“He didn’t like it when I wore high heels, but I do”: In Defence of Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift gets a lot of shit. The fact that some of it is obviously rubbish – average anti-popstar dismissive indie-male sneering, disdainful raised-eyebrows comments about the number of boys she’s dated – probably doesn’t need explaining here. A lot of it, though, comes from feminists who should know better, women who seem to have read a lot of headlines and dour think-pieces and parody twitter accounts but never actually listened to a single Taylor song: look at this air-headed ultra-feminine girl, wearing white dresses and shaming other women for their sexuality; all she ever talks about is boys; so stupid and silly and so anti-feminist. Ugh.
Just to get this out of the way: Taylor Swift has won 7 Grammies and 15 AMAS, Taylor Swift’s second album was the bestselling record of 2009, Taylor Swift’s fourth album had the highest opening sales of the last decade, blah blah et etc. I don’t know a lot about the inner workings of the music industry but I’m pretty sure you’ve got to be a savvy businesswoman to get that far in it, and it’s not like Taylor had Simon Cowell representing her in meetings, or seasoned professionals writing her songs, or whatever. 16-year-old Taylor Swift walked into offices in Nashville and said “Hi, I’m Taylor and I want a record deal,” until eventually she got one. Taylor Swift is not stupid, is what I’m saying – far from it. But, okay, obviously being wildly successful in her chosen field isn’t a guarantee that a woman is Advancing The Feminist Cause, Fighting The Good Anti-Patriarchy Fight, etc (Thatcher is thankfully-no-longer-living proof of that), so I’ll move on.
I find it kind of deeply bizarre that people hate on Taylor Swift for… writing songs about her feelings, and about love and relationships, as if that’s not the focus of most music, as if it’s not something that millions of other artists do, regardless of gender. How often do you see that criticism levelled at, like, Leonard Cohen? I’m just saying (“But Leonard Cohen is a good songwriter,” say the Taylor haters, and to them I say: fuck you, if you don’t appreciate the genius emotional tour de force that is the State of Grace / All Too Well / Begin Again musical triad you have probably never been in love and are definitely no fun at parties). Taylor said it best herself, probably, when she said that people portraying her emotional openness as weakness and desperation are “taking something that potentially should be celebrated – a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way – and… twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist.” So there.
Dear John is one of the first songs I cite when I go on impassioned pro-Taylor rants at people, and since that’s basically what this article is, let’s talk about Dear John. Taylor almost-definitely-but-it’s-never-been-officially-confirmed wrote the song about her relationship with John Mayer (12 years older than her, established industry professional, he reportedly felt “humiliated” by the song, which, like, good). “Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with,” she sings, and it rapidly becomes clear that this is not your average sad-about-being-jilted-by-my-celebrity-boyfriend Taylor Swift breakup song. Not that those aren’t great too. Dear John is a nineteen-year-old girl publically calling out her seemingly emotionally abusive ex (“I lived in your chess game, but you changed the rules every day”), addressing the man who hurt her and saying “You should’ve known”. This would be admirable enough in and of itself, but then she goes on to a triumphant climax: I got out, I’m living my life better without you, “don’t look now – I’m shining like fireworks over your sad empty town”. And then she sings that line, surrounded by pyrotechnics, every night of her tour. Taylor doesn’t have to be quoting critical theory for that to be a feminist statement.
And, look, I’m not saying Taylor is perfect. That line in Better Than Revenge (“she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress”) is obviously not okay at all, I get that people have fair criticisms of You Belong With Me. But I’m not of the opinion that a few fuck-ups delegitimise someone’s entire discography, and why the hell would you focus on your tenuous interpretation of Fifteen as being a pro-celibacy-movement anthem when you could applaud the fact that all over the world there are stadiums of teenage girls singing “In your life you’ll do things greater than dating the boy on the football team”?
It’s not like Taylor is going to start editing Bitch magazine on the side or opening her live shows by quoting bell hooks or whatever (hey, a girl can dream), but if you think that kind of thing is the only way an artist could be classed as a feminist figure, I feel like you need to expand your definition of feminism a bit. This is what it comes down to, for me: Taylor is so kind and good and protective towards her female fans, Taylor Swift made it so millions of insecure teenagers are sitting in their bedrooms singing “Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me and all you’re ever gonna be is mean”, Taylor Swift said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”, Taylor Swift writes comments on teen girls’ Instagrams that say things like “You are so incredibly beautiful and I wish you knew it” and “You and I both know there’s got to be some greater storyline for you than ‘Girl gets heart broken, was sad forever’” and “You’re so much more important than you think you are”. That’s feminist as hell, whether she’s wearing the label or not.