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Who Was There ? Taylor Swift and Performing the Gendered Self

On Saturday Night Live, a slender figure handles a guitar, silhouetted against a film screen. The lights come up, revealing Taylor Swift’s face as she begins to sing. Behind her, the screen follows a classic narrative: girl meets (much older) boy; boy and girl fall in love; boy breaks girl’s heart. Swift is a furious advocate for this young woman, played by 19-year-old actress, Sadie Sink, glaring down the camera at the man she addresses. But, by the end of the performance, Swift herself appears in the film and it becomes apparent that Sink is an avatar for a younger version of the singer. As the song draws to a close, Swift and her female backing singers repeat the song’s refrain: ‘I was there, I was there’. But who was there?

Therein lies the central contradiction of Taylor Swift: her popularity has always relied upon her young female fans relating to her American ‘everygirl’ persona, but Swift represents only a very narrow (wealthy, white, thin) segment of femininity. Clearly, people are buying it: the 2021 performance described above was of a ten-minute, extended cut of a song she originally released on her fourth album, Red (2012). Few artists could generate much interest in a deep cut from a 10-year-old album, never mind perform it on SNL. However, ‘All Too Well (Ten Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault)’ (AKA ATW10) is just one part of a larger project, in which Swift is re-recording her first six albums, protesting the sale of her master recordings without her consent to record executive, Scooter Braun, and private equity firm, The Carlyle Group. Her explicit aim is to devalue the originals and to regain ownership of her own performances.

This would be a risky move for any artist, but especially so for Swift. Having predicated her musical persona on the idea that her songs reflect her real life, Swift has changed her public persona considerably over the last fifteen years. As a teenager, she was co-opted as the young face of white conservatism in America but she’s now a vocal Democrat, speaking out on LGBT and feminist issues. She has moved away from playing the heartbroken victim in country ballads, towards producing sexually charged pop songs, where she is an active, morally ambiguous agent in adult relationships. So when a 32-year-old Swift rerecorded Red in 2021, there was always the possibility that her audience would notice discrepancies in her chronologically-separated testimonies and smell a rat. As a 2016 article has it, ‘Taylor Swift Can’t Be The Victim And The Villain’. Or can she?

Nothing New’: Performing Girlhood and Authenticity

Central to Taylor Swift’s persona is the perception that she writes ‘authentically’ about her own life and experiences. Early in Swift’s career, this perception centred around her adolescent perspective and diaristic writing style. Later, she began to emphasise her role as the author of her own music by giving fans glimpses of her song writing process through interviews, documentaries and even snippets of voice memos. While this has proven to be an immensely saleable aspect of her public persona, it has also led to fans and critics assuming that her output is purely autobiographical. Swift’s reliance on this kind of first-person authenticity in her songs creates issues for her changing persona because it requires that her audience accept her recollections as trustworthy. Anyone who has revisited a childhood diary can confirm that perspectives on one’s own past are rarely so reliable. This authenticity discourse has also led to fans eliding her performance persona and her real self, with many forming intricate theories about the subjects of individual songs. Hence, when, around the time of Red’s original release, Swift was criticised in the press for a string of romances with famous men, her music was belittled for capitalising on them. Swift herself exploited the link in interviews and fan interactions to sell records, but the attention she received was often incredibly sexist, positioning her as either a calculating vixen, or a boy-crazy teenager. Swift’s authorial role was a catch-22: it gave her power over her own image but led to criticism when she exploited that power.

Swift’s early performances were frequently criticised for a perceived lack of singing ability, manifested in her ‘teenage girl voice’. At the time, such voices were associated with white innocence, but sounded ‘weak’, ‘unstable’, or simply ‘bad’. Swift’s voice simultaneously codified her as naïve and youthful. It both allowed her to circumvent the negative press that was endured by more sexualised contemporaries like Miley Cyrus or Rihanna, and led to her being dismissed as a ‘serious’ artist. However, by 2021, her vocal style had changed considerably, with many of her perceived vocal ‘weaknesses’ ‘corrected’ on later albums. There was, therefore, a question as to whether it would be more authentic to return to the voice of her younger self when rerecording Red, or to maintain her current sound, which was presumably inconsistent with her old persona. Ultimately, Swift chose the latter, giving Red an older, more experienced perspective and allowing her new agency through reinterpretation of her past. The ‘From the Vault’ tracks on the album also contribute to this reinterpretation by altering what Swift includes in the record of her past self.

