On Why Taylor’s Not Evil, We Are

This essay was initially written in September, 2018. Slight edits have been made for this edition.

Just checking in, okay bby 🤧

“Yo, Taylor. I’m really happy for you, and I’ll let you finish. But Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. Of all time.”

Kanye West to Taylor Swift after ripping her 2009 VMA for Best Female Video out of her hands. The moment which started a feud between Kanye and Taylor that spanned multiple years. The moment that cemented Taylor as an untouchable icon, an angel wronged by the menacing demagogue West, the soul-giver of Speak Now, Red, and 1989,¹ the innocent small-town girl turned media mogul.

Now, viral comes and viral goes, and as did Taylor Swift.² Taylor’s reign as the darling of country-pop ended with the release of her infamous phone call with Kanye West — who else? — in July of 2016. In his track “Famous” from the February 2016 album The Life of Pablo, Kanye West references Taylor Swift in a derogatory manner.³ Once the song was released, Taylor claimed that she never gave West permission to use her name; however, Kim Kardashian, Kanye’s wife, released a video via Twitter of Taylor explicitly giving Kanye permission over the phone. Overnight, Taylor was villainized as a lying, sensitive, greedy, undeserving snake.⁴

I recently asked a friend if she, like the rest of the world, hated Taylor Swift. When I asked my friend this question, her response was simply: Yes.

I might pause here to define “to hate” in terms of Taylor Swift. When I say that people started to hate Taylor Swift, I don’t mean that all of her fans suddenly stopped listening to her music. I mean that in general there was a sense that Taylor was a bad person, and social media started to universally call her out on her transgressions. After the incident, Taylor was slandered for every little move she made. She had effectively become public enemy no. 1.

I asked my friend how she could hate her if she’d never met her.

Her response was something like: I don’t know. I guess I just know from what people say about her.

Me: But you’ve never met her personally.

But I know the kind of things she does.

Me: So, you get to hate her just because of what other people think?

Yes.

Me: Even in real life? Like someone at school?

Her response: Well that’s different. With someone close to you, it’s personal.

It’s personal.

Is that why it’s so easy to hate Taylor Swift? Because it’s not personal, so we think “no harm, no foul?” There is credence to this line of thinking. The Taylor-hating phenomenon reminds me of high school bullying situations. Fortunately, I have never witnessed movie-like physical bullying (think kids getting slammed into lockers or getting their heads stuck in toilets), but I have heard of incidents of harmful cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is known to be more vicious than in-person bullying because there are no immediate consequences. The abuser is protected by a screen. The target is left with the weight of unspoken, but no less harmful, words. Objectively speaking, even if you are a devout Taylor Swift hater, everyone should be able to agree that Taylor Swift has been cyberbullied. The internet is full of memes about Taylor. Taylor as a literal snake, Taylor as a basketball player getting bodied by Michael Jordan/Kim Kardashian. A tweet I laughed out loud at posed the question: Why can’t we leave Taylor Swift alone? In a retweeted response, someone replied: Because we hate Taylor Swift.

But what I find most interesting about Taylor is not that she gets a lot of internet hate — all celebrities do. What fascinates me is the way the whole world seemingly unanimously decided to turn on Taylor Swift after that 2016 phone call with Kanye. People like me, who enjoyed Taylor’s music but would be considered neutral fans, suddenly would scrunch their nose up at the mention of her. It’s not even that Taylor’s music was suddenly terrible. It honestly remained as bop-y as ever. The change was in how I, and apparently many social media users, perceived Taylor’s character. After all that time sitting pretty, it came out that Taylor was the wrong one in the Kanye-Taylor saga. The change of the tide was vindictive. Personally, I felt that she got what she rightfully deserved. For years, Taylor had been caught up in celebrity feuds in which she always victimized herself (or at least it appeared).⁵ Finally, she was caught red-handed in all her snake-villainy. It just made sense. Why else would she go through so many boyfriends? She had to be evil.

Obviously, my judgement had little founding. But at the same time, I had all the information I needed to make a clear, consistent judgement: I hated Taylor Swift. I didn’t have to worry about Taylor’s personal feelings or what she might actually be like in person. The tabloids had done my research for me. In this regard, I agree with my friend. I could more easily hate Taylor because I didn’t know her.

However, I disagree that the lack of personal influence makes hating Taylor Swift more justifiable. While my friend would assert that in a more “personal” instance, she would be less quick to hate on such a weak basis, I have seen this same wave of blind hate directed at my peers every day — students in my direct sphere of influence.⁶ This, like what was done to Taylor, goes beyond bullying. To me, it is almost worse. It’s the subtle understanding between everyone that the “pariah” is on the outs. I have sat at tables where once this person sits down the entire vibe changes. When the pariah addresses the table, there is always a slight pause before another person volunteers to bear the burden of directly addressing the black sheep. Only, when the sheep is addressed, they are not addressed in the eyes. In fact, everyone’s body language is directed away from them, as if to not be touched by their particular strain of social ineptitude. The saddest part is