A Timeline of Taylor Swift's Feminism
You can't spell "empowerment" without ME! This week, Taylor released the lead single for her so far unnamed seventh album. While critics have called "ME!" uninspired drone pop, you can't deny its catchiness, just in time for summer. You also can't deny a certain self-awareness that sets it from other Swiftian singles. The song, featuring Panic! at the Disco's Brendan Urie, relies on the simple premise, "Nobody's gonna love you like me," and marks Taylor's first romantically inclined lead single in nearly a decade.
Taylor's previous, much darker reputation era kicked off with the vengeful "Look What You Made Me Do," and before that we had the catchy (albeit repetitive) start to the 1989 era with "Shake It Off." Two years prior, she teased her album Red with the sassy "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," which at the time was a huge departure from the sweet and dreamy "Mine" that preceded her 2010 record, Speak Now. And back in her country days, lead singles "Love Story" (for her most-awarded album, Fearless) and "Tim McGraw" (her debut) tell wistful tales of a young girl dreaming about romance and pickup trucks.
Taylor's lead singles have always given listeners a little taste of forthcoming albums, tours, and overall aesthetics, but they do more than just that. In addition to informing the world of Taylor's musicality, her music lets us in on her growth. We see how her thoughts have developed and how she's participated in the global conversation. Taylor is, especially in recent years, a publicist's dream in a formal interview setting, but in her lyrics, she lets it all hang out. So in honor of this most recent single (and the ominous seventh album that is to come), I thought I'd introduce you to a timeline I like to call "Taylor Swift, Budding Feminist: A Story Told Through Song." Before I get started, to quote Taylor herself, "Don't say I didn't, say I didn't warn ya:"
2006, "Tim McGraw"
I'm not going to just chart Taylor's feminism via her lead singles, but I would be remiss not to start at the beginning. Plus, we have to go all the way back to her curly hair and fake country accent; it was a simpler time. Then just sixteen years old, this Taylor Swift paralleled most teenage girls in America, thus her immediate mass appeal. In 2006, feminism and privilege really weren't concepts that were being discussed, especially by white women and girls.
The early to mid aughts were still feeling the lasting impacts of The Spice Girls, Destiny's Child, Alanis Morissette, The Dixie Chicks, and other "girl power" soloists and groups. We didn't think to continue the conversation (or have it at all) because we didn't know how much we were allowed to say. So in this age of being unwoke, teenage Taylor calling boys out by name and daring them to think of her and her little black dress was brazen in its own little way. It was a shock to me and many other young girls that we could use specificity in our storytelling without being told it was unladylike.
2006, "Picture to Burn"
This song is probably a large part of the reason why people started calling Taylor Swift crazy. Why? Because in the video she holds a stakeout at her ex's house with her best friend and alludes to burning photos of him. But here's the secret, dudes everywhere, we all were doing that, too! Teenage crushes know no bounds; if I had a crush on you in high school I still remember what your car looks like. Taylor just bore the brunt of the criticism because she was brave enough to come out and say it.
That's actually not the point I wanted to bring up, though. The important mile marker in "Picture to Burn" is the since-edited lyric "So go and tell your friends that I'm obsessive and crazy/That's fine, I'll tell mine you're gay." This lyric was a huge misfire, which is why you really can't find a version of the song online that wasn't changed to the radio-friendly version. But still in all, she at one point said it and didn't see a problem with it, which is a problem in and of itself. It's an important piece of her journey, so I had to include it.
A lot of these early songs are going to point to times where Taylor got it wrong. I personally think she has since redeemed herself, but making note of the missteps is critical. In "Fifteen," she sings "Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind." If you read between the lines of this coming-of-age tune, "everything she had" refers to best friend Abigail's virginity, and in hindsight...yikes.
I'd like to believe Taylor and I grew up with similar, well-intentioned parents who thought it wise to teach their daughters that "boys only want one thing" and premarital sex is wrong, but only wrong because you're a girl. I'm not placing the blame on Scott and Andrea Swift, but I do think the teenage Taylor who wrote this song was unfortunately influenced by outdated values and the media's misogynistic messages about sex. It's not so hard to believe that in 2008 she believed a girl's virginity was truly "everything she had," but I don't think 2019 Taylor feels the same way.
2008, "You Belong With Me"
It wouldn't be a discussion about Taylor Swift and feminism without this little ditty! Fun fact, she was accepting the VMA for this music video when Kanye took the mic from her and began a looooooong timeline of its own that I won't get into much here. Many of Taylor's critics point to this song as a pain point, as it plays on the overexposed "Madonna–Whore complex," a storytelling device that pits women against one another. And, y'know what, that's kinda true! This song does do that! You can't deny that lyrics like "She wears high heels, I wear sneakers/She's cheer captain and I'm on the bleachers" aren't the most feminist.
