Taylor Swift Was a Pop Culture Villain. The Pandemic Made Her a Hero.

Taylor Swift is back to owning you, me, and everyone we know.

Dec 21 2021, 1:00pm

In November, one month before her 32nd birthday and just seven months after she had been 19 years old, Taylor Swift was 22.

Not really, obviously. But throughout 2021, as Swift hopscotched through her career by releasing re-recordings of her albums Fearless and Red, Swift turned what could have seemed like a cash grab by a legacy act into something much more potent: a way to relive, and correct, the inflection points of her life. 

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And listeners did it with her. In particular: women in their 20s and 30s who may not have been singing along to Swift the first time around.

“I have actively hated Taylor Swift, despite loving other singer-songwriters obsessively,” Octavia Stout, a 29-year-old in Chicago, told me. “I thought her voice was whiney, her lyrics cliché, and generally thought she was marketing for and towards people younger than me, which was unappealing.”

Then, last month, Stout tripped on mushrooms while watching the Sadie Sink-starring music video for the 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” the centerpiece of Swift’s Red (Taylor’s Version). It was the weekend that Swift performed the song on “Saturday Night Live,” and Stout was so inundated with Swift content that she finally decided to see if the singer was worthwhile.

“I watched the Sadie Sink video and related to the hot/cold nature of the relationship being depicted… but then something unexpected happened. I listened to Folklore in full and the opening track left me SOBBING,” Stout wrote to me. “I still don’t consider myself a Swiftie but please don’t turn on ‘Invisible String’ in front of me because I will be immediately moved to tears.”

After years of cataclysmically bad press, two underwhelming albums, and the growing threat of irrelevance, each of the four albums that Swift has put out since 2019—Folklore, Evermore, Fearless (Taylor’s Version), and Red (Taylor’s Version)—have become iconic art of the pandemic era. They have proven to be relatable when absolutely nothing feels familiar and when everyone, fearing both the present and the future, has far too much time to rethink and long for the past. Not only have these albums refueled Swifties’ conviction that Blondie can do anything, but they have converted new fans at a time when Swift’s contemporaries are settling for smaller crowds.

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Nostalgia, it turns out, is as powerful a drug as, well, drugs.

“One of the things that draws people to a particular figure, and I think this is especially true with Taylor Swift, is that we are looking to see parts of ourselves validated through them,” said Adriane Brown, an associate professor of gender, sexuality, and women's studies at Augsburg University who’s studied Swift fans. “Taylor Swift, I think, has done so much of that for, particularly early on, girls. And now I think a lot of her fans are actually millennial women.”

Taylor Swift is a little too old to be this successful, and she knows it.

Back when we were all much younger, in 2019, Swift was sure she was approaching the cliff of her success. “We do exist in this society where women in entertainment are discarded in an elephant graveyard by the time they’re 35,” she said in the documentary Miss Americana. “As I'm reaching 30, I’m like, I want to work really hard while society is still tolerating me being successful.”

By the time she made that pronouncement, however, society’s tolerance for Swift had already started to wear thin. To borrow a Swift song title and make a long story short: In 2016, Swift’s archnemesis Kanye West rapped, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.” Swift insisted she hadn’t approved the latter lyric and that, actually, she had cautioned West about releasing a song with such a “strong misogynistic message” while on the phone with him.

After years of cataclysmically bad press, two underwhelming albums, and the growing threat of irrelevance, each of the four albums that Swift has put out since 2019—Folklore, Evermore, Fearless (Taylor’s Version), and Red (Taylor’s Version)—have become iconic art of the pandemic era.

West’s then-wife Kim Kardashian then released a series of devastating Snapchats that made it look like Swift had lied about all of the above. 

After roughly two years of being the greatest luminary in pop music, thanks to her planet-conquering album 1989, Swift crashed to earth. Hard. The Ringer asked, “When Did You First Realize Taylor Swift Was Lying to You?” New York magazine wanted to know: “When Did the Media Turn Against Taylor Swift?” In one vinegary piece, Buzzfeed traced “How Taylor Swift Played The Victim For A Decade And Made Her Entire Career.” Over at Elle magazine, noted Swift skeptic Jude Doyle used “The Depressingly Predictable Downfall Of Taylor Swift” as evidence that no woman can remain America’s sweetheart.

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So, Swift went to ground. “Nobody physically saw me for a year,” she recounted in Miss Americana. “That’s what I thought they wanted.”

Both of Swift’s subsequent albums, Reputation and Lover, were sold as the Return of Taylor Swift. Reputation, in 2017, was Swift’s midnight-hued concept album about the fall and rise of Taylor Swift; the singer, perhaps once a little too available, infamously refused to do any interviews about it. Then, in 2019, Swift drenched Lover in rainbows and pastels. She retconned her heel turn and went on the record with journalists to confirm that the score-settling snakes of Reputation were all an act. Swift was back to her ostentatiously earnest self. 

