The Taylor Swift Anomaly
I’ve been listening to Taylor Swift a long time now and it is difficult to be objective when I write about her. She’s grown with her 6 albums and has become as whole an individual as can be with the spotlight, the endless articles, the fans and the hate.
I started to really listen to her songs during her second album, Fearless where she wrote seven of the tracks herself compared to three on her first album. She co-produced it and the first single, ‘Love Story’ was a hit selling 8 million copies worldwide. It also earned her first Album of the Year at the Grammy’s. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know all of this then nor did I understand the enormity of it. From all the songs on this album, I didn’t even like ‘Love Story’ all that much. But the other songs remain with me even now, forming an intrinsic part of how I felt during my childhood – Breathe is lyrically beautiful (‘people like people but sometimes we change our minds’) and it made me think about a best friend I had lost because of a silly misunderstanding. To this day, I hear it and think about how I’ve still not managed to get back to normal with her. The Best Day (‘I love you for giving me your eyes, staying back and watching me shine’) is about Taylor’s mother and the song is so heartfelt, it makes me cry every single time I hear it. After listening to this one, I wipe my tears and my guilt and call my mother up immediately. White Horse, Tell me why and You’re not sorry are very similar in terms of heartbreak for me. It’s very clear that this is an emotionally abusive relationship she is singing about with multiple issues – secrets, the push and pull the boy plays as well as cheating. All problems you can definitely relate to and Taylor clearly has very black and white rules about it. We all felt strongly about it then – Taylor and I were still growing up.
Speak Now was her third album and in my opinion, her last album where she displays innocence – about love, the critics, the press and the fame. Dear John and Innocent were obvious songs written about John Mayer and Kanye West who had done things to her that neither they nor the world was very proud of. Back to December is the first time Taylor displays remorse – a complete acceptance, a swallowing of pride and an acknowledgement that she was wrong and she doesn’t know how to make it right. Mine, Sparks Fly and Ours are all songs that signify an ‘us against the world’ scenario – all at a time when your parents and society do not seem to understand your choices and you really don’t want to explain. You can see early signs of the shrewd business woman coming in here – because there was a criticism that nearly every song in her previous albums had a co-writer and so she decided to write this entire album herself. Yet the song ‘Never Grow Up’ describes the reluctance of being alone, independent, moving out and making decisions. Her pain of heartbreak and refreshing vulnerability was really displayed in two of the songs – Last Kiss and If this was a movie – an emotion that gets far more mature in her next album, Red. Despite ‘Mean’ being a ‘why are you picking on me?’ song, it still manages to be endearing but it’s ‘Better than Revenge’ that displays for the first time Taylor’s pettiness – this song made her more human to me. I understood, early on that these were diary entries and this song particularly was when she was consumed with hate that another girl had just walked right in and taken away someone she was with. It also shows how Taylor isn’t just singing – the hate really blares through and the line ‘Do you still feel like you know what you’re doing. I don’t think you do. Let’s hear the applause. Show me much how better you are’ displays a large amount of confidence that borders on pride and glee at another’s downfall. It’s another theme that comes up more than once in her later albums.
RED – this is and will always probably be – my favorite album of hers. It is probably her most intense, vivid and perceptive album till date in all its messy complexity. It’s the album that was the soundtrack to my life at that point. Though the other albums are probably more sonically cohesive, Red captures falling in and out of love with both elation and anguish and though the songs are extreme in its pain and power, it is not something to be taken lightly. Love like that can ripple across your life and you can feel those emotions even now – just like these songs can take you back to that moment just as easily. The songs that went on to become hits – We are never ever ever getting back together, 22, Everything has changed, Begin Again, I Knew you were trouble – are not the standouts on this album. ‘All Too Well’ by itself makes this album a stunner – this song will probably be the best songwriting I have ever experienced – it brings together memories in a series of flashbacks – a love that you can remember every moment of and regret how it ended forever. The way the memory of him curdles in her mind during the bridge is masterful and the line – ‘you call me up again just to break me like a promise. So casually cruel in the name of being honest’ tugs at heartstrings you never knew existed. ‘I Almost do’ and Treacherous are two other songs that talks about battles of the heart at two very different points in a relationship. Treacherous is just the beginning of a romance – a forbidden one where every single fiber of your being is telling you to not walk into but you do it because the pull is so strong and you’re willing to put yourself through anything to experience it. I Almost Do, on the other hand, is after the relationship is over – when you’re fighting another battle for self-control – to act nonchalant but inside, you despair and you wonder if he feels just about the same kind of crazy you do. ‘Sad, Beautiful, Tragic’ is a sort of resignation, a laying down of arms, a kind of defeat within yourself admitting that there is nothing more that can be done. I think this was her only album that she cried while working on.
