The Unimpeachable Taylor Swift

What our complicated relationship with the formerly-adored pop star says about us.

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I remember tearing a close friend apart in 9th grade for listening to Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now.”

It was the fall of 2010, the record had just dropped, and without hearing a note, I decided that it was awful. The album art features a waxen Swift glancing at the observer, her purple dress dissipating into Jackson Pollock splatters. Glitter flows liberally. To my newly-out 14 year-old self, hating Speak Now was an easy way to gain distance from the pieces of gay culture I was least comfortable with. It was a two-pronged attack: I was wary of Swift’s femininity, but I was also reacting to some sense that the image she was spinning wasn’t authentically feminine (because obviously I would know, right?). Swift was, to me, such a one-dimensional figure that I could actually bifurcate my stance under the cover of her blankness. Depending on who was asking, I either hated her because she made music for girls, or I hated her because she was bad for women.

In 2010, Swift was an easy late-night punchline. “Looks like the common denominator in all these failed relationships is you!” roared the popular consciousness, ribbing her fiercely enough that they didn’t have to take her seriously as a songwriter, but softly enough that the gate was open for an interview down the line where they exploited her girl-next-door charms. It’s fascinating, though, to trace the palatability of anti-Swift sentiment across the last decade of her career. Things have moved in an elliptical pattern: by putting on and ripping off a dizzying array of archetypes, Swift has gone from America’s Sweetheart to national punchline to redemptive figure to vilified pariah. At the time of writing, she’s one of the easiest targets in celebrity culture, which I’m sure is nothing a little steel-pedal guitar can’t fix.

Before 2012, Swift occupied a profitable but narrow pop culture niche. She premiered as a novelty act: a teenager who wrote sharp little country songs. Cuts like “Tim McGraw” and “Picture to Burn” from her self-titled 2006 debut are built on stories about heartbreak, pickup trucks, and God-fearing small townfolk praying that their fleeting romances last. Each subsequent release varied the formula just enough to count, technically, as a new album. 2008's Fearless upped Taylor Swift’s ante by burying some electric guitar in the mix. Two years later, Speak Now spent some time reckoning with Swift’s seat at the table of ultra-fame, but ultimately added up to another collection of Taylor Swift Songs.

Then, in 2012, came Red. Preceded by the left-field pop single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Red marked the first major shift in Swift’s public perception. Much of it was self-styled: the album is an adventurous hodgepodge of sounds and influences, featuring self-consciously “sexy” lyrics like “I’ll do anything you say/If you say it with your hands.” It’s the first major break from mandolin-led verse-chorus storytelling in her catalogue. On Fearless and Speak Now, Swift toys a bit with persona, but she always winds up playing some variation of a lovesick teenager.

On Red, she shapeshifts much more visibly. She assumes the identity of Ethel Kennedy, tells the story of Joni Mitchell’s rise and fall, and flirts with full-on dance music. Tellingly, though, Red isn’t her full-on tilt into “good girl gone bad” territory. (That comes later.) Instead, it’s a calculated ascent from the easily dismissable world of teen-pop to a class of critically acclaimed grown-up singer-songwriters.

The ploy worked. Swift was buoyed by the approval of musical tastemakers, which granted her a level of authenticity whose prior absence had blocked her off to a whole class of vinyl-obsessed potential admirers. Suddenly outlets like Spin were calling her work “smart and tuneful” and “full of adult pleasures.” Underground pop freak Grimes said she was “completely blown away” by Red, which she listened to after reading in an interview that the title was a reference to Joni Mitchell’s Blue. “I feel like people don’t respect [Swift] as much as they should,” Grimes went on to say, “because they see a blonde girl and dismiss [the music].”

None of this would have been possible, of course, if we weren’t ready for Grown Up Taylor Swift; we like to hold tight to the illusion that our pop stars are only allowed to shapeshift with our permission. But after years of gender-fueled criticism, we were ready for it. The public wanted Swift to silence cries that “she only wrote about boys” and prove her largely-male critics wrong — they were ready for her hold her own as a serious songwriter fluent in the musical languages of Serious Songwriters: folk, alt-rock, and dream-pop. With Red, she did just that. Against all odds, one of the best-selling female artists of all time had successfully starred in her own underdog story.

