“This is a song about a guy who made the choice to cheat on me and probably shouldn’t have because I write songs,” said Taylor Swift in regards to her song “Should’ve Said No.” This sort of snarky comment is why so many people have vastly different opinions on Taylor Swift, and adds to the constant criticism she faces. One particular topic that seems to come up whenever Taylor Swift is mentioned is her love life. When it comes to Swift, many people fall victim to confirmation bias. To her followers, comments such as “if guys don’t want me to write bad songs about them, they shouldn’t do bad things” are evidence that she is a “badass.” To others, though, such comments suggest that she is a self-absorbed narcissist who doesn’t care about the feelings of her exes.
Although many celebrities are often the subject of scandalous headlines, Swift seems to foster more intense reactions whenever she makes it into the news. A significant reason as to why she is so vehemently defended is because she has a significantly larger fanbase than most celebrities. She is the 15th-most-followed person on Instagram, with 241 million followers.
Not only has Taylor Swift been in the music industry for over 15 years, but her career has involved a few things that have helped garner this audience. Throughout her career, Swift has made it possible for her audience to relate with her. When she first released her eponymous album Taylor Swift, her image was that of a simple girl daydreaming about fairytales with guys she liked in class. With songs related to her position as a young girl at school or about guys who made teardrops fall on her guitar, she made people feel seen. As her audience grew up with her, her style and music evolved to better relate to them. Songs such as “Fifteen” reminisce on childhood and nostalgia. However, Swift wrote these songs in a way that makes the connection feel personal and authentic—she was experiencing these feelings when she wrote about them. Even her music videos of the time reflect the gradual changes as she grew up and her music began to mature.
A clear example of such differences is between “Tim McGraw” and “22.” In the music video for “Tim McGraw,” Swift is depicted with a guitar in a barn, with occasional shots of her and a lover in a field. Meanwhile, the images in “22” show a more grown-up, realistic lifestyle full of parties and friends. Through the years, Swift has grown along with her audience and remained relatable despite her fame and fortune. However, this isn’t exclusive to people her age. People from all walks of life, regardless of age, often feel connected to her largely due to her voicing of the universal experiences she’s been through. When people can relate to an artist, they feel more connected to them. This means that when Swift is attacked, her fans who relate to her feel it more personally. Her fans tend to be less divided on issues that aren’t very relatable, such as Swift alleged private jet carbon dioxide emissions. The more heated discussions tend to revolve around Swift’s music, character, or mannerisms.
Another cause of her immense popularity is that many of her songs are timeless, which allow her to amass a following that spans multiple generations. Because of her wide discography, fans can constantly relisten to songs without growing sick of them. Many can connect to the topics she covers in her songs—heartbreak, jealousy, revenge, love, and nostalgia are universal. Some pop artists, such as Katy Perry, have music that is very set in time and evokes feelings of a specific time period. Although some of Swift’s songs, such as “Shake It Off,” are similarly grounded in time, she also has a wide range of songs that are still popular today, including “Mr. Perfectly Fine” and “All Too Well.” Despite both being re-released, what’s important is that the themes of songs like these are timeless.
Additionally, Swift is able to make her fans feel involved and unique despite becoming a mainstream artist. Once underground artists gain recognition, they tend to lose some of their former appeal. Artists such as Billie Eilish have faced this issue, where their audience begins to lose interest once they aren’t a “hidden secret.” Although Taylor Swift is considered “basic,” her fans are rarely embarrassed to admit that they are avid fans. This may be attributed to the unique easter eggs and coded messages that she leaves for fans in music videos, song lyrics, pictures, and more. This allows for “tiers” of fans, in which certain people can “prove” that they are “real fans.” What started as a little play on upper and lowercase letters on her vinyls turned into a secret game between Swift and her audience. The secret messages allow her fans to both feel more involved in her artistry when they pick up on her easter eggs and to connect with other people in Swift’s fan base over these messages. Additionally, she has been hosting “Secret Sessions” since 2014, in which she invites fans to her house to listen to her new album weeks before it hits stores, furthering her connection with her fans. This attachment makes followers not only quicker to defend Swift, but also more passionate, as their connection to her often allows for them to make friends within the fanbase, where they feel seen and understood.