1989 is her first self proclaimed pop album – I see a complete change in her writing material here. There is nothing dramatic about this album – this is a carefully thought out, award winning production that displays what Swift has learnt from her last 4 albums. It’s also coming out during a time when a section of the media has started to take jabs at her – she dates too many people, she’s clingy, she dates men and leaves so she can write songs about them, she looks too surprised when she wins at award shows, she can’t dance – the list is endless. She’s in her mid twenties and she has started to get defensive – about her personal life, her art and her privacy. Shake it Off and Blank Space is her telling the media that she is reading everything they say but she has the ability to turn around and play up exactly what they want with a mocking, all knowing smile. Taylor has finally come into her own – she has become a company herself and she makes a lot of decisions a lot more independently. For example, the fact that most of the songs are about herself and not a relationship, that she didn’t put a single country song in there, she decided that album’s cover would be a polaroid of half her face, the album title would be her birth year 1989 and the Secret Sessions that made her play the entire album to a select few fans at her houses across the country. This is also the first time that Swift is confident enough to talk about another equally popular star, Katy Perry in Bad Blood. Though Swift didn’t name her, she seemed to know exactly the kind furor and publicity it would create. She cheekily named a song ‘Style’, clearly referencing Harry Styles, a former boyfriend. By now, I was perfectly aware that Taylor was in control or atleast, to the world she looked perfectly at ease with how to play the media. There was not a boy in sight during the release and promotion making it clear that Swift was willing to put her love life on hold to ensure it doesn’t take away from the success of her work.
During the tour, she started dating Calvin Harris. The fans and media were also told that she was going to take a break and we didn’t begrudge her that. She was happy and in a steady relationship which was good enough for us considering the kind of crap deal she used to get with other men. Suddenly, they broke up and Taylor did the most strangest thing by moving on to Tom Hiddleston. I still didn’t waver – Tom was lovely and Calvin already started to seem like a jerk with the public bashing.
Then the Kanye West thing came out. Suddenly, her life was spiraling out of control. The media frenzy was insane and I couldn’t read about anything else on my newsfeed. I had to admit, things looked bad and Taylor had probably realized the perils of fame in its true sense then. Her retreat from the spotlight was so absolute that I wasn’t surprised. After all that, I doubt I would want to face the public ever again.
But she did – slowly and in her own time. From being called a snake to finally owning it. From being passive aggressive to finally going all out in bold letters saying ‘I WANT TO BE PETTY’ in this sixth album, Reputation, she has become a different person from the one who sang Tim McGraw. This album has been therapeutic for her. She is no longer innocent and emotional. She is now brave, understands the hate in the world, even recognizes it in herself and this album just shows how much. She still falls in love but now it isn’t with abandon. She is careful about it – she is very aware of her life and its difficulties and she needs and has finally found someone that gets it and still wants to stay. She decides what she puts out on social media, she doesn’t give interviews, she finally knows who her friends are and she is more than aware of what everyone else is saying. She decides when and if she wants to speak out about politics, feminism, charity and her girl squad. She doesn’t feel the need to defend or display anymore – whether it is about her tickets for her tour or her romance.
Despite her change and her mistakes, she is still grateful. She still understands how important her fans are and she knows this strength to go on comes from them. She didn’t succumb to ‘going crazy’ or ‘going sexy’ or ‘twerking’. She knows there will always be a section of hate but her transition from ‘why me?’ to ‘I hate you just as much’ to ‘Watch me shine suckers’ is complete.