This is Taylor Swift’s world and we’re all just living in it
November 8 2021, by Millie Cooper
My first memory of hearing a Taylor Swift song was at a 7th birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese outside of New York City and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” was playing over the noise of the arcade games. I asked a friend who sings this song, and that is how I was introduced to Taylor Swift. But it wasn’t until I visited my cousins’ house at New Year’s, who at the time were living in Dubai, that I fell in love with the artist. Red had just been released that October and my cousin played me “22”. I went home that January and downloaded the album onto my iPod Touch (which then had a bedazzled Hello Kitty case), and – to quote the opening song of the album, “Holy Ground” – that was the first day.
Since then, I have screamed along to “I Knew You Were Trouble” at the top of my lungs, listened to “Blank Space” and thought the lyrics were “got along with Starbucks lovers” (not “got a long list of ex-lovers”), did a tap dance in a recital to “Shake It Off” at 10, and screamed some more when listening to “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” for the first time this April. She is easily my most played artist and takes up about 80% of my social media feeds. In February, whilst Britain was still in lockdown and choir was on teams like everything else, I took it upon myself to listen to every Taylor Swift album. I even rated each of them, assigned them a theme and wrote it down in a notebook in anticipation of “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)”. I’ve heard the development of her songs, the rather dramatic differences in “1989” and “Reputation” but also found similarities to her earlier albums. Personally, I think she is a genius and her re-recording her first five albums following her former record label selling her music in a $300 million deal without Swift’s knowledge is the most girl-boss thing anyone could ever do. Forget flying too close to the sun – she is the sun.
Over the last fifteen years, we have seen Swift progress from a teenager from Pennsylvania (NB her family moved to a town just outside of Nashville later so that she could pursue her career) to a feminist icon who isn’t afraid to make a statement – not that she ever was. She uses her platform for good and whilst she has displayed multiple times that she is not to be crossed, the emotion she puts into her songs has set her up to be a beautiful storyteller with a mission to make the world a better place. She is worthy of every award she has been given, especially her most recent award from this year’s BRIT awards: Global Icon. So iconic that “cold was the steel of [her] axe to grind for the boys who broke [her] heart. Now [she] sends their babies presents” (these lyrics in “invisible strings” from folklore are allegedly in reference to sending a gift to Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner when they had their daughter, Willa, in July 2020).
Swift often writes about people who did her wrong, whether it’s an ex or an old friend or someone in her comments. She sings it loud and clear that maybe it wasn’t the brightest idea to mess with her. In 2010, 20-year-old Swift won not one but two Grammys for her song “Mean” which is about a critic who really did not like Swift. He constantly berated her online and it got to her. So, she wrote a song about it. She even was invited to perform it at the Grammy’s and changed one lyric from “One day I’ll be living in a big old city and all you’re ever gonna be is mean” to “One day I’ll be singing this at the Grammy’s and all you’re ever gonna be is mean”. Understandably, the crowd went wild and her almost smug smile directly at the camera is still engraved in my mind having watched it months ago. In her debut album – which, bear in mind she wrote this song at 16. For some context, I’m 16 and honestly struggle to count and use the dryer – “Should’ve Said No” features Swift singing about an ex who cheated on her. The song, which is in E minor (music theory brownie points right there), has an almost grieving note although it is very adamant that this boy really messed up when he decided to cheat on the singer. Swift has said that she wrote it because “something really, really dramatic and crazy” happened and she needed “to address it in the form of music”. She’s compared it to “Picture to Burn” from the same album which has a more I’m done with him and I don’t particularly care if I’m being petty, he’s being petty too feel to it when she sings “Go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy, that’s fine I’ll tell mine you’re gay” (although the lyric was changed to “you won’t mind if I say” in radio edits and later versions). “Should’ve Said No”, according to Swift, is “more of a moral statement. It’s an ‘I love you, we were awesome and great together, but you messed this up and I would still be with you’ kinda thing. You said yes, and you should’ve said no”. And those are from her first three albums. In “Fearless (Taylor’s version)”, she released six new songs “from the vault”, which she did not release in the original versions. One of these was “Mr Perfectly Fine (Taylor’s version)” and it has easily become my favourite song. She sings about her ex Joe Jonas who broke up with her in a 27-second long voicemail and the lyrics “Mr never told me why. Mr never had to see me cry” are a reference to this. Having only mentioned three songs that she wrote before age 20, it’s pretty clear that Swift is not to be messed with – it will probably be featured in her next album.