By any normal standard, these best-selling albums were massive successes. But neither really returned Swift to the musical stratosphere; checking out her art no longer felt quite as urgent. Maybe it was the lack of good singles. (“‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is just so goofy,” Stout said of the lead single off Reputation. “Girl, what are you doing?”) Maybe the damage to Swift’s status as an authentic, all-American good girl had sustained too much damage; toggling between oppositional stage personas started to come off as desperate, even deceptive. (Swift’s whiteness contributed to her ability to easily shuck the sexual, bad-girl persona of her Reputation era. See also: Miley Cyrus.)

Taylor Swift performs in Shanghai on November 10, 2019. (STR / AFP via Getty Images)

Or maybe Swift was just past her prime and adrift in a fractured pop culture landscape. Many of Swift’s peers—Cyrus, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga—no longer garner the kind of vast audiences they once did.

“It’s really hard for any artist to stay relevant for 15 years. How do you do that?” said Gina Arnold, a former rock critic who teaches at the University of San Francisco. “It’s much easier for men. Much, much easier. Nobody asks them to change their persona. Nobody wanted to see James Taylor or Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones be any different than they were.”

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But at the dawn of the pandemic, Swift, perhaps for the first time in the decade-plus since she’d released her debut album, was Just Like Us: stuck in her home. (Well, that home is probably a palatial mansion, but she got as close as the ultra-rich get.) Unlike the rest of us, though, she took that time to surprise-drop two albums made “in isolation,” Folklore and Evermore.

Before the pandemic broke out, K., 34, didn’t feel many emotions toward Swift at all. (K. asked to be identified only by her first initial.) “But when Folklore came out, I wanted to be educated on what this big trend was, so I just listened to it in the background as I worked,” she said. “Because it came into my life during this crazy life in our country’s history and during history, it became kind of a soundtrack of 2020 for me.” 

Listening to and processing Folklore became almost therapeutic.

“It does feel like it was a good soundtrack for reflection as we were sitting in our homes with nothing else to do, thinking about the past and also just thinking about who we are,” K. went on. “During the pandemic, I had a lot of realizations about myself as a person that I didn’t really think about before, because I just didn’t have the time. Maybe this album was part of that.”

“It’s really hard for any artist to stay relevant for 15 years. How do you do that?”

Swift’s previous work was so heavily autobiographical that tabloids became essential reading, but Swift made it clear that the stories in Folklore and Evermore were largely imaginary. And while her past albums increasingly leaned into maximalist production, her isolation records are stripped-down affairs, in the style of the male-dominated indie rock that’s always been taken more seriously than pop. The struggles of love and youth—the overarching themes of Swift’s oeuvre—remain top of mind. But even as Swift (or her fictional avatars) turns her past over, reexamining situations and relationships and situationships in a new light, she doesn’t dismiss her old feelings. 

“When you are young, they assume you know nothing,” Swift sings in “Cardigan,” the lead single off Folklore. During the bridge, she rebukes that adage: “I knew everything when I was young.”

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“Teenage girls are not taken seriously,” Brown said. “We tell teenagers all the time that the things that are important to them are silly, that you’re not really in love, that one day when you’re older you’ll realize that none of these problems were actually a big deal.”

“I think I was just being influenced by the tastes of those whose tastes I thought were more sophisticated than mine.”

That attitude can be very influential: As a teenager, Thalia Charles didn’t like Taylor Swift.

“Everyone really liked Taylor Swift, everyone really liked her music, so I thought I was being really cool and quirky and contrarian for not liking her,” said Charles, who is now 21. “I think a bit of it was definitely some internalized misogyny.”

Taylor Swift accepts the award for Album of the Year at the 63rd Grammy Award outside Staples Center on March 14, 2021. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Stout grew up listening to what she called “dad rock,” like Led Zeppelin and Death Cab for Cutie. “I was very influenced by what the men in my life were listening to,” Stout said. “That especially became the case in my first serious relationship. And there was a point in time where I realized that I did not listen to any female singers. In fact, I actively disliked listening to female singers.”

“It makes me sad, looking back,” continued Stout, who now adores female singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple. “I think I was just being influenced by the tastes of those whose tastes I thought were more sophisticated than mine.”

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It’s impossible to explain the Great Swift Revival without considering the biggest musical smash of 2021: Olivia Rodrigo and her debut album Sour. 

Women in their 20s and 30s lost their minds over the album. “Sour feels fresh and evergreen, playing into Sad Girl tropes in a way that seems specific without being overly saccharine,” Mia Mercado wrote for the Cut, in a piece headlined “Olivia Rodrigo, Please, I Am 30.” “I haven’t been 18 for a while now, but there are bits of the album that remind me of who I was and who I wanted to eventually be.” 

Across the internet, women experienced Sour as a time machine. What if, as a teenager, they’d let themselves be angry and messy? What if they had trusted their instincts and taste? In the song “Brutal,” Rodrigo moans her way through a list of grievances about the world, including the difficulties of parallel parking. One friend texted me, “Like, if I simply had that song at 17, I would have burned down my boyfriend’s house.”

