On Taylor Swift: revising, revisiting and resurrecting the self

Being a Swiftie comes with a flavour of shame. Although she is one of the world’s most accoladed pop stars, Swift is arguably also one of the most hated. Her music occupies a rare space, simultaneously enjoyed and reviled as musical hits, always maintaining a dual universality. Streaming over cereal boxes or jingling in the waiting room, Swift’s music enjoys an underlying cultural presence in our daily life, as mundane as that of a bottle of milk.

I first tasted this flavour at the age of seven. My friends, who at the time were early art cynics, were clear in their distaste for popular artists such as Justin Bieber, who was deemed unacceptable because he sounds like a girl. According to my edgy peers, Taylor Swift’s music was basic, repetitive and whiny, and therefore irrelevant. Although I held singles like ‘You Belong With Me’ dear to my heart, I chose to preserve my friendships and let go of being a Swiftie.

My disavowal was long—time enough for the popstar to release a plethora of albums, and announce that she would re-record the earlier ones. It was not until I encountered ‘Love Story (Taylor’s Version)’ that I experienced a sudden, electrifying nostalgia. I was returning to my origins—and so was Taylor.

The full circle was peculiar, considering the linear nature of her discography, often described in eras. Each of Swift’s albums could represent a time capsule into the singer’s life and happenings during the year of release. From the bejewelled anger of Speak Now, to the whispery-indie of folklore, we can follow the linear timeline of her journey from young country girl into a mega-popstar.

It wasn’t just time that each album era encapsulated, but also narrative. Each era could be seen as an aesthetic in itself—distinct in colour palette, mood and genre. Most notably for example, Reputation was defined by its black, punk-like aesthetic and hip hop beats, emblematic of what we may call Swift’s ‘villain era,’ post-Kanye spat and mass criticism.  By contrast, Lover showed a softer, playful look, pink and blue tones and a feathery jingle that echoed a of her then long-term relationship with Joe Alwyn.

Because of the entwining of Swift’s life and music, it is difficult to gauge whether her fame has been a direct cause of the era-making of her discography, or whether this was artistically intentional. Naturally, artists’ work will be influenced by their daily experience, but in Swift’s case, the creation of aesthetic sensibilities meant her life and career are also narrativised. Her discography is at once an embalmment, a concoction and an artefact. The public visibility of such curated timelines is irresistible to consume.

Her latest (non Taylor’s Version) album, Midnights , feels like a blur of eras, it has some of the femme fatale energy of Reputation, and poetism of folklore. But its sing-songy lyrics remind us of ‘Paper Rings’ in Lover, with Tik Tok dance-worthy numbers that draw inspiration from 1989. The sense of temporal confusion is hardly hidden, as Swift herself notes in Track 3, ‘Anti-Hero’, that her experience of time is muddled, her ‘Midnights becom[ing her] afternoons’. Other lyrics from tracks like ‘Snow On The Beach (feat. Lana del Rey)’, feel like an adult nursery rhyme: ‘It’s like snow on the beach, weird but fucking beautiful/flying in a dream, stars by the pocketful.’

Successful woman however, have always been the recipient of criticism, and downright hatred. As a side, they are also often compared to each other, sometimes resulting in female-on-female rivalry and internalised misogyny. The infamous VMAS incident in 2009 for example, was a catalyst for many to express publicly their dislike of Swift and question the legitimacy of her success.

Girlhood is already a labyrinth, Taylor knows this all too well.  In Midnights’ track ‘Labyrinth’, the maze of hurt, it seems, can only be coped with by painful, patient affirmation.

It only hurts this much right now
Was what I was thinking the whole time.

The coming-of-age theme in Midnights is strong, and reminds me of Swift’s fifth studio album, 1989, the defining soundtrack for the 2014 teenage girl’s bildungsroman. At the time I myself was thirteen, still in the middle of the labyrinth of girlhood. ‘Blank Space’ rings in my mind alongside traumatic dodgeball sessions. The album had a defining effect on trending society—quickly becoming a mid-2010s pop culture symbol, and perhaps singlehandedly re-popularised the polaroid.

