Taylor Swift and the Dream of Being a Whole Person

When I was in high school, nothing was more popular than hating on things girls liked. Girls read trash like Twilight and The Summer I Turned Pretty. They played with dumb Barbies. They listened to girly music like Taylor Swift, the Jonas Brothers, One Direction, and Justin Bieber.

In real life and on early social media, it was open season on all of these. Criticism tended toward the “um, actually” variety. This book or song or movie or toy is actually about sexualizing girls. This celebrity is actually a jerk, or actually has a nefarious political agenda, or doesn’t actually write her own music. Identifying artifice, layers, or dissonances (whether they were really there or not) in “girl stuff” proved that our media, games, and habits were superior. Deciding things were actually fake meant we could maintain a sense of ironic detachment.

Perhaps nothing and no one got called fake by as many people for as long as Taylor Swift. Feminist and antifeminist discourse alike found reasons for hate. Critics could denounce her for not weighing in on politics, then complain when she did, or simply dub her a “Nazi Barbie” and refuse to elaborate. For the first decade and a half of Swift’s career, the critics were insistent: this girl seems sincere and innocent, but come on now, she must have a hidden layer, something that will justify our instinctive disdain.

But in 2023, girls, at long last, were allowed to like things. The Jonas Brothers got back together, Barbie was the movie of the year, and Amazon’s adaptation of The Summer I Turned Pretty brought the book back to bestseller charts. Even Twilight is getting a TV reboot.

None of these are more back than Taylor Swift. Last year began with Swift’s Midnights dominating the billboard charts and ended with 1989 (Taylor’s Version) doing the same. In between, she launched her Eras stadium tour, featuring hits from each of her albums, going all the way back to 2006. It’s already the second-highest-grossing concert tour of all time, and is adding shows around the world at least through 2024. Meanwhile, the Eras movie grossed 50 percent more at the domestic box office on its opening weekend than the latest Transformers movie did. There has perhaps never been a more obvious choice for TIME Person of the Year. 2023 was, without a doubt, the year of Taylor Swift.

The success of the Eras tour and Swift’s re-records are all the more conspicuous for highlighting all that stuff we decided years ago was unacceptably cringe. After all these years, Taylor hasn’t changed—we just caught up to what she (and all those teen girls who listened to her first) already knew. While we obsessed over hidden layers, discerning divisions between public image and private reality, the Swifties were adopting a much more integrated view of the artist. In Swift, they could see someone whose emotions, ideas, labors, and loves composed an irreducible whole. In other words, that she was a person. And her music and performances aim for a community based on mutual recognition as similarly integrated persons.

Girl media hit new highs last year by making clear that it understood something about the contradictions—the fundamental lack of integration—that characterizes modern life. At its best, it declared that girls had all along been on the front lines, embodying these contradictions. By saying so, it articulated a break with the version of feminism that had prevailed when millennials were growing up. And, at the center of it all, Taylor Swift played with the possibility of life beyond our familiar alienations.

Our Most Literal Pop Star

There’s one thing that sets Taylor Swift apart from every other pop star: her lyrics. No music fandom cares so much about lyrics as Swifties, and no pop star actively forefronts the lyrics and does so much to invite people to read into them as Swift.

Swift famously writes or co-writes all her songs, and her songs are unusually wordy. Most top-40 hits keep the lyrics vague, or even indiscernible, relying on repetition and maybe one strong metaphor to get the point across. Not Taylor. Her songs communicate by collage, telling detail-laden stories, stitching together metaphor after metaphor, and sometimes gear-shifting into a bridge that sounds like an altogether different song but follows a mood change described in the lyrics. Swift writes her lyrics and melodies around each other, finding beats that make even lines like “I’m only cryptic and Machiavellian because I care” sound poetic.

Swift builds her music videos and live performances around her lyrics, too. For the Eras tour, she stages “Tolerate It” (which features the lyrics “I lay the table with the fancy shit / and watch you tolerate it”) around a long, fully set dinner table. For “The Man,” she dons a blazer and ascends the corporate ladder. In the music video for the extended version of “All Too Well,” the performers and even the camera angles act out the lyrics as they’re sung.

Taylor Swift is our most literal pop star. Her work is about the words, and you’re supposed to take those words at face value, no “actually”s about it. She tells you exactly what she’s doing, and it is exactly what it says it is.

