As one of the most successful musicians ever, Taylor Swift doesn’t need this essay, but I do. Last week, she announced her re-recorded Fearless (Taylor’s Version) will be out April 9th, and offered a re-imagined version of her thirteen-year-old hit “Love Story”. This one song provides a nostalgia trip, a reclamation of her art from the people who sold her masters, and an opportunity to see the ways her singing and writing have evolved and matured beyond being a breathless teen first catapulted into the public eye in the mid-2000s.
Coupled with documentaries like the New York Times’ Framing Britney Spears, this moment, watching Swift’s well-publicized fallout with Scooter Braun over the unauthorized sale of her masters and back catalogue, and the subsequent fight to control her own recordings, implicates us all in our attitudes towards female artists and the art they make.
When the original Fearless, Swift’s most successful album to date, was first released in 2008, I was eleven–too young to see the misogyny behind the press deriding and dismissing anything teen girls enjoyed, from Taylor Swift herself to One Direction to Twilight, a trend going all the way back to the Beatles. When her surprised expression at winning another Grammy became a punchline, I concluded she was probably fake and shallow. And “Love Story”–didn’t she know Romeo and Juliet died at the end? That’s not exactly a solid model to build a life around. Tabloids speculated she cycled through real-life romantic partners for song inspiration–decoding what lyric was about who became a national pastime–as if no man had ever received high acclaim for mining his personal life for creative material. A woman singing about relationships gone wrong was whining over a broken heart, her love songs about love gone right fluff, fantasy, frivolous, unworthy of being taken seriously, unworthy of being called art.
A man doing the exact same thing was a sensitive genius–a double standard she’s detailed herself on blunt songs like “The Man”.
Swift’s “Love Story” has always been an idyllic tale, a reminder of possibility, that we are all able to rewrite the traditional endings–its characters overcome the narrator’s controlling dad and their town’s disapproval to be together. Fast forward 13 years (which I’m sure is no accident), and her decision to re-release this first, of all her songs, shows our society that still romanticizes suffering as a consequence of art–that the more tragic, self-destructive, and minor key you are, the more significant your art becomes–that love and hope are perhaps what we need most of all.
WhileSwift has been routinely criticized for exploring new sounds–whether it was her initial crossover from country’s girl next door to mainstream pop radio with 2012’s Red, or the big synth sounds of 1989, or the darker, moodier, woodsy cabin roots of her quarantine record Folklore featuring collabs with Matt Berninger of the National and Bon Iver. Nothing is true, and we are constantly changing. Her rerecording effort demonstrates what any artist already knows–they know the intentions behind their work better than anyone.
As I’ve grown into my own art over the past few years, I approach creating from a similar place: start with myself, and make it universal. My words are what they are; I don’t need the approval of a man–a partner, an agent, a publisher, an editor, a reader–to make them work. I gained this confidence from filling my musical rotation with the work of women close to my own age and the female stars before them who paved the way. I sound dismissive when I say “I don’t listen to men”, but it’s true–I can count on one hand the male musicians or male-fronted bands I enjoy.
You don’t have to enjoy her music, but if one of the most popular musicians of all time, the artist of the decade, has to fight this hard to revisit and control her own work, her own expressions of her own life, how much harder is it for female artists without her power and privilege to be heard, played, and taken seriously–particularly for female and nonbinary artists of color? What art are we missing out on when the country radio stations that made Taylor Swift can still be fined for playing two female artists back to back? When these artists don’t feel supported or safe because at any moment, a powerful man could abuse that power? When we dismiss the thoughts and feelings of young girls instead of… I don’t know, listening?