However, Taylor Swift receives a lot of criticism about the number of guys she has dated and how she writes every relationship into her songs. POPSUGAR (an American pop culture blog) went so far as to say that “one of the benefits of being a massively successful pop star is that instead of having to agree to go on an awkward date with Ted from Accounting, you have a whole buffet of Hollywood’s hottest bachelors at your disposal. If anyone is a good example of this, it’s Taylor Swift”. This blankly misogynistic comment highlights the differences between how female artists are portrayed in the media in comparison to their male counterparts. Swift said, “You’re going to have people who are going to say, ‘Oh, you know, like, she just writes songs about her ex-boyfriends’. And I think frankly that’s a very sexist angle to take. No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says that about Bruno Mars. They’re all writing songs about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love life, and no one raises the red flag there,” in response to a sexist critic in 2014. There is a double standard in pop culture, but Swift has used this to make a statement. She used her song “The Man”, from Lover – the first album she fully owns herself – to portray this, and the lyric “wondering if I could get there quicker if I were a man” perfectly sums up gender inequality. Swift addresses this issue further in the song’s music video in which make-up and prosthetics make her look like a man whilst she sits on the subway man-spreading and making the other passengers, men included, very uncomfortable. The music video also features a No Scooters sign, which is a direct dig at Scooter Braun who sold her mixtapes to an investment firm. Swift not only pioneers the modern feminist movement through her music – she looks the issue straight in the eye and tells it “Don’t mess with me”.
Swift uses her platform to address other important topics as well, such as homophobia, fame, and friendship. “You Need to Calm Down” shows Taylor voicing her support for the LGBTQIA+ community and addresses internet trolls and homophobes in one swift blow, singing “cos shade never made anybody less gay”. The song did have fans questioning if she was coming out in this song, but nevertheless, it quickly became considered as a gay anthem. The music video won two MTV awards: The Video of the Year and The Video for Good. She sings about the impacts of fame in “The Lucky One” from “Red”, and her lyrics are almost melancholic: “and they tell you that you’re lucky, but you’re so confused, cos you don’t feel pretty, you just feel used”. It reveals how afraid she is of “not enjoying what [she] does anymore”, she admitted in an interview. Being a celebrity, especially an A-lister such as Taylor Swift comes with its consequences that are addressed in the song. She sings in the song that “your secrets end up splashed on the news front page” with no concern as to whether they may hurt the celebrity in question. This is very apparent especially in her life as it does not take long to find an article about Swift’s personal life online and the same goes for any celebrity. The media can be harsh when it comes to celebrities and Taylor made this clear in “The Lucky One”. Swift pours her heart into every song she writes and one of them is “Tied Up with A Smile” from her debut album, which tells the story of when she found out her friend had an eating disorder. In this heart-wrenching song, we truly witness Swift’s emotions and sets her up as a beautiful storyteller but also just a genuine person who worries and cares for her friend. This side of Swift makes it very difficult to understand why there are such harsh criticisms of her.
Over the last nine years, I have listened to all ten of Taylor Swift’s albums. But what keeps me coming back is how she tells a story through her songs and that is, for me, what makes her such an amazing artist. Whether the story is about her relationship with Joe Jonas or Harry Styles; her family; or about her three cats, Meredith Grey, Olivia Benson and Benjamin Button, she never fails to create something beautiful.
Millie Cooper, L6