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Swiftly Born Again

Once upon a time, I was a Swiftie. The year was 2007, when my friend asked me if I had ever heard of a girl named Taylor Swift. I was a chubby sixth grader who still needed braces, liked boys but thought kissing them sounded disgusting, and always did the right thing. I hadn’t learned how to pirate music yet (that came within the next year) so I must’ve found some of her songs on YouTube and pressed play.

I soon began to soak up everything I could of hers: lyric videos of her songs, magazine interviews, and even the tour vlogs she posted on her YouTube channel. Here was a girl like me! She was tall but didn’t seem ashamed of it like I was. She was best friends with her mom and bullied by the mean girls at her school. She was the girl who was friends with the boys but never the one they wanted to kiss. She wore black winged eyeliner like me, and had beautiful golden hair like a princess with the dresses to match. She was at once everything I was and everything I wanted to be, the person “livin in a big ol’ city” while the girls who picked on me watched in envy from the sidelines.

Clearly millions of other young women had a similar feeling because Taylor built a career on being the bestie who saw us through every crush and heartbreak. At some point, though, this turned sour. Once she became a star in her own right, she became famous enough to hate. Tabloid media sunk its teeth into her for being “boy crazy,” a “serial dater,” “fake.” Her weight, relationships, friendships, career choices, personality were all fair fodder for the dumpster fire that is our society’s obsession with tearing down young women.

I remember Red coming out during my sophomore year of high school. I liked the singles but something was missing for me. I longer felt tied to a parasocial relationship that defined my middle school personality. My love for Taylor’s music was an intimate interest I shared only with myself, and since I had trouble with understanding who that self was, it was easy to be swayed. I leaned into my ~indie~ side, wanting to be the cool, “different” girl—ironic considering Taylor provided a lot of the framework for even this persona with lyrics like “she wears short skirts/ I wear t-shirts.” Pop music? Bleh! I was too busy watching (500) Days of Summer on repeat.

I was briefly roped back for 1989 which came out in October of my freshman year at NYU. I loved some songs (shoutout to the guy who called me a “nightmare” rendering “Blank Space” a #relatablebop) but I also joked with my classmates thanking God “Welcome to New York'' didn't come out before our orientation week. I had started to find a lot about her changing image annoying. When she was accused of “selling out” to be a pop star, I agreed. She totally lost me by the time Reputation came out. Who was this person singing the pseudo-rap diss track “Look What You Made Me Do?” I didn’t recognize her; we had grown apart.

Cut to a couple of days after the release of Red (Taylor’s Version) where I found myself rekindling my long-lost friendship with her discography. My TikTok “For You Page” was already flooded with discourse on the symbolism in “All Too Well,” charts tracking the ages of Jake Gyllenhaal’s paramours alongside his own, and different Taylor audios trending. Not only could I not avoid it, but I didn’t want to. I started to dive back into her music, all of it, what I loved and missed. I watched Lana (great name) Wilson’s 2019 documentary Miss Americana which chronicles Taylor’s whole career but focuses on the then-present making of Lover. And then the Reputation tour documentary, music videos, interviews, articles, breakdowns of her style, compilations of “Taylor Being Taylor”…I was back in a big way.

I learned so much about what Taylor was doing during my fall-out era. In case you were also living kinda under a rock like me, here’s a recap:

criticism from the public came to a head after the snake scandal with Kim and Kanye which lead to #TAYLORISOVERPARTY trending on Twitter. In real time, I thought nothing of this celebrity feud, just another Kardashian-West publicity stunt. And to them, it probably was. Who knows? But I can’t imagine it’s easy for Taylor to have such a public fall from grace. Understandably, she disappeared for a while.

She re-emerged with Reputation, an embracing of snake motifs, and a sexier, edgier image echoing the newer Taylor we saw in 1989. She also started to be vocally political, breaking a career-long silence. Suddenly Taylor was a brand new celebrity, hence the infamous line: “old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now, she’s dead.” There were definitely lots of mild to medium cringe, girlboss elements sprinkled throughout her reinvention. I’m thinking of the overuse of snakes and songs like “You Need to Calm Down.” (Poverty tourism and “woke” pandering, anyone?) Yet, I think her foray into topical pop songs and reclamation of a hateful meme directed toward her was noble and not altogether unusual.

