You know the feeling: You’re waiting in line at Starbucks or browsing the eye care section at CVS and suddenly a whiny, upbeat little voice comes on over the speakers, usually accompanied by a half-hearted acoustic guitar or a synthetic backbeat. It doesn’t take long before you realize that you are being presented with the so-called "musical stylings" of Miss Taylor Swift.
No matter how they feel about her, people generally have some sort of reaction to Swift, whether they hear her on the radio, see her on T.V., or read about her in a gossip rag. But I think it’s safe to say that her general reception has changed a bit since her first album was released in 2008, back when she was a bright eyed, bushy tailed (and haired) teen star with hits such as “Our Song” and “Teardrops on my Guitar.” She was the queen of adolescent heartbreak, giving young girls everywhere someone to look to when the puppy love wasn’t what it was expected to be. But is that just a gimmick? If so, does that change the meaning behind it?
For help, I asked Anna Cox, a cheery high school senior with an appreciation for upbeat, happy tunes.
“At the beginning of her career, I was a big fan,” said Anna. “I loved the messages of her songs as well as her wholesome, country style.”
This was a widespread reaction. Rolling Stone admired her “starry-eyed lyrics about princesses and ball gowns and kissing in the rain,” something the teenage girl demographic would happily accept. Parents nationwide appreciated the fact that Swift was a young, hip artist with a different set of values from the Ke$has and Britneys of the world, not to mention the fact that she wrote and continues to write her own music.
But her new albums have failed to bring new themes, only new boys as the focus. Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner, John Mayer, and Jake Gyllenhaal were all featured on albums from Fearless to Red, and it’s safe to say that songs targeting Connor Kennedy and Harry Styles aren’t going to be far behind on the set list. But what’s the theme? Taylor is always the victim. I’m sure we can all understand the occasional song about being let down by a guy or girl, but it becomes mundane when the artist is constantly pointing fingers.
For many fans, it seems Swift's message has changed quite a bit over the years. Anna, for example, is put-off by the evolution of Swift’s music, saying, “most of her songs are centered around the same thing: boys. And most of her songs focus on their negatives."
Swift began with a musical repertoire filled with cutesy ditties like “Love Story” and even ones that didn’t revolve around teenage love, such as “Never Grow Up.” The latter had an honest yet positive message, saying that life can be tough, but it is all worth it and you’ll get through it. “Fifteen,” for example, is an earlier Swift song about heartbreak that revolves around the idea of naiveté and how common it is to make mistakes and get swept off your feet at a young age. Whether or not you like her style, I think it can be widely agreed that this is what adolescent girls need: someone to honestly tell them “it’s OK, everyone’s a teen at some point, keep your chin up.” But Anna makes a valid point in saying that this is not the way Swift's songs are now.
One of Swift's favorite methods of getting people on her side in her boy battles as of late is “slut shaming,” or using another girl’s reputation in a negative way in order to slander her while elevating herself. For Taylor, the men aren’t the only perpetrators in her songs; any female that impedes her ability to be with the apple of her sparkly blue eye is an immediate target for bashing. “You Belong With Me” describes the relationship between good-girl Taylor and a rival girl who wears “short skirts” and “high heels” while Swift is quirky, adorable, and innocent in her “t-shirts” and “sneakers.” “Better Than Revenge” describes a girl who is “better known for the things that she does on the mattress,” who is clearly a harlot who stole Swift’s man, even though the song never states that Swift and the boy in question were ever officially together. Her videos, too, have this same theme. The “other woman” is always portrayed as a promiscuous girl, usually with brown hair, who wears heavy eye makeup and is otherwise highly sexualized, while Taylor is presented as a pristine good-girl.
Of course, everyone has a different set of values regarding their own sexuality, but it seems as though Taylor Swift is demonizing one while clinging to another. Her songs, which once had a very empowering message for women, now seem to say something along the lines of “men will be blinded by your sexuality and choose you over a pure girl for all the wrong reasons.” Is it true that this does happen in many cases? Of course. But does wearing short skirts and high heels make you a sexual deviant who steals men from those more deserving? Certainly not. Whether or not slut-shaming is Swift’s intention, it certainly comes across that way in many of her songs, which is not necessarily a good lesson to be teaching our young girls.
In her most recent album, Red, Swift takes a slightly different approach. Instead of putting down other women, she plays the victim. Repeatedly. This is not to say that Taylor Swift has never been hurt in a relationship or that if someone is hurt in a relationship, they can’t express it, but her insistence on not taking the blame for any of her failed relationships isn’t a great example, either. So let’s look at this more closely. It has been verified by Swift herself that Red is all about Jake Gyllenhaal, her former boyfriend of less than six months. Gyllenhaal allegedly broke up with her because he was becoming uncomfortable with the age difference (he was 29 at the time while she was only 21), along with all of the unwanted media attention he had been getting. Does Taylor have a right to be hurt? Of course she does. However, to irrationally put all the blame on Jake and spend an entire album saying “poor me” multiple times to different backing tracks isn’t exactly empowering. And yes, I am aware that not every song on the album has this message, but it is a recurring theme. Songs like “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “All Too Well” paint the picture of a girl who had an unfortunate but seemingly not bitter breakup with her boyfriend, but insists on “lying on the cold hard ground.”
While many may argue that Swift is a powerful female, is difficult to say whether or not she is a positive influence on girls. On the one hand, she does tend to blame most of her problems on other women who happen to be more sexualized than her, or men who simply do not let her have things her way. This gives the message that you have to be a perfect, virginal angel and that an innocent breakup for perfectly legitimate reasons is grounds for endless public slander and weekly all-nighters as pity parties. On the other hand, she has another message that people seem to be responding to: relationship problems are normal and they suck and you should be able to talk about them freely. This is something she prides herself on, and while I agree that it is a good message, I think that I and many others believe that Swift is going about it the wrong way. By refusing to take any of the blame for her mistakes in relationships, she emanates the idea that it’s okay to be whiny and put others down and never have to take the fall, which is not the formula for a healthy relationship of any kind.
Cora Swise is a freshman B.F.A. Acting major. She likes black and white movies, tofu, and Tumblr.