In which I get to speak about both Taylor Swift AND Twilight in the same post.
2020 was the year Twilight came back. Sure, for those of us who never deleted Tumblr (guilty), it never really left – and we got to see the Renaissance creep up and take over the discourse first hand. But for the majority of the population, Twilight was a late 00s phenomenon which returned in full force in 2020 with the publication of Midnight Sun, bringing with it a reappraisal in critical thinking about the original texts which were originally panned universally by everyone but their target audience – teenage girls.
With the release of lockdown albums folklore and evermore, as well as the re-recording and re-release of her first few studio albums (Fearless is out today you guys!!), Taylor Swift, in a way, conducted her own renaissance – not necessarily in terms of popularity but in critical appeal.
For the purpose of this essay, I am going to divide her career into three separate and significant eras. First, the teenage girl era. This is everything pre-1989, i.e. before she went mainstream-pop. Then, there’s the pop era, which is 1989 to Lover. And then, the renaissance era, the reappraisal of her music which came with folklore, evermore, and everything else to the present day. I think these three eras follow the way I interacted with her music (she lost me somewhat during the pop era) but also follows a few significant moments of her career – most notably, critical success in the “muso” world, and the rise of streaming.
I’m going to look at the differences between these eras, specifically the ways in which her music was received and judged by music critics and the world around her, and what the reasons for those judgements may have been.
THE POWER OF FANDOM
Similar to Twilight, Taylor Swift’s music was very much aimed at teenage girls. Hell, Swift was a teenage girl when she wrote those songs, having been hired as a songwriter since the age of 15. It doesn’t take much to see how hated teenage girls are, from all walks of life – the pressure to be attractive and adhere to the male gaze is something you can be aware of since the early ages of 9,10,11, and it’s as a teenager you begin to be expected to perform femininity. This leads to insecurity, which makes the age group an easy target, which perpetuates the cycle more.
We can see this happen with the release of Taylor Swift’s first four albums – albums which broke records, sold millions, and won over the vast majority of the population, except the more serious muso blogs, who largely dismissed her as commercial pop nonsense not worth reviewing. In massive interviews with Ellen Degeneres, she was dismissed as a boy-crazy girl, known in memes the internet over as a serial dater, and slut shamed just as often as she was belittled and patronised. She wasn’t taken seriously as a person, nor as a songwriter.
While her empire seemed to grow throughout the pop era, it was only mainstream success that she found – something superficial which was connected to the sheer numbers she managed to turn, Grammy awards for Album of the Year, but with next to no support from the smaller and more serious critics in the industry.
But that all changed with the release of folklore and evermore. The star who had (at least) a year off of trying to fill stadiums was able to retreat inwards and create indie folk albums which were universally loved by critics and fans alike. However, it was Pitchfork who surprised me the most (and inspired this blog post). On the release day of folklore, the critical juggernauts decided to have a ‘Taylor Swift Day’, wherein all of the singer’s previous releases were given the Pitchfork treatment, treated like a serious release for the first time in their history. It may be that this is the mark of how far we’ve come as a culture in accepting what used to be classed as embarrassing and juvenile, but to me the gesture smacked as something utterly insincere, a hasty rush to right a wrong which should never have happened in the first place.
It’s not just the songwriting, the times changing, but it’s also the context in which this album was released – lockdown brought a plethora of weird emotions, but one of the biggest stars in the world retreating into her own little fantasy world instead of the lavish romances she was usually acting out was exactly what the world was craving at that time. We’re also, as a culture, less afraid to admit to what we like. This article discusses the death of the guilty pleasure in music, and it’s something which has, in part, led to more and more pop music gaining critical appraisal in recent years, something which was not always around at the beginning of Swift’s career. The slow-but-steady dismantling of internalised misogyny, alongside the rise of feminism in the mainstream has led to more solidarity between women.
SO WHAT NOW?
But to praise her now, at the point of her career when her songwriting is more “mature” sends a message that Swift’s teenage songwriting still wasn’t worth our time at the point of release. There’s still a long way to go. But Taylor Swift suffered at the hands of the press cycle for so many years so that artists like Carly Rae Jepsen and her brilliant bubblegum pop can be taken seriously and become an indie darling of the industry. And she sings about boys all the time! The re-release of Taylor Swift’s back catalogue is, I believe, a crucial moment for the work of and for teenage girls to begin being taken more seriously in the music industry and in the world as a whole. And it’s a chance for Taylor to get the love and respect she’s always deserved.
Thank you so much for reading! Now let’s all go dance in the rain in our best dresses.
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