25 October 2023
Writing: Hannah Pimenta, Shubhan Selvaranjan (Year 13)
Photography: Raphael Lovaski, Chaz McGregor, Stephen Mease (Unsplash)
Editing: Helisha Verma (Year 13)
December 13 1989 was a great day in history. Host to National Horse Day and National Ice Cream Day, it also marks the birth of a baby who would soon become a 12-time GRAMMY and 98-time Guinness World Record holder. Twenty years into her career, this artist is only getting stronger, with her current tour set to become the highest-grossing tour of all time - we are, of course, referring to the one and only Taylor Swift.
Somehow, she commands a level of demand that is almost unprecedented. 'Rolling Stone' labelled this phenomenon 'Taylormania', the term functioning as a recall to the Beatlemania of the 60s. To be placed in the league of such an iconic group is certainly an impressive accolade - let's take a look at how she got there.
The turning point of her career was undoubtedly 'Fearless', her second studio album but the first to really take off. Home to the classics ''You Belong With Me'' and ''Love Story'', unlike many teenage pop stars of the time, Swift was honest and vulnerable with her feelings: ''She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts'' portrays the inadequacy teenagers feel when they compare their looks and style with others, mirroring the pressure Swift may have faced herself; Swift's ability to bottle universal feelings into her music grew to become her greatest attribute.
Next came 'Speak Now'. More songs to karaoke with a hairbrush arrived, including ''Enchanted'' and ''Mean'' both of which are great for doing maths homework. Taking a more realistic view of love, these songs are what Swift confesses she wished she said to people from her past. The album was more refined, with noticeable pop-punk elements. Written solely by Swift - while touring, no less - it was a defiant stand against sceptics who undermined her songwriting capabilities.
Her 2012 album 'Red' has a similar theme but with a more country-pop style. So named due to the tumultuous emotions she endured during the conception of the album, it came from ''intense love… frustration, jealousy, confusion''. It delves into the complicated trials of life, the highs and the lows - ''you call me up again, just to break me like a promise'' being a particularly painful low. ''Happy, free, confused and lonely in the best way,'' an all too relatable quote from the chorus of ''22'', uses several juxtapositions to portray this emotional disarray. The statement is also cyclical in its meaning with ''happy, free'' being the high, ''confused and lonely'' being the low and the optimistic ''in the best way'', implying that it will turn out okay in the end. The resulting record was certainly more than okay, selling rapidly. Although it received some criticism for its lack of sonic cohesivity, this fuelled Swift, causing her to sharpen her tools for her vastly different subsequent project.
It was '1989' that served as the catalyst for Swift. The pop opus officially marked her metamorphosis from country darling to pop icon. The satirical ''Blank Space'' is a particularly interesting highlight - written from the perspective of critics who mock her dating history, she cleverly belittles their opinions by blatantly embracing them. The earworm ''Shake It Off'' is a reminder that despite the cynics, you are free to be whoever you want to be. The hopelessly romantic 'Wildest Dreams' and the anthemic 'Style' were also immediate favourites, helping catapult this record to over ten million sales worldwide.
And then there was no explanation, only 'reputation': inspired by her damning fall from grace following further Kanye West scandal, and a sexual assault trial where she famously won a symbolic dollar, it features songs with a significantly darker tone, with perfectly-aimed shots and dramatic love songs galore. The hugely successful lead single ''Look What You Made Me Do'' received mixed reviews - theorised to link to the assassination of her reputation, it also captures how she killed parts of herself to let go of what was holding her back.
A rapid succession of albums was thus born - 'Lover', 'folklore' and 'evermore'. The latter two were surprise pandemic releases, dropped only five months apart, providing Swift with a new sphere of critical acclaim through her pursuit of an indie-folk direction with collaborators The National and Bon Iver. Opting for a more story-telling approach, she concocted a fictional love triangle with a level of depth and poeticism that caught the public off-guard - ''You drew stars around my scars, but now I'm bleeding'', ''made you my temple, my mural, my sky, Now I'm begging for footnotes in the story of your life'' and the portrayal of ''the man who'd throw blankets over my barbed wire'' are just three examples of that. Somehow, while simultaneously giving Shakespeare a run for his money, Swift still manages to weave her fantastical tales with endless relatability which, ultimately, is what makes her dreamy landscapes all the more compelling.
Then, the 'Taylor's Version' saga commenced; after being denied the opportunity to purchase her music which she was initially promised, her life's work was sold without her consent in 2019. While it is sadly very common for artists to not own their work, Swift saw this as a theft of her artistry and, by extension, herself. Vowing to re-record her first 6 albums in an initially criticised move, she has so far released three, all of which have surpassed the success of the original versions in multiple formats, serving as an inspiring testament, one which captures how you should always stand up for what you believe in - yourself included.
A year ago, Swift released 'Midnights' and if we delve into the meanings behind those songs, you will be here until far beyond then. Garnering five-star reviews from 'The Guardian', 'The Independent' and 'Rolling Stone', this is perhaps the juggernaut of her ten titanic albums, and her biggest opening week to date; it contributed hugely to the revival of vinyl sales, selling 575,000 in its first week; it is the most-streamed album in a day, occupying every spot on the Top Ten on the Billboard Charts upon debut, making her the first artist in history to do so. It also marks the first time white men have been entirely absent from the top ten of the chart, which is quite the feat in a notably misogynistic industry.
From being her effortlessly catchy self on ''Anti-Hero'', ''Midnight Rain'', and ''Bejeweled'', to shockingly confessional deep cuts, her tenth album sees Swift delve into all the colours of her sleepless nights, painting an astonishingly apt picture of loneliness, love, revenge, and her eating disorder. She first revealed this struggle in her powerful 2019 Netflix documentary 'Miss Americana', in which Swift acknowledges she is far from perfect but promises to use her voice to advocate for causes she believes in, refusing to be a passive bystander any longer.
And follow that epiphany she did; in 2020, Swift accused Trump of ''stoking the fires of white supremacy'' following his crass remarks regarding the George Floyd protests. She has also stood up for sexism, assault victims, abortion and LGBT+ rights, with her petition for the 'Equality Act' being passed by the House of Representatives. Notably, she removed her music from Spotify for three years in a stand for artists' rights, even getting Apple Music to reform their policies. Only last month, Swift encouraged her legions of US fans to register to vote, causing vote.org to average 13,000 users every half an hour, contributing to a staggering 115% increase in 18-year-old registrations compared to last year, continuing to use her voice for more than just ''cathartic bridges''.
Hot on the heels of the release of 'The Eras Tour' movie, which became the highest-grossing concert film of all time after only a few days, Swift remains as triumphant as ever. Now poised to release her highly anticipated 1989 re-record this week, she continues on a musical journey that is truly quite unlike any other. And, next time, before you dismiss an artist out of hand simply for reaching a level of success they have poured everything into, you might find that they actually have something interesting to say, if you listen.