Taylor Swift: Through All the Damned Seasons

Taylor Swift has emerged as one of her generation's most prolific and authentic music artists. Swift's rise to fame however, has been marked with numerous challenges - from facing misogyny from within the music industry to battling over ownership of her own work.

Taylor Swift: Through All the Damned Seasons

Recently, a very casual tweet of mine got traction from very unfortunate ends of the internet; one that loves to berate women over breathing, let alone having an opinion. To paraphrase, I had raised a proposition: “I think it is perhaps somewhat of a red flag when a man violently hates your interests, especially music. It is one thing to not hold regard for something and another to grow violent and spiteful in that dislike, or look down on you. And yes– this is related to men who will act high and mighty when you state your love for Taylor Swift’s music.” The response was extremely divided – most women vehemently agreed that they had suffered through misogynistic encounters based on their likes and dislikes, and most men vehemently denied that any such discourse was significant. I muted the tweet because it was swarming with people, more specifically, men, telling me I was childish and immature, and that Taylor Swift made generic breakup music and deserved to be berated– as did I, for listening to her. Well… the shoe unquestionably fits the (un)intended audience here.

For anyone who spent much of their teens and now their adulthood listening to Taylor, you know it’s nothing new to get a scoffing remark over. “Come on? Her? All she does is date people, break up with them, and use it as an excuse to make shitty music.” Trust me, it sets your nerves alight to be near a music elitist, especially one that merely seems to berate music that is popular amongst young women in specific to give themselves a masculine ego boost for days. And Taylor herself is no stranger to misogyny in the music industry, excruciating controversies and very publicised feuds at merely the cusp of her adulthood– yet, she has always risen and resurrected herself as a person and an artist, continuing to grow.

Misogyny is rife in the music industry, and always has been. The time Taylor debuted, around 2006, and her rise to fame with her second album Fearless in 2008, was marked by a wider sociopolitical landscape for women that was very different. The industry was ages more exploitative than what we see now, and the social climate allowed it to be so. There was also a noticeable lack of female representation in key decision-making roles within the industry, such as producers, executives, and managers. This lack of representation perpetuated gender biases and made it difficult for female artists to advocate for their rights and creative visions.

Taylor herself has faced numerous instances of such attacks. She started her career in the early 2000s. Tabloids were horrible— I stumbled on a 2007 article from Kathleen Devon titled “Girls Gone Bad: Celebs and Kids.” To quote a segment from it that took me back to the good old era of flip phones and low-rise jeans: “Are we raising a generation of what one L.A. mom calls "prosti-tots," young girls who dress like tarts, live for Dolce & Gabbana purses and can neither spell nor define such words as "adequate”?” That rancid air of ice-cold 2000s misogyny hit me right in the face. The article goes on to lament the love young girls have for Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, and how it is desecrating “sex, love and lasting commitment.” This is the environment Taylor stepped into.

She stepped foot into the industry with country music in her debut album, working with the Nashville Music Row songwriters. The country music industry had a noticeable gender imbalance with a predominantly male-dominated industry. Female artists often had to fight harder for recognition and airplay. However, when she moved away from this genre, she faced angry music listeners and country music enthusiasts blaming her for “abandoning” what had given her the fame she had.

The most popularised of the misogynistic tirade, however (that still has no lack of memes circulating around the internet) was 2009, when her music video for "You Belong with Me" was named Best Female Video at the MTV Video Music Awards. Her acceptance speech was interrupted by rapper and musician, Kanye West, who stepped on stage, snatched the microphone from her, and said: "Yo, Taylor, I'm really happy for you, I'mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!", in reference to Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies.” Taylor was 19 at the time- a very young girl, relentlessly bullied by peers that were supposed to be her guiding light. However, when Beyoncé won Video of the Year for "Single Ladies" later in the show, she called Taylor Swift back on stage to finish her speech.

This feud continued on, having highs and lows, and almost always seemed like a bemusing one-sided attempt. In February of 2015, Kanye spoke to Ryan Seacrest about a possible collaboration with Taylor and said: "Any artist with an amazing point of view, perspective, fanbase, I'm down to get in the studio and work. I don't discriminate,” and merely a year later, put out the song “Famous” which takes a dig at her and explicitly says, “I made that bitch famous.”

A confessional poet, especially confessional poets that are women, are incessantly scrutinised. They have revealed what they want to, through symbols and metaphors, in their work. It’s all there for someone to find solace in; yet we need to know more because we think she owes us an explanation about her life. We think we can love her, hate her, dissect her, scrutinise her, because she has allowed us a window into her life.

