I’ve been a Taylor Swift fan for years. Speak Now (2010) had come out not long before I became a fan, and I’ve followed the release of each album since then. The teenaged me loved the angst of her music and how I could relate to the songs about falling in love and experiencing heartbreak. The adult me has an appreciation for her artistry as a musician and songwriter.
When I started listening to her music, society hadn’t decided that she was a bad person yet. When the media and other people decided that she was a bad person for writing about her love life, I kept my enjoyment of her music to myself. No matter what music she released, I found myself relating to it in small ways. Getting my heart broken for the first time made me understand those songs. Falling in love for the first time made the love songs a little more meaningful. And gosh, I listened to so much of her breakup songs when I went through my first breakup.
Then she disappeared before the release of reputation and I was among the minority who loved that album’s release. People continued to hate on her music because she was seen publicly as a woman who dated a lot and as a singer who wrote a lot about past relationships. The release of Lover suddenly propelled Swift back into a positive limelight because she was writing about being in love with one man instead of her previous relationships. And now, folklore is making waves as her most acclaimed album because of its masterful writing.
So why have we overlooked her writing skills until now?
Personally, I believe that it’s because it’s hard to admit that a woman who writes about falling in and out of love can possibly be a good writer. Swift has made her career writing about how she felt while falling in love in different relationships and her experiences with the various breakups she lived through. And as a woman who dated a lot in the media’s eye, she was labeled as a bad role model because her songs were a timeline and record of her relationships.
Her songs are incredibly personal, with catchy lyrics that you can’t help recognizing, even if you’re not a fan. In her Netflix documentary, there are video clips of her songwriting process. Moments of her working through lyrics and trying to find the combination that became the versions we commonly know now.
It’s hard to write anything. School essays, Instagram captions, blog posts. Even harder is telling a story, matched to music, and meant to elicit emotion in a limited amount of time. Yet, Swift manages to do this song after song, album after album. She chooses her words carefully to tell the perfect story, no matter the subject. And we often forget that she doesn’t only write love songs. Plenty of her music is about other things, like family and growing up.
“The Best Day” and “Never Grow Up” are nostalgic depictions of childhood relationships with family. The latter is an ode to her younger brother, asking for him to stay little after she learned what growing up meant and hoping that he would never experience pain. It also references pieces of her life as she grew up and moved out of her parents’ home for the first time. Particularly, the bridge is a reminder to take in all the things about living with your parents that you’ll miss when you’re away from them for the first time.
Swift captures a beautiful relationship with her mother (“The Best Day”) as she goes from being a child to a teenager, and finally, to being an adult. Though the words are simple, they depict the closeness of the relationship and the important role Swift’s mother plays in her life. Of her family members, her mother shows up the most in her music and even in her documentary. This relationship is emphasized again in “Soon You’ll Get Better,” when Swift recounts her mother’s battle with cancer and the previous possibility of losing her. Again, the lyrics are simple, but they pack an emotional punch.
And I hate to make this all about meSoon You’ll Get Better – Taylor Swift (2019)
But who am I supposed to talk to?
What am I supposed to do
If there’s no you?
For most of her career, Swift has used her personal life to relate to her fans. Her lyrics grew more complex and intentional as she grew – as a person and as an artist. Yet, it was hard for people to overlook the girl who wrote hundreds of love songs. Albums like Red and 1989 became a turning point as Swift’s word craft became smarter and cleaner. She was still writing plenty of love songs, but the way she told their stories was hidden more in her word choice than anything else. They were still part of her pop era, but gems like “The Lucky One,” “You Are In Love,” “Starlight,” and “Clean” are examples of incredibly thoughtful and intentional wording.
“The Lucky One” tells the story of a star who found the fame they were looking for, only to realize it wasn’t what they wanted. The exact inspiration of the song is still unconfirmed, but the manner of writing makes the story feel familiar and relatable, even to those who aren’t part of the Hollywood lifestyle. Swift plays on this further by slipping in her own experiences of how fame and fortune are not what she expected either.
“Starlight” tells of Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy’s romance, the grandparents of her then-boyfriend. Their love story focuses on the early stages of their lives together, followed by the couple’s ideas of what their lives could be. In the span of less than four minutes, Swift manages to paint a clear picture of lovers in the late 1940s and make listeners dream of a romance like the one in this song.
