On my recent flight from England back to the States I spent hours finally listening to Taylor Swift’s new album reputation. I’ve been a loyal Taylor Swift fan since my middle school days, mostly for nostalgic reasons; however, I’ve always had some mixed feelings about her music and the image she portrays of herself. Today I’d like to discuss a question I’ve been pondering a lot lately: Where does Taylor Swift fit in with feminism? I’d like to approach answering this question as any English major likely would: namely, by analyzing her lyrics as poetry.
Before I begin, I would like to add a little disclaimer: I listen to Taylor Swift’s music all the time. Is this a bit hypocritical of me? Perhaps. I am in no way trying to suggest that no one should ever listen to her music because I think it’s certainly possible for us to enjoy things while also acknowledging that they may be problematic.
It’s clear that the music of Swift’s early career does not align with feminist thought today. In “Picture to Burn” from her self-titled first album, Swift emphasizes the image of a “crazy” ex-girlfriend while simultaneously threatening to falsely “out” someone for not loving her back:
So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy
I’ll tell mine
By the way…
She continually perpetuates the image of herself as an idealized victim of romance throughout her later albums. In “Love Story” from her album Fearless she presents the classic Romeo and Juliet story, complete with a marriage proposal that is completely one-sided. Her Romeo must come and save her of his own volition, for she is apparently incapable of independently mobilizing herself at all. Yet she also acknowledges that this romanticized story is an illusion in her song “White Horse” when she sings:
That I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairy tale
I’m not the one you’ll sweep off her feet,
Lead her up the stairwell
This ain’t Hollywood, this is a small town,
I was a dreamer before you went and let me down
Now it’s too late for you
And your white horse, to come around…
You can see why my conflicted feelings about her music has persisted over the years, especially when such contradictions also run through her other albums. Her album Speak Now contains uplifting songs like “Mean,” showing listeners that they’re not alone in being bullied and that one can overcome such traumatic experiences. However, it also has songs like “Better Than Revenge” in which Swift participates in some obvious slut-shaming:
She’s not a saint
And she’s not what you think
She’s an actress, whoa
She’s better known
For the things that she does
On the mattress, whoa…
My conflicted feelings only worsened when Swift endeavored to change her image entirely with albums Red and 1989, shifting from country music star to pop music artist. I greatly admired her work with 1989, especially the way she poked fun at how she was often viewed by the media in “Blank Space.” Here we see the persistence of the “crazy” and obsessive girl in love, yet she is attempting to use it against those who view her this way.
So it’s gonna be forever
Or it’s gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it’s over
If the high was worth the pain
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
‘Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game…
But how effective is this satire actually delivered? Does it come across that she is self-aware of how people view her, or does it simply perpetuate the image that she’s been feeding fans all along? The line between the two sides is incredibly fine and ultimately subjective, making it difficult to confidently argue either side.
Then comes her most recent album reputation, which was released on November 10, 2017. It’s obvious that Swift has had enough of the way people have viewed her in the past, making this album an overt attempt to reclaim power over her public reputation. At first I was overjoyed when I learned the theme of this new album– finally, Swift was going to break free from the problematic aspects of her work that have made me feel conflicted for so long. However, as I listened to this album multiple times from my airplane seat I couldn’t help but be disappointed that the same controversial tropes still saturated her lyrics. Of course, there are songs that I really enjoy and genuinely like, and then there are those that make me inwardly cringe as I sing along.
Take the song “Don’t Blame Me” as an example. The entire song is a plea for innocence from a victim of romance, as suggested with the repeated lines:
Don’t blame me, love made me crazy
If it doesn’t, you ain’t doin’ it right
Lord, save me, my drug is my baby
I’ll be usin’ for the rest of my life…
It’s as though Swift’s actions are out of her control because love has made her insane. This image is far from the independent, strong, bold feminist figure she often strives to possess in interviews and television appearances. The Swift of this song is a possession of her lover and completely under his control:
My name is whatever you decide
And I’m just gonna call you mine
I’m insane, but I’m your baby (your baby)
Echoes (echoes) of your name inside my mind
Halo, hiding my obsession
I once was poison ivy, but now I’m your daisy
And baby, for you, I would fall from grace
Just to touch your face
If you walk away
I’d beg you on my knees to stay…
By stating that she would “fall from grace” for her lover, she is invoking the sexist idea of the “fallen women” that was promulgated in the Victorian Era. Here love is portrayed as something too dangerous and sinful for a woman to participate in without inevitably “falling” from her inherent purity. Why would anyone want to perpetuate this awful stereotype that we’ve been trying to break for centuries?
What is the verdict, then? In my opinion, Taylor Swift is undeniably problematic as a supposed feminist figure. Yet despite this bad reputation, my nostalgic attachment for her music continues (as do my ever-increasing conflicted feelings!). This is where it is important to emphasize that it is possible to enjoy art while also acknowledging that it is problematic. I have no problem criticizing Taylor Swift for her sexist, controversial lyrics– but don’t be surprised when I inevitably sing along the next time they blast from the radio.
What are your thoughts on Taylor Swift? Have you listened to her most recent album? How do deal with enjoying problematic things? Let me know in the comments section below!