Sunday, February 9, 2014

In Defense of Taylor Swift

and the saddest fear comes creeping in
that you never loved me, or her, or anyone or anything

On my birthday weekend, I was in the car with two of my good friends and co-workers. We were listening to the radio and as a Taylor Swift song came on (“I Knew You Were Trouble”), my friend Kate stretched out her fingers to turn the station but then swiveled to face me and said: “Since it’s your birthday, we’ll let you listen to her.” I then proceeded to sing and dance in the back seat. Kate and Heather are like a lot of individuals in that they dislike Taylor Swift quite a bit. They find her annoying and irritating and obviously their feelings aren’t a “make or break” condition in my friendship with them. Still, it does rather unsettle me whenever people complain about or make fun of the young woman I’ve grown to adore over the past few years. And though this post isn’t meant to sway your opinion, nor is it intended to force you to accept or even like Taylor Swift, it IS a post meant to defend her. Because my name is Jennifer, I’m twenty-five years old, and I absolutely admire the blonde, sassy, immensely talented young woman known as Taylor Swift.

you call me up again just to break me like a promise
so casually cruel in the name of "being honest."

“God, why can’t Taylor just stop it with the songs that are about her exes all the time?”

Nothing grates my nerves more than when the main complaint that someone has against Taylor Swift is that she is “immature” because she writes songs about her ex-boyfriends. Yes, Taylor writes songs about love. Yes, she writes songs about her exes. And, contrary to popular belief or opinion, she has name-dropped maybe two exes in her entire singing career. The rest is insinuation. Actually, by logic, you could do the same with most singers and certain break-up songs… like, oh, how everyone knows that “Cry Me A River” was about Britney Spears. Not difficult to figure out. Also, that’s such a WILDLY vindictive song about Britney Spears cheating on Justin Timberlake and him calling her out for it but God forbid Taylor Swift do the same thing and the general public would rail about her inability to write anything other than a break-up song. Again: untrue. A good chunk of songs on her albums are NOT break-up songs: “Never Grow Up,” “The Best Day,” “Long Live,” “Change,” “The Lucky One,” “Innocent,” etc.) 

My simple, three-word rebuttal to the aforementioned complaint is as follows: “Songs About Jane.” For those who are unaware, Songs About Jane is Maroon 5’s debut album. The title is rather self-explanatory: the entire album is comprised of songs about Adam Levine’s ex-girlfriend, Jane. Adam actually confirmed that there was at least one line in every song that was explicitly about her. And yet… I have never heard a complaint regarding this album. I’ve never heard a complaint about Katy Perry or John Mayer or Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson or Bruno Mars either, regarding their decision to write about ex-lovers and relationships in their songs. Maroon 5 devoted an entire album to one ex-girlfriend; why is Taylor consistently attacked for writing songs about her exes? The reason, I believe, is the same reason that stars like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez have found it so difficult to acclimate to life after Disney: the general public will only be able to view them as those doe-eyed innocents who portrayed pop stars on children’s sitcoms. Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez are not those children anymore, however, and (regardless of whether they are for better or for worse) are now adults who are capable of making decisions regarding their lives. There’s a disconnect that occurs when young stars grow up, though. There is a gap between the memory of the child star and the reality of the adult. It’s often difficult to reconcile the two images, leaving people feeling left down at best and downright upset at worst.

The perception of Taylor Swift is similar – as a young woman who began writing songs about Tim McGraw and being fifteen, it’s likely difficult for people to accept that she is now an adult. They refuse either consciously or subconsciously to take her seriously. Because unlike Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood who found their fame as adult female songwriters, singing about the same messages that Taylor Swift sings about, people dismiss Taylor’s songs as juvenile. Is it because, then, they still see Swift herself as a child? Because they cannot dissociate the image of the curly-haired young Nashville singer with the 24-year old she is now?

The GIF below truly breaks my heart. It’s a part of an interview that was conducted with Taylor Swift about what she was looking forward to most in 2014. She actually admitted that she wasn’t ready for 2013 to end because it had been such a great year for her. The rest of the exchange went like this:

Interviewer: Yeah, it’s hard. You have to break up with the year and …
Taylor Swift: Then I have to write a song about it.
Interviewer: No, no. I wasn’t going to go there.
Swift: Yeah you were. If I didn’t go there, you were going to go there.

