The uncanny image of Taylor Swift

I am not a Taylor Swift stan. At best, I like her songs; at worst, I roll my eyes until they see the interior of my brain when her name comes up.

Like many teens who grew up with Swift’s songs, I pretended to hate pop music and then sang “You Belong With Me” in my bedroom while dreaming about the guy I was crushing on, totally ascribing to its heteronormative, “I’m not like other girls” mentality; like many young adults plugged into the Internet, I later snorted to supercuts of Swift’s shocked awards speech face, one of the many ways in which she expressed her “OMG how is this happening?!” feelings (until the backlash against that began, and the gesture faded away). Though she has never been my Queen (or in modern parlance, Mom), I’ve been as influenced by her I am just about any other modern female pop player. (That said, I haven’t legally acquired any of her records.)

One of only a handful of public figures who’s not just lasted in the pop culture spotlight but dominated it for not yet a decade (though her reign’s felt much longer), Swift has always been smart about selling herself: A record-smashing idol who’s just like you; a technically weak singer (though she’s gotten noticeably better) but an excellent storyteller; one of the gals, if your circle of friends runs famous, gorgeous, and within the nebulous “creative” world; someone who taps directly into the teen girl vein and carries it while also cashing in on it. For she is an artist, but before anything else, she is a brand: All hail Taylor Swift, ur-Good Girl Doing Even More Good. This is who she is, a case study with examples coming up as recently as last night, and though she hasn’t always expressed it as such, she’s remained a tacit counterpoint to the supposedly debased, salacious, music of modernity.

Swift is a lightning rod for so many conversations about sex, race, and what it means to be a modern music artist, but aside from whatever she sings, says, and does, she’s also a visual figurehead of mainstream femininity. I speak specifically about what she wears, how she wears it, and how her influence has trickled down into the public consciousness. What happened to the original all-around eyeliner, curly-haired country girl? The one who’d never be caught in a sex store get-up like the one she donned for latest hit “Bad Blood”? The one who’d gawk at and side-eye the very same women she now calls her BFFs?

The same thing that happens to everyone: She grew up, and publicly shed with her youth and previous baggage like the virgin/whore dichotomy and girl-hating. Or as BuzzFeed editor Doree Shafrir puts it in her review and comparison of two Taylor Swift live shows (charting the singer’s performance and style changes between 2011 and 2015),”Moving to New York signified a shift for Brand Taylor, from a persona that could sometimes seem like a little girl playing dress-up, trying on everything from different outfits to different guys, to becoming a Grown-Ass Woman.”

Swift accomplished this switch subtly, and without any of the crash and mess that often accompanies such transformations. There are rarely any ripples of tension in her public perception; the ones that do appear nowadays pass like her name (swiftly), and the closest thing she’s had to scandals (outside of her honestly super weird Nicki Minaj mis-step) are all the things she’s built her empire off of — simply-worded, thinly-veiled, completely relatable and catchy songs whose lyrics readily turn into inspirational Instagram quotes.

It’s on social media and for 1989 that Swift has really flourished and found her footing, but when it comes to how Taylor Swift embodies Taylor Swift, we have to go back further than, say, her Instagram account (which began in 2011 with this image) to trace her IRL image evolution. And what is a more public or appropriate measure for this transformation than her album release cycles?

Just a country girl

As someone who’s paid attention to Stagecoach and has accidentally tuned into bro country rock, I know the popular, dude-centric image of the country girl is, shall we say, a cowboy-boots-rocking, blonde version of Megan Fox in the original Transformers movie. Swift dipped her toe into those waters, but never further than that, and in ways that foreshadowed her eventual pop aspirations. (She never went full-on subversive like Kacey Musgraves.)

On “Tim McGraw” and “Teardrops On My Guitar,” she’s wearing the kind of outfit you could get at Kohl’s and performing very one-note stories, but once “Teardrops” became a hit, her style leveled up accordingly. Videos for later singles “Picture to Burn” and “Our Song” use their upgraded costuming as extensions of narrative and perceived drama; though the results are kind of corny to the modern eye, they worked for her at that time.

Taylor Swift’s version of the pop star fantasy was much more accurate than the one similarly espoused by Miley Cyrus on Hannah Montana; why would you want to look like the cute girl at school when you could get a freakin’ ball gown and roll around in a field of flowers? Or, if you could get the kind of dramatic, fantastic mid-song costume change that mirrored the ugly duckling sentiment most teen girls feel in the core of their hearts, why wouldn’t you?