But these lyrics also, in a weird way, point to a particular time in recent history when this was very much the norm. Before this most recent resurgence of feminism, mainstream media was all about pinning women against one another. This phenomenon was especially prevalent in country music, where men reign supreme, mostly charting with songs that objectify women in a whole different way! Taylor was at the time toeing the line between country and the glittery, repetitive pop radio; it seems as though this tired girl-next-door trope was a way to gain mass appeal. Now, unapologetic country queens like Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris can get away with much more, but that's a whole decade later, when radio doesn't matter as much and the conversation is shifting.
2010, "Better Than Revenge"
Taylor was scorned and wrote a bitter anthem about how Camilla Belle stole her Jonas Brothers boyfriend! It happened, okay! Wow, typing that sentence out really makes me sit and think about how long I've been a Taylor Swift fan. That summer feels both a second and an eternity ago. Anyway: This is a slut-shamy song. It just is. But don't sit up on your high horse and tell me you've never wished ill-will upon another girl over some dude who doesn't matter to you now. With feminism in our hearts, let's just be the bigger person and admit we have had "Better Than Revenge" moments of our own. That doesn't make it right, that just makes us human.
Reflecting back on this song, Taylor once said, "I wrote that song when I was eighteen. I used to think people could steal your boyfriend, but no one can steal your boyfriend from you if he doesn't want to leave...An interesting part about having grown up with all of my inner thoughts and lessons and doubts and fears and anger issues being put into these songs and these lyrics is, sometimes, you change your mind. Like, sometimes you handle things differently."
And if we give ourselves permission to change and grow and realize we said something messed up a few years ago, we should give Taylor that same permission. Especially because she has (rightfully) given herself that permission, too, so it'd be silly not to follow suit.
2010, "Dear John"
One thing Taylor has always done phenomenally well is not hold back in her writing. While her approach to other women was perhaps once misguided, she has remained firm on her belief that you can tell stories exactly how they happened. This, inherently, is a feminist act. Telling your truth, using all the adjectives and anecdotes available, not caring about how it will be received. There are so many examples of this mastery I could have chosen ("All Too Well", "Style", "Out of the Woods", and "Last Kiss" to name just a few), but none compare to the raw vulnerability of "Dear John."
This song remains the longest in her discography, with each second of the six plus minutes full of vivid detail. Even if you were living under a rock for all of 2010, from the title alone you know who this song is about. John Mayer and Taylor dated briefly before the release of her third album Speak Now, Mayer 32 to Swift's 19. With John's long-documented playboy attitude, Taylor sadly and honestly sings "I should've known," before turning the blame on its head and realizing, actually, "You should've known."
It wouldn't be a stretch to call this an emotionally abusive relationship from the way Taylor sings about it ("Counting my footsteps/Praying the floor won't through, again", "I lived in your chess game, but you changed the rules every day/Wondering which version of you I might get on the phone tonight"), which really makes the production of this song self-care in some ways.
An important part in healing from any sort of abuse is realizing what happened to you is not your fault. You are not responsible for the gaslighting, nor the manipulation, nor the abuser's inability to cope once you've said your piece on the matter. Mayer's immature, embarrassed response to this song only further proves this point.
The older I get, the more defensive I get of this song and the more I note it as an important point in Taylor's coming to terms with feminism. Her ownership of her own narrative and fearlessness in telling the truth. This fearlessness that has since given her the strength to file lawsuits and make it clear that she is not to be messed with.
Isn't it hilarious that turning 22 used to mean absolutely nothing? Before Taylor released this song, people everywhere were simply aging out of being "finally legal" with no good Instagram captions to show for it. This song, in addition to being the soundtrack for an entire year of my life, is a celebration of friendship. It's an anthem that you can't help but play when you're getting ready for a night out with your girlfriends. When I was 22 (a whole entire year ago), I spent plenty of time stressing over bills and boys, comforting myself with the poetic "Happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time/Miserable and magical."
Seeing Taylor release a single that was an ode to confusion made me and plenty of others feel seen. While of course she's never in her life stressed about paying rent on time, she's able to perfectly put into the words "It feels like one of those nights, we ditch the whole scene." Accepting your own shambles and celebrating your friendships is a feminist win, I'd say.
2012, "Girl At Home"
This is a bonus track, so it's widely unknown by casual fans. "Girl At Home" marks an important change in Taylor's outlook, as her alliances turn more toward her fellow woman than the cute guy at the bar. This sing-songy repetitive tune is by no means doing as much work as Lizzo's "Soulmate" or Dua Lipa's "New Rules," but it's a firm "no" that deserves a listen.
The premise of the song is simple: "Don't look at me, you've got a girl at home/And everybody knows that." Translation? Taylor's not gonna be the other woman, because she has empathy for your girlfriend at home who has no idea what's going on: "It would be a fine proposition, if I was a stupid girl/And yeah, I might go with it, if I hadn't once been just like her."
This is HUGE! We've come from "You Belong With Me" days, when Taylor basically was saying "Leave your girlfriend for me, I'm so much better than she is," to "Don't even look at me, you've got a girlfriend who's waiting up for you."