It kind of hurts me that this is how people see Taylor and I think in spite of the sold out arenas, the plethora of accolades, and the adoring fans… Taylor feels the same. Look at that GIF and tell me that she doesn’t recognize the fact that, to this interviewer and likely throngs of others out there, all she will ever be is a joke. That’s why Tina and Amy’s joke at the Golden Globes stung her. It was a reminder that – even among her community – she’s regarded as nothing more than a punch line. People don’t see her as an artist; they see her as one giant dating joke. So no wonder she was upset, because all Taylor Swift wants and all ANY artist wants is to be taken seriously. How would it be to live defined by the relationships you’ve had and not your craft?

Isn’t that kind of sad, though? Isn’t it upsetting that she’s the only artist this seemingly happens to? Maybe it’s just me, but if I was proud of an album or a single and spent time around my peers and people I admired and was merely seen as “that girl who dates people and then writes about her break-ups,” I’d get pretty upset and depressed pretty fast. It’s a testament to Taylor as an artist that she has yet to let the media’s perception of her break her spirit.

“Ugh, Taylor Swift is SO annoying. All she writes are kitschy pop radio hits. She doesn’t write anything of substance. Not like Adele.”

(I’ll never understand why people find Taylor Swift annoying or grating or always compare her to Adele but look, the point of this article isn’t to make you love her. I understand the irrational anger that we can often feel at people for no reason. Again: the point of this piece isn’t to make you fall in love with Taylor as an artist or a person, but I hope you gain at least a tad bit of respect for her in the process. And no, Adele and Taylor Swift are nothing alike. Neither are Hunter Hayes and Miley Cyrus, both of whom are also the same age.)

As a companion to the earlier qualm that I often hear regarding Taylor Swift, I also usually hear people begrudge her radio hit singles. They define her by what top 40 radio plays, which is understandable since that is all they know of her unless they buy her albums, but it’s also quite an unfair assessment, not just for Taylor Swift but any artist. For instance, merely by listening to the radio, one would presume that Katy Perry’s albums solely consist of kitschy, bubblegum pop tracks. And while a great number of those songs DO exist on her albums, there are also tracks like “By The Grace of God” from her latest album PRISM. If you haven’t listened to this particular song yet and are on the fence about how you feel regarding Katy Perry, I suggest you rush to Spotify to listen. It’s a track that is beautiful, gut-wrenching, and painful. It’s one of those tracks where you can feel the artist’s soul pouring forth from it. Additionally, check out “Thinking of You” from her One of the Boys album – it’s gorgeous as well. In case you didn’t notice, neither of those tracks were radio hit singles. And it’s a shame because people define Katy Perry and Taylor Swift by what they hear on the radio.

Taylor’s 2013 singles were “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “22.” Actually, let me rephrase that: her top 40, pop radio singles were those tracks (in addition to the duet number from Red with Ed Sheeran). Now, if you’re actually a fan of country music, you’ll notice that “Red” and “Begin Again” were also singles last year, but were not – at least not where I live – played on the pop stations. It’s a shame because I know everyone judged Taylor on the first single from Red, which was “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” They rolled their eyes in disgust and mocked the lyrics of the song. They did the same with “22” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.”

Now, if you happen to have been a country fan who heard “Red” and “Begin Again,” you’ll know that these tracks are so different from the other three that it’s almost as if you’re listening to a different artist altogether. These two are more mellow, subdued, and filled with a lot of brilliant imagery. I don’t blame the top 40 radio stations for playing the three aforementioned tracks, of course. They all have catchy beats, lyrics, and are the kind of songs the stations can play on repeat until the entire listening area becomes sick of them. They’re pop songs, no doubt, but that’s not all Red contains.

Red contains “All Too Well,” also. If you watched the Grammys this year, you’ll recall that this is the song Taylor Swift performed. It’s not one of her singles and I doubt it ever will be. For those who aren’t fans of Taylor Swift and are reading this, here is what you need to know: “All Too Well” is a fan favorite. It is a song that Taylor performs in concert but that she has never – until the Grammys – performed outside of a tour before. It’s an intensely personal, heartbreaking, gorgeous song that is, in my opinion, the best song she has ever written. Every image is crisp and every line is relatable (“you call me up again just to break me like a promise” and “we’re dancing ‘round the kitchen in the refrigerator light” get me every time). It’s a story-song but it’s more than that. It’s… it’s as if we are looking into a Pensieve of Taylor’s life. It feels intensely personal and almost invasive that she shares these memories with us and the heartbreak that accompanies them. She could have performed “22.” She could have staged another brilliant performance of “I Knew You Were Trouble.” That would have been easy. Safe, even.

