Growing Up With Taylor
It’s about hour 14 into my Taylor Swift jam session when I realize I might have a problem. See, my old phone only has 8 GB of precious storage space, and I, ever the tasteful music fan, have filled that data space with every single Swift song. Ever.
Swifties, they call us. We’re not all white teenage girls! Every fan has a different origin story, whether they started in her country phase or jumped on the moment “I Knew You Were Trouble” hit the radio. For me, it was in my 7th-grade technology class when I downloaded my first Swift song, “You Belong With Me,” and from then on I was hooked. Taylor Swift grew up with me, singing songs about high school and romance (“Fifteen”), stardom and romance (“The Lucky One”), and then cats and romance (“Gorgeous”). For a long time I followed her catchy tunes just because I thought that she was pretty and because everyone else seemed to like her. Also, I couldn’t get her music out of my head.
But this is the Reputation era. “Old” Taylor has been cast aside in the name of something new, so it’s time for me to come to terms with my blind adoration—if not for my own sake, then for the sake of all who might strangle me if I whistle “Blank Space” in their presence one more time.
Being a Taylor Swift fan is not hard. Her music is palatable even for the haters due to her wonderfully infuriating talent of meshing lyrics, a polished sound, and that earworm that never leaves. She has gone through almost every musical genre, so there’s a lot to pick from. For many people, being a Taylor fan has very little to do with her music and everything to do with her image—one could say her strongest asset is her reputation (see what I did there?). Her brand puts her out there on a deeply personal level, for better or worse—she is essentially the anti-Sia, curated on approachability rather than mystique. Taylor is the popular girl and the girl-next-door; she ruled social media before social media was cool (MySpace, anyone?). Nowadays, stories of handpicked fans whisked off to listening parties, of Tumblr and Instagram, offer an image of a star deeply devoted to those who support her. She’s even inspired a trending hashtag, #Taylurking, after some near-obsessive stalking of her social media supporters. She is her fans’ biggest fan.
And while this intimacy makes her fans all the more dedicated, it can also seem very exclusionary to some. Ever since Swift dropped Reputation, she’s been dissected, as she always is, by the media. Taylor Swift is possibly the most controversial musical celebrity right now, right up there with Michael Jackson, and ironically, Kanye West—people whose personal lives have overshadowed their music. She sings in “End Game,” “Oooh, you and me, we’ve got big reputations.” Her name conjures arguments about white feminism, political ambivalence, of snakes both real and imagined. People have told me she says too much or too little. Her image is just a little too curated, her opinion of the music industry just a little too selfish. Remember when she made a big ruckus by choosing not to stream her music on Spotify, then also not on Apple Music? The fact that she selectively chooses to talk a lot about some things and refuses to comment on others is infuriating to her critics. “She’s just too angry, and all about the wrong things,” said my friend.
Hailing from the land of stars (re: L.A.), I have seen celebrities watering their front lawns in their underwear. So it’s particularly hard for me to distinguish between the personal and the public persona, especially for someone like Taylor, whose success has stemmed from the blurring of both. I ask myself, are her intimate thoughts about <insert topic here> my right to know? Is she a bad person for the things she’s said or the things she’s failed to do? Cynics say she seems to only be passionate about the things that will make her more commercially successful. And this brings up a bigger question, one that has been duked out across the internet over the past decade: What do famous people owe us besides the things that make them famous?
The need for celebrities, for symbols of adoration, for gladiators in ancient Rome and movie stars of the Silent Era, has existed since the beginning of time. For my dad, it was Sinead O’Connor and the cultural revolution of his youth. For me, it’s Taylor. We attach our hopes and dreams to individuals—we consume their merchandise, follow them on social media, and essentially worship these people whom we see as the modern day muses. And all we ask for in return is a true piece of themselves, their validation, or their art. It’s a two-way street.
Everyone does this. If it’s not for a musician, then it’s for an actor or a politician or a professor or even a parent. Everyone’s got a soft spot.
I have to tell myself that a lot of times, I love just the idea of Taylor Swift. Her music is catchy, her lyrics are pure escapism, and when she does present herself on social media, her on-brand quirkiness and personality align a lot with mine. When she talks to her fans, it really sounds like she’s talking just to me. Which is absolutely crazy, because I don’t know the “real” Taylor. I can piece together her relationships from tabloids or investigate drama with the fine-toothed comb of an internet detective, but the real truth is I don’t know her as a person. I just know her as a star.
Though we often conflate stardom with saviorship, celebrities do not owe us their eternal happiness or every waking thought, although many have built their brands on those exact illusions. One only has to look at Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, or any former Disney Channel star to see that the public can be savage with their expectations of living celebrities, and then turn around and say, “We never saw this coming,” during their tragic downfalls. And so Taylor has taken this album to cloister herself off from the world, instead writing and singing about how a single love is worth the drama of everything that has been thrown at her, both the deserved and the undeserved. Sometimes I wish she’d speak out more, but I understand why she chooses this silence. It’s her survival technique, built up after a lifetime of bright spotlights and misspoken missteps.
Reputation may be a surprise to some, but Taylor’s rebellious sendoff to the media/haters/“old” Taylor has been a long-time coming. Honestly, I already bought her new album. And I love it. Regardless of how others think about it, the music will be good for me because as a fan, Taylor will be singing to me, for me, and with me. Which, again, is a crazy thought, but mine nonetheless.