An Ode to Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift is someone who needs no introduction. A household name, she is one of the most successful and well-known artists of our time. My generation has grown up with her, experiencing each and every era of love, heartbreak, anger, growth and adventure. She has a way with words that is awe-inspiring and an ability to churn out song after song at a shocking rate. Swift is one of few artists who can suddenly drop an album without any promotion at all and hit the top of the charts immediately. I could go on and on, but my point is that Swift is a lyrical genius, a cultural icon and a marketing mastermind who thoughtfully plans out every aspect of her artistry. 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware that Queen Taylor dropped her re-released “Red (Taylor’s Version)” album, including nine new “From the Vault” songs, last Friday. I’ve been looking forward to this album ever since she announced it back in June and revealed the titles of and featured artists on the vault tracks via a mysterious word scramble back in August. 

You might be wondering why Swift is rereleasing her old albums and why we can’t just listen to the original ones. Well, it’s part of a long fight for her to manage the means, method of production and distribution of her work

Swift signed with Big Machine Records in 2005, when she was 16 years old. Her contract, which lasted until 2018, gave the label ownership rights to her masters, or the original recordings, of her first six albums. She switched labels in 2018, but in 2019, Big Machine was sold to a private-equity group called Ithaca Holdings, owned by Scooter Braun. Braun then sold Swift’s masters to Shamrock Holdings, another company who now benefits from the sizable profits whenever her songs are streamed or bought. So now, by rerecording her songs, Swift is reclaiming her work and drawing attention to the exploitation of young artists in the music industry. 

Leading up to the release of “Red (Taylor’s Version),” fans around the world were taking to social media to share their excitement and discuss their theories about the different clues Swift was dropping. The Empire State Building even lit up in red to celebrate the album, and Starbucks came out with a “Taylor’s Version” latte. Around campus on Friday, I heard several people singing parts of “All Too Well” to themselves and noticed that Swift came up regularly in conversations I had with different groups of friends throughout the day. On Friday evening, my roommate and I rushed home after dinner to watch the premiere of the short film for the 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” and in full transparency, tears were shed.

All of this has made me think about the unique power that Swift holds. Listening to “Red (Taylor’s Version)” for the first time was honestly an emotional experience. On one hand, the original songs conjured up a deep nostalgia, bringing me back to when I was 12-years-old and listening to them in middle school. On the other hand, hearing how much her voice has matured and thinking about the lyrics from my perspective now as a 21-year-old gave me a whole new appreciation for the album. It is in this context that songs like “Nothing New,” which features Phoebe Bridgers, hit differently today. 

In “Nothing New,” Taylor Swift tragically grapples with the way society basically discards women after they pass their “prime” and no longer possess the novelty of their youth. She writes about how difficult the jump from 18 to 22 is for women as they encounter the cultural implications of what it means to age. The song opens with: “They tell you while you’re young, girls, go out and have your fun. Then they hunt and slay the ones who actually do it.”  Listening to this song now has made me reflect on my past perceptions of Swift. I’m essentially the same age as she was when she initially wrote these songs for “Red,” and it’s strange to think about the timelessness of her lyrics in conjunction with how much has changed since 2012.  

In particular, public opinion about Swift has changed drastically since 2012. I’ve talked to several friends about how we’ve always listened to Swift, but growing up, our perceptions of her were very skewed by the way the media sought to represent her. I admittedly bought into much of the sexist nonsense about her, including the narrative that she was too “boy crazy” and only knew how to write about the drama of her relationships. Even though I’ve always known the words to the vast majority of Swift’s songs and have attended two of her concerts, I don’t think I would’ve described myself as a Swift “fan” until I got to college, perhaps because there was this notion that it was somehow lame to be a full-on “Swiftie.” 

Her 2020 documentary, “Miss Americana,” opened my eyes to the internalized misogyny that had been at the root of some of my views, and it definitely made me want to reevaluate why I wasn’t more attentive to the industry’s intentionally polarizing portrayal of powerful female artists like Swift, the constant scrutiny she’s under, or the constraints and lack of agency that come with her level of fame. “Miss Americana” also highlighted the journey that eventually prompted Swift to start speaking out more and finally become vocal about political and social justice issues, despite being advised against taking “controversial” stances. The outcomes of her decision to do so further highlighted the impressive extent of her influence and the unique power she holds. Ahead of the 2018 midterms, for example, after Swift posted her endorsement for two Democratic candidates in Tennessee on social media and encouraged her followers to register to vote, reported 65,000 registrations in the 24-hour period following her post. Today, at 31-years-old, Swift has a clear voice; she has crafted an evolved public image that many people respect and value, but getting to this point has involved a rollercoaster of learning experiences, challenges and public backlash, to say the least. 

The point of all of my rambling is to say that I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the role of Swift in our society recently – her power and influence both musically and culturally – and you should too. Question your own past assumptions and listen to her songs with a fresh perspective. Queue up “Red (Taylor’s Version)” and discuss with your friends next time you get the chance.