I am in no denial of Kanye’s musical prowess as a rap artist; I have enjoyed his music for years and “My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy” is a revolutionary, genre-bending work. However, to claim he is the key to Taylor’s success is confusing at best and disrespectful at most. There is a lot more to this feud, including a social media campaign against Taylor, a leaked phone call from Kanye West’s (now-ex) wife, Kim Kardashian, a naked sculpture of Taylor Swift featuring in Kanye’s music video (without Taylor’s consent— she later termed it revenge pornography) and as of the complete leaked call in 2020, which proved that the young Taylor laughing nervously when she was told about the song and saying she needs to "think about it because it is absolutely crazy."

Taylor however, faced the misogynistic tirade through the years without allowing herself to be ostracised— she empowered herself, and insistently resurrected herself as an artist. In her acceptance speech for the Grammys in 2016, she told the audience: “I want to say to all the young women out there, there are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame… someday when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you will know that it was you and the people who love you that put you out there…” As a young, rising artist, she did deal with the event with none of the grace she owed her bullies, and she has been very vocal about gender equality, the Roe vs Wade overturn and about not shaming women for their personal life in light of what she has faced in her personal life and how it impacted it.

Then there is the issue of the media's insistent fixation on her love life— it is not only pervasive, but also invasive. Every song that she would come forward with would be listened to so the listeners could find some symbolic representations of her trysts and scream, “See! This is a woman that is serial dating to include these poor, victimised men in her songs!” Gossip columns loved to know about her life, paparazzi hounded her, and her life was incessantly torn apart to become tabloid fodder. This reminded me of when I did my research on Plath, Sexton and other confessional poets— their experiences with uncomfortable questions by reporters that probed them to reveal more. A confessional poet, especially confessional poets that are women, are incessantly scrutinised. They have revealed what they want to, through symbols and metaphors, in their work. It’s all there for someone to find solace in; yet we need to know more because we think she owes us an explanation about her life. We think we can love her, hate her, dissect her, scrutinise her, because she has allowed us a window into her life. Now we must climb in and rummage her personhood instead of being spectators to what she has allowed us a glimpse into.

I wonder how Taylor felt— this young girl, stepping into an industry and being welcomed with rigid, patriarchal structures, and being constantly objectified like an antique shop curio— her love life seemed to overshadow her accomplishments as a singer-songwriter. It reinforced the idea that a woman's worth is tied to her romantic relationships rather than her talent or achievements. Meanwhile, her male contemporaries got a clap on the back and cheered on. It’s almost as if dating women for men is conquest, and for women, is disgrace.

If you were on Tumblr, you might remember a very specific GIF that gained traction amongst feminist circles, regardless of whether they listened to Taylor or not. An interviewer asks Taylor why would a man want to date her if he knows she will write songs about them as jabs later on? She aptly replies: “…I'd just figure that if guys don't want me to write bad songs about them, they shouldn't do bad things.” As a poet myself, I have faced that lingering question.

You fell in love and wrote a book about it? Think about the man; he will forever be haunted by the fact that a girl immortalised that relationship in the form of writing. Well, if he didn’t want me to write about it, perhaps he shouldn’t have given me the words to put that humiliation into words. Comme ci, comme ça.

However, this is not a trajectory of the insistent harassment Taylor has put up with— this is also to see how that impacted her music and made her grow as an incredible artist, capable of exploring multiple genres. She has herself described her artistry as being a “music chameleon.” She self-identified as a country musician until 2012, when she released her fourth studio album, Red. After her success with pop and releasing albums in that genre, she stepped into experimenting with indie-folk and indie-pop— mild, subdued and emotionally evocative in “folklore” and “evermore.” With her latest release, “Midnights” in 2022, she goes back to pop but in an experimental tone— it is subtle, nebulous and mellow. Clash magazine commented on her career as being “one of transcendence and covert boundary-pushing.” Taylor cannot be boxed into a genre— she is just her own identity with her own ideas. What makes her artistry so special, however, is her lyrical ability. It is as if her lyrics trudge their own pathway to find their sound, rather than the other way around, and perhaps that is what makes her music resonate so deeply.

My favourite Taylor albums have to be a tie between “folklore” and “evermore”— in a piece titled “Growing Sideways” by Stephanie Burt and Julia Harris, they write, aptly: “The Taylor Swift of evermore is our pop Heraclitus: nothing here happens for the first time, everything's a return to something, a rewrite, a re-take, a retraction, a chance to remember and do it again.