The departure from her happy pop music came with reputation, the record she released after heavy media criticism of her life and the decision to seclude herself from the public. Through harsher, angrier lyrics, we see Swift’s mastery of turning her emotions into songs that still felt relatable, even as she vented her frustrations. The album wasn’t well-received due to its negativity, but I thought it was an example of what she was capable of as a musician and a writer.
In many ways, reputation was an album Swift had to release in order to grow as a musician. She had to have the freedom to explore something besides her clean, country pop princess image. The clever lyrics of “Look What You Made Me Do” expressed her frustrations at how she was being portrayed by the media, as well as an ability to make fun of herself in the music video. However, the growth of her musical style and writing were undermined by people who were confused by the lack of happy or sad songs about love. This album also marked the beginning of Swift being willing to write about being an adult through clever word choices.
Say my name and everything just stopsDress – Taylor Swift (2017)
I don’t want you like a best friend
Only bought this dress so you could take it off
Take it off (ha, ha, ha)
Carve your name into my bedpost
The musical nature of Lover was a return to Swift’s happy pop roots with songs about romance and love. This time, the difference was in the subject of her songs. Most of them were about Joe Alwyn, her boyfriend of over three years. Several songs exhibit an intent to live the rest of her life with Alwyn, with strong hints that she’s ready for marriage. “London Boy” nods at her happy songs of falling in love with a wonderful man, leading listeners through Swift’s growth as a person since her previous albums. In “Cornelia Street,” she reflects on what it would be like to lose Alwyn, and “Afterglow” is the second song in her career where she issues an apology to her partner. “Paper Rings” and “Lover” are teases at Swift being ready for marriage, while also flexing her writing skills as she incorporates mentions of dirty jokes and dreams into her songs.
As far as her last three albums go, I think they’re very clear examples of Swift’s evolution as an artist and a writer. During conversations with different friends, I came to the personal conclusion that reputation was the album she needed to write in order to continue as a musician. It broke all the rules when it came to her career and music because it was a break from her previously clean and pure image. The dark imagery, sharp lyrics, and different musical style showed her range as a writer and capability to adapt herself into different genres. Lover is the album that made her happy and was purely about her happiness. It was also the hallmark of her truly coming into her adult life as a celebrity and I loved the music because it showed how happy she was as a person and how much better she felt after being able to express herself through reputation. And finally, we get to the most recent album and the inspiration for this long blog post – folklore.
folklore is the album I never knew I wanted from her. It’s a whole album of music in the style of “Safe and Sound,” which I loved. It’s also the album that best shows how much she has truly grown as a writer. By titling each song in lowercase, the album takes on a more casual feeling that her previous releases. The surprise of its existence is also a testament to Swift’s writing, as well as the statement she released about why she wrote the album. It’s easy to tell that every word was chosen with careful intention, especially in the trio of songs about a love triangle. “cardigan,” “august,” and “betty” are lyrical masterpieces that play off each other to tell a story from three different people, all while standing strong on their own.
To me, folklore is the proof that Swift has grown up. She’s proving as a musician and writer that she doesn’t have to write about her own love story for people to relate to her music – she can do that with any kind of song.
The people who relate to and understand these songs are the ones who have been through the same life stages, and the ones who don’t get it yet will be able to in the future. In my opinion, folklore is the album that will stand the test of time most. Because it’s not about Swift, it’s about other people and her growth as a musician. I love the soft nature of this album and its versatility to be played at any time of the year. And if you listen carefully to the lyrics of each song, you’ll notice how masterfully written this whole album is.
After folklore, we can no longer ignore how clever Swift is when it comes to her music and her lyrics. She’s been overlooked because she writes about boys and love and heartbreak, which is precisely what 95% of musicians do. Though the media spent years turning people against her music, she’s using that very medium to prove that she’s more than the country girl who sang about high school love. By stepping away from the media’s narrative of her before releasing reputation, Swift has reclaimed her image as a celebrity and a writer through well-written songs and a refusal to conform to one specific musical genre. This is a woman willing to break the rules she created for herself in order to push herself as an artist.
There’s a reason she’s managed to hold her place in the music scene since she debuted in 2006 with her self-titled album. Catchy lyrics and fun songs are only the beginnings of her command over her word choices in each song and they will only grow as time goes on. I can’t imagine what kind of album she’ll release next, but if it’s anything like her last three, it’ll continue proving that she shouldn’t be overlooked just because she made her name writing love songs.