I couldn’t figure out how I felt hour to hour. Sometimes I felt like: All these things taught me something that I never could have learned in a way that didn’t hurt as much. Five minutes later, I’d feel like: That was horrible. Why did that have to happen? What am I supposed to take from this other than mass amounts of humiliation? And then five minutes later I’d think: I might be happier than I’ve ever been.
—Taylor Swift, Vogue
I remember being a sophomore in high school when I first became conscious of the inexplicable hatred I had for Taylor Swift. My sister was home for some holiday, and we were sitting at a stop light when “Love Story” came on the radio. Laughing, like she was embarrassed and had only just realized it, my sister said, “I actually kind of like this song.” I scoffed, “Ew, why?” (I was only into indie bands at that point in my life; determined to turn my nose up at anything remotely mainstream in that pseudo-sophisticated way artistic teens are wont to behave.) “I don’t know,” she said, “I think it’s kind of funny that she puts all those boys’ names in her songs.” And, since I regarded—basically—everything my older sister had to say as virtue, so began my more critical thoughts about Taylor Swift.
What was it that I so passionately despised about her?
In her earlier career, when I was in high school, I know I probably found her difficult to connect with: the poufy dresses, the fairytale references, her blatant misunderstanding of Shakespearean tragedies, the fact that she was a pretty blonde girl who looked like a baby fashion model… she seemed to embody all the stereotypical nonsense that teenage girls were said to desire and revere, and I was not—at least within my yet-to-have-fully-developed teenage brain—stereotypical. Furthermore, I just didn’t want to connect with her. Beyond the way she branded herself, and looked, I found her to be all the things she was/is often accused of being: petty, crazy, jealous, love-obsessed, hyper-sensitive, vapid, selfish, annoying, too autobiographical, manipulative, catty—and so on. Which was to say, not only did she externally embody everything that teenage girls were said to desire and revere, but that she also symbolized everything we—as a society and culture—hate about teenage girls. (Something I’d be willing to argue has, as Taylor Swift has grown up, evolved into everything we hate about unapologetically feminine—i.e. “basic”—women.)
Watching the music video for “Teardrops on My Guitar,” at the tender age of sixteen, I saw a forlorn Taylor Swift, with a single bedazzled eye, cradling her guitar, and I wondered: What does this hot girl have to cry about?
There is a podcast that I listen to every so often, hosted by a New York City food blogger (Reyna Greenburg) and comedian (Ashley Hesseltine) called Girls Gotta Eat. At the end of each episode, they’ll play a game with their guests, one of which is called: “Psycho or Power Move?” Listeners submit their stories of manipulation and revenge, which are then discussed, on air, with the goal of responding to the name of the game: Psycho or power move?
This is the kind of question I think about whenever I think about Taylor Swift, like: Is the fact that she has a framed photo, in her home, of Kanye West interrupting her at the 2009 VMAs psycho, or a power move?
I can’t decide.
I’ve googled “what’s wrong with Taylor Swift,” endlessly, in pursuit of what it is that I’m trying to articulate. And I’ve found the same point regurgitated, over and over again. The overall gist usually being: Taylor Swift is a white capitalist machine who ‘got political’ two years too late, and it all feels eerily… calculated.
I’m not above it, I feel it too.
Still—in 2019—I find myself on the opposing end of where my critical thoughts on Taylor Swift first began. Instead of asking myself why I hate her, I find myself wondering: Why do I like her? (It’s an odd little personal phenomenon, but I feel like saying, “I like Taylor Swift,” is on par with saying I like Harvey Weinstein, or Michael Jackson—two people whose work and art most definitely should not be separated from who they are/were behind closed doors.)
Though I see her flaws pretty clearly; though I understand, without difficulty, why other people don’t like her; even when I’m about to agree on the subject of her alleged fraudulence, I can’t get past the same old monkey wrench: But what if Taylor Swift gave a shit about resonating with a heteromale audience?
Part of what makes Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift, is that—if this hypothetical became reality—she wouldn’t be Taylor Swift. And this, for me, is where completely renouncing her as just another cog in a capitalistic machine, ruthlessly weaponizing white feminism for her own benefit, becomes difficult.
I can pinpoint a time when I realized I liked Taylor Swift the same way I can pinpoint a time when I realized I hated her.
I was at a party and in my junior year of college. I was there with my boyfriend—at the time—and his friends, and they were all pretty misogynistic people. (Misogynistic, in that, refers to the girls they hook up with as the “hoe train,” believes Germany is a “classy” place to study abroad—but not India—white frat boy kind of way.)
