This appendix is the companion piece of A Bad Reputation: Taylor Swift at Wembley Stadium.
Greetings, rock dwellers. Read on for a potted history of Taylor Swift’s career, from all-American girl next door to renowned snake.
The Early Years (2006-2012)
Taylor Swift started out as a wholesome girl-next-door country artist, a determined sixteen-year-old penning songs about boys from school in her bedroom. Her self-titled first album came out in 2006, and caught the attention of country radio and a few big-name country musicians (notably Tim McGraw, whose music is referred to in her debut single). Swift made it big as a country musician before seamlessly transitioning to pop music, securing her place as a global superstar. (The country music scene is renowned for its loyalty; country radio hosts and other musicians have continued to vocalise their support for Swift long after she left them all behind for the bright lights of the big city. Is there a chance that this is another instance of micro-managing? Was thirteen-year-old Taylor playing the long game when she demanded that her parents move the entire family to Nashville from Pennsylvania so she could become a country musician; did she anticipate that the solid fanbase she would build there would stay with her forever? Almost definitely.)
Her second and third albums, Fearless (2008) and Speak Now (2010), established Swift as a gifted songwriter (Swift wrote every song on Speak Now alone, without co-writers), and paved the way for her leap into pop music and global celebrity. The only thing of real interest to happen in these years was the infamous 2009 VMA incident, when Swift went up to collect her Best Female Video award and Kanye West hopped on stage, stole her mic, and told the world that “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.”
More than her music, this incident is what propelled Swift to stardom. Everyone weighed in on the controversy, including then-President Obama and now-President Trump. Although Swift was doubtless upset by the episode, she took it in her stride; she wrote a song about how she forgave West, performed it at the 2010 VMAs, and “rode the waves” of her newfound popularity. She successfully incorporated it into the narrative of her career, going so far as to display a framed photo of the incident in her home. Being the victim, it seems, worked out well for her.
However, the release of Swift’s last country album, RED, in 2012 signalled the beginning of a slow descent in the eyes of the public; couldn’t she write songs about anything other than boys and break-ups? The victim narrative was wearing a little thin.
Mean Girls (2012-15)
Leaving aside the blatant misogyny of many of the critiques that Swift has faced, it is nevertheless true that the way she handled herself publicly from then on was … not great. She figured out that people were criticising her for doing things that any male artist gets to do, and she started to be vocal about feminism; she was being cast as a boy-crazy serial dater by the media, and she made sure she was seen hanging out with female friends (Dianna Agron, Karlie Kloss, Lena Dunham, Emma Stone, Lorde; this, of course, was laying the groundwork for the #squad to come); basically, she tried to fit herself to the mould the media seemed to want her to occupy, but she was always one step behind. In 2013, she got into a public spat with Katy Perry; the two artists were fighting over dancers for their respective tours, and Swift’s attempts to paint herself as a victim again were met with open hostility by Perry.
Her next album, 1989 (2014), was a critical and commercial smash-hit, and fans hailed the “1989 era” with enthusiasm: this wasn’t only a new sound, but the dramatic haircut, shift in personal style, and move to New York City (gestured towards all those years ago in “Mean”: “Someday, I’ll be / Living in a big old city”) all conspired to announce a completely New Taylor. The album’s lead single, “Shake It Off”, seemed to say that Swift was unconcerned with her portrayal in the media, and that she was just going to keep doing her Taylor thing.
That’s not quite how it happened, though. The same rumours and accusations dogged her wherever she went; 1989’s blatant references to her relationship and break-up with Harry Styles were viewed as petty and gauche; her gang of famous girlfriends started to look less like female empowerment and more like a bunch of privileged, beautiful, blonde, white girls parading around and oozing “you can’t sit with us” vibes. Although she was clearly trying, hard, to wrest control of her narrative back from the media, it wasn’t working. Swift has always hidden messages in the lyric booklets for each album – usually the letters highlighted in each song will spell out the name or a significant memory associated with the song’s subject (for “Enchanted” the clue is “Adam”; for “Red”, it’s the more mysterious “Sag”). In 1989, this tradition, too, was reworked: instead of individual hints, the letters throughout the booklet make one big message, the thesis of the album, the one thing that Swift wants us to take away: “She lost him, but she found herself, and somehow that was everything”.
But that wasn’t everything. Despite this clear articulation of Swift’s new feminist stance, of her rejection of the boy-obsessed role, the critics didn’t stop. Hounded by the press, and Harry Styles’s fans, Swift withdrew from the public eye and stopped dating. She stopped going to awards shows, because whenever she did, there was a camera ready to catch her Surprised Face™, and a pundit waiting on a couch to dissect the photo and prove her insincerity. Her white feminism got her into a Twitter fight with Nicki Minaj. Her attempts to prove her worth as an artist, to maintain a private life in the public eye, had failed. And then. And then.
Character Assassination (Late 2015-Present)
Things started to look up, with Swift making more public appearances (including with new boyfriend Calvin Harris) and seemingly mending fences with West. Then, in February 2016, West released “Famous”, a track which features the lyric, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous (God damn) / I made that bitch famous.” (Was this very extra and borderline misogynist? Sure. He wasn’t, like, wrong, though – as Swift’s own home decor testifies.) Anonymous sources claimed that Swift had approved the lyric in advance, but a spokesperson for Swift contradicted this, instead arguing that Swift had “cautioned him about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message”. West said that the idea had been Swift’s own, claiming that she told a mutual friend, “I can’t be mad at Kanye because he made me famous!” Swift didn’t respond publicly, but in her Grammys acceptance speech for the Album of the Year award, she appeared to reject the idea that anyone was responsible for her success but herself: “I want to say to all the young women out there: There are going to be people along the way who try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame […] It was you, and the people who love you, who put you there.” Classic Taylor, framing everything as a learning opportunity, a chance to empower young women, to thank her fans and supporters.
For a short time, it seemed like it might blow over, but in June, Kim Kardashian West told GQ that Swift “totally approved [the lyrics]”, and that there was video footage of the conversation in question (also in June, Swift and Harris’ relationship ended – amicably at first, but then … not so much). Soon after the interview, West released the video for “Famous” – in which a naked Taylor Swift (among other celebrities) shares a bed with Kim and Kanye (the celebrities featured in the video were wax models). Kim Kardashian West released the footage of the phone call via Snapchat, and Swift responded by typing out a note on her iPhone, which she screenshotted and posted to social media. In it, Swift accused the Wests of “character assassination”, and requested “to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of, since 2009.”
It was simple, and ineffective. From that day on, the snake emoji and the name Taylor Swift were forever linked; Calvin Harris, too, got in on the action and tweeted a rant that sparked the #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty on Twitter. Shortly after this, Swift started dating actor Tom Hiddleston, but they broke up a few months later (reportedly after she cheated on him due to his narcissism).
See you in 5 years for an update.
Nicky is a cultural critic who writes about all kinds of art – from pop culture to theatre – and tweets about Taylor Swift. You can find her at http://nickyjwatkinson.co.uk/ and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.