Culture

The Curse and the Cult of Taylor Swift

From archetypal girl-next-door to villanised pop behemoth, BURO. investigates the many sides of Taylor Swift

Shannon Mahanty | 26.11.2019

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Taylor Swift was only 14 years old when she moved to Nashville to pursue a career in country music. Within three years, she’d signed to Big Machine Records, a subsidiary of Sony and released her self-titled debut album. It took her formative experiences of love and heartbreak, and turned them into some of the decades catchiest pop songs. Social media was still in its infancy, but both her music and her online presence felt endearing and relatable, and teenage girls around the planet began to fall for Swift, the country singer who’d write love letters to soon-to-be-ex boyfriends, or put into song the anguish of an unrequited crush.

Swift’s ascent was instantaneous. That first album went Platinum and would go on to become the longest-charting album on the Billboard 200 of the 2000s decade. As she successfully crossed over from country to mainstream, her influence grew, and would continue to set the agenda for the next decade and a half. Swift released six more albums and with them came countless Grammys and sold-out stadium tours, but as her star grew and grew, her public persona shifted and changed. With Fearless [2008] and Speak Now [2010] she continued her hopeless romantic narrative, but by 2012’s Red album, she’d outgrown her age of innocence. A coming-of-age moment in the singers trajectory, there were the stirrings of anger, this was the era of “I knew you were trouble when you walked in” and “We are never ever getting back together.”

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With every new Taylor Swift album came a new chapter of Taylor Swift as a celebrity. First she was the goofy girl-next-door type. She had cats named after her favourite TV characters (Olivia Benson from Law and Order, and Grey’s Anatomy's Meredith Grey). She was sweet, relatable and undoubtedly nice. Fans could imagine being friends with her, and some of them got the chance when she’d surprise the loyalist 'Swifties' by turning up at their homes. Meanwhile, she became friends with all the other nice celebrities - Karlie Kloss, Ed Sheeran and Selena Gomez. There was no doubt about it, Taylor Swift was nice.

"Swift’s group of friends began to feel curated and ingenuous. Public opinion was divided. Was she really that nice, or was her behaviour planned and contrived in order to gaiN influence?"

THE CURSE

However, by the time Swift released her fifth album, 1989, attitudes had started to shift. Olivia and Meredith took a back seat on Swift’s instagram account, and in their place came 'the squad', a friendship group that happened to be made up of some of the world’s most famous musicians, supermodels, actors and athletes women in the world. From Cara Delevingne and Kendall Jenner to Hailee Steinfeld and Serena Williams, Swift surrounded herself with fellow A-listers, throwing July 4th parties and inviting the so-called 'squad' to perform at her live shows. Increasingly, detractors started pointing out that Swift’s group of friends began to feel curated and ingenuous. Public opinion was divided. Was she really that nice, or was her behaviour planned and contrived in order to gain attention and influence?

Then came the scandals. Highlights include her (since resolved) feud with Katy Perry about stolen back-up dancers. Then came the now infamous incident when Kim Kardashian released the recording of a phone call between Kanye West and Swift. In the conversation, Swift appears to sign off the lyric, “I made that bitch famous”, the same lyric she then went on to publicly call him out for. Kardashian’s move cemented Swift’s newfound reputation; she was no longer the archetypal girl next door, and now recast as a wolf in sheep's clothing. In the run up to the 2016 US elections, she was further criticised for remaining non-partisan despite having huge sway with voters, at a time when numerous celebrities were being hugely vocal in denouncing Donald Trump. She was accused of using feminism only to gain record sales, and it felt unclear what she stood for.

THE CULT

2017 became a landmark year for Swift. In July, a jury ruled in her favour against radio host David Mueller, a man Swift had accused of groping her in 2013. “My hope is to help those whose voices who should also be heard,”she said in a statement after the trial, where she pledge to make donations “to multiple organisations that help sexual assault victims defend themselves.” Swift's actions was lauded by Time Magazine who put her on its 'Silence Breakers' covers, honouring those who spoke out against sexual assault and harassment. Last year, she broke her political silence, posting a picture to Instagram and captioning it with the Tennessee Democrats she intended to vote for. It was the first time in her career that she’d ever backed a political candidate, and her endorsement sparked a surge in voter registrations. These actions marked the start of Swift the activist, but unlike her squad-goals-girl-gang feminism, her stance felt considered and authentic.

On Sunday night’s American Music Awards, Taylor Swift picked up seven wins for her latest album, Lover, including the much-coveted Artist of the Decade award. It’s not only a tremendous feat, but it feels like a moment of redemption for Swift. Lover is Taylor Swift’s biggest (18 tracks) and boldest album. Where 2017’s Reputation paid close attention to respond to her critics, in Lover, she’s older, wiser, freer. Meanwhile, the AMA’s marked the close of a drawn out legal battle between Swift and her form label bosses, Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta. Earlier in the month, Swift tweeted that the pair were trying to stop her from playing her old music “This is WRONG” she said “Neither of those men had a hand in the writing of those songs”. “If Ariana, Billie, Halsey and others seem so effortlessly themselves,” Rolling Stone’s review argued, “it’s in part because Swift worked so hard at speaking her truth and smiting her enemies.”

As she accepted her final award, the singer thanked the fans that had stuck by every her iteration: "The last year of my life has had some of the most amazing times and also some of the hardest things I've gone through in my life. It's been a lot of good, it's been a lot of really complicated ... thank you so much for being there and for caring."

It's been a tumultuous few years for Taylor Swift, one in which she has consistently challenged and reinvented the way the world sees her. As the decade comes to a close, her ascent shows no sign of waning. Swift is a unique pop star, and one who knows exactly how to adapt to the cult and the curse of celebrity.

images I Sutterstock

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