Taylor’s VersionHow Swift Created a Roadmap for Young Women in Pop

Taylor Swift, in a red car, gazes into the distance wearing red lipstick, an orange newsboy-style hat, a beige coat, and a silver, diamond-shaped ring that says “RED”

Taylor Swift on the cover of Red (Taylor’s Version) (Photo credit: Republic Records/Beth Garrabrant)

To say that Taylor Swift’s Red—the original 2012 version of her newly released rerecording dubbed “Taylor’s Version”—is a breakup album would be to inherently undermine it. Though Swift herself called it an homage to heartbreak and the mosaic of emotions it causes, Red was also significant because it marked her transition from country to pop music nearly a decade ago. With updated lyrics, new stylistic elements from a more mature Swift, and songs from the vault, the latest iteration of Red has truly come into itself. By embodying the broad spectrum of emotions that come from fragile human relationships, Red leaves us with a desperate craving to relive and re-process our own experiences with love and loss, no matter how devastating.

Following Swift’s legal battle with Scooter Braun and her announcement that she would rerecord her first six albums with her own touches, Red (Taylor’s Version) is the latest, much-anticipated addition to the musician’s impressive discography. With her newer releases, including folklore (2020) and evermore (2020), it’s clear that Swift has continued to forge her own path forward—proving, as usual, that you don’t have to be forced into a career that doesn’t feel like yours. In fact, the intentionality of her rereleased albums only further cements what fans (including myself) have known for almost two decades: Taylor Swift is nothing if not strategic about how she tells her story. She frequently drops easter eggs about others songs and such. There’s symbolism chiseled into her wardrobe choices and music videos. And the continuity of lyrics across varying songs and albums—the way Swift sings the words “never ever” in “I Almost Do” in the same cadence that she sings them in “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” for example, or “My baby loves me like I’m brand new” in Reputation’s “Call It What You Want” to “And will you still want me when I’m nothing new?” in the vault track “Nothing New”)—helps show that Swift has always been working toward building her legacy in a tactical way. Her reworked albums are a reminder that Swift has chosen to define herself.

Listening to 2012’s Red nearly a decade later provides a fresh perspective on how far Swift has come personally and professionally since its initial release. The original song versions came out at a time when Swift was learning how to be in the spotlight—to be vulnerable in an authentic-but-still-measured way. By that time, she had already been publicly linked with several famous suitors, including Joe Jonas, John Mayer, and Jake Gyllenhaal, and while paparazzi had swarmed her outings, media outlets took the photos and ran with them, often perpetuating sexist accounts about Swift’s love life when the relationships ended. Her lyrics only fed the flames of the portrayal of Swift as a serial monogamist burning through men for songwriting inspiration—something she later commented on in the lyrics and music video for “Blank Space,” reminding us of the singer’s wry self-awareness with the line, “Got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane.” She would continue to mock the media narratives with her 2017 album Reputation, addressing her many relationships, as well as the long-running conflict between her and Kanye West and his ex-wife Kim Kardashian (“Look What You Made Me Do”). But even in her music, confessional and personal as it was, it’s become increasingly clear that she was only giving as much detail as she wanted us to have. She has always told stories from character’s perspectives strategically, which we can see now as she lets us into Taylor’s version.

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With the rerelease of her old songs, casual onlookers who had never paid Swift much mind are discovering how wrong it was that she was misogynistically written off as a naive, young girl writing about her exes. In actuality, she’s always been a woman with immense talent, both lyrically and production-wise. Varying songs and albums of Swift’s have been trending on Twitter and TikTok for weeks leading up to Red (Taylor’s Version), including “Wildest Dreams” and “I Knew You Were Trouble,” with fans old and new alike revisiting the masterful arcs and storytelling presented in much of her music. “Something that’s interesting to come out of the folklore and evermore era as well as the power of music trending on TikTok is that people who previously underestimated Taylor or dismissed her as ‘the girl who writes about her exes’ are now interested in her older discography, which I think speaks volumes about how timeless her talent is,” says Irene, a 26-year-old who’s been a fan since Swift’s debut. It’s not that Taylor Swift has suddenly become more talented and savvy at this point in her career, but it’s that she’s finally being appraised more holistically.

Recently, Swift has become even more selective about the elements of her personal life that she chooses to share—and in many ways, her artistic choices are more curated than ever. While most of her 2000’s and 2010’s hits were inspired by her real life, 2020 ushered in a new phase of Swift’s artistry when she pivoted to a less personal lens in totality. On both folklore and evermore she wrote and sang songs from the perspective of fictional or semi-fictional characters. She also set boundaries and shut the public out of her personal life, revealing in her 2020 documentary Miss Americana that she’d intentionally spent over a year out of the public eye. For anyone who has followed Swift’s career, it’s obvious how difficult it’s been for Swift to share less of herself personally in order to better control her own narrative and figure out how to move forward after the whirlwinds of media controversies over her most private affairs. 

Swift has grown up quickly. Her naivety, whether manufactured as part of her brand or not, has shape-shifted into a controlled vulnerability, and an intentionally strategized gentle storytelling that decenters her own personal life. By rerecording her songs to take back her own music, she’s been deliberate about when, how, and to what degree she shares with us—a secrecy and strategicness perhaps only rivaled and outdone by Beyoncé. Watching Taylor Swift morph from a vulnerable teen artist taken advantage of by older men and tabloids into a woman in charge of her career and personal narrative is uniquely satisfying because it’s rare to see a woman have the opportunity to take back her power post-exploitation.