Society loves to put women, especially famous ones, into boxes. She’s the sexy one, she’s the sweet one, the quirky one, the bitch, the party girl. It’s like an eternal high school cafeteria of gossip and stereotypes, like you never left your small town. Being a woman at all, never mind a famous one, means you have to be incredibly dynamic and safe while standing on your head and reciting the Gettysburg address backwards. That’s the evil paradox. Our lives expand and shift as we experience growing into ourselves and into this bright and scary world. All the greats have reimagined themselves: Tina, Cher, Madonna, Beyoncé, so why not Taylor?

Around this time, (2017 to be exact) Taylor was battling more than just a rivalry with the Kardashian-West narcissism machine. She was in court battling against a sexual assault counter-sue. In Miss Americana, Taylor goes into the grueling process of defending herself against a predator and how public critiques of her body gave her a serious eating disorder. I was reminded of how brave and vulnerable she is, as an artist and a person. Her music has the power to console and champion its listeners because, at its best, it’s honest. She suffers and writes about it so when we suffer we can listen and feel understood.

Taylor’s story reminds us that we age out of schoolyard bullies only to find their voices still ringing in our heads, sometimes even meeting adult counterparts to reinforce the feedback loop. And her music reminds us to honor our experiences but not let them define who we are. If I’ve learned anything from the illustrious career of my subject, it’s that nothing helps the pain like spinning it into a piece of writing that shimmers with vulnerability. Once it’s written and sent out to the world, it doesn’t have to belong in my heart anymore. I’ve made my revenge fantasies a reality by freeing myself from them. It seems like Taylor has, too.

The Reputation and Lover eras might not be my favorite of Taylor’s but it looks like she genuinely enjoyed creating those albums. Even my least favorite track “Me!” started to glow when I watched the footage of her crafting and executing the music video’s concept with Brendon Urie. (Disclaimer: I still don’t like the song but I can appreciate it.) There’s an undeniably fun, colorful purity of expression she captures. Who am I to take away that joy from my old and beloved friend?

Much like Ms. Swift herself, the last decade and a half have been transformative for me. I’ve grown into a woman. I’m not possessed by a need to be liked or included like I was when I was 12, 15, 19, or even 22. What happened to the popular girl who called me fat? Or the jerks who took advantage of my affection? Or the best friend who stabbed me in the back? I won’t pretend I’ve never checked their Instagrams for the updated answers. But it was important to close the chapter on those parts of my life.

Miss Americana opens with Taylor talking about her life-long fixation on being “good.” I’ve felt similarly possessed by a high morality since I was a little girl. I never wanted to be in trouble; I wanted to succeed at everything, and always be liked. Anyone who has tried this worldview on for size knows how intensely insurmountable of a feat this is.

I’ve also worked on setting myself free from the limiting notion that all the “girly” things I love(d) are stupid. I genuinely felt ashamed about aspects of my taste, and hid them from friends, dates, classmates for fear of judgment. A magical cultural shift happened in the last five years or so. moved into an age of pop, reclaiming the bimbo, celebrating different body types, and embracing fun.

So, to recap: time has passed. Duh! Like every human, Taylor has changed. The world has changed. I’ve changed, as have my tastes. I’ll always want to jump up and down during “You Belong with Me” but I don’t have to think I’m better than someone for wearing short skirts. (In fact, I’ll probably be wearing one myself.) When my Swiftie era ended, I felt like I lost a part of myself. I wasn’t a tween girl who played with Tamagotchis; I was a moody teen listening to music I found on tumblr and pretending I understood Sylvia Plath. And now?

Taylor’s unprecedented re-recording project suggests every self we’ve ever been lives within us. We told time in our hands. Having my recent Swiftie revival showed me how dynamic all of these moving pieces of celebrity, taste, art, and identity can be. The old Lana isn’t dead, and clearly the old Taylor isn’t either. We’ve just been reborn.


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writer + pop culture Historian  

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