In the Netflix documentary Miss Americana, Taylor says that, whenever she releases a new album, it’s “kind of like they’re reading my diary.” There is no better way to summarize a Taylor Swift album: it’s like a teenage girl’s diary, set to music. Every cliche and mixed metaphor and moment of oversharing is intensely meaningful to its author. The overwhelming majority of her songs are autobiographical. Yes, they’re about her boyfriends and breakups, but they’re also about her parents and grandparents, her record label, her life as a performer, her younger self, and her older self. Even when she writes her daydreams—as in Folklore and Evermore—they’re tinged with her memories or anecdotes she sees as echoing her own life, retold during the long stillness of COVID shutdowns.

You might not know it if you mainly associate Taylor with “Shake It Off” or “22” or “Welcome to New York,” but much of her work is desperately sad. Her lyrics are full of men who won’t propose, who won’t say they love her, who (unlike her) can keep sex casual with no consequences—men she has to answer for in every interview and every uncomfortable appearance on daytime TV. Taylor Swift is doomed. Her grand love stories turn out to be unrequited crushes. Simply being a girl seems to make her a magnet for heartbreak and haters. She isn’t politically minded enough to spin it into victimology or turn it into a lecture about patriarchy. Even in her nominally political songs, it’s clear she would rather be left alone than be proved right about anything.

Fans clearly have no problem relating to her lyrics, as specific and personal as they are. At the Eras tour, fans came in costumes illustrating a song lyric or replicating a music video outfit, and would “make the friendship bracelets” (a line from a Swift song) to hand out to each other and to concert staff. It’s the personal details from Swift’s lyrics that, paradoxically, create the broad sense of community that the New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich found in the Eras tour.

This is what certain conservative critics miss when they dismiss Swift as a “narcissist.” What drives Swiftie fandom is not the writing, but the reading of the “diary”; not Swift’s self-expression as an individual, but the sharing of herself with others.

“Taylor’s Version”

The Swiftie community, like any other, has to contend with the problem of ever-expanding market influence, which always threatens to turn personal connections into contextless commodities. Some degree of commodification is inevitable, of course. Swift’s loves and pains are available to listeners as items for sale, but the musician has made clear her discomfort with how the music industry alienates her from her music.

That’s the significance of the years-long feud with record executive Scooter Braun and re-recording of all her albums: an insistence that a person remains connected to the product of her labor even after the market takes it over, that the work she produces is somehow tied to other parts of her life. Even if the songs are legally owned by some distant corporation, they remain a part of her. Each carries the ineffaceable stamp of Swift’s emotional life and labor. Fans have embraced “Taylor’s Versions,” and it’s hard to imagine that happening with an artist whose work is less overtly personal. With Swift, it only seems fitting that creative work be rescued from the market, brought back into unity with the loves that brought it into being.

The recording of Taylor’s Versions also demonstrates that Swift still cares for her old work, different as it may sound from her newer music. She may not still feel the heartbreak of Joe Jonas dumping her over the phone in 2008, but she does still see that heartbroken girl as herself. By revisiting music from that time and bestowing on it a new layer of polish and vocal sophistication, she declares that heartbroken teenage girl worthy of attention and care.

The Eras Tour represents a similar reclamation project. Swift—and Swifties—don’t think of her career as a series of albums. The preferred term is “era.” Each is inspired by a distinct set of circumstances, genres, and emotions. Some are periods of confidence, others of longing, bargaining, or discovery. In the concert, all her “eras” are given their own room to breathe, as if each could still be the current Taylor. No one is “deeper” or “truer” than another. Swift is still capable of feeling both the sarcastic, cathartic rage of Reputation and the wistful romanticism of Fearless.

The “eras” also flow into each other. Swift meticulously builds connections between songs and albums, whether by internal references, repeated words (“karma,” “midnights,” etc), or recycled chord progressions from past songs that refine or answer the issues or emotions older songs raised. Drawing connections also defines much of her public interaction and publicity drives for new music. Swift’s social media accounts are known to drop easter eggs, interlocking references across songs that invite fans to draw connections between different eras, songs, and real-world events to predict what Swift might release next. The ever-growing variety in her work is always being interwoven into a single thing.

If the model of the artist cynical boys imagined was a mask over hidden realities, the model here is a mosaic: you can call it two-dimensional if you’re so inclined, but that doesn’t stop it from attaining complexity by the arrangement of disparate parts into a single whole.