It also means a lot to me because she takes back from the tabloids and paparazzi who hound her lyrics for trinkets of her romantic flames and instead carve out an entirely new pathway of story-telling through her songs. Her grief and loss become theirs, her angst is emulated through these figures, and they stand as a testament of her creativity. In “Bad Songs About Bad Things”, Summer Kim Lee gives Taylor’s narrative pathway in these albums a vivid description: “Writing is revenge without the need to ask for permission or apology… ethics is pushed aside for the political act of refusing to give in to gendered expectations… The personal is political…in folklore and evermore, Swift creates characters from which to write stories other than her own… seek out the fantasy of the folkloric rather than empowerment through the exposure of herself and others.

It is as if Taylor stepped back from the idea of dissecting her own life and instead conned in on intimacy, relationships, and personhood from the viewpoint of a by-stander, and sometimes, a stranger stepping into another’s shoes and becoming imbued in their trajectory. This is what makes it haunting and charming at the same time.

However, while Taylor recorded her albums, she was also battling with Scooter Braun over his 2019 purchase of Big Machine Records, which effectively gave him ownership over Swift's masters— which tied in with his affiliation with the Wests. Taylor vehemently opposed Braun’s “manipulative” bullying, and the fact that her unreleased work was released without her consent, as well as him profiting off her masters without a dime going to Swift herself. She then re-released her recorded albums to gain back ownership over them—    Fearless (Taylor's Version) and Red (Taylor's Version) in 2021 and Speak Now (Taylor's Version) in 2023. All three peaked atop the Billboard 200, becoming the first ever re-recorded albums to do so. She opened up the industry to conversations about artists’ rights, the ethics of ownership of creative rights and intellectual property and for artists to negotiate for greater ownership of their music.

It is her authenticity that cultivates a sense of community— her vulnerability and openness in addressing both triumphs and tribulations in her life allow others to feel seen and understood.

I do sometimes come across the question, or question myself— why do so many women from so many different ethnicities and cultures and differing values find solace in Taylor’s music; a white woman penning down her experiences in her life? It took me back to the time I stood in my university’s restrooms after a tiring day, washing my face and someone played “exile” as they re-did their makeup. We all looked at each other with little grins as soon as we heard the first lyric, a sense of bonding and sisterhood. One of the girls’ spoke up about not having face wash and being annoyed— and despite my own nervousness with social contact, I handed her my bottle and we again smiled at each other. It’s all the little things that make up the joy of being a woman.

I think it is because she does not overstep her boundaries— her experiences are her own and she puts them forward to validate them and anyone else who may find solace in them, rendering her in a position where she does not overstep her boundaries. Summer Kim Lee, in “Bad Songs About Bad Things”, quotes Jean-Thomas Tremblay, who in an essay on New Narrative, describes it as "the assumption that impersonality, once intensified, will turn into commonality."

It is her authenticity that cultivates a sense of community— her vulnerability and openness in addressing both triumphs and tribulations in her life allow others to feel seen and understood. She also stands as an empathetic storyteller, one that is able to vividly capture emotions and experiences in her lyrics allowing listeners to connect with her songs. This allows her to transcend cultural and racial boundaries and allow her to foster a bond with her listeners that transcends geographical boundaries.

I was not a girl that grew up dating or having any romantic affiliations, and still don’t— I always found myself hyper fixated on my career. And yet, Taylor’s music allowed me a glimpse into another life, another time, the ghost of a memory I might have had in another life. This is why her music stands special to me. I, too, was a young girl once that lamented how I wore t-shirts and all the popular girls in high school wore the preppier outfits, and I was not even on the bleachers because who wants to see high school basketball and football? And now it’s listening to Seven, revelling in the fact that all my friends who are women are just like me and that is something to celebrate; because within us, we will always have love and memories of each other because of it. It is realising that I do not want to not be like other women— it is indeed one of the few joys in my life to be just like them, and the only reason a cashew man might term you different is because you’re not the bland caricature of a one-dimensional person they hope to project on you. I am, indeed, wondering if I would “get there quicker if I was a man.”

Sara Javed Rathore is an author and poet from Lahore. Her first collection of poetry, 'Meraki', won the Daud Kamal Presidential Award from the Pakistan Academy of Letters in 2020. She has also published another collection of poetry titled ‘Obituaries for the Dead and the Undead.’