We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them they have chosen to show us. — Taylor Swift
The first song I’ve ever heard by Taylor Swift was back in 2007. I was in the back of the car watching the rain on the window, and “Teardrops on My Guitar” was playing on the radio. I couldn’t understand what she was talking about in the song because I was only fifteen at the time. But as I listened carefully to the lyrics, and pictured how she laughed and held her breath the way she described it, somehow, I understood what she felt.
Twelve years and six albums later, I still listen to her songs the way a devout parishioner would sing their hymns every Sunday. I definitely identify as a Swiftie, and yes I know at least 98% of her songs by heart, so don’t question my superfan license.
I am not a stranger to what her critics are saying about her, and I admit that it’s part of what makes her so interesting. Because you can see how her environment and her celebrity status affects her process and ultimately, her music. However, being there with her in the open arena of social media, and in the stadiums of the tours I have attended, I can tell that there is a huge part of her persona that a lot of her naysayers are not seeing.
There was one article I read the other day that really got to me. It pointed out that Swift has mastered faux-intimacy, and is an expert in addressing millions of strangers as if they were close. This was hurtful. Not because it isn’t true, but because it is misguided.
Yes, Taylor exudes an aura that is overtly friendly, but that is part of her performance. Her particular brand had always leaned on the theatrical, where her winks, seductive smug, fake laughs, and even her sincere dialogues are all part of the act. What blurs that line are the candidness in her tone, the traces of sincerity, and the depth in her message.
I understand that some children may have a hard time telling the difference, but that is where parental guidance plays a key role not just in Taylor’s case, but in all forms of entertainment. The rest of us adults are not as dumb and delusional as what the critics and haters seem to think.
So if she’s not a manipulative fake bestie and psycho ex-girlfriend, then who is Taylor Swift to her fans?
Music is widely varying, especially in today’s world where anyone who can splice coherent noises can post their work online and call it a song. But where Taylor is distinguished as an artist is that at the centre of her music are her lyrics that are grounded in real love, and real pain.
Some of those lyrics are almost autobiographical, filled with vivid images of love stories and wildest dreams, but also of treacherous heartbreaks and bad blood between former friends. And that is why her songs are popular because they speak from personal experiences that make them relatable.
And you understand now why they lost their minds and fought the wars. And why I’ve spent my whole life trying to put it into words.
— “You Are In Love”, 1989 Album, Taylor Swift
Apart from her music, she also doesn’t shy away from getting real with her fans. I attended her 1989 World Tour in Sydney back in 2015, and there was a moment where Taylor addressed the crowd as part of her transition to the next song. She talked about societal standards and the pressures of fitting in; about criticism and how they echo in your mind and become a part of how you see yourself. And then she said in the unmistakable tone of someone who has been thoroughly bruised, “that the moment you realise that you are not the opinion of someone who don’t know you or care about you, is the moment you feel clean.”
Those words — uttered by design but not without care, struck a chord with many of us in the crowd that night. Her openness about her struggles became the platform from which her fans could process their own, embellishing her image into their personal lives. This is the profound effect of empathy, and how Taylor Swift transcended from being relatable to being relevant.
Subsequently, and true to her form, she opened yet another vein in the Reputation Tour when she talked about how we all love the feeling of finding something real. She talked about gossip, and our fear of the things that can threaten the prospect of genuine relationships. “Having a bad reputation in our mind could get in the way of you finding real friendship, real love, real acceptance” said Taylor Swift in her sequinned rainbow dress. And yet again, we are incredibly moved.
Why is that? Well, never before has a generation been so susceptible to criticism than we do now in the age of social media. According to a survey conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health, social media sites often inspire feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and self-loathing among young people who frequently use the top five platforms.
Whether it be from self-comparison to other profiles, public disagreement, or outright bullying, many people, especially millennials, are now at risk of facing a similar dilemma as Taylor did. And while that may vary in scale by a lightyear, the anger and shame injures our mental health in the same way.
Taylor Swift is the embodiment of a generation that is constantly berated. Therefore, it is no surprise that we are responding to her music the way we do, because this is the life we all live now.
The Reputation Tour closed at $345.7 million, a considerable leap from her previous 1989 World Tour in 2015, which made $250.7 million according to Billboard. And many of her critics have since changed their minds about her, like this one:
In the end, her enduring devotion to her work is what brought her back to life. She poured herself into every song, and every performance; and I know this because I was there with her under the heavy downpour in Sydney, and it was one of the best times of my life.
The album, the tour, the people who supported it, and its unprecedented success were Taylor Swift’s real reputation. Proving to everyone that no amount of condemnation, fabricated news, and receipts will ever be stronger than a sincere act of human connection.