Of course, her aspirational fantasy was still rooted in country iconography, and more accurately country femininity iconography — she never quite did the whole “big hair” thing, but in what other genre would it be acceptable/expected for a teenager to prance around in what are basically wedding dresses? Taylor Swift Taylor Swift is a newly rich teenager who, in lieu of My Super Sweet Sixteen, got to make music and music videos about her real loves and real fantasies, but without losing sight of her still very-real and normal world friends. This Taylor Swift would still go to Starbucks in her sweatpants.

Princess, coronation

She’s still wearing cowboy boots and she’s still featuring her all-male backing band in some videos, but Swift begins to seriously approach the music video as its own medium and eventually conquers it — after all, the now-iconic “You Belong With Me” did win the Best Female Video award at the MTV Video Music Awards, which kicked off Kanye West’s also now-iconic interruption. But while Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video had an arguably larger cultural impact, Swift’s narrative—girl has adversary/complication in pursuit of guy, love and/or heartbreak follow—connected better with the suburban (and more often than not, white) teens who felt every jealous, confused, and starry-eyed sentence from Swift’s lips.

It’s Swift and her story that is always at the center of her music, and while the Fearless-era songs aren’t the first ones to place her there, they serve to illustrate both the borderline hokey tradition she could’ve followed and the path she eventually carved for herself. The former is illustrated though the comically detailed “Fifteen” and the glorified video diary “Fearless” (also, although to sweeter effect, on non-single “The Best Day“).

But those other videos! Pre-school dance “You Belong With Me” Taylor is every teen girl in the friend zone (the video was particularly vicious for me, though my high school boyfriend was the one in marching band, and I perceived the girl he later dated with as much venom as Swift does); “Love Story” provided vicarious thrills even to those of us who didn’t care for princess gowns and did care about accuracy in literary referencing. “White Horse” was, in comparison to these two upbeat, love struck tunes, downright emo (and lyrically, studiously rejects the princess designation) — but of course, that also has its place in the teen soap opera canon.

Fearless Swift is just about untouchable. She’s precocious enough where it doesn’t come off as practiced, and she cemented her star status.

(Aside: The single artworks for these songs warrant their own study. Isn’t this the same outfit she wore in “Our Song”? Is this not outrageously petty in hindsight?)

Princess, in a rut

Maybe it’s because I went to college as Speak Now dropped and I had too much going on at the time, but this is the Taylor Swift album I almost always forget. Of course, this was also around the time that the Taylor Swift discontent began to brew, especially in her treatment of “the Kanye West incident” via “Innocent,” a song with much tut-tutting but no bite or insight. So, after Swift milked the star-struck princess narrative and image for all it had, she signaled the future via some new tools: Street style, and her now religiously catalogued Instagram.

I’m getting ahead of myself — as far as videos go, “Mine” feels like a visual throwback to her first album (though it ushers the first appearance of MOM TAYLOR), “Back to December” feels like a “White Horse” rip, and “Sparks Fly” is the requisite tour-centric video. (Swift’s “Safe & Sound” for the Hunger Games soundtrack actually does follow a script, but this would be the album it fits best as well.)

But the rest of the videos off of that album indicate a move forward towards something a little more classically chic versus country chick; though she plays a mom (still can’t get over that) for “Mine,” she actually looks older/her age in “Ours,” a song and video that takes Swift’s hyper-romantic narrative and turns it into something that could even start to look like her modern work. (Also, bonus Matt Saracen!!!)

However, she’s now showing a self-awareness of both how her music and her songwriting are often portrayed. In “Mean,” she plays out a different fantasy from her usual fare: Of her as the embattled victim of peoples’ misdirected ire via an early Americana aesthetic. And for “The Story of Us,” she connects the same story threads she’s laid in other videos, only for those things to fall to pieces instead of together. It’s tongue-in-cheek funny, but coupled with her same intense sincerity.

Around this time, Swift cracks open her life on Instagram. Though even then she’s posting about cats, cooking, and her famous friends, these are still peppered in with 13 sightings (including public ones), iTunes screenshots (talk about a slice of time), and her non-celeb posse. This much will remain the same through…

A (versus the) Cool Girl

Red, the album which made Swift a pop star. Yes, she’s gone on record saying that 1989 is her first pop record, but look at the writing credits and it’s clear that regardless of how she felt about these songs, that was how they were received. (With the notable exception of “Ronan,” a song both pure in intention and potent in its double-edged nostalgia.)