Integrating the Divided Modern Self

The whole point of Swift’s tendency toward drawing connections, of all the songs being so wordy and personal, of the struggle to reappropriate her music, is that a person can be taken as a whole. We modern selves are made of countless divisions and alienations: soul from body, appetites from will from intellect, id from ego, subject from object. Our social settings tend to affirm and reproduce these divisions, and add even more: the personal versus the political, labor versus product, symbol versus signified. Everyone has the experience of being a different person at home and at work and at church and with friends and with family. Being “multi-faceted” is our defining blessing—and curse. We guard it closely. The mark of high culture for the last century has been to revel in anxiety about our alienations, or to maintain critical detachment even from oneself. In the political arena, any attempt at resolution or synthesis is accused of being ideological, dangerous, illiberal, and utopian.

Feminism has often faced exactly those accusations because it has always had to navigate the interlocking layers of the divided modern self. Different feminisms, of course, have taken different paths. Often, modern alienations are mapped on to the male-female divide: ecofeminists point out that early modern Baconian science saw itself as a masculine conquest of nature, envisioned as female; social reproduction theorists explored the ways that class division rendered “women’s work” invisible. These strands of feminism have aimed for holism—the resolution of ecology and human activity, the validation of care work, and the shaping of employment and politics to create room for family and caretaking.

The popular version of third-wave feminism millennials like Swift grew up with wasn’t as sensitive to these dissonances. The dominant message of this feminism was that women could “do it all,” just as well as men (which, in reality, is not usually very well at all). A woman could become a girlboss at work and a tiger mom at home—at the cost of maintaining within her own person the sharp alienation of the two, a living embodiment of the private-public distinction. The point was each individual, as an individual, achieving empowerment, becoming successful or enlightened or fulfilled by diving fully into each institution on its own terms. Complaints or criticism of the resulting contradictions had no place in this view.

Much of last year’s resurgent girl media has swung the pendulum back, naming the dissonances and highlighting the patent absurdity of the demand that women do everything men do, as well as everything they don’t. The biggest example comes in Barbie, when America Ferrera’s character awakens the Barbies from the spell of Ken’s patriarchy by describing to them the expectation that women be many contradictory things at once. Several songs that went viral on TikTok last year, such as Olivia Rodrigo’s “All-American Bitch” and Paris Paloma’s “labour,” struck a similar note.

Taylor Swift fits the pattern, but only sometimes. She has a few songs that call out dissonances and double standards. But they are only part of the mosaic. The broader appeal of Taylor Swift lies in the possibility of imagining that a full range of human emotion and experience can come from not being so divided. By being so frequently literal, Swift’s work collapses signifier into signified; by being so personal, it unites the private and public. It is possible to be both just by being human.

This does not mean Swift is a girlboss who has found a way to “do it all.” She acknowledges that she does things imperfectly, and that she needs support from others. Her feminism is necessarily a partial one, filtered through her personal experiences, especially of being the target of online flame wars. That fact—in addition to female friendships that she refuses to either politicize or sexualize, and her simple openness about liking boys—long fueled suspicion that her political views were secretly antifeminist. But all of us only ever experience politics (and for that matter, love, labor, and everything else) in partial, personal ways. Swift’s frustration with being ridiculed while male celebrities get “to brag about/Raking in dollars/And getting bitches and models” is genuine, but it is not all she is. Sometimes she feels more like (for instance) a naïve love-struck teen. Neither negates the other.

Humans are composite beings, whose emotions, labor, relationships, and more are all meant to be integrated. They should not need to resort to social or psychological structures breaking them apart and pitting the pieces against each other to be worth recognizing as fully human. At its best, feminism has recognized this and sought to win a more integrated understanding of the human person for women and men alike. To the corporate third-wave-ism that insists that women “have it all” by engaging with alienating institutions on their own terms, Swift says “I already always was all I needed to be.” This is an insight Barbie reaches as well. After leaving behind the détente between Barbies and Kens in Barbieland, Margot Robbie’s Barbie asks that her maker allow her to become human, only to realize that being human is something you realize you already were.

Taylor Swift, it turns out, was good all along. Everything that boys like me cringed at in high school—the sincerity, the wordiness, the free movement between feelings and thoughts and experiences, everything that made the music resemble a teen girl’s diary—was what made her music and her public persona so meaningful. It’s not clear what made everyone realize that. Perhaps it was the isolation of COVID. Perhaps it was the failure of internet rage-based politics, a descendent of the ire directed at “girly” pop culture, to deliver anything worthwhile. Perhaps millennial women had too much disposable income for Hollywood and the music industry to ignore. What is clear after 2023, however, is that there are plenty of people who, like Taylor Swift, would rather “be defined by the things that I love, not the things I hate.”