless just a really pretty, soulful tune, a unique collaboration between the guy who wrote "Memory" and the woman who would go on to show the world how to write a brilliant song from the perspective of a sweater. 

"When Andrew asked, from behind his piano, if I had any ideas on what Victoria might say if she had a song," Swift wrote for Billboard in November of 2019, "I knew what he was asking. He was asking to help him write it." She added, "No matter what happens, I can safely say the memories from my experience working on 'Cats' will be ones I carry with me. Beautiful ghosts, if you will."

What happened, of course, is that the movie came out a month later and became an immediate trainwreck/cult classic, a uniquely unifying moment in pop culture surrealism. Taylor, meanwhile, followed her stint in a catsuit with some of the best work of her career in "Folklore," "Evermore" and "Midnights," would rerecord and release her earlier works, and go on a tour so seismic it's boosting the economy. 

Among her accolades and accomplishments, Swift certainly doesn't need the blip that was "Cats" to boost her resume, but it serves nonetheless as a meaningful moment in her risk-taking, always surprising career. And whatever you think of the film, you can't call Taylor's participation in it a tactical error. "I really had an amazing time with 'Cats,'" she told British Vogue in 2019. "I think I loved the weirdness of it. I loved how I felt I’d never get another opportunity to be like this in my life.”

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Cats Commentary Movies Taylor Swift