Krista Schlueter / The New York Times

Taylor Swift at the Time 100 Gala at Lincoln Center in New York, April 23, 2019.

August 29, 2019

YANG | Taylor Swift and the Art of Changing the Narrative

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You know those “react” videos on YouTube, where people film themselves watching new movie trailers and music videos, or even listening to whole albums in real-time? Well, I absolutely love them. While some of the YouTubers are unnecessarily dramatic, there’s something strangely satisfying about watching the look of genuine shock and excitement on people’s faces to, say, the Avengers gearing up in their quantum suits, or Ariana Grande imitating Jennifer Garner from 13 Going On 30.

So when Taylor Swift’s seventh album Lover was released last week, I hopped on YouTube, pretty much the second after I finished listening to the whole thing, to see how people have reacted to it. It was no surprise that in all the videos I ended up watching, the YouTubers spent most of their time guessing at the real story and people behind the lyrics.

It’s no secret that Swift’s music career and her work have always been inextricably tangled with her personal life. It’s natural for artists to turn to their personal experiences for inspiration. Pretty much everybody does it. Yet when it came to Taylor Swift, everyone seems to be convinced that all of her songs draw materials from past events in her life, thus the public has since developed a rather extreme obsession with figuring out the details of those experiences that inspired her work. Even in the days as early as Fearless and Speak Now, we saw the beginning of the public forming a collective habit of digging into her lyrics to find traces of their real-life basis. Don’t believe me? The song “Fifteen” is famously based on her high school best friend Abigail; “Back to December” is largely about her breakup with Taylor Lautner; “Mean” supposedly addresses a critic who gave harsh words on her Grammy performance; and “Enchanted” recounts her first meeting with the lead singer of Owl City. And I don’t even remember how I know these things.

It’s probably safe to say that for years, Swift no more than passively allowed the audience and the media using her lyrics as a gateway for prying. The joke of her using her exes just for writing breakup songs is not so much a testament to how many breakup songs she actually did write, but rather one to how much of a kick people get out of this voyeuristic attempt at putting together the puzzle of her romantic history. (If you ask me, bothering Maggie Gyllenhaal about the scarf from “All Too Well” is absolutely absurd.) Despite the public ridicule and scrutiny, however, Swift has never been ashamed of recording the emotional ups and downs of her relationships in her diaristic lyrics. While she doesn’t try too hard at covering up the identities of people involved in these stories, she also doesn’t necessarily reveal them.

Things took an interesting turn when 1989 came out, however. In “Blank Space,” Swift directly addresses the aforementioned joke about her relationships and breakup songs, while “Shake it Off” is nothing short of a great comeback to the outpouring of hate directed at her on the Internet. For the first time, Taylor Swift transformed her songs from personal diary entries into open letters to the public. Not only that, this is her experimenting with turning the tables on the media, as well as taking the reins on rewriting the narrative of her relationships and behind-the-scenes of her very public feuds. Then came reputation, which took things to a whole other level, in which some of the lyrics became so identifying of certain individuals they might as well name them, while others obfuscate and make it difficult to pinpoint actual timelines and people.

After years of suffering from the toll public scrutiny takes on her personal life, Swift made a genius power move of using what the media so loves doing against them and for her own benefit, successfully altering drastically the way she’s talked about and perceived. She’s clearly come to accept that the public will be nosy no matter what, so she found a way that would only let people be nosy in the way she wants them to, and they don’t even realize it. She can clarify a rumor or a feud to magazines and newspapers and no one would believe a single word, but when it’s in her lyrics? That must be exactly what happened, right?

This is, in my opinion, a reflection of our collective tendency toward gossip and public displays of drama. It’s also a textbook case study for manipulating public discourse and inventing a persona that’s true to the real person but also carefully selective in its presentation. This time around, with Lover, Swift released into the world a new image of herself, someone who’s completed a metamorphosis and is now not in the least bit scared of by media storms, who’s done hiding, who’s open about her politics and stands up for love and what she believes in. “I just think that you are what you love,” says Swift in the outro of the final song on the album, “Daylight.” And maybe that’s just the side of herself she wants us to see, but the world sure needs that right now.


Andrea Yang is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Five Minutes ‘Til Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.