Who The Hell Is Taylor Swift?

Hello, everyone! Today’s post is a concept I’ve been pondering for quite some time now, namely, who the fuck is Taylor Swift? She’s an artist whose songs I find so melodically satisfying that I listen to them on repeat, yet whose lyrics I find obnoxiously melodramatic. She’s a public figure who I both admire for her success and detest for its excess. Most importantly, she’s the quintessential American pop star, pure, sweet, and innocent like apple pie, yet also catty, vicious, and vengeful as an evil queen. There are many masks Swift wears as an artist and as a celebrity; I’d like to examine them through the lens of her lyrics, which like her, are a mixture of sincerity and artifice.

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Taylor Swift as The Nice Girl™

(As seen in  “Teardrops On My Guitar,”” You Belong With Me,” ” Mean”)

This persona was more prevalent in her albums before Red, when Swift was still known as the picture perfect country girl who Kanye West humiliated at the Grammys.  In these songs, Swift is a kind and sympathetic heroine, the girl next door who the boys can’t help but confess their deepest feelings to, but who remains in the friend zone. In “Teardrops,” she’s the confidante of Drew, a boy who tells her constantly about being in love with another girl. It’s a song that every tween and teen girl can relate to, especially the part where Swift compares herself to the Other Woman, a character who frequently makes an appearance in Swift’s narrative.

I’ll bet she’s beautiful
That girl he talks about
And she’s got everything
That I have to live without

(“Teardrops On My Guitar”)

Even though Swift finds herself lacking in comparison to this mystery girl, there’s still a subtext of disapproval in the fact that “that girl he talks about” is taking something that Swift is forced “to live without.” Drew is not just a boy she likes, but one that she deserves.

Cause he’s the reason for the teardrops on my guitar
The only one who’s got enough for me to break my heart
He’s the song in the car I keep singing
Don’t know why I do

(“Teardrops On My Guitar”)

The emotion he inspires is written akin to a punishment, as if he’s purposefully taken “enough of [Swift] to break [her] heart.” The song is not angry, but there’s no doubt that the audience is expected to align with Swift in this scenario, and question Drew’s judgment in liking that Other Woman.

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This persona is shown more evidently in “You Belong With Me,” a song in which Swift pretends to be self-critical while, once again, bashing that Other Woman. The story is the same: Swift likes a boy who likes someone else, and once again, Swift knows that she’s the one who’s right for him. Why? Because Swift isn’t a ho. Sure, she’s not crass enough to say such a thing, but her implication is clear.

But she wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts
She’s Cheer Captain and I’m on the bleachers
Dreaming about the day when you wake up and find
That what you’re looking for has been here the whole time

(“You Belong With Me”)

Notice how even at this stage in Swift’s career, the Other Woman is coded as promiscuous. She wears shirt skirts (like a ho!) and is a cheerleader (like a ho!). In two lines, Swift expresses her disdain for a girl who dares to be attractive to a man who Swift has claimed as her own.

If you could see that I’m the one who understands you
Been here all along, so why can’t you see?
You belong with me

Standing by and waiting at your back door
All this time how could you not know?
Baby, you belong with me, you belong with me

(“You Belong With Me”)

Swift fully accepts the Nice Girl™ persona by equating a romantic relationship to a prize.  She’s waited for this guy, and for god’s sake, she’s been nice to him, so why doesn’t he choose her? Neither the perspectives of the coveted boy nor that of the Other Woman are shown in this song. Swift’s take on the situation is the only one that matters.

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Taylor Swift as the Desirable Innocent

(As seen in “Sparks Fly,” “Love Story,” “Fearless,” “Mine,” “Everything Has Changed”)

The Desirable Innocent is similar to The Nice Girl™ in that both Swifts are the girls that boys should want, except in this incarnation, Swift actually gets the guy. In these songs Swift focuses on the passion of new love, a feeling that never grows old (despite the fact that she writes countless songs about it). Expect to find kissing in the rain, kissing on the door step, dancing in the parking lot, dancing by the fridge, driving down the road, and lots of mentions of the coveted boy’s hair and eyes. Swift is perfect in these fantasies, the girl she has always wanted to be. There’s none of the comparison found in her Nice Girl songs. The Other Woman does not exist.

And I don’t know how it gets better than this
You take my hand and drag me head first
Fearless
And I don’t know why but with you I’d dance
In a storm in my best dress
Fearless

(“Fearless”)

Swift’s Desirable Innocent songs are some of my favorites to listen to because they do embody the best of her character. She’s not dragging another girl down to feel good about herself, nor does she talk about a boy like a possession. She’s a girl in love. Who doesn’t want to listen to that?

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In “Mine,” which I consider one of Swift’s greatest songs, the Desirable Innocent grows up. Swift can’t help but paint herself to be a romantic small town girl, but she brings in the problems of marriage, of money, and an uncertain adulthood into the mix. We still get picture perfect images of love, yet these are tinged with a wistfulness that Swift lacks in her earlier Desirable Innocent songs.

Do you remember, we were sittin’, there by the water?
You put your arm around me for the first time
You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter
You are the best thing, that’s ever been mine

(“Mine”)

It’s when Swift lets herself be human that she writes the most resonant lyrics. She’s not the perfect girl, and her lover isn’t the perfect boy, but they can still get the romance they want, even if it’s not a storybook romance. But this version of Swift often gets lost behind her two most dominant personas, which I’ll comment on next.