Instead, Taylor Swift took the most personal song she’s written and performed it for the very first time in front of millions of people, not for herself or her own personal benefit but because her FANS would appreciate it. And since non-fans did not and could not know the importance of that moment, they decided to poke fun of her head banging (which she does on tour and is more epic when she has long hair, trust me) and vocal performance. Again: I don’t blame people for making fun of Taylor Swift. I’m not telling you that you’re a horrible human being for disliking her. I just wish, in my heart of hearts, that people knew more about her – more about the background of her work and the extent of her albums – before they judged.

i'd like to be my old self again,
but i'm still trying to find it

“Why can’t Taylor Swift just grow up already?”

So what most of the complaints I’ve ever heard regarding Taylor Swift boil down to are this: people believe her to be immature. Does she always handle herself responsibly and tactfully? Well, no. I won’t argue that she does because I’d be lying. Do I think she’s always childish or petty? No. I think she’s honest. I think that she writes what she knows because it’s the only way she’s learned how to process her emotions. Think about it this way: she’s been in the spotlight, writing and singing about love and her life since before she was fifteen years old. When you’re a writer – be it songwriter or poet or novelist or blogger – you write in order to process how you feel. You write because that is the ONLY way you can process how you feel. And you write, often, for yourself. What is so beautiful about Taylor Swift and why she has so many fans and is, in my opinion, an amazing writer is because she manages to take personal experiences and relationships and translate them not to hit singles but to honest, universal lyrics. It’s the lines like “I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it” that stick with listeners. WE feel that way. No matter if you’re in a loving relationship, perpetually single, or something in between, the feeling embedded within that line is a universal one. So, as a young woman growing into adulthood, Taylor’s only means of processing her relationships has been through writing.

What’s the difference between me, as a writer, and Taylor Swift? Well, I do the same thing. I process my emotions and feelings and thoughts through writing. But no one (or rarely anyone) cares about or reads what I have to say. Millions upon millions of people hear Taylor Swift’s words and either dismiss them or apply them to their life somehow. So how can I possibly blame someone for writing about her love life when that is literally all she has ever known how to do? I’m also curious of what people mean when they insinuate that Taylor Swift needs to “grow up.” Do they mean that she needs to stop dating famous people? Well, okay. She can date non-famous people and write about them but… let’s be honest here: you wouldn’t find that NEARLY as intriguing, now would you? She could stop writing about relationships and love and break-ups altogether, I suppose, but then she’d just stop writing. And, by that logic, the only songs that would play – on loop – on the radio these days would be “Royals” and “Brave.” Forget “Roar,” (yeah, that song is a break-up anthem guys) forget “XOXO,” forget “Young Girls” and every Adele song still playing. If we banned every artist from writing about love and break-ups and heartache, we would have very little left to listen to at all.

I understand, like I said, that people don’t emotionally connect with Taylor Swift. I’m not insinuating that you’re wrong if you don’t connect to her lyrics on love and romance. But to suggest that she somehow needs to “grow up” or write about these topics in another way is… well, it’s asinine. No one tells Justin Timberlake or Katy Perry how they should write their songs nearly as aggressively as they do with Taylor Swift. Again: you don’t have to LIKE her, but I wonder what would happen if people began to recognize her as an actual artist with actual talent (lyrically… again, I won’t pretend she’s the greatest singer in the world but she has definitely improved).

What would happen would be that it wouldn’t become “cool” to hate Taylor Swift anymore. Oh, be honest: it’s something that IS – at the moment – cool to do. You feel like you’re of a slightly higher caliber than those (see: me) who adore the singer. You’re more evolved. You have better taste. You can make quick-witted retorts about her singing or her hair flipping on Twitter. You can snark and sass and you know what? I don’t blame you. I blame our culture. And I blame me, because I “hate-watch” things on a weekly basis and have series that I snark at. It’s a part of our culture, really – you automatically find that you become cooler if you hate certain things that the majority of the population also hates. And Taylor Swift just so happens to rank among those easily “hate-watch” targets, on equal footing with the Kardashians and Glee. I suppose the topic of why our culture is so obsessed with taking pride in hating things is a blog post for another day, but I will say this: how bad is Taylor Swift… really?