Anyway, there was this girl there—a petite brunette who was with one of my boyfriend’s friends. And she was sitting in the middle of the basement floor, playing a guitar and singing with a bunch of other girls all around her. I remember my boyfriend and his friends all making condescending little remarks about it. (“Why do you always have to pick girls who sing?”) But I thought she was good, and I liked whatever it was she was playing. Eventually, I got the chance to ask her, “What is that?” And she said, “It’s Taylor Swift.”
Something clicked for me, then. (At the beginning of Donald Miller’s memoir, Blue Like Jazz, he writes about how he hated jazz music, until he found someone who loved jazz music. He says, “Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.” And—whatever had clicked—it was like that.)
This girl was belting “Sparks Fly” in the middle of a frat party like she was Jerry Spinelli’s Star Girl, and she didn’t give a shit what the guys thought. She had the attention of every girl in the room, and that was enough—like the biggest “fuck you” to the male gaze ever. And I was like: Oh, okay, I think I get it.
Soon after, I began to regard Taylor Swift as the antidote for a kind of gendered fury I experienced—but couldn’t name—whenever I felt punished for being both confident and an overtly feminine woman, most poignantly. (The time a guy harassed me, all night, at a party over a minor—intended to be playful—slight, by calling me an “ugly hyena laughing bitch,” in every way he knew how, and then, once he realized I wasn’t going to cry about it, continued to harass me about other things—like my hair color—until I got so annoyed, I left; the time when, in a fiction writing class, the craft of my story was never critiqued during a workshop, because one guy decided my male character wasn’t “masculine enough”—whatever that means—and made this personal concern of his the focal point for the whole discussion; the time a boss told me I needed to “worry more” about my “reputation” because of how male patrons—outside of my control—were behaving, and so on—into oblivion.)
I’m not quite sure how it all relates, but: Thank god Taylor Swift wasn’t afraid to put all those boys’ names in her songs.
On YouTube, I recently found a compilation of clips derived from interviews with John Mayer, spanning from 2009 to 2010, in which he discussed his intentions with Taylor Swift—albeit cryptically—and their time together, working on music. (In most of the clips he idealized her into oblivion, saying things like: “She’s just this strange, in all the most beautiful ways, doesn’t-belong-to-this-universe, type person… she’s ageless… she’s like a child.” While, in others, his attraction to her came across as a cry for help: “It’s good to see someone who’s hugely talented and is still able to receive the pleasure in all moments because [long and thoughtful silence] I’m dead inside.”)
I find Taylor Swift and John Mayer’s relationship fascinating. Mostly because of how shamelessly he pursued her, and how delusional his expectations were—considering he was a 32-year-old man at the time, and she was just a 19-year-old girl. (Is a thirteen-year age difference creepy? No, not necessarily. But is a thirteen-year age difference creepy when the younger person’s pre-frontal cortex hasn’t fully formed yet, and the older person is an established guitarist who works in the same industry as the younger person? Mmmm… it’s suspicious, to say the least.)
It was like John Mayer just woke up one day, saw Taylor Swift on the TV, and decided he was going to live out the plotline of Elizabethtown with her. It seriously reads like it was that manic of a decision on his part.
In 2009 he sparked the beginning of their relationship by tweeting—seemingly out of nowhere—that Taylor Swift would make a good “Nicks” in contrast to his “Petty.” In the tweet he also stated that he wanted to collaborate with her on a track for his upcoming album, Battle Studies. Predictably—as a 19-year-old girl who grew up listening to John Mayer on the radio—she obliged, and the rest is history. (The two recorded John Mayer’s “Half of My Heart,” did a couple of performances together, started dating officially in the fall of 2009, and then reportedly broke up sometime in February 2010.)
All of which is to ask: John Mayer seriously expected this very young singer-songwriter, notorious for putting her exes’ names in her songs, whom he pursued and groomed into becoming his little musical protégé, and then dropped—just as quickly as he’d swept her up—to not write a song about the experience?
After Taylor Swift released “Dear John”—a song overtly directed at John Mayer—in 2010, he responded with bewilderment. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he said, “I was really caught off guard.” And then, toward the end, he added, “I will say as a songwriter that it’s kind of cheap songwriting… I know she’s the biggest thing in the world and I’m not trying to sink anybody’s ship, but I think it’s abusing your talent to rub your hands together and go, ‘Wait ‘til he gets a load of this!’ That’s bull shit!”
Ignoring the condescension of this statement, while, also, keeping that compilation of interviews—the ones where he openly raved about how talented she was—in mind, it’s hard not to think: John, you were once THE captain of that ship. Like: Did you forget? Knock your head? Dude, YOU called her the Nicks to your Petty!
