I'm Sorry, Taylor Swift
By Alana McConnell (she/her), illustrated by Kwok Yi Lee (he/him)
We’ve done Taylor Swift dirty. And she’s not the exception, with Selena, Britney, Kesha, Lindsay, and Paris all going through hell and back. They’ve been through it, from traumatising conservatorships, leaked sex tapes, mocking mental health issues, slut-shaming and body-shaming, and our society’s collective obsession with virginity and purity of young women. Why is it that starlets tend to be the ones who face the largest backlash and are held to back-breaking standards? Is it reflective of our unresolved wider issues with women as a whole? Was my past-disdain of Taylor Swift a sign of internalised misogyny?
It’s Britney Spears being grilled on live TV when she was a new voice as to whether she was still a virgin, as if the public deserved to know. It’s Kesha who has been locked in a horrible legal battle since 2014 fighting Dr. Luke for physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Or Paris Hilton being shamed by David Letterman for her stint in prison as the crowd laughs along. We revel in the fragile tipping point into breakdown of these starlets, gleefully witnessing Amanda Bynes’ Twitter rants, Lindsay’s fluctuating dress size, or something as mild as a female celebrity deciding not to wear makeup on her supermarket outing (prompting concerns she is haggard, sick, or let herself go). I can’t write this article and not mention the incessant slut-shaming of Taylor Swift, the media frenzy of her dating life, Taylor becoming the butt of the joke about “going through men” and using them for writing material.
These women have had lengthy careers, usually starting out as adolescents, being under public scrutiny as they grew up and lived their lives, locked in a straightjacket that prohibited mistakes and imperfection. We’ve held these women to impossible standards in another universe to their male counterparts, who are constantly given permission to run wild and even spread carnage with no tangible consequences. We expect female celebrities to be perfect, virginal, mysterious, interesting, and worthy of our attention. We don’t allow them to age, to gain weight, to be too sexy, or not sexy enough.
I’m guilty of writing Taylor Swift off. I didn’t want to be considered a stereotypical white girl, and I turned my nose up at basic pop music (I was a twat). I found her image to be too squeaky clean and inaccessible. Her insanely large discography was also slightly intimidating. Where did you start? The tides turned only recently, the perfect storm of my painful first breakup along with Taylor’s close collaboration with my favourite’s Bon Iver and The National. Suddenly, Taylor’s tracks about love and loss and loneliness hit me like a truck. I found myself in a state of longing and wallowing, listening to ‘this is me trying’, a track wrought with emotional vulnerability, expressions of regret, struggles with addiction, and mental health. My alienation after the breakup was alleviated in a significant way. As I watched Taylor perform, her genuine anguish and emotional honesty was palpable. This woman has felt things, she’s been through it, and she isn’t afraid to express it. Her authenticity was admirable, and her softness never faltered, after years of the world around her trying to control, harden, and reduce her.
Taylor Swift signed to a record label when she was only 15, rising to fame after her second studio album Fearless (2008). She was a country darling, complete with blond ringlets, cowboy boots, and a potentially fabricated Southern twang. Her smile rarely faltered, even after Kanye’s shocking interruption at the VMAs. Over nearly 17 years, Taylor Swift has undergone countless transformations, reinventing herself, and acting as a mirror for her critics, using their words as fuel to challenge herself. Her work ethic and dedicated passion has remained constant, churning out song after song with no sign of slowing down.
In the documentary Miss Americana, Taylor muses on being a female popstar in a cutthroat industry. “Women in entertainment are discarded in an elephant graveyard by the time they’re 35. The female artists I know of have reinvented themselves 20 times more than male artists. They have to, or else you’re out of a job. Constantly having to reinvent, constantly finding new facets of yourself that people find to be shiny. Be new to us, be young to us, but only in a new way, and only in the way we want. This is probably one of my last opportunities as an artist to grasp onto that kind of success, as I’m reaching 30, while society is still tolerating me being successful.”
Taylor Swift has never remained stagnant. Taylor evolved from the acoustic love-songs of Tim McGraw, to the fairy-tale fantasy of Speak Now, to the edgier Red era which began the transition from country to pop, to the darker and revenge-tinged Reputation, all the way to now. In a virus-riddled world resulting in lockdown and alienation, Taylor’s creative energy has only grown larger and more magnificent. She released two studio albums in 2020, Folklore and Evermore, another sign of her constant metamorphosis. Introspective, poetic, painstakingly authentic, listeners and critics alike could see the unmistakable maturity and wisdom that Taylor has acquired over her long career.It feels like Taylor has come into herself. She isn’t as dependent on what others think of her and she doesn’t expect everyone to love her, which you can see has given her freedom. Her sense of style isn’t carefully curated anymore; she’s let go of the unattainable image of the perfect body, and settled into a healthy relationship away from the public eye. She has shed the layers that held her down but retained a soft heart and her trademark earnestness.
Miss Americana encompasses that, showing the trials and tribulations of Taylor’s lengthy career, inexplicably linked with her personal life and her identity. She’s transparent about her issues with self-esteem, need for external validation, eating disorders, and sexual assault. The documentary explores Taylor’s voice outside music, initially keeping quiet about social issues and things that were important to her, prioritising keeping the peace and being seen as a sweet and mild-mannered songstress. As she has matured, she has become more outspoken, going to court after being groped and counter-suing for a mere $1 simply to make a statement, encouraging her young fans to vote in elections, and advocating equal rights. This activism has been an active defiance against that deep desire to be liked by everyone, to have the cheers and the applause and the external proof that she was good enough.
I’m sorry, Taylor Swift, for sleeping on your talent all these years and constantly dismissing you. I’m a mad feminist who wants to support all women and a shameless lover of heart-wrenching breakup songs. My scathing attitude towards your music was in reality perpetuating the age-old patriarchal curse of the female popstar. I guess I can now claim the title of a Swiftie, and if people write me off as a basic white girl, I’ll use it as an opportunity to preach about my new-found love and respect for Ms. Swift!