In 2005, a young girl from Pennsylvania signed a record deal with a fledgling record company in Nashville. Everyone knew she would be big: she had the right look, the good country girl image, and of course the natural songwriting talent to take her to the top.
Looking back, however, people probably also didn’t realize what it would take for her to get there. Taylor Swift has done the unimaginable in the field of popstardom: surviving both musical and image transformation while battling online bullying, sexism, legal issues, and countless controversies. Despite these, Taylor rose through it all like a phoenix reborn. In this feature, we will see why Taylor Swift is, unironically, called “The Music Industry,” and deservedly so.
The release of Taylor’s eponymous album in 2006 signalled the beginning of her illustrious music career. Taking influence from country, pop, and rock, the album was a solid first entry, producing top singles like “Tim McGraw” and “Teardrops on My Guitar.” More than the radio-friendly songs and her squeaky clean white girl from the South sensibilities, it was Taylor’s thematic storytelling that made her a smash success with the public. Her stories of love and heartbreak are relatable to the public, and she will continue to use this songwriting style until her latest albums.
Taylor continued proving her crossover appeal by releasing her next (and first #1) album, Fearless. 2008 was a marquee year for Swift, culminating in Grammy wins, including the coveted Album of the Year award at the event, as well as getting more recognition for her songwriting. Songs like “Fifteen,” “Love Story,” White Horse,” and “You Belong With Me,” not only dominated charts and radio airplay, but became anthems of a generation. This rare ability to write a song that an entire generation can identify with is a rare ability among artists, especially for someone who is still in her teens.
The Price of Stardom
Swift’s rise from promising country artist to mainstream popstar created the usual concerns that popularity brings. Her songwriting, for instance, before seen as an artistic response to heartbreak, started to undergo scrutiny from critics and haters alike. Her personal life was also put under a microscope, specifically her dating history with famous public figures, igniting sexist and misogynistic remarks that eventually entered the annals of meme culture. Truly, we have all heard the comment that Taylor uses her failed romances to write songs.
One major controversy that created fire in social media in 2009 was Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor’s acceptance speech at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards. While West was widely criticized for his behaviour (and in fact apologized for the incident), the experience was enough for Swift to write a song about the incident on her next album.
Speak Now was released in 2010, bringing with it Taylor’s recurring songwriting themes of love and heartbreak, but with more mature and introspective lyrics. Swift mentioned that each song in the album was a “letter” directed to someone in particular (it was widely theorized that “Innocent” is directed to Kanye, for instance). Top songs from this album include chart toppers like “Mine” and “Back to December.” While overall still, sonically, a country album, her instrumentation started to include more electric guitars and other instruments used more frequently in rock music. This trend will continue in her next album.
Painting the town RED
Taylor Swift wrote Red while touring, and as with her other albums, several of the songs were inspired by unsuccessful relationships. To this point, Red was her most prolific album, not only in number of songs but in terms of overall production. Swift started to incorporate more synthesizers and drums in her repertoire, and have collaborated with many different producers to produce an experimental sound that was totally hers. Red was also the first time that, arguably, Taylor Swift wrote more pop songs than country. The question of whether she was still a country singer will be answered in her next album, but for the meantime, the sonically sprawling album was rich with modern instrumentation that was both catchy and unique.
The songwriting in Red was by far Taylor’s most intimate, touching on deeper themes than just mere heartbreak, like attraction, betrayal, and even sex (the name of the album might not be just pertaining simply to the colour). The name is also interesting in that the album’s themes bear a striking resemblance to Canadian legend Joni Mitchell, who wrote the album Blue forty years prior. Taylor mentioned that Joni Mitchell inspired her songwriting for Red, which shows in her songs. “Red,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Treacherous,” 22,” “We Are Never Ever Going Back Together,” “State of Grace,” “Begin Again, and “Everything Has Changed” are all amazing songs in their own right.