We stan 2012 Taylor; she finally learned about girl code ("I don't even know her/But I feel a responsibility to do what's upstanding and right") and we're so proud!
2014, "Welcome To New York"
1989, Taylor's fifth and best commercially received album, opens on "Welcome To New York," an anthemic song she wrote after moving to the city after a breakup. She cut her hair and leaned into the pop sounds she'd been flirting with for years. What twenty-something woman doesn't have her own tale of reinvention? Even if we didn't all move to New York, we can all point to a time in our lives when we "took our broken hearts, put them in a drawer."
PLUS! The most important thing about this song is the quickly delivered line, "You can want who you want: Boys and boys and girls and girls!" This marked the beginning of a more politically active Taylor. While she didn't tell us who she voted for in the 2016 election and she never made a firm statement on her beliefs until now, this felt like a huge shift. The girl who once sang "I'll tell [my friends] you're gay!" in a mean cadence was left behind in Nashville.
2014, "Bad Blood"
Bad Blood is not my favorite Taylor track by far. In fact, it's probably one of my least favorites, with clunky lyrics that seem to have been written in a fit of rage. But this song is worth mentioning, because it got some heat. Rumored to be directed at Katy Perry, critics had a lot to say about this song, claiming it to be an anti-feminist anthem. To that I say, there's actually not anything in the lyrics that are inherently mean spirited.
The composition of this song may not be Taylor's best, but they don't at all rival "Better Than Revenge," wherein she has nasty things to say about the song's antagonist. By contrast, "Bad Blood" simply states, "You hurt me, and I don't think we're going to ever go back to the way things were." And that's fine! Feminism is about supporting the liberation of all women on a macro level: all races, all sizes, abilities, etc., but on a micro person-to-person level, not all women are going to get along. Just like all men don't get along. All people are not intended to mesh with one another, and to hold women to an unrealistic standard on the basis of feminism is an unfair generalization.
That said, the video does point to a problem with Taylor's particular brand of white feminism. Taylor has been called a white feminist many times, and during this time of her life that was perhaps true. For those who may not know, "white feminism" refers to the shallow understanding of the movement by many white women, wherein they only consider the implications of gender without considering how much worse oppression is for women who are apart of other marginalized groups. I'm sure I have been guilty of this as well, as feminism is a vast pool of knowledge that can take some wading around before you dive all in. But this video does feature primarily tall, thin, white women (Taylor's "squad" at the time) parading around in steampunk lingerie.
Critical response to this, as well as a public feud with Nicki Minaj, has taught Taylor a lot about intersectionality. In response, she has very intentionally stopped shining a bright light on her "squad" and has staffed her tours and music videos with diversity in mind. And before you come for me: There was a lot of white feminism in the 1989 era. It's cringy to recall. But I do think she has heard the criticism, and I hope that she continues to show off her growth.
2017, "I Did Something Bad"
Hell hath no fury like a Taylor scorned. Everyone's always speculating about the subjects of her songs, so if you were curious: I think this is about Calvin Harris, producer of many hits, such as "This is What You Came For," written almost entirely–surprise!–by Taylor Swift. After Taylor and Calvin's breakup, one of her reps confirmed to Billboard that Miss Swift did, indeed, co-write this track. I mean, lyrics like "Lightning strikes every time she moves" feel inherently Swiftian to me, so I don't know why we were all surprised. During initial recording of the song, Taylor agreed to use a pseudonym so her star wattage wouldn't distract from the song itself, but after the breakup and the song's quick climb up the charts, I guess her team decided the gloves were coming off.
Calvin's response was...well...it was what you expect from a dude with a stage name and a fragile ego. In a string of since-deleted tweets, he (temporarily) flooded his timeline with misplaced insecurity on full display. What comes next? Taylor's sixth studio album, the notably dark reputation, boasts a third track devoted to the DJ's little temper tantrum, proving that even after all this time she is not to be messed with.
"If a man talks shit then I owe him nothing/I don't regret it one bit 'cause he had it coming."
rep as a whole was much darker than previous albums and broke Taylor's pattern of one new record every two years. It also came on the heels of her very public feud with Kim and Kanye and the media deciding, once again, Taylor Swift was cancelled. But the thing that's cool about Taylor is she never really comments on the media's assumptions of her, nor does she care. She doesn't really do interviews much, because she lets her music and her videos speak for her. In fact, when Kim called Taylor a snake, she just made snakes a motif across the reputation era and cashed in.
And look at that, we've caught up to present day. Like I said at the beginning of this blog post, I don't think "ME!" is Taylor's best work to date, but I do think it points to a new era that is going to be decidedly happy. Beyond that, an era wherein Taylor knows exactly who she is and isn't apologizing for it. I'm excited that she's bouncing back from the snakeskin and all black everything of reputation and launching into pastel colors and the fairytale-loving young woman we all fell in love with thirteen years ago. I'm looking forward to seeing how Taylor Swift, decided feminist, continues to grow.