Growing Up in Taylor Swifts America ‹ Literary Hub

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I was teaching American Women Writers at Georgetown last fall when my students proposed adding Taylor Swift to the syllabus. Like most of the humanities courses I teach, it was mostly composed of white womenthere wasnt a single man enrolled. The course drew on writing from the 20th century to todaySylvia Plath, Toni Morrison, Carmen Maria Machadoto discuss the intertwinement of national and personal identity. I was most interested in asking my students how American culture prescribes an ideal life path for women: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in the baby carriage.

I wanted my students to consider this life path as a genre. They were game. Only, they called for a more expansive canon. Midway through the semester, one student wanted to add Beyonc Knowles-Carter to the lineage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the next wanted to add Taylor Swift.

Teaching towering artists of contemporary culture like Knowles and Swift is no small feat for anyone. Its an even greater one if youre a member of their target audiences and have attended their concerts as a fan. Their work refuses to stay in the lane of two, or three, or even four genres; it also transcends different forms of visual and literary culture. Theyre both talented artists and strategic businesswomen.

As a PhD student in visual culture, I TAed multiple courses that taught Knowles. They taught me how to orient her work within a history of visual culturefor instance, by placing Lemonade, her visual album, within the Southern Gothic lineage.

Does Swift represent the ideal American life path of romantic love, marriage, and parenthood? Or might we trace a different course underlying her oeuvre?

Swift hit different. Id never TAed a class that included her on the syllabus. And, as a white American woman two years younger than she is, and who, admittedly, has bought into the parasocial bit over time, she and I go way back.

When it comes to identity, humanities academics can be both dismissive and self-serving. At our worst, we find the rhetoric we need to promote or dismiss whatever feels affectively good to us; we also find the rhetoric that makes us look good to the colleagues who have the power to promote and pay us. A dismissive uproar followed the news that both Swift and Knowles have been assigned their own press corps. Academics need to consider, with nuance, what is going on here.

Last fall, I was determined not to be dismissive or self-serving. I wanted to approach Swift as a teacher, a member of her target audience, and a critic. Keeping in mind Jennifer Nashs proposal that the critic is engaged in a loving practice rather than a destructive one, I wanted to think about what it meant for so many of us to have grown up alongside herto have watched her, in real time, capture American culture. I wanted to ask my class some questions: Does Swift represent the ideal American life path of romantic love, marriage, and parenthood? Or might we trace a different course underlying her oeuvre?

*

A student opened our Swift day by presenting on taste hierarchies. She asked Do you feel shame when talking about the media that you enjoy which revolves around love? Is your shame dependent on the audience present? She also asked: Do writers, particularly female writers, have a responsibility to write about a variety of topics to be considered valid artists?

Then she led discussion. One student referred to Miss Americana as a feature-length commercial. Another brought up the environmental impacts of Swifts jet; another brought up the controversy surrounding her use of the term fat in the Anti-Hero music video; still another brought up a now-scrubbed homophobic lyric.

We turned to textual analysis. On the projector, I played Bejeweled, which Swift wrote and directed. It opens with camp queen Laura Dern playing the evil stepmother, the Haim sisters playing stepsisters, and Swift playing Cinderella cleaning their sick from last night off the floor.

Students knocked on their desks when they saw a Gothic elementwomens shared domestic space, a castle, 18th-century dresses. Dern states the storys driving tension: I simply adore a proposal, the single most defining thing a lady can hope to achieve in her lifetime.

Swift is a fallen woman. But Bejeweled is about upward mobility, and she finds a way out. Not so subtly, Swift fantasizes about entering a skyscraper elevator. At the top she meets the queen, a Black woman who forces a white prince to propose. Swift winks and then ghosts; she gets to keep the castle, though.

Its a music video that combines elements of British imperial fiction, the Gothic genre, and the fairytale. Its also a prescription for moving up in American culture. Swift instructs: Dont put me in the basement when I want the penthouse of your heart. While she of course sings to an enormous audience, the implication is that shes addressing her former fianc.

For Swiftwho officially became a billionaire in November 2023these kinds of fictions generate wealth. At the same time, they give us a different path, even if it comes with drawbacks. Historically, moving up has, for women, relied on them marrying up. But here, theres no question what will bring her capital: its singing about her dating life, again and again and again. Swifts knowing wink at the end seals the deal; she knows exactly what she is doing.

Swift invites her audience to indulge in the feelings that the Gothic has always encouraged: anxiety, lust, relief. But if home, in America, is where we invest our assetsboth emotional and materialwhat does it mean that the home shared by women is in an old, dark basement? What does it mean that the penthouse Swifts character aspires to is in an expensive-looking skyscraper, with a wealthy, white prince, played by Jack Antonoff, at the top? What does it mean that the Black queen, played by the iconic British makeup artist Pat McGrath, forces the white prince to propose?