Seven-time Grammy winner Taylor Swift performs on stage of the European leg of The RED Tour on February 1, 2014 in London, England (Photo: Gareth Cattermole/TAS/Getty Images for TAS)

While Swift has always prioritized authenticity in her artistic choices, she’s only taken true control of her brand and narrative in the last few years. Now, the artist speaks openly about politics, but that wasn’t the case for most of her career. Both critics and long-time fans (endearingly and sometimes mockingly called “Swifties”) spent years asking Swift to speak out about politics and condemn the Nazis and alt-right members of her fanbases. It wasn’t until 2019 that the artist explicitly voiced her support of queer people and spoke out against Republican candidates such as Donald Trump and Marsha Blackburn. This shift coincided with the release of her Netflix documentary Miss Americana, which revealed the behind-the-scenes battle between Swift and her management team, who demanded that she conceal her politics and stay quiet. This time, she was telling her side of the story. Perhaps one of the most important lines in Miss Americana comes at the beginning when Swift says, “My entire moral code as a kid and now is a need to be thought of as good […]I’d been trained to be happy when you get a lot of praise.”

While explanations like these cannot totally excuse her silence for a large portion of her career—especially given that she is a rich white woman who’s one of the most successful artists in music history—it does give us a window into the pressures and exploitation of her vulnerabilities that she was fighting all along. In 2016, the same year as the U.S. election, Swift was almost entirely focused on writing Reputation. She was simultaneously trying to prove herself despite feeling pressured by the music industry—while also struggling with her mother’s cancer diagnosis.

Swift has since spent time reexamining the value system she was raised with, and redefining what it actually means to do and be “good,” which has a very specific “moral” connotation as defined by white supremacy. In the world that Swift was raised in, to be good meant to please people, to not speak out or disrupt, and to make people—specifically white people—feel comfortable. 

The 2021 iteration of Swift with “fuck you” money and a career large enough to do whatever she wants clearly cares less about making people feel comfortable. Since choosing her own path, Swift has continued to exhibit growth in the ways she uses her platform, speaking up as well as putting her money where her mouth is. She’s donated large amounts of cash to advocacy groups working against homophobic and transphobic policies, and has continued learning about and speaking up about oppression and discrimination. Leading up to her 30th birthday, Swift also wrote an essay for Elle magazine in which she talked about finding her political voice, a far cry from her former silence.

Swift’s fight for power over her own art, brand, and narrative has reverberated across the industry, impacting the way that younger women artists such as Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish are navigating the spotlight today.

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Today, it’s obvious she’s still learning what it looks like to be the kind of public figure she wants to be, but she’s setting an example in the meantime. Truthfully, it’s only recently become popular or even acceptable for celebrities to discuss more left-leaning beliefs. In 2003, the Dixie Chicks (now known as the Chicks) all but ruined their careers when they spoke out against George W. Bush, and P!nk was considered a rebel for her 2006 song “Dear Mr. President.” As Swift was first coming into the world of professional music in 2006, she was no doubt influenced by the lineage of women artists who were expected to be pretty faces and voices with no political identity. Now, so much has changed in the last two decades that Swift has stepped up as a leader among artists who are further changing what it means to create a legacy.

Swift’s fight for power over her own art, brand, and narrative has reverberated across the industry, impacting the way that younger women artists such as Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish are navigating the spotlight today. Both artists have made the healthy choice to set boundaries around their own privacy and self-image at much earlier phases in their careers. Without Taylor Swift, or even Britney Spears as examples, younger women artists might not have the necessary blueprints to figure out what to avoid and how to protect themselves from exploitation. Rodrigo even sings about this in her song “brutal” from earlier this year, saying, “And I’m so caught up in the news of who likes me and who hates you / And I’m so tired that I might quit my job, start a new life / And they’d all be so disappointed, ‘cause who am I if not exploited?” It’s a nod to only being as valuable as what entertainment you can provide as a young, talented woman. 

If artists like Adele have helped to perfect weepy pop ballads with “Hello” and “Someone Like You,” then Swift’s confessional pop has led the way in capturing the depths of young people’s most devastating emotions. On the career side, artists like Spears and Swift, and even Kesha, have been loud and declarative about how young women are harmed and battered down by an industry and culture that expects them to simply smile for the camera like puppets. Swift often writes about this experience, paying homage to predecessors like Joni Mitchell in “The Lucky One,” singing, “Now it’s big black cars, and Riviera views / And your lover in the foyer doesn’t even know you / And your secrets end up splashed on the news front page / And they tell you that you’re lucky but you’re so confused, / ‘cause you don’t feel pretty, you just feel used / And all the young things line up to take your place.”

In the early aughts, Swift and other pop stars bore the brunt of these trials without a roadmap, totally unaware of the danger in the spotlight; now Rodrigo and younger artists can look to those models as they move forward in their nascent careers. They might be better prepared for the exploitation game thanks to Swift’s generation who already came, saw, and conquered.

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by Elly Belle
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Elly Belle is a writer and digital media strategist who lives and works in Brooklyn. They’re passionate about advocacy, culture, media, and bringing stories about restorative justice and healing to the spotlight. Their words can be found in Teen Vogue, Thrillist, InStyle, Playboy, Publisher’s Weekly, BUST magazine, and other outlets. Follow them on Twitter @literelly.