Beyond the drama, and the back and forth songwriting, or even the romantic idea that these two had potentially found a karmic match in one another, what I find the most fascinating about Taylor Swift and John Mayer’s relationship is that—I’ve totally dated that guy. And I’ve had friends who have totally dated that guy, and I’m positive tons of other women and girls have totally dated that guy.
What John Mayer did in response to “Dear John” was a kind of gaslighting. A sort of: I never even really liked her that much anyway; she’s crazy; I didn’t deserve it because it wasn’t even that serious. (Even though all the evidence said otherwise.) And that’s a thing women experience, often, both in relationships and life. It’s a thing people do when someone—especially a woman—sticks up for herself or exceeds the limiting expectations some insecure person assigned to her.
To put it bluntly, I don’t think the song humiliated John Mayer because he was genuinely hurt. I think it humiliated him because he hadn’t expected to be used as a muse in the same way that he’d used many of his own exes as muses—not by a 20-year-old girl in a frilly purple dress, at least—and the experience, ultimately, provoked a sense of inadequacy that felt so unfamiliar to him, he couldn’t help but rationalize it: “I’m not trying to sink anybody’s ship, but…”
Three years after Taylor Swift released “Dear John,” John Mayer released “Paper Doll,” a track that was presumed to be about Taylor Swift as the lyrics seemed too pointed for it not to be. From what can be gathered from the song, John Mayer’s feelings about her hadn’t changed. The lyrics were just as condescending as his former statements to Rolling Stone. A few of which are, “You’re like twenty-two girls in one / And none of them know what they’re runnin’ from / Was it just too far to fall / For a little paper doll…”
It’s hard not to infer that John Mayer had been expecting someone simpler, and so he felt lied to when he realized that she wasn’t.
I’m currently taking a few introductory psychology courses, and, of all the lessons I’ve learned so far, the most difficult one for me to accept is how important first impressions really are to us, as a species. See, I think we like to believe we’re smarter than first impressions; that we’re more critically minded, and our judgements of others are within our control. (At least, I know I do.) But that just isn’t the case.
From what I’ve learned, once a person forms an opinion about a certain individual, there is very little that individual can do to change it—what’s done is done, so to speak. So, there’s really no point in bending over backwards, trying to change that other person’s mind—they’re going to believe what they’re going to believe, regardless of any evidence proving otherwise. Therefore, the best thing for the—potentially—misjudged individual to do is to forgive herself; move on; allow bygones to be bygones, and continue doing what’s best for herself. Which is, in a backwards way, even more difficult than dwelling on the disapproval of others.
My point: the idea that we’ll be embraced without skepticism, and respected in all the ways we deserve, so long as we, as individuals, live authentically, is a lie. And, furthermore, I’d be willing to argue, 1,000 times over, that this is especially true for women.
Often—from what I’ve experienced and observed—when a woman is who she is, it creates a wide and gaping divide that only gets wider, and even more gaping, the more authentic she becomes. People will either really love her, or really hate her, and—no matter what—the general message coming from the latter end is going to feel deeply, and painfully, personal. Because, she’ll know, from her core, that she put her best foot forward; that she wore her best shoes, and danced her best dance, and shook all the hands, and, still, some people—or maybe even most people—scoffed in response, like: Who do you think you are?
This is why I admire Taylor Swift: she doubles down when it comes to her experiences, and what they mean to her—regardless of how others feel about it.
In a recent interview for CBS’s Sunday Morning, when she was asked about her many grudges, she said, “People go on and on about how you have to forgive and forget to move past something. No you don’t. You don’t have to forgive and you don’t have to forget to move on. You can move on without any of those things happening.”
See, she’s someone who is constantly criticized for overreacting and being “petty,” and her general response is to just lean into it, like: Sorry, not sorry. This is my truth. And I think it’s really important for young girls to observe a woman as powerful as Taylor Swift being like that.
She sends a message that says women do not have to forgive anyone for anything. They don’t have to forgive anyone who victimizes them, regardless of whether or not anyone else perceives their victimization as real—women get to define that for themselves. And, for this reason, I want to look at the bigger picture and believe in her sincerity.
I want to believe we still live in a world where not everything we see and consume is the product of some manufactured construct, created with the bottom line in mind. I want to believe that a pop icon and businesswoman—the girl-next-door turned lying-snake—can also be the same person who penned the line: “Who you are is not what you did.” I want to believe we all still live in a world where, ultimately, everyone—including an idiot like Donald Trump—is just doing their best. However disappointing, or horrifying, that may be.
Which is to, ultimately, say: Taylor Swift seems untouchable in a way that powerful men have always been untouchable—she seems to forgive herself for being complicated in ways that society has always forgiven men for being complicated. And there’s a large part of me that doesn’t care how she’s gotten away with doing that. I’m just glad she has.