Walking out of class, I wondered whether Swift also compels us to ask whether the big emotions incited by patriarchal genres can be traps, seducing us into structures that might harm us. If the first comes love, then comes marriage lifespan is a genre prescribed to American women, who wrote that prescription? Who, exactly, does this prescription serve?

*

Suddenly I was using the us pronoun: like my students, Im a woman younger than Swift. While I dont consider myself a Swiftie, I sometimes find myself, in jest, calling her Mother to my Swiftie friends, as they do (and as Knowles fans also do). I know she addresses me when she sings the penthouse of your heart. Since Swift evolved from a country artist to a pop star, I have felt, as a woman younger than her who loves pop culture, that her siren song is directed at me. Shes been a fixture in my life since high school, when the Teardrops on My Guitar commercials appeared in my familys living room. (I remember really disliking them.) How, even with all her flaws and complications, did she seduce me?

I only began to warm to her music in 2012, when Red came out: enjoying it at parties, especially when 22 came on. That fall, I was a newly minted 20-year-old, relieved to have left my teenage years behind. I remember spending a lot of time being anxious about drinking. My friends had begun turning 21, and I wouldnt legally be allowed at bars until senior year. I loved, though, that 22, which joked about dressing up as hipsters, played so often at parties at my hipster liberal-arts college. I couldnt go to bars, but I could go to these parties. l loved that my friends, both men and women, took their shirts off when they danced to it.

My next intense memory of Swift was attending her concert. When I was 26, I got tickets to her Reputation stadium tour in Chicago. Watching the tour as a visual-studies PhD student fresh off her first-year evaluation earlier that afternoon, I could see its issues. Earlier that quarter, I had written an article for The Atlantic about the literary tradition of white-woman narrators putting themselves in close proximity to Blackness in order to grow up and embrace their burgeoning sexuality.

The albums troubling stuffSwifts filch from the Black-created genres of gospel and hip-hopwas pronounced at the concert. Suddenly, Swifts backup dancers, which, up until Reputation tended to be a mix of genders and races, were mostly women of color. There were lots of snakes and other references to hell and badness, both visually and rhetorically. The relationship between Blackness, badness, and sexual rebirth reached its climax during Look What You Made Me Do. Tiffany Haddish suddenly appeared on a screen behind Swift to state the songs most famous line: The old Taylor cant come to the phone right nowbecause shes dead.

I wish I could pretend that I hated the concert, that its problems made me walk away. Instead, I woke up the next day, sore from dancing. The truth is that Reputation is as compelling as it is troubling: an irrevocable installment in our collective growing up as racially diverse Americans, as women, as consumers of mass media.

The album and tour monetized the past on a number of levels. There was what was happening with Scooter Braun: in 2019, Scott Borchetta sold her music to Scooter Braun, a man she hated, without her consent, even though she asked for the opportunity to purchase it herself. There was also what happened with Kanye West: in 2009, he got onstage at the VMAs to interrupt Swift and announce that Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time. In 2016, with the assistance of his then-wife, Kim Kardashian, he recorded a phone call with Swift, doctoring it so that it appeared she granted him permission, in his song Famous, to use the lines: Taylor and I might still have sex, why? Because I made that bitch famous.

Lastly, there was Swifts yearlong departure from the public eye, after the media-storm of these years. Her writing about the exodus eerily resembles Echos departure from Narcissus: with Swift playing echo and the public eye playing Narcissus. Swift, herself, references Ovids tale in her poem Why I Disappeared, which was introduced, at the Reputation tour, in a Swift-spoken word video clearly influenced by Knowles Lemonade, which came out a couple years prior. (Plath also frequently referenced Echo and Narcissus in her work.) Swift, eschewing poetrys place in hierarchies of taste, then sold the poem, in a magazine attached to the Reputation tour, at Target: a home-goods store catering to white women, for more profit.

Reputation was also influenced by traditions of American celebrity. Lauren Michele Jacksons White Negroesher title a reference to Norman Mailers essay about the original hipster observes that while black girls are grown before they hit puberty, white women must find creative ways to own that maturity for themselves. Jackson demonstrates that white popstars who are native to the industry as little girls and young women, must go primitive in ways that whiteness doesnt afford.

Jackson quotes Hilton Als White Girls, highlighting yet another artistic tradition Swifts work takes up. Als You and Whose Army is a fictional piece, written from the perspective of Richard Pryors sisterwho is, herself, a (fictionalized) voice actress for porn. That black bitch by definition tells a white bitch who she is, Pryors sister says. Pryors sister maps out the dynamics at work behind the Black queens approval of a white-woman artist like Swift in Bejeweled.