It was during this period of sudden critical outpouring that I felt safe enough to seriously engage with her for the first time. A close friend, whose earnest embrace of Swift’s output I regularly mocked, insisted that I listen to Red. I wanted to hate it as much as I had theoretically hated Speak Now, but about 45 seconds into stadium-rock opener “State of Grace,” she had me. Thanks to her suddenly-elevated cultural status, I was able to express my enthusiasm without fear of backlash. If anything, it lended some levity to my self-constructed Cool Music Guy persona.

Spurred by my enthusiasm for Red, I started working my way back through Swift’s discography, which inevitably led me to Speak Now. It didn’t hold the same luster Red: there was no single moment as transcendent as the key-smashing, Carole King-cribbing climax of “All Too Well,” and most of its songs stuck pretty squarely to the glossy country-pop I’d come to associate with Swift. Still, it intrigued me in a way that I didn’t let it intrigue me when it first dropped in 2010. First, there was the fact that Swift wrote the entire thing by herself before she turned 20. Then there was the fact that it moved 1.3 million copies in its first week, the second-largest debut for any female artist in history. That doesn’t instantly make it good, of course, but it means something. You don’t write one of the fastest-selling albums of all time completely by yourself as part of a cynical marketing strategy. No matter how famous you are, people will stop buying before 6 million copies unless the songs are really, really good…and to my surprise, the songs on Speak Now were really, really good.

The evidence is on the page. Compared to the sometimes-syrupy tone of her earlier records, Speak Now’s words are sharper, its images cleaner. She’s angrier, more sure. “Long were the nights when my days once revolved around you,” she snarls on “Dear John,” treating a freshly-dead relationship with near-instant objectivity. Almost every song on Speak Now plays with perspective like this. Characters comment on how present moments will be immortalized in memory, songs look backwards and then forward in the course of a line or two. For the most part, these stories (true to her country roots, they really are stories) possess a dizzying assuredness that the record’s gauzy purple album art keeps hidden — perhaps intentionally so.

Take “Mine” for instance. The chorus is a recollection from several years into a relationship (“Do you remember we were sitting there by the water?”), while the verses flash forward to somewhere in the middle of that relationship. Then in the final verse, we switch perspectives to Swift’s lover, and he recounts his own version of events. It sounds twisty, but it zips by so breezily that you don’t even notice the narrative mechanics until you’re on your third or fourth listen. It also features some of Swift’s most economical exposition in the line “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter,” which she repeats so many times that you wind up unable to tell if she means it as a compliment or a condemnation.

The rest of the album is stuffed with these sorts of lyrical details, which give the songs a texture their instrumentation often lacks. “Sparks Fly” chugs along like a bland pop-rocker until Swift darkly pleads with her partner to “Give me something that’ll haunt me when you’re not around.” “Last Kiss” threatens breathy melodrama until the gut punch of “I’ll go sit on the floor wearing your clothes/All that I know is I don’t know how to be something you miss.” The tongue-in-cheek title track, a saga of imagined wedding crashing, features such small pleasures as “the organ starts to play a song that sounds like a death march” and “she is yelling at a bridesmaid somewhere back inside a room wearing a gown shaped like a pastry.”

For the uninitiated, Speak Now is primarily of interest because it’s the first record where Swift fully flexes her songwriting chops. For those already sold on those chops, though, it’s of far more interest for another attribute: the album is completely unable to escape the shadow of Swift’s celebrity. “Innocent” could be about redemption of any sort, but thanks to a number of coy interviews with outlets like Rolling Stone, we know it’s a passive-aggressive olive branch for Kanye West after he famously interrupted her acceptance speech at the 2009 Video Music Awards. “Better Than Revenge” is a snarky-fun New Wave surprise, but we can’t listen to it without thinking about Joe Jonas, whose song “Much Better” is spitefully namechecked in the bridge. And here we come to the essential conundrum that saddles anyone tasked with critically examining Swift’s discography: her songs are at once confessional and calculated. She’s often lauded for writing universally-accessible, diaristic snapshots, but she also litters her liner notes with clues about which famous beau inspired her latest hit-piece.

