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Music / Swifties

Becoming Fearless with Taylor Swift

When I was about eight years old, my mother decided it was time for my sister and me to enter the world of pop music. Raised on old show tune CDs and Dido albums from the 90s, Taylor Swift’s “Fearless,” which had been released the year before, was an unabashed exercise in acoustic guitar and what I understood to be the biblical truth about love. I was hooked. My sister and I would belt “Fifteen” to each other on car rides home, certain that we, too, would fall in love at 15, praying that a cute guy would move in next door so we could re-enact the iconic “You Belong With Me” music video. We were shameless in our imaginations, genuinely enamored with Taylor’s heartbreak ballads and vulnerability. I wanted nothing more than to be her.

A year later, “Speak Now” was released. When I saw Taylor in concert during the Speak Now tour, I’m pretty sure I cried watching her perform “Enchanted.” I hated Kanye West, I created elaborate schemes in my head in which “Mine” was a real story, and I sang “Long Live” during music sharing day in 5th grade. Yes, all 5 minutes and 17 seconds of it, undoubtedly further drawn out by my complete lack of rhythm at the ripe age of 11. When “Red” came out two years later, it was a repeat love affair, the softer record becoming the soundtrack to many puzzles, road trips, and dinners for my family. I was a fierce Swiftie; I practiced her signature heart sign in the mirror, and I hated Joe Jonas with a passion.

But when 1989 released, I was 13. I had just started eighth grade, and it was starting to become apparent that Taylor Swift was for girls. I didn’t know much, but I knew that being a girl meant confronting a constant battle with the world, and I knew I wanted to be as far away from that as possible.

So, I didn’t listen to 1989. I smirked at Taylor’s music video for “Bad Blood,” how indulgent it was, how embarrassing. I reveled in her feud with Kanye West. I memorized all of the lines to “Famous,” always shouting the lyric, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex,” louder than the others, as if I could skin my femininity right off my body by doing so, like it was the only way to prove that I wasn’t like other girls, that I actually hated Taylor Swift, that I thought she was a crybaby, a snake, an embarrassing artist way past her prime. While I still enjoyed “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story” in private, they felt more like relics of my childhood rather than the visceral, pulsing songs that had swept me off my feet only a few years prior.

When “Lover” was released the week before I left for college, I didn’t even notice. I saw mentions of her music video for “ME!” on Twitter, and after viewing the unicorn-pastel-core album art, I felt confirmed in my belief that Taylor Swift was completely irrelevant, that she’d sold out to Big Music, that her pre-cooked pop was so far removed from my refined taste of Snail Mail and Maggie Rogers.

And so my life went on: me, doing everything in my power to extricate myself from femininity, so fearful of not being taken seriously, a self-proclaimed feminist—even though the word tasted weird, a clutter of contradictions and internalized misogyny and convictions that sexism was Over And Done With.

When “Folklore” came out during the summer of 2020, I was living in Harpswell, Maine with five other Bowdoin students. I was one of two women. COVID summer seemed to sag in this vacuum of time, so unhurried in its dreamlike repetition of the same day, every day. Between working at the Topsham Target 40 hours a week and squinting at crosswords on our oversaturated, sunlit porch, I became deeply sad, sometimes even angry, with the heaviness of carrying myself. I had never been so profoundly aware of my gender as I was in that house—not to the fault of the men I was living with, but rather because womanhood is a state of existence that best thrives in the public eye. Who was I if I wasn’t being perceived? Who was I when I saw the same five people every day, when I wasn’t interesting anymore, when I was nothing new? Who was I when my femininity, something I’d been trying so hard to run away from, became a simple fact against the inherent masculinity of the house? I couldn’t put my thumb on it then, and I still don’t think I can now, but the understanding that I would have to negotiate with my womanhood forever, that it would be a slippery, permanently liminal relationship, threatened to suffocate me that summer. It threatens to suffocate me even now.

When “Folklore” came out, I was, to put it simply, down bad. There I was, wheeling and dealing with my gender, mired in a deep rage, and Taylor Swift had the audacity to release her eighth studio album amidst it all. I was hesitant. I was skeptical. I was desperate. But I was also a woman with a 30-minute commute to her retail job, a commute I always ended by playing Phoebe Bridgers’ “I Know The End” as I rolled into the parking lot, if that paints a clear enough picture. As I tentatively listened to “exile” for the first time, selected solely because it featured Bon Iver, it became clear to me that Taylor, too, was in a crisis of identity. An album characterized by gorgeously simple acoustic guitar riffs, “Folklore” was a marked departure from Taylor’s previous three albums, the albums that had filled me so deeply with repugnance, that had made me feel such strong second-hand embarrassment for her. As I listened to “Folklore,” I felt the way I had when my mother played “Fearless” for me for the first time all those years before.

It was a slow return to Taylor Swift. At first, “Folklore” was strictly commute music, not something to be brought inside of the house, not something to reveal that I was listening to. Then it became the soundtrack to my ear-soaking as I battled a piercing infection so gnarly it still threatens to re-haunt me to this day. And then it became crossword music, then apple pie baking music, until suddenly, “Folklore” had entered my music’s vernacular completely.

Just as Taylor built worlds and imagined stories for the characters she constructed in “Folklore,” I, too, was re-learning how to get lost in her music, to weld her dynamic storylines with my own. “Betty” and “August” became my summer soundtrack, and I saw my experiences with womanhood so strikingly reflected in the characters Taylor sang about on these tracks. Just like Betty and Augusta, I, too, was trying to navigate womanhood’s creeping tendency to mold itself against men, to define my existence in something else besides the male gaze. Since that summer, Taylor has embarked on a project of re-releasing her old music, the records from my childhood haunting me anew. As I continue to re-examine my own relationship with being a woman, it’s comforting to be surrounded by those tracks I loved so dearly, that felt so close to the truth of femininity when I first listened to them a decade ago.

I’m still not comfortable with mainstream femininity, and I’m not sure I ever will be. Internalized misogyny hides in weird places. I often think of my friends who are women, of how badly I want to do right by them, of how scared I am of pushing them away. I think of my sister, of how our love for Taylor is and was complicated, of how I want to be the best version of myself possible for her. I think of my younger self—delighted in the love stories, the angst, the promise of growing up to be a woman. I want to make her proud.

And yet despite all this, I still didn’t post my Spotify Wrapped, because I’m still a little embarrassed that Taylor Swift was my top artist. This is an unlearning that will follow me for years to come. But by God, will I be listening to the 10-minute re-recording of “All Too Well” while I’m doing it.