Swift sheds light on the stakes of putting on ones face to make it through the workday by casting McGratha Black makeup artist, whose star text best reflects the cost of this burdenas the queen. Through Queen Pats body, Swift also gives herself a Black-woman stamp of approval. While Swifts cynical engagement with Black culture evolved slightly from Reputation to Midnights (the album on which Bejeweled appears), it erupts again in the Bejeweled video. This time there is a knowing wink at the end.

*

As the artist herself acknowledges in her recent hit, Anti-HeroIm the problem, its meSwift has made her fair share of mistakes over the course of her career. Shes also provided invaluable lessons to her immense, fervent following.

What did Swifts work teach me as I grew up alongside it? Ive learned that its much more satisfying to use the inner workings of your body as a toolto perform for three hours, run a marathon in under four, write a dissertation chapter, stay up late talking to a friendthan as a quiet surface for others to admire. Ive learned that sometimes you have to assume that whatever you do will treated in bad faith, or with a dismissive glance, by those who wield power over you. You have to try to make a living while doing your very best to act in a way that you hope your future self will be able to stand behind.

This all feels too much. I know I sound breathless, like a fangirl. Just as I dont love that girls fandom is often described as mania, I dont love that womens personal writing is often labeled confessional. The genre label removes the fact that writingjust like giving birth, just like raising kids, and just like teachingis work, even if it doesnt pay well. Terms like mania and confessional mobilize the gendered history of pathology to dismiss girls expertise, and womens labor.

*

As a Swift fan and critic, I tried to get publicity tickets to Eras over the summer. After expressing my interest, I received a kind email from Tree Paine, Swifts iconic redheaded publicist, saying I would need to apply with my media outlet. In the succeeding months, I learned that Paine gave access to fans rather than critics. (One student from the Women Writers course procured tickets through the following she built on TikTok.) While academics and media outlets need Swift to do their work, she doesnt need them to do hers.

Instead, I got tickets for opening weekendwith my own moneyfor the Eras film. Im a film scholar after all; this, I thought, would be a timely article hook. That night, I dressed as Red, celebrating the moment I began to enjoy Swifts music. I wore my A LOT GOING ON AT THE MOMENT sweatshirt, honoring our shared status as eldest daughters; red press-ons; and a too-tight friendship bracelet my sister made over the summer that spelled KELLY in small, white beads. With me that night was one of my closest friends; before the film, we sat on my bed as she French-braided my hair.

I got tickets a state over, in Virginia; I didnt want my students to see me in my costume. The cinema was filled with cliques of girlsmostly 4 to 6 per group, elementary aged, middle-school aged, and high-school agedsome mother-daughter duos, and a few gay couples. Unlike Taffy Brodesser-Akner (who attended the concert in hopes of writing a Swift profile for The New York Times, even though she, too, failed at getting publicity tickets), I didnt notice any husbands, but I bet they were there.

As the show continued, the girls congregated under the screen like they were at the concert. Initially, they danced in their cliques. But by the end they were a mass. I didnt see anyone close to my age down there. Seeing this particular mob scream karma is my boyfriend and karma takes all my friends to the summit on a Saturday night in Virginia was really something.

Maybe its my fandom, but the situation at the theater struck different from the other mediascapes I study, especially today. It felt capitalist, and it felt suspiciously prosocial.

*

When I think back to Swift on stage, sweaty and working during the films finale, I also think of Plath, in her early thirties: tall, at the height of artistry, with long, wavy-brown hair and bangs. Plath, at this point in her life, had left her mother and brother behind in the US to be closer to her husbands family in the UK; just after she had their second baby, he left her for another woman. At the time of her death, she was also struggling against intense economic duress, social isolation, and postpartum depression. (It is our cultures dirty little secreteven and especially today, post-Dobbsjust how dangerous pregnancy, labor, and the months after can be.) She woke up early, before the babies did, to write about what led her to such a place. This was the work that won her the Pulitzer after her death.

The writing industry, like Plaths husband and his family, profited from her labor. But neither paid her enough to support herself in return. And Swift, like Plath, grapples with being desired but not cared for: a labor structure that, under the guise of love, will dispose of you the moment you show thatjust like your romantic partner or employeryou have needs, too. Both write about marketplaces women navigate on a daily basisthe sexual marketplace, feminized (aka low paying) jobs outside of the home, the artistic work that happens in betweenthat dangle the carrot of care in exchange for low-wage labor. These jobs often have a contingent pay structure, even if they arent framed that way at the offer stage.