And then there’s the simple fact that Swift’s fashion, both in and out of the videos, is so much more, for lack of a better term, cosmopolitan: There are no more filtered nature backgrounds to complement her updated country attire. “Begin Again” is filled with the same fashions that she’s later take on in her first Vogue cover, and lead single “We Are Never Getting Back Together” has her and her extras in Modcloth and Urban Outfitters like all the other cool artists from 2012. In fact, she has quite a few high profile fashion magazine covers during this time and some truly spectacular outfits — and let’s not forget that she also took on the sex appeal-bumping Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (featuring an admittedly ridiculous “British” get-up and also a duet with Fall Out Boy).

Though “Everything Has Changed” has an old!Taylor feel to it, in that it’s a cute love story with a twist, the album’s two true breakout videos are two extreme manifestations of Swift’s new direction. “22” is twee Taylor to the max, like if fast fashion had a baby with both early Pinterest and college student Tumblrs; Swift is all energy, upbeat imagery, sailor stripes and shorts, and um, cat ears. On the flip side, there’s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” a song both hilarious in its conceit but also effective in executing its goal: A side of Taylor Swift that had never really been captured in the public eye before.

Swift’s lyrics have always held hints of “mature themes,” but “Trouble” was the first real, visual indicator from her end that things were ever that adult. Sure, the video’s treatment is extreme, but of course, all of her videos and frankly lyrics, have that element of “all or nothing.” If Taylor Swift does a dubstep grunge-themed kiss-off, then there will be so many strobe shots, tattooed dudes, and dyed hair. The maturity that laid the song’s groundwork was then being mirrored in her slightly more daring, princess-eschewing public appearances — even as her Instagram betrayed none of that same evolution. Twee Taylor uploaded photos and lived her day-to-day; “Trouble” Taylor, once unleashed, took on the red carpet and bided her time.

Rounding out the videos, “Red” and “The Last Time” are again tour diaries. Is this what’s going to end up happening to, say, “New Romantics” off of…


…the one, the only, 1989? This era of Taylor has turned friendship, courtship, and self-awareness into a phenomenon, perhaps best catalogued by the memorable addition of a Tumblr to her social media presence, her much glossier Instagram game, and her new go-to ensemble in the crop top, which has had a resurgence since she started stepping out in ensembles like these. (Aside: When will she be signed to a big fashion campaign? It’s really only a matter of time, or perhaps money.)

Taylor: Gone are the lo-fi, “regular” photos of tours and albums past; now she’s hanging with all-celeb crews (or to borrow a term she did not even remotely coin but admittedly did popularize, “squad”), all the time, even with people she’d never be affiliated with if it weren’t for their ascendent popularity (or even descendent popularity). Her cowboy boots gather dust, until she decides to bring her image down to earth.

As her ‘gram fills up with more curated photos, her music videos take on the final coat of polish that the Red ones hinted at needing. “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space” are master showcases of new Taylor, with the latter even being downright admirable in its appeal to reframe the way we talk about women, including Swift herself, as the unstable elements in heterosexual relationships. (Of course, this feminist envisioning and awakening is not without its capital gains; when was the last time you saw a credit card-sponsored music video?)

Style” is the spiritual continuation of “Trouble,” and will in turn be succeeded by Swift’s forthcoming “Wildest Dreams” video; all of these videos are caricatures of certain ideas and moods, but they’re pushing the boundaries of Swift’s sexiness quotient (one that was weirdly unmoved by her lingerie-clad Victoria’s Secret encore). Yet the biggest sexiness caricature, and Swift’s boldest move to stake her sexuality, is “Bad Blood,” an unholy combination of a weak track, a diss track, a video concept that was blown out but underdeveloped, and also the second rap collaboration of Swift’s career. (Lest we forget this gem.)

“Bad Blood” is the biggest video to come out of 1989, and the irony is enormous: That arguably the album’s worst tune has somehow been recast into a nouveau femme fatale sisterhood fairytale, the very sort of thing that younger Swift would’ve cocked an eyebrow at. But one look at the video and you’ll see this is perhaps where Swift’s been aiming all along. She has the friends; she has the man; she has the clothes; she holds the cards, not just for her own career but for those of her “squad’s.” (To say nothing of her relationship to mainstream media.)

Is there a greater tastemaker in big budget, traditional pop right now? Arguably, no — and more so than ever before, even when she had been in the same position, Swift looks the part.

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(Images via Instagram.)

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