This gets to the meat of Taylor Swift as a dilemma. I thought, in attacking her back in 2010, that I was shrewdly using her flatness to my advantage. I was wrong. Taylor Swift has always meant more than one thing at a time, and her dirtiest trick has been appearing flat in the process. In most discussions, the actual content of her music is tossed aside, but it’s instructive to consider how carefully crafted it is. Speak Now has all those sly narrative turns, pointing to a Machiavelli beneath the storybook princess. Red perfectly straddles Swift’s roots as a country singer and her encroaching pop-star ambitions. This tension between her apparent innocence and more openly curatorial instincts has driven a massive amount of the public intrigue that surrounds her. It’s also why a lot of people hate her.

Why, after all, do people not hate Fiona Apple? She also built a career on the back of songs about the men she’s dated and hated, and aside from one 1997 acceptance speech kerfuffle, she’s widely loved. The difference is that Apple never won the Grammy for Album of the Year and then wrote a pouty banjo song called “Mean” about how the whole wide world was against her. She never dated someone named John and then called the song about him “Dear John,” craftily playing on the very concept of anonymity. Swift’s work is duplicitous, and that doesn’t sit well with a lot of casual consumers. So much of her early persona is predicated on the doe-eyed defiance of big, bullying forces that there’s no room for suspicion that Swift might be a bully herself. Sympathy is a coveted resource — only the people who deserve it are supposed to receive it, and no one wants to be tricked into giving it.

For a while, Swift dealt endearingly with these accusations. In 2014, bolstered by her Red-fueled public redemption, she wrote a song about them. “Blank Space” is the second single from 1989, Swift’s best-selling and slickest concoction, and it marks her first time coloring in shades of self-awareness. Over an ice-cold futurist beat, she winkingly inhabits a character constructed from the most lurid pieces of her tabloid persona: “Got a long list of ex-lovers/They’ll tell you I’m insane/But I’ve got a blank space, baby/And I’ll write your name.” By acknowledging her place in the popular narrative with “Blank Space,” Swift was able to momentarily transcend it. If Red bought her critical acclaim and a passing level of cool, “Blank Space” was a pointed reminder that she was in on the joke. Suddenly Swift was at the peak of her powers, ruling both the airwaves (1989 broke Speak Now’s first-week sales record four years later) and the press (“[1989 aims] somewhere even higher, a mode of timelessness that few true pop stars even aspire to,” wrote the New York Times in their review of the album).

This would’ve been an interesting enough place for Swift to stop. 1989 cemented the pop crossover she’d begun with Red, and the cries of either serial-dating or inauthenticity were quieting. She was, for a moment, one of the most agreed-upon figures in pop culture. There were murmurs that perhaps she was a bit too polished, that her solid-teflon team of pop-juggernaut best friends were a semi-dystopian bunch. It was a far cry from her muckiest moments as universal punching bag, though: “Blank Space” essentially neutralized the accusations of man-eating; gone were the days of impish YouTubers stitching together videos of Swift winning awards and mocking her supposedly put-upon “surprised face.”

Then, as if timed by a cash-strapped showrunner, came the infamous coda to the Kanye spat of 2009. In briefest possible summary: West wrote a controversial lyric about Swift on his 2016 record The Life of Pablo (“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous”). In response, Swift’s management released a statement expressing disappointment with the jab, calling West misogynistic and asking him to let sleeping dogs lie. West’s wife Kim Kardashian then hit back by posting a video of a phone call between Swift and West where Swift appears to verbally approve of the lyric.

