Feminist Fridays: Taylor Swift as a Problematic Poet

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
That’s fine!
I’ll tell mine
You’re gay
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!



37 Replies to “Feminist Fridays: Taylor Swift as a Problematic Poet”

  1. I really liked Taylor Swifts love songs when I was in seventh and eight grade, but I haven’t been as interested in her latest work. I think it’s interesting to llok at her a feminist figure though, and this analysis wasa so interesting. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am not a big fan of Taylor Swift but yeah, I liked few of her songs off 1989. I have listened to 4 tracks from ‘Reputation’ and I have to say that the change has been drastic. As you said, the tropes have been repeated once again, only from different perspective. Taylor’s songs are quite catchy but I prefer Lorde’s and Adele’s music over hers. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I actually find Taylor Swift fascinating because, even if we can find some of her verses problematic, they still really resonate with people. I know she’s been criticized, for instance, for comparing the character who wears T-shirts with the one who wears mini skirts. However, I do know plenty of women who feel this way–that they are being overlooked because they aren’t as pretty or aren’t wearing revealing clothing, etc. Although we can discuss how comparing ourselves to other women or suggesting that wearing T-shirts makes you look “not pretty” aren’t positive messages, they are feelings that women are experiencing. And I think that’s Swift’s real talent–speaking to people where they are, rather than where we think they should be.

    I haven’t really listened to Reputation yet expect for the singles, but I do find it a weird mix from what I’ve heard. Artistically, she seems to be trying to go for “dark” and “sexy,” yet still working her “good girl” and “victim” persona. I’m not sure that mix is compatible, generally….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s so true! I first started listening to her music in middle school because the lyrics felt oddly relatable… but should they? So many questions!! Your description of Reputation is spot on though– there are a lot of conflicting sides that she seems to be trying to bring together simultaneously.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your post describes my thoughts about Taylor Swift perfectly! Yes, I do love her and her music, but that’s not to say that she is perfect. Her music is definitely problematic at times, but that doesn’t mean I have to stop enjoying it.

    Great post, I really enjoyed reading it! ☺️

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This post was SO interesting to read, Holly, and definitely made me think about Taylor’s lyrics much, much harder than I did before, thank you for that! I really enjoy Taylor’s music most of the time, but I have to admit that yes, some lyrics and things are quite problematic. I’m trying just to listen to the music and let that step aside while I do, I think?!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This was such an interesting post. I think the only Taylor Swift albums I have are Fearless and Speak Now. I liked more of the songs from back then. I’ve mainly only listened to the singles of the last couple albums. I will say that her songs tend to be ones that stick in your mind. Most of the time it doesn’t seem like her lyrics are very deep at all, but they are pretty easy to remember.

    But I’ve never sat there and analyzed her lyrics as I would have a poem back in my school days. I think that does present a fascinating study, and it does showcase many of the problematic ideas you present in this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree with you, especially on the notion that we “can enjoy something while still finding it problematic”. It seems most people can’t tell the difference and will go on to call anyone a hypocrite for doing so, which to me is just wrong. The fact that I can appreciate something doesn’t mean that I find it completely flawless – heck, how would relationships be like if we cut ties with anyone who we felt had any faults? Ridiculous and unrealistic.
    I do like some of her songs, especially the newer ones (never cared much for her country vibes) even if she’s not always consistent or shares my own values. But that doesn’t mean I worship the very ground she walks on and will hang on to her every word as gospel.
    Great post, Holly!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Great post. I too have been thinking a lot about the things I have enjoyed even though I know they are problematic – Gone with the Wind, Back to the Future. If you’ve been a Swift fan since middle-school I guess you were too young for the Spice Girls. I’ve always wondered about their ‘girl power’ claims but, since I’m not a fan, I’m not really in a position to make a strong argument. Though you keep saying you continue to enjoy her music despite the inconsistencies in their message, a post like this needs a person who is both a strong fan and aware of the problems to write it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. You certainly are an English student. I won’t enter into this argument but I will say I like the way you say things and find reasons to back you up. The reasons you give,whether we agree of not, are not judgmental but rather thoughtful insights into both you and the text. Having just read a review on my work that was quite harsh without any real examples to work with I think your analysis is fair, fascinating and more importantly a basis to work from. Nothing is flawless and insights go a long way to making the writer think and that is what counts.
    Great post as always.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This was very well thought out! I agree with you–it is possible to enjoy something while acknowledging that the messages that it sends are not good. I think it’s very important to make that acknowledgement, though, and to be extra supportive of things that are spreading more positive messages.
    I like Taylor Swift, for the most part. Some of her songs I like quite a bit, others I’d rather never hear again. I’m sure it’s difficult to write music that will have broad emotional appeal and yet be empowering to women, but it would be great if she put more consistent effort towards that.


  11. This post reminds me so much of my English major days! I took SO MANY classes about deconstructing things I loved (including a class analyzing race, gender, and religion and Disney) and it’s TOTALLY possible to enjoy things you acknowledge are problematic (being able to critically analyze them is the important part!) I’ll admit I’ve bought reputation but haven’t listened to it all the way through, so haven’t gotten to some of the songs you’re referencing, but am actually loving Taylor’s kick-butt attitude in the songs I have listened to so far. However, I find that the lyrics to the song “gorgeous” kind of annoy me- it sounds like she’s honestly bullying the person she’s singing too lol. Great, thought provoking post!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I just 100% agree with this. I really went through a Taylor Swift phase when I was about 13 and I adore all her older songs (which are still problematic) because of all the attached nostalgia. (Especially You Belong With Me and Love Story). This is kind of how I feel about Ed sheer an too? I really like Perfect, but Shape of You is soo problematic (like, I only like you for your body, I’m not interested in talking. grrr). Anyway, I think it’s okay to enjoy things you acknowledge are problematic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my goodness, You Belong with Me is my JAM ❤ That's also a really great point about Ed Sheeran (and so much music on the radio nowadays!). I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way 🙂


  13. THANK YOU! Taylor’s problematic lyrics are constantly a source of annoyance for me. Like, can we discuss the opening line “You should take it as a compliment that I got drunk and made fun of the way you talk”, like girlfrand no ????? *le sigh* I’m so done with her sometimes, but her music is just so damn catchy


  14. I agree that everyone has a right to their problematic faves, I know I have a couple where I just love the work too much to completely stop supporting them.
    Taylor Swift isn’t one of them for me though. The finally in the coffin for me was hearing Look What You Made Me Do. It’s basically an anthem telling girls everywhere that they can get away with anything if they spin the story right, at least that how it comes across to me. It passes the blame to someone else, and I’m someone who stands for owning your shit when you fuck up, admitting and apologizing for it, and then doing your best not to do it again. Taylor Swift seems to be the exact opposite of that for me.
    I can understand why people still listen to her music though because it is super catchy! Her stans scare me though ahah.
    Great post! And its great that you were able to take something you love and still critic it. I think it’s more than okay to have your problematic faves, however, I do think it’s important to be able to admit that they’re problematic.

    Liked by 1 person

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