I spend a lot of time defending Taylor Swift, not that I think she needs it. In fact, it seems absurd to me, but perhaps once more, for the record, let me address a few issues that seem to plague our girl.
First, she is not anti-feminist. While she may have been hesitant to embrace the term in interviews (and she is not alone in that), and her songs may deal with fairly conventional roles and relationships, she remains an excellent female role model. I don’t mean because she’s “a good girl” resisting a Lohan trajectory, I mean because she has had a truly tremendous career of which she’s always remained totally in control. She started chasing a record deal at age 11, knocking on doors of Nashville’s Music Row. When she was 13, she walked out of a development deal with RCA when they wanted to shelve her for a while. She had other plans. When she was 14, Sony picked her up, their youngest songwriting hire. She took a chance on then-fledgling label Big Machine at 15 because they would give her the control she wanted most of all: she was going to write and perform her own material — period. And she’s done that ever since. And it’s not only her songwriting she controls, the woman is the head of an empire: she is involved in everything from tour design, to packaging, to product endorsements and partnerships. She is the sparkly embodiment of creative control. Everything must be true to her vision and her image. What makes this more remarkable is that she did this in an industry that would normally take a 14-year-old girl and package and exploit her. If Taylor Swift is going to be “packaged” it will be by Taylor Swift herself. Now that she’s famous and powerful, she still finds ways to manipulate greater, seemingly uncontrollable forces like celebrity gossip, as Elizabeth Perie points out in the Huffington Post.
Though even the Swift One can only control so much, and it’s distressing to watch the media make her out to be a desperate, love-crazed man chaser. But that’s not her — that’s what we project onto her. That’s the character we want her to be for our own amusement. Is a successful, powerful young woman dating different men so distressing somehow that we have to belittle her in this way? In the April Vanity Fair cover story (which, annoyingly, has a headline that puts “her men” and “her moods” above “her music”), Taylor wisely noted, “For a female to write about her feelings, and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that’s taking something that potentially should be celebrated—a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way—that’s taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist.”
And how about those confessional lyrics? For some would say that even if she isn’t anti-feminist, her lyrics are. And to answer that I send you to Erin Riley, who argues that Taylor’s lyrics are being oversimplified. The only song she doesn’t account for, unfortunately, is “Better Than Revenge,” which even I would admit slips into slut-shaming. That said, she was 18 or 19 when she wrote that album. And what teenager — and what human, really — doesn’t make mistakes? And it’s with slips like this that we know we’re getting the true Taylor, even if sometimes it’s not as tidy as we’d like.
Sometimes it’s the content of the songs I have to defend. People often say she only writes love songs. This is, it must first be clarified, an exaggeration. She does write mostly about love, but she does sometimes write about other things: growing up and family (“Never Grow Up,” “The Best Day,” “Fifteen”), the risks of stardom (“Innocent,” “The Lucky One”), self-image (“Tied Together with a Smile,” “Mean”), not fitting in (“A Place in This World,” “The Outside”), losing a child (“Ronan”) and good ol’ celebratory anthems (“Change,” “Long Live”). She has won Grammy Awards for two songs decidedly not about love: “Mean” and “Safe and Sound.” But sure, she does write mostly about love. You may have noticed that so do a lot of artists. Love is an endless font of inspiration, something that changes as we grow older, as we discover new variegation in a colour we thought we knew well (the many shades of red, you might say). Because not all the songs are about being in love: they’re about crushes, fleeting love, enduring love, heartbreak, betrayal, moving on …
Further, Taylor writes a love song well. She’s one of our premier pop philosophers, and her particular articulations of heartbreak have won her a trophy room full of awards and have her matching sales records set by the Beatles (they sang about love a lot too, you may recall — using the word love 613 times, according to this highly reputable Buzzfeed article). Anyway, my point is if you want a really good loaf of bread, you go to the bakery, not to the supermarket. Go to the specialist. And while she may not be great at love (or at least not lucky in it), she is great at writing about it. Not just because her songs are catchy, fun to belt out in your car, but because her lyrics are deceptively simple. I’m always thrilled to hear Taylor sing about new things, but if she writes love-heavy albums for the rest of her career, so be it. Our canon of modern love songs will be better for it.
Yes, her sweetness is a sugar rush, but I think for the most part it’s genuine. Straight from the hands-making-a-heart, you might say. She is powerful, she is savvy, she is authentic. If I had a daughter, I’d encourage her to listen to Taylor. And Lady Gaga. And Beyonce. And Ani Difranco. And Joni Mitchell. The point is, Taylor is a valuable and necessary part of an ongoing dialogue by women in music and about women in music. She is the sparkly dresses (or retro fifties chic) to Lady Gaga’s meat dress. And we need that. She doesn’t have to be the full picture, and she can’t be and shouldn’t be. But she’s an important part of that picture, and I hope she continues to be a part of it for a long time.