Swift’s changing voice is symptomatic of a broader issue in pop, where women are treated as commodities with sell-by dates. Swift discusses this in greater depth in ‘Nothing New’ (2021), where young women’s emotions are exploited in exchange for pop-star fame before they are discarded in favour of newer models. Here, visibility does not equate to power. Instead, women in pop’s candour is used to condemn them. Swift thereby frames her constant self-reinvention as a response to the commodification of her younger self. Swift’s changing persona is symptomatic of exceptionalist feminism in music more broadly: because, historically, women who are successful in the music industry are visible because they conform to the expectations of a patriarchal system, their music rarely resists dominant gender ideologies. Pop music sells artists as ‘authentic’, but because women are more saleable when they conform to reductive gender roles, their personas fail to represent alternative female experiences.

‘I Remember It All’: Confessing the Self

Swift’s claim to authenticity is strongly linked to her use of the confessional mode. Confessional poetry became popular in the mid-twentieth century and, although many of its originators were men, it is typically associated with female poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who have often been portrayed as hysterical. However, biographical readings of Plath have skewed scholars’ understanding of her poems, linking them (frequently incorrectly) to real-life events. When critics reduce Plath’s poetry or Swift’s music to a simple dramatization of their personal experiences, they belittle the broader significance of their art. By highlighting the constructed nature of the self, the confessional mode in poetry showed that gender hierarchies were also constructions, and emphasised the complexity of female subjects, refusing to accept oversimplified binaries around femininity. The confessional style doesn’t claim to express the truth of prior lived experience, instead revealing the contingent nature of biographical ‘truths’, and so Swift is able to present various ‘truths’ about different points in her life, without contradicting herself.

ATW10 performs this unstable sense of self in real time. We weren’t there to witness the ‘truth’ about the relationship between Swift and Gyllenhaal – besides, the addition of new stanzas to the song shows that Swift’s ‘truth’ has changed over time. She repeatedly states ‘I was there, I remember it all too well,’ claiming veracity for her interpretation of the relationship on the basis of personal experience, even as the reference to memory reminds us that this truth is relative to her imperfect recollection. While Swift claims that the song’s additions were improvised in 2012, it’s unclear to what extent they’ve since been edited: when she sings, ‘I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age,’ she appears to reference Gyllenhaal’s string of twenty-something girlfriends over the last decade, while the short film which accompanied the song’s release explicitly reframes Swift’s past from an older perspective.

Swift furthers her American ‘everygirl’ persona by placing Sadie Sink, a relatively unknown actress, into the centre of the action rather than herself. This allows us to project ourselves into the narrative, implying that this is a relatable experience for many, or even most, women. We buy into the story because of the seeming authenticity of Swift’s confessional voice, but this simultaneously highlights the relativity of truth. Her subjectivity leaves a gap in the narrative that enables the kind of rampant fan speculation that fuels Swift’s media presence, while also giving female fans the ability to connect this very specific story to their own experiences of heterosexual relationships. Yet Swift is only able to give voice to her account because she is commercially viable (read: thin, white, ostensibly straight). Her claims to universality therefore highlight her own privilege, even as they expose systemic sexism in American women’s personal lives. While many of us have been there, it is Swift who remains to tell the tale.

[1] Caramanica, J. ‘No More Kid Stuff: As Taylor Swift Edges Further From Country, She’s Reaching for a New Model of Pop Stardom.’ New York Times, October 28, 2012.

[2] Donnella, Leah. ‘Taylor Swift is the 21st Century’s Most Disorienting Pop Star.’ NPR Music, September 26, 2018.

[3] Wilson, L. (2020). Miss Americana. Netflix.

By Scarlett Clemmow, Illustrations by Danielle Jump


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