However, it is the first song written for the album that became the fan favourite, and was a favourite of Taylor’s as well. The power ballad “All Too Well” was an exercise in master storytelling, using the notorious “red scarf” as a Chekhov’s gun. Each stanza leads to a crescendo of additional music layers and ends with a satisfying lyrical denouement. Unsurprisingly, the song is widely considered to be Taylor’s magnum opus and has been cited by fans and critics alike as the best song she has ever written. Not bad. But she isn’t done yet.
No Country for Old Taylor
The commercial success of Red affirmed what everyone of us already knew since day one: Taylor Swift was destined to be a popstar all along. While she can perfectly fit a niche and can do it excellently, it is clear that Swift’s musical genius, open mindedness, and flair for marketing and forming connections in the industry will lead her to be more than just the next country-pop crossover.
Never has been this more proven than with the release of 1989. The synth-pop inspired album used synthesizers, programmed drums and processed vocals even more than its predecessors. Lyrically, Swift continues her songwriting trademark by writing about relationships and heartbreak, but on a less intimate scale than her previous albums. It also inspired several “clapback” songs that are addressed to critics, like “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space.”
1989 turned out to be an even more commercial and critical success, winning Best Pop Vocal Album and Album of the Year at the Grammys. This made Swift the only female artist at that point to win the major award twice. The singles that the album spawned also featured her most creative music videos yet, including the ones for “Style,” “Wildest Dreams,” “Out of the Woods,” and “Bad Blood.” It was clear that Taylor is hitting her peak, and if one would make a guess in 2015, surely they would say that she can only go up from there. We were all wrong, though.
Hiatus and the Death of Old Taylor
The higher you go, the harder you fall, as they say.
Taylor Swift’s 1989 era was the peak of both her commercial and critical success. While it is not uncommon for artists to pander for more sales or tighten their craft to win awards for musical artistry, Taylor was able to achieve both with 1989 without sacrificing either. Both the public and the musical critics were finally giving her the respect and admiration she deserves.
However, this level of fame also made her much more visible; with Taylor now cutting into the pie of every main pop girl in the scene, it was not uncommon around that time to see random hate tweets or posts about her from rival fandoms and petty haters. That and her widely publicized romances and feuds eventually turned the tide against Swift, and unlike before, she no longer has the mantle of the likeable and sweet and innocent country girl, shedding it in favor for the glitz and glamorous coat of popstardom. She was “exposed,” but not for the right reasons.
Now, we know that Taylor was the victim all along with all the unfair and thoroughly undeserved hate; before however, we didn’t have the privilege of hindsight. Taylor was an easy and popular target; it was “in” to hate her, and so people did. She only had her fans, but the public was no longer so adoring. And so Taylor did the only thing she could. She disappeared.
Look what you made Taylor do
For one year, Taylor left social media. Not even us fans knew what she was doing or what she was up to (if she was even up to anything). However, Taylor came up with the biggest comeback ever in pop history, both musically and personally.
Reputation was released in 2017 without any fanfare, as Swift did not do any promotions for the album. It was Taylor’s starkest musical departure yet, with much heavier and darker themes in her lyrics and a more “urban” sound, infused with elements of electro pop and R&B. While it topped charts as you might expect with Taylor, it is a sonically and lyrically confusing album, birthing her worst single yet in “Look What You Made Me Do.” The overarching thread of hate in most of her songs in the album did give room for some standout finely crafted tracks like “Delicate,” “Gorgeous,” and “Getaway Car.” Truly, Reputation was a fine album in itself, but it was more of a statement, like Red. Swift made her point; she was on top once more and the world listened, which was half the battle in the first place.
Taylor’s real victory for Reputation was not its success: it was her ability to renew her image after all the controversies that plagued her while writing it. Swift entered a period of humble introspection after this period, and with her personal life starting to get in a balance, the real strength of her songwriting started to emerge. Her next album, Lover, marketed as a “love letter to love itself,” was a 180 thematically from her previous one. Featuring much lighter and more romantic pop songs, it was a much easier listen and reinforced her image of a likeable popstar.