In 2013, the singer was ranked among the most charitable celebrities of the year. She donates millions of her earnings to deserving organizations. And yet, the most “scandalous” thing about Taylor Swift is… what? Her relationships? If THAT is the most terrible accusation one can make about her character, I have to laugh. She hasn’t had a DUI. She’s never been arrested or busted for drugs. She’s never spit on fans or gotten into a physical altercation in public. She’s… well, she’s actually miles ahead of most of the celebrities her own age, don’t you think? She lived with her parents until a few years ago. She has a kitten. She enjoys baking and vintage-shopping. She’s – minus the stardom – a relatively NORMAL individual. I guess, for me, I’m always more baffled by the hatred of Taylor Swift than anything else. Is she not a better role model for young people than Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus? (I suppose only you can answer that question but personally I’d argue that she is.)

I guess that the point I’ve hopefully made throughout this post is this: I respect Taylor Swift. Heck, I admire her. If people consistently made me the butt of their jokes and shot me terrible messages on Twitter, I’d be crying in a corner. Instead, this young woman decides to continue to live her life and write from where she has always written – her soul – and hold nothing back in the process. She’s honest when it’s not easy; she’s fearless when it would make more sense to hide and cry. She holds her head high and though she’s not perfect, the fact that she continues to write honestly and write boldly is something to be admired, don’t you think?


  1. First off, great article and great defense.

    I am someone who fluctuates between loving Taylor Swift and rolling my eyes at her. I can't help it. For the longest time, I couldn't pinpoint why it was this way, because there are some songs that I hear from her that automatically put me in a better mood (Love Story) and then there are some songs that automatically irritate me (Innocent).

    And while I was reading your article I got a better feeling about why Taylor Swift is so hard to pinpoint for me. You're right; she's not a bad person, I don't think-- she doesn't get entangled in scandal as so many other celebrities easily do.

    I think this is the problem that is causing all the symptoms: writing about breakups is great. Taylor Swift is a brilliant songwriter (so casually cruel in the name of being honest, etc). But I think my problem--and it's not necessarily something Taylor Swift should or could even fix--is that, while it's easy to identify with songs like "You Belong With Me," it's much harder to identify with a song like "Dear John," and... I think it bothers me that she gets so specific with her songs, because it removes the audience from the song and makes it hard for the audience to connect to the song. "You keep my old scarf from the very first week, 'cause it reminds you of innocence and smells like me" is a line that always irked me. It's great that Taylor Swift expresses herself so rawly in her music, but... oh, I wish there was a better way to say this--but it feels selfish or opportunistic to write her songs so specifically about her life. She is asking for the audience to analyze and understand who it is she's talking about. She's the one that, in her lyric books, hides messages so people can know which ex she is talking about. While other celebrities get their fame by really stupid things, Taylor pounces on the opportunity to make her music all about her, because she knows that SHE is marketable and will make more money this way.

    Is it fair for me to make this assessment, or to insinuate that Taylor should make her music more open to her audience? Maybe not, but it is my opinion on what has been bothering me about Taylor Swift for so long. She makes her relationships feel like a marketing machine, not a personal experience.

    I hope this came across the right way. It probably didn't. But I wanted to comment because I've been wondering about the mystery of Taylor Swift and why I am so back-and-forth on her and your article helped identify what exactly it was that got to me. I'll always be in the back-and-forth with Taylor but at least I know why, right?

    1. Thank you for your well-thought and honest comment to the article. First of all, thank you for reading and putting your thoughts so succinctly into words. I've never actually thought of your remark -- the oddly specific way that she writes and integrates details that aren't universal could, in fact, alienate people from her as an artist. It's an intriguing concept to think about: do you broaden your lyrics in order to be more relevant to everyone instead of specific to you ("I wore a dress, you wore a dark grey t-shirt" for example)? I think it's definitely something everyone struggles with. And I understand the notion that yes, her songs are more like pages from a diary sometimes than anything else. I've actually never thought about this being a potential reason people are turned off to her as an artist (those specific metaphors and images that aren't relatable to anyone besides her) so you've given me food for thought. But if that is the case, is it just not as noticeable in every other artist? (i.e. Macklemore just released a single called "White Walls" which is a very specific song about the first car he purchased when he came into money.)