1989 (or 2014) was a time capsule containing sherbet pop hits, strawberry eos lip balms and white sneakers, (with a side of body dysmorphia and fishnet chokers). It was also the era signalling a significant shift in Taylor Swift’s career, as it was her first fully-pop album, cementing her as the ‘Queen of Pop.’ It was during this height of her career that critics of Taylor Swift became most sour. Later however, it would be the wrath of the quasi-gothic Reputation that proved that Swift, though largely in control of her own image, was listening to what others had to say.

Swift has had a fair share of controversies, including valid charges of appropriating Black culture and fatphobia. Coming as she does from a privileged background, it is fair to question her rise to fame over artists from marginalised ones. Swift’s continued and even catalysed commercial success by incorporating the backlash into her music, speaks again to the privilege she holds, whilst others’ marginalisation only deepens. This strange form of empowerment could very well be a testament to Swift’s status as a white rich woman.

As backlash grew against Swift, it also grew to become subject matter. The term “hater” was even popularised by the singer herself. In 1989’s ‘Shake it Off’, Swift uses the word to describe that in the face of those who proclaimed her irrelevancy, haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate. She was going to continue to shake, shake, shake, shake, shake.

The online world is an interesting battleground and shelter—for both ‘fans’ and ‘haters’. Onwards of 2014, with the explosion of social media, hate bred easier on the internet, when the most private of screens and avatars had the ability to speak on the most public of platforms. Quickly, the kind of backlash against Swift became more sinister. Not the playground dismissal that I had experienced as a child—a kind of rage.

A common criticism against Swift’s music was the thematic repetition across her discography – also the very thing she is popularised for. But many complained of the recurring subject matter of heartbreak, boys and yearning were whiny, annoying laments from an obsessive girl. So it seemed the more popular her music, the more uncool, ill-informed and even un-feminist it was to indulge in it.

By extension, it was those who publicly expressed their love for her music that were targeted received the same dismissal and undertones of misogyny. Not only was the Swiftie boring—they were also delusional, ditzy and laughable. It also became evident that as her career progressed, the gap between fans and haters became increasingly polarised.

Swift was aware of the ‘tropes’ she was ridiculed for, and continued to refer to it in her music. Notably in her 2014 single, ‘Blank Space’, she tells the story of a crazed woman who cycles through men too quickly, turning on them when they aren’t exactly who she wants them to be.

Ain’t it funny? Rumors fly
And I know you heard about me
So hey, let’s be friends
I’m dying to see how this one ends
Grab your passport and my hand
I can make the bad guys good for a weekend

The narrative nature of Swift’s work meant she was always writing and rewriting herself in her music, her album re-recordings a most recent example. In early 2021, she released Fearless (Taylor’s Version), a re-recording of the original album of the same name that came out some thirteen years ago. It contained the same soundtrack, with bonus singles that had been intentionally left off the record in 2008. The release of these never-before-heard songs titled, ‘From The Vault’, signified a Taylor that was more confident, authentic, but wholeheartedly celebratory of her discography.

The same ethos continued with the release of Red (Taylor’s Version), notably with ‘All Too Well (10 Minute version)’, an extended recording of the Swfitie cult classic. This contained additional lyrics that, if included on the original recording may have been scandalous. But in the present context, this edition was refreshing and cathartic, inviting us into experiencing the raw heartbreak of then twenty-one-year old Taylor

You said if we had been closer in age maybe it would have been fine
And that made me want to die

Nonetheless, containing the same, scarlet anger that underlined the original Red.

Although re-recording and remastering music is nothing new (Swiftie pun intended), Swift’s global status makes her album revisions somewhat distinctive. I refer to them as ‘revisions’, as there is an essence of editing both self and story in this context. This occurs also to some degree for the fan. When artists reproduce earlier works, they are also offering their public to revisit their relationship with their work, thus giving their previous work a kind of artefact status.