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Taylor Swift as The Wronged Woman

(As seen in “Almost Do,” “All Too Well,” “Red,” “I Knew You Were  Trouble,” “Wildest Dreams,” “White Horse,” “We Are Never Getting Back Together)

This is the Taylor Swift that America loves and loves to hate. The narrative is always the same: Swift’s perfect relationship is ruptured, usually by infidelity. Swift laments the loss of her relationship, but scolds the boy for ruining what was obviously the most perfect relationship he will ever have. The most important thing to observe with this persona is that Swift is almost never in the wrong. She doesn’t cheat, he does. She’s not crazy, he’s just emotionally unavailable. She gave him everything, he didn’t want it. There are some rare instances, like in “Back To December,” where Swift admits to maybe just maybe being the cause of some of these break-ups, but taking the blame is not Swift’s style.

Swift often combines the persona of the Desirable Innocent and The Wronged Woman. “I Knew You Were Trouble” has her being lured into a relationship she knows is dangerous, but can’t stay away from. “Wildest Dreams” is the same. In “White Horse,” she blames herself for trusting a boy she knew would break her heart. Swift’s character is too pure to withstand love’s unpredictable hardships.

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Similarly to The Nice Girl™ category Swift’s narrative has an antagonist, but instead of the Other Woman, Swift’s villain is the coveted boy, who has now become the bad boy. Unlike the Other Woman, however, Swift doesn’t hold any hard feelings towards the bad boy. He’s wild by nature and she knew she couldn’t control him. The forgiveness, the wistful regret she shows towards him, demonstrates a leniency that she would never give to the Other Woman. To The Wronged Woman, men are impossible to understand, but since their relationship ended in such romantic tragedy, with Swift still seeing the possibility of reconciliation (for the boy always wants to get back together), the relationship can still be twisted into a fairytale narrative.

I knew you were trouble when you walked in
So shame on me now
Flew me to places I’d never been
‘Til you put me down, oh
I knew you were trouble when you walked in
So shame on me now
Flew me to places I’d never been
Now I’m lying on the cold hard ground

(“I Knew You Were Trouble”)

Even though the he’s a bad boy, there’s still an allure to him that Swift can’t resist. Her lyrics hint at a sense of personal growth, as if her tumultuous relationship with this boy has made her into a different, cooler girl than she was, but that girl could only survive until he lets her go. The Wronged Woman, like The Nice Girl™, secretly wants to be as adventurous and dangerous as the bad boy, and his counterpart the Other Woman. But since she can’t admit it, she plays the victim.  These bad boys take her and break her as if she’s a “crumpled up piece of paper.” This Swift has choice in the outcome of these relationships, but with that lack of agency comes absolution of blame.

Maybe we got lost in translation, maybe I asked for too much,
And maybe this thing was a masterpiece ’til you tore it all up.
Running scared, I was there, I remember it all too well.

Hey, you call me up again just to break me like a promise.
So casually cruel in the name of being honest.
I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here
‘Cause I remember it all, all, all too well.

(“All Too Well”)

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Taylor Swift as The Vengeful Woman

(As seen in “Bad Blood,” “Better Than Revenge,” “Picture to Burn,” “Forever and Always,” “Should’ve Said No,” )

Swift’s Vengeful Woman songs are her most visceral, as well as some of her nastiest. They’re cleverly worded tirades against the men and women who dared to wrong her, from breaking her heart to stealing her boy to being a bad friend. This persona allows us a glimpse behind Swift’s innocent victim mask to see the cold, calculating core beneath.

She’s not a saint and she’s not what you think
She’s an actress, whoa
She’s better known for the things that she does
On the mattress, whoa
Soon she’s gonna find
Stealing other people’s toys on the playground
Won’t make you many friends
She should keep in mind,
She should keep in mind
There is nothing I do better than revenge, ha

(“Better Than Revenge”)

The same ho shaming from “You Belong With Me” rears its head in “Better Than Revenge,” though The Vengeful Woman is more blunt with her words than The Nice Girl™. Swift’s correct when she claims that “there’s nothing [she] does better than revenge,” for just by the virtue of her celebrity (she was the highest paid musician in the world in 2016), she has the ability to drag her antagonists through the mud without fear of reprisal. Nor is there any hope of ambiguity; Swift purposefully leaves a trail of breadcrumbs in her lyrics for fans to piece together the identity of the unnamed boy or girl. Swift paints herself as the righteous heroine in these songs, but it’s difficult not to feel sympathy for the people she steps on to get there.

State the obvious,
I didn’t get my perfect fantasy
I realize you love yourself more than you could ever love me
So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy
That’s fine!
I’ll tell mine
You’re gay
By the way

(“Picture to Burn”)

Shifting the blame is The Vengeful Woman’s favorite way of gaining sympathy. Even when Swift includes the words of her ex-lover (a rare feat), she dismisses them outright. The Vengeful Woman isn’t obsessive and crazy, and she’ll make sure you know that by telling all her friends that you’re gay, not to mention “there’s nothing stopping [her] from going out with all of your best friends.” Obsessive and crazy? Not in the eyes of The Vengeful Woman, who views any perceived hurt as justification for revenge.

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Some may say that Swift is playing a character when she inhabits these personas, and while there’s reason to believe that, the consistent patterns in her lyrics show several distinct parts of Swift. She’s innocent and romantic, while also being a vicious bitch. These mixed personas play out on an even grander scale in her public life, in which she navigates conflict with an uncanny sense of public opinion. But that is a post for another day. For now, I can accept Swift for who she is: a grab bag of different identities, each equally unknowable.

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