It is also important to note that Lover was the first album wherein Taylor freely expressed her political opinions. Featuring songs like “You Need to Calm Down” and “The Man,” Swift outed herself as a staunch ally of the LGBT community and promoter of the women’s equal rights movement. She was widely criticized for not expressing opinions on these hot button topics, and it was an opportune time to incorporate these themes in the songwriting for the album. The move garnered her even more popularity, and it is obvious that the controversies of the mid 2010s were all behind her.
Extrospection: Taylor’s Real Songcraft
With her personal life not causing her any more problems, and more importantly, finding the right man that she could even write songs with, Taylor’s world’s the oyster. She has already shown in the past fifteen or so years that she can write a song from her own experiences in a heartbeat. What came next was an experiment that explored writing stories about others, and it was without a doubt her strongest piece of songwriting ever produced.
folklore was a “surprise” that no one saw coming. The alternative folk album was written in quarantine during the pandemic, and featured more stripped down production and instrumentation. Lyrically, it is a diverse album, with each song corresponding to a mini story (hence “folklore”). Widely considered among critics and fans alike as her strongest songwriting yet, Taylor proved once again that she can not only write from personal heartbreak, but turn the lived experiences of others into pure art. She followed folklore with a similarly themed album, evermore, which featured even more stories that inspired Swift in the past year. Standout tracks from these two sister albums are too many to list, but my personal favorites include “Exile”, “My Tears Ricochet”, “August”, “Betty”, “Happiness”, “Champagne Problems”, “Ivy”, and “Cowboy Like Me”. Both pandemic albums garnered critical success, with folklore winning Album of the Year in the 63rd Grammy Awards (making Swift the most awarded female artist ever in this category), and evermore being nominated the year after.
Taking Back the Heartbeat
While her songwriting is enough of a contribution to say that Taylor has changed the music industry, Swift has actually done more for other musicians and music in general. She is an active campaigner for higher wages, and made it a condition when her music was released in Apple Music that artists get a higher share of the royalties.
Ironically, it was a legal battle with her formal label that potentially made Taylor a pioneer and trailblazer for all musicians everywhere. When Big Machine Records took ownership of her masters (the original recordings of all her first five albums), it meant that she couldn’t take full control of the use of her music. The record company also did not allow her to buy her rights back. In response, Taylor re-recorded all of her older music, creating new “masters” in the process and virtually making the masters her old record company possessed useless. Fearless and Red both were reborn into Taylor’s Versions complete with additional tracks, cementing Taylor’s creative and financial control of her music for years to come.
“Get a good lawyer!” was Taylor’s only advice to aspiring artists who want to get recording contracts, and as someone who learned the hard way, she became an advisor and advocate to fellow artists like Selena Gomez and Olivia Rodrigo, the latter of which owns the rights to her own masters because of Swift’s influence. Truly, the impact of Taylor’s contribution to music cannot only be felt artistically, but on the practical level as well.
The Music Industry
For the record, Taylor Swift is not the most famous musician of all time. There are better instrumentalists and better singers. There are artists who sold more albums, had more #1 hits, and had more critically received songs. She is by no means the most followed on social media and in fact probably has a smaller fan base compared to her “poppier” counterparts. But the overall allure of Taylor is her authenticity.
Few artists, if any, had the ability to transform themselves and remain to be themselves, just a better version of one. The relatability of her songwriting became her trademark, the single connecting invisible string in all her music. As someone who grew up with her and listening to her, it is fascinating to observe how she evolved as an artist and as a person, starting as that nice country girl and now becoming a bonafide popstar and top songstress who owns her musical business empire. It is the combination of talent, realness, and business savvy that makes Taylor Swift such a rare artist. And with her endless creativity and flair for experimentation, it is exciting to see what this thirtysomething girl who started at Fifteen and became 22 can do in the years to come. After all, she comes back stronger than a nineties trend every single time.
Jay-ar G. Paloma
Jay-ar G. Paloma is an HR executive by day and a frustrated artist by night. Jay-ar likes to read and write fiction and opinion pieces relating to LGBTQ, social media, and culture. When not engrossed in a book, he is probably playing a tune on his guitar or keyboard. Leave your love notes to Jay-ar here: firstname.lastname@example.org.