In Midnights track ‘You’re On Your Own, Kid,’ Swift refers to her eras as transformations, ‘from sprinkler splashes to fireplace ashes.’ Resurrection is a form of revising the self, which means coming of age is complicated in Midnights, especially as an artist who grew up at the same time as many of her fans. Some of those fans aren’t fans anymore. Some of them still are. But there needs to be something said about the significance of being vocal about one’s enjoyment of Swift’s work.

Many of us enjoy Taylor’s music but aren’t vocal about it, and some of us have been harbouring shame for a long time. For some, like myself, that shame became internalised, to the point where I distanced myself from appearing ‘too feminine,’ avoiding conversations about love, boys and clothes. I revised my own interests and personality,  I nodded and scowled in agreement as my peers expressed how ‘boring’ and repetitive ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ was. Shame driven by the desire of approval is a powerful force. There’s a quote from researcher Brené Brown, that shame needs ‘three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgement.’ For me, it was secrecy and silence that safeguarded me, while the fuel of judgement from those online and in person necessitated a concealing. It wasn’t until I was transported back to a former self upon hearing ‘Love Story (Taylor’s Version)’, that I was able to discern my shame.

In Track 1 of Midnights, ‘Lavender Haze,’ Swift speaks directly to the vocal critics and haters. ‘Talk your talk and go viral,’ she sings fiercely, ‘I just need this love spiral’. Similarly to the ethos of Taylor’s Versions, Swift is embracing the narratives she has created. The ‘love spiral’  she references reminds us of the nature of rewriting the self: ultimately an internal, never ending journey. It also feels closely familiar to the lyrics of ‘Shake It Off’, with a more post-covid-exhaustion tang. She then commands: ‘Get it off your chest / Get it off my desk!’ A line that feels cathartic but also unexpected. Within the Lavender Haze, a flavour of clarity also surfaces, a hidden feeling released.

Perhaps that shame was never there, just a learned hatred and denial. For what is internal rejection without external ridicule? Where do we attain hatred? Who placed it inside of us? Swift demands for a kind of sweeping purification from this. It’s this sense of inversion—internalised misogyny, the embedding of the external—that feels sticky.

At the same time, though, that shame is instrumental to the influence of Swift’s discography and status. It is also what strengthens the most loyal of fans, the meanest of critics and the best of her music. The shame itself is a narrative feature that does not explicitly present itself in her lyrics or music, but comes part of parcel with the experience of it.

The first two lines of ‘peace’ in folklore reminds me of clarity with time.

Our coming-of-age has come and gone
Suddenly the summer, it’s clear.

Swift’s coming-of-age, and in fact our coming-of-age throughout her earlier albums/eras, points to a feeling of clarity that comes with the passage of time. At this stage in her career, she is returning to the past, renewing a past self and creating an alternate history. For an artist that is so involved in the lore of her own life and music, time is elemental, and albums seem ahead of their own existence.

The Midnights era feels vague, although distinctive in its flavours: Lavender, Maroon, True Love, Lust, Innocence, Incense. Swift uses the context of her sound to create a musical experience that is both bewildering in its quiet inversion of time and narrative. But this is not new. Following Midnights, Speak Now (Taylor’s Version), is her most recent example of the possibility of newness through old sounds. This new era of time-muddling feels especially apt now, off the back of the past three Covid-ridden years, which seem like a blurred history. I paint my toes purple, I go to work. I put on Midnights in my headphones. It’s 9.30AM.

And what else is more universal than feeling time passing by, passing backward, forward? Swift’s time-capsule-like work is emblematic of the unfurling and refurling of life. Meaning moulds with memory, and the things we might’ve cared about in the past—the approval of peers, the desire to be seen as edgy—are things we may choose to let go of. We come of age when we discern our baggage as simply that—baggage: goods and miscellaneous attachments given to us, things we carried, past possessions that we keep in storage now. Our enjoyments, our hatred, our shame. To choose what we carry and let go of is brave and difficult, and others may disagree—but ultimately, it will always be our choice to decide what story to tell.

Ronia Ibrahim

Ronia Ibrahim is a writer and interdisciplinary artist based in Naarm, originally from Aotearoa. She writes creative non fiction and poetry with an interest in coming-of-age narratives and the diasporic experience.

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