Red (Taylor’s Version) taps into that same feeling. Swift’s plan to re-record her first six albums, in order to gain control of her masters, is itself an act of womanly vengeance, at least in Swift’s telling. When she spoke out about the sale of her masters in 2019, Swift made sure to highlight that it was men who traded her masters, which she called “the most feminine body of work.” (Those men dispute Swift’s version of events.) And her commitment to releasing “from the vault” songs—the songs, Swift says, that should have been on the albums the first time around—is a public declaration that, actually, she knew better all along. 

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It’s unlikely that other artists will or could follow in her footsteps, because few have her level of money and influence; re-recording music isn’t free. “A lot of it does seem like a way to make a lot more money, which is fine,” said newly minted Swiftie Evangeline Wilder. “But I think I sort of roll my eyes at passing that off as some broader feminist project.”

Still, many fans have bought into the idea that a contractual disagreement over obscure industry issues is really a rallying cry for women’s empowerment.

“With Folklore and Evermore, there’s a lot of older self looking back on the experiences of your younger self,” Charles said. “It’s also really cool that, while those albums represent that, she’s also living that in her real life and going back and re-recording these albums.”

The 10-minute version of the song “All Too Well” is, perhaps, the peak of that project. While the original “All Too Well” is a striking portrait of a relationship where some man abandoned Swift, the songwriter’s cut zeroes in on a power imbalance so uneven that it borders on exploitation. It’s less about romantic longing, an approved emotion for women, and more of a meticulous murder.

“You said if we had been closer in age, maybe it would have been fine. And that made me want to die,” Swift sings. Later, she adds, “I was never good at telling jokes, but the punch line goes, I'll get older, but your lovers stay my age.”

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In one TikTok with more than 150,000 likes, a young woman impersonates Swift writing “All Too Well.” “Oh, I’m not funny? I’m not funny, right?” she growls. “Well, you know what’s funny? You’re a fucking predator. That’s my favorite joke.”

“It’s kind of a soundtrack for examining all of the parts of our lives and maybe the past that we didn’t know [was] maybe problematic or hard.”

K. had spent much of the pandemic thinking over a past, abusive relationship and “how I let myself stay in it for as long as I did.” After “All Too Well” came out, she listened to it again and again. For her, Rodrigo and Swift are often trying to answer the same question: What does it mean to be treated well?

“People think that women are hysterical if they’re complaining about emotional abuse, because they don’t think that that’s a real thing,” K. said. “The recognition that this being a really, really hard thing that was short-term that impacts her maybe 10 years later felt very validating and like I was seen.”

Nearly a decade after the release of the original “All Too Well,” the new version soared to the top of the charts, becoming the longest song to ever hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100

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“It’s kind of a soundtrack for examining all of the parts of our lives and maybe the past that we didn’t know [was] maybe problematic or hard,” K. said. “We’re just kind of ready to not deal with bullshit anymore, and neither are Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo.” 

So many of the songs on Folklore and Evermore are about the same thing: The narrator is looking back at her life and choosing to believe, This is how it was meant to be. That wish for a better past, both real and imagined, has been part of Swift’s allure since the very beginning of her career—and she’s all too aware of how music can feed it. In her first single, the then-16-year-old sighed to an ex, “When you think Tim McGraw, I hope you think of me.”

“Taylor Swift is a monument to the idea that there once was a place called America. She recalls an old American dream—of high school popularity contests, apple pies, dreamy boys next door, and a very old, very white, Christian nation,” Arnold, the former rock critic, and York University associate professor Mary Fogarty wrote in the academic journal “Contemporary Music Review,” in an issue devoted to “Taking Taylor Seriously.” 

“Lately, she has been serenading us whilst waltzing around the countryside, like some quintessential devotee of TikTok lesbian cottagecore,” they wrote. “In doing so, she is imagining a new national anthem, less a monument to old, outdated American values, and more a tenacious and tender, newly-hopeful romantic one: a fem(me)inism uploaded for the twenty-first century.”

“Next, I’m gonna be on the Reddit threads and shit. Yeah, I’m all in.”

But while Swift taxonomizes and reevaluates the teenage experience, the singer is also now a kind of physical manifestation of it, since she dominated pop culture for so many young women’s adolescence and early adulthood. When Wilder, who grew up deeply conservative Christian, got her first iPod, Swift’s music was on it.

“I was listening to only music about God until I was in middle school-ish,” Wilder said. “She was there at the beginning of my musical independence, and then I didn’t pay attention to her until very recently. So it’s just like jumping back to a much earlier version of myself.”

During the pandemic, Wilder moved to a conservative area of Idaho, whose political atmosphere she found off-putting. She started to spend much more time inside her own head, listening to what she called “headphones music.” 

The “wistful, sad songs” of Evermore perfectly fit her mood. And following along as Swift once again took the music industry by storm became a way for Wilder to still feel like she had a community, regardless of politics and a plague.

“I’m only going deeper,” she said. “Next, I’m gonna be on the Reddit threads and shit. Yeah, I’m all in.” 

Emma Ockerman contributed to this story.

Tagged:

Music, CELEBRITIES, pandemic

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