Additionally, once she’d gained a certain level of fame and began dating popular celebrities, it wasn’t hard to tell which songs were about whom. For example, she allegedly wrote “Dear John” about John Mayer, whom she’s rumored to have dated when she was 19 and he was 32. The song’s lyrics—like “Don’t you think 19’s too young to be played by your dark twisted games, when I loved you so?”—put an even brighter spotlight on her love life. Although it’s normal to see women dating in the Hollywood circle, news sites called Swift an “ultimate player” and subjected her to a never-ending stream of misogynist jokes. The media painted her as a femme fatale of sorts who simply used men in her life as song inspiration and disposed of them once done. Her breakup with Calvin Harris in 2016 was closely followed by paparazzi pictures of her and Tom Hiddleston, which further fueled this narrative. Due to this very public harassment, her fans became extremely defensive of her. This type of behavior is prevalent to this day, despite the decline in negative press. Swift’s actions, such as her “Happy National Snake Day! My Favorite Day Of The Year!” remark at a concert, only work to further fuel both the anger of her haters and the support of her fans.
With the growth of the #MeToo movement in October 2017 and Swift’s release of Reputation in November of the same year following a year-long hiatus, many acknowledged the sexist jokes previously made about her. They pointed out the double standard, as men in the industry weren’t as heavily criticized for their personal lives. Headlines such as “Feminist attacks on Taylor Swift reveal something very ugly about the movement” shifted the focus from critiquing Swift to recognizing the unconscious biases and faults of the movements and culture that contributed to the misogyny she faced. In Reputation, she took on the role of femme fatale, playing up to the theories people had made about her. This showed her not taking herself too seriously and being able to create music despite all the rumors surrounding her name.
Taylor Swift also currently has such strong support because, following many of her controversies, she was in the clear once the truth came out. There were two clear situations throughout her career where Swift was, in the view of the general public, wronged. The first was when Kanye interrupted her VMA speech to imply someone else deserved the award more than Swift in 2009, when she was only 19. Years later, in 2016, Kanye released “Famous,” which featured the lyrics “I think me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that b*tch famous.” He claimed to have gotten Swift’s permission, but a spokesperson for her later refuted this. This controversy tore apart her public image and caused her to go offline and avoid public events for a year before returning with her album Reputation, which used the image the public had created of her to make an album that revolved around love, revenge, heartbreak, and breaking free. It contained lots of snake imagery and mockery of the caricature people had presented as her character. Following these events, the public has largely viewed the way Swift was treated by the public as unjustified. This has created a sort of “un-cancellable” culture around her.
People tend to have such strong beliefs about Taylor Swift because of the mismatch between the two most popular public images of her. Those who have an opinion about her tend to fall in one of two categories: they either absolutely love her or think she is a manipulative, conniving two-faced celebrity who has lied her way back into the public eye. Those who adore her generally believe that she is a good person. Often the arguments are that she is a philanthropist, very loving and caring towards her audience, and generally remains humble in most of her interactions with others. Those who believe she is a nice person and is genuinely just a human being doing her best hold her in high regard and defend her in any way possible. Those who believe that Swift is manipulative and has simply found a way to wiggle her way back into the public’s good graces strongly feel that many aspects of her character are inauthentic and that she conveniently uses situations that have occurred throughout her life to paint herself as a victim. They often cite her performative activism regarding politics, specifically LGBTQ+ rights, as examples of her using certain buzzwords and popular subjects to gain more traction and incorporating them into a certain “era” before throwing them out once they’ve fulfilled their purpose. Most people fall into an invincible ignorance fallacy when it comes to Swift—they often ignore aspects of her public image that don’t fit their perception of her.
The controversy around Taylor Swift largely stems from the stark difference between the two overarching narratives around her character. Whichever one you choose to believe, it places her character as extremely black or white. Since she is painted either as a villain or a people’s princess, the gap between these two is so wide that the arguments for which is the true Swift are incessantly frustrating for both sides. Unless Swift takes significant steps to clarify certain events for both sides, the sheer passion revolving around her name (whether it be positive or negative) won’t subside. Even if Swift does decide to attempt to clear things up, it might be too late to change people’s entrenched opinions.