It is only slightly melodramatic to say that, at this point, the levees broke. Only after the Kardashian video did it become apparent how fragile a place Swift had carved out for herself since Red put her back on the public upswing. Twitter descended on the tidbit like a pack of wild dogs, foaming at the chance to pop a bubble Swift had unwittingly been inflating for years. It’s a poignant illustration of the delicate chemistry that dictates our feelings about superstars. Swift showed up, won hearts, and then her purity started generating suspicion. When she started animating her persona with hints of real-girl behavior, things got worse: how dare she snarl or sneer in this song or that one, and how could anyone this constructed be halfway relatable anyway? Once we realized she was in on the joke, we let her mature, and in not trying to be America’s Sweetheart, she ended up becoming America’s sweetheart. Then, with a single whiff of deception, the house of cards collapsed.

Across social media, Swift’s name became synonymous with the snake emoji. She was dogged by claims of white supremacy due to her radio silence during the 2016 election. The “surprised face” memes were back with a vengeance, and now the hate machine was animated by a deeper fury that Swift was safe from on the first go — everyone felt hoodwinked. To paraphrase an oft-cited moment from America’s Next Top Model: we trusted her. Swift responded by bowing out. She posted on Instagram asking to be “excluded from this narrative” and then went into what amounted to hiding for two years. Fans and critics alike speculated about her comeback: when would it be? What would it look like? Should she address her fall from grace or just barrel forward like nothing ever happened?

When that comeback finally came, in the fall of 2017, it veered hard toward the former. For all the accusations she’d weathered since 2006, Swift was rarely accused of being tone-deaf. If anything, she was too much of an insider, not naive enough to pull off the good-girl schtick she was peddling. But reputation (lower-case “r” and all) is one of the most baffling possible responses to her Kanye-fueled downfall. Rather than do something like return to the rootsy genre experimentation that lent her credibility in the first place, Swift took a sharp left turn and restyled herself as a hard-edged R&B crooner ready to “take on the haters.” She saved her good-girl-gone-bad moment for a spat over a single hip-hop lyric. To counterbalance bad PR that played into claims that Swift was petty and artificial, she doubled down on the narrative she started with “Blank Space” but bled it clean of humor. The result was an ultra-shiny, often-awkward collection that positioned her as a tough-as-nails femme fatale, ready to “cut all the toxic drama out of her life” while at the same time stirring the pot with glee.

There was a brief, shining moment when it felt like we might need Taylor Swift. When we saw that she was capable of capturing the butterfly-hum of first love while standing up to the people who wrote her off as a flash-in-the-pan, she appeared almost bilingual: fluent in earnest stadium-pop and 21st century cynicism. reputation, while modestly successful with critics and consumers, poked a hole in that narrative. We don’t want our celebrity feuds to last for more than a few minutes (with a handful of notable exceptions), and we certainly don’t need our pop stars to encroach on the “beef” territory of our most beloved emcees. It feels like a glaring miscalculation in a career that, until now, has been strikingly well-calculated. It didn’t inch her closer to any end goal the way all of her previous records have, and it marks the first time that Swift doesn’t look like she’s one step ahead of the rest of us. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether she’ll re-gain that lead, but if history is anything to by, something tells me she will.

After all, reputation ends with the stripped-down morning-after ballad “New Year’s Day,” which essentially contextualizes the prior 45 minutes as a bad night out. “Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere,” Swift croons in a startling return to form on an album where she elsewhere spits “They say I did something bad/Then why’s it feel so good?” If it’s a signal that this whole album cycle has been a carefully-manicured Rebellious Phase, that wouldn’t justify the misstep, but it would point to a compelling truth. Maybe Swift knew that reputation was a dud, but she also knew that with her and super-producers Max Martin and Jack Antonoff at the helm, it would move units.

Maybe she’s taken a more holistic a stance on her career than I have, and she’s fully aware of the chapter she’s in — after all, why not profit on villainy if there’s nothing you can do about being the villain?

I live in Portland and write for a magazine. Nice!

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