Bejeweled, instead, shows Swift breaking away from the labor structure prescribed to American women from the beginning. She creates a different path. In contrast to Plathwho did her best to support herself but who, in the mid 20th century, did not have the privilege or support that Swift doesSwift has taken over the global economy; she will be just fine. (When I emailed an early version of this article to Peter K. Steinberg, the editor of Plaths letters, he responded: First of all, who is this Taylor Swift you’re writing about?)

Unlike both Plath and Knowles, Swift has reached her mid-thirties with no husband or children in sight. For decades, we have watched her repeatedly turn down the lifespan of ideal labor in favor of another kind of labor. It shouldnt be radical for Swift to foreground this labor structure in such a public forum, but it isespecially post-Dobbs. Like Knowles and Plath, Swift (based on the subtext of Bejeweled”) had a choice to take a life of marriage and babies, a life of business-conscious artistic work, or both. She has repeatedly turned down marriage in favor of the other.

Knowles took both paths, and when her husband, like Plaths, cheated on her, Knowles spun the betrayal into artistic gold, and into money for herself. (Just like all women, Knowles needs moneyher own moneyif she wants to leave a situation that is bad for her.) Plath was offered both paths as well, but taking them came at the cost of her life, and for American culture more broadly. Even though I wouldnt have thought this ten years ago, Id rather be seduced by Taylor Swift than Ted Hughes.

Bejeweled, instead, shows Swift breaking away from the labor structure prescribed to American women from the beginning.

Just like every other women in the American dating market, these artists proximity to straightness and whiteness (including Knowles, who is blond) played a role in their ability to procure these options. In contrast to Swift and Knowles, Plath, who attended Smith College on scholarship, pursued and chose a college education. But the degree didnt protect her in the end. In return for her labor, she needed money to live. Her husband didnt offer that to her, and neither did her industry.

While Plaths oeuvre is structured in a clocklike fashiona series of deaths and rebirthsSwifts is almost exclusively a story of births. As my colleague Margaret Rossman points out, Swift encourages fans to become part of her story through inviting them to look back on their own. Her work, in other words, compels the audience to look back on past versions of Swift and themselves: to see their journey as a series of rebirths. And this comes as American culture tells women in their early thirties that the clock is ticking, that the only way to find carethe only path to womanhoodis through the work of becoming a wife and mother.

Swift, troubling that script, has more important work to do. And her oeuvre tells other American girls and women that they probably do, too. At the same time, she, rather than a future spouse, lets us revel in the pleasures of the prescription before it goes too far.

Indeed, Swift writes frequently of women who break off engagements. In Bejeweled, rather than ending with the marriage plot, Swift shows that the diamonds in her eyes can lead her up an unexpected path. The marriage proposal is the ultimate job offer for an American woman, the diamond a signal to the world that you have been chosen, picked up from the basement. To be in proximity to a diamond, much less possess it, is to move up in society.

But a diamond isnt a girls best friend. It isnt the friendship braceletlike the one I wore to the Eras filmmade with sturdy string and plastic beads, by a woman who has always seen you. Swift shows that Americas prescription for women flattens the longer, more-complicated span of their lives. I dont think its a coincidence that Plath separated from her spouse, in addition to Toni Morrison and Carmen Maria Machadothose other notorious American women writers on our syllabus. Diamonds are hard to look away from, and they are meant to be. They trap and redirect light.

Swift shows that maybe, only once your life has been refracted by the diamondonly once you are living in a penthouse with your husband and mothering a baby that has his last name rather than yours, only once you have procured the lifestyle America has pledged contains all of the answersdoes it become clear that this fairytale may not live up to its promise of care, in return for your work.

Its too late at this point, though. You have a baby who needs you; you have said vows and signed a contract tying your finances with your husbands; you have likely already scaled back on paid hours at your job outside the homebeginning with your doctors appointments, if you are lucky enough to be able to afford themin favor of working for him and the baby. You have likely begun to leave your friends and your own family behind too, in favor of showing up more for your husbands family of origin.

Even though our culture, especially in its post-Dobbs era, doesnt give American girls a prescription for becoming women, Swift does. She offers American girls and women a model of contributing to the economy on their own terms: she is creating more jobs rather than more babies.

Her work is not without mistakes. It is, of course, uniquely enabled by her whiteness and sex appeal. It is, of course, cynical: Eras markets her music (her old, own music), to a new generation of girls. And yetas an eldest daughter, as a cultural historian, as a teacher of Gen Zs, as a loving criticI am so grateful for Swifts work, for her successes, for her mistakes. I cant wait to see what she makes next.

 

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Id like to thank my sisters, Meghan and Aileen, for everything.

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