      I definitely think you're right and I think the argument is probably more along these lines: people don't notice those oddly specific metaphors or images when they're in pop-techno-dance-ish songs. They recognize them a lot more, it seems, in a break-up or love song. It's food for thought and something really interesting.

      Thanks so much for your comment and for reading!

    2. Okay I understand what you're saying, but I have to argue that Taylor isn't doing any of that because it makes her more marketable. Actually hidden messages and specific references makes you LESS marketable to the mass public (see: Community or Fringe). I would bet Taylor Swift never went out purposely trying to write hit songs because those songs would be false and would've flopped in the long run. She's still around writing hit albums, so clearly her work is sustainable. Her aim can’t be to market herself. Not directly. She wants to write hit songs, that’s true. That's why she's always striving to improve. It's why she studies music and language so intensely and why she's always experimenting with new ways to write songs. If she just wanted to be a marketable success, she would've stuck to writing basic, cute country songs like she did when she was fifteen. Instead she dared to let her lyrics grow up with her. She dared to cross genres, and still continually mixes genres of songs on her albums. That's also not considered a marketable move in any media industry. Producers, publishers, and marketing departments want clearly defined labels to advertise, and yet she still blurs the lines, no effs given.

      So why does Taylor do this if she isn't trying to market herself? Well, you nailed it on the head, she's asking for people to understand her. Every hidden message, every line that's written very specifically rather than in a glossed over, generic way is her way of putting herself out there hoping for a connection. Taylor Swift is a writer first and foremost. She just also understands music so she writes songs rather than books. Writers are inherently selfish (oh yes) because they believe they have stories inside them worth telling to other people. But not only that, they believe they have stories about themselves that are worth telling people. They don't just want to share stories, they want to share themselves. In fact, they believe they need to share themselves with other people. They believe other people need to hear their stories. They write because it's a compulsion, and they write honestly because it's the only kind of writing worth anything to them. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, see Dan Harmon who transparently broadcasts this need in every interview he does.)

      This is the kind of writer Taylor Swift is. Admittedly, I am judging that solely by her writing progress as demonstrated by her albums. I have watched no interviews with her, seen very little quotes from her, never seen a concert, and I don't even know what those hidden messages in her liner notes are (Red was the first physical album I bought. The others are MP3 albums). But I own each of her albums and have listened to them all obsessively and Red is far and away the best compilation she has ever done, and I have to agree with Jenn up there that "All too Well" is her current masterpiece. The specificity that you dislike in it was written to be honest. And it's the honesty that makes her universal and will make her timeless. Generic lyrics and stories don't stand up. They only survive as fads. Depth and heart and honesty last.

      So it's fine that you don't like Taylor Swift's lyrics. But don't mistake them as marketing ploys or money-making schemes. That's not what they are at all. They're her way of reaching out to people in the hopes that they'll understand her because she needs to be understood. That people enjoy the songs enough to make them Top 40 hits is a bonus. Success fuels her, yes. The dream of success is what pushed her to share her songs so publicly. But it’s her obsessive need to be understood that's the real factor behind her writing. That's what truly drives her. Is it any less grating than believing it's all for a marketing ploy? Maybe not. Like I said, writers are selfish, and sometimes that's grating. But at least it's not a lie or a front. It's simply the truth, it's who she is.

  2. Geez all this behind-the-scenes stuff about Taylor Swift is making me want to cry. I tend to stay out of celebrities personal lives and that ends up extending to avoiding interviews with them because I either get embarrassed by the questions or I get nervous about seeing the celeb outside of the context I'm used to (I'm so weird! LOL). Your write-up is great! I absolutely adore the writing she does in her lyrics, and I've actually been including more concrete details to show instead of tell in my own writing now because of Taylor's songs. I'm just in awe of her and respect her talents so much. So I'm thrilled that not only do you love her too (which I already knew), but that you took the time to write out this defense of her. So so happy to see it! Thank you, Jenn! :D

    And now I'm off to see if this Grammy performance is on YouTube, because I just about cried to "All too Well" on the drive home from work. I can only imagine what a live performance of the song is going to do to me. XD

  3. I love Taylor Swift! Thank you for being so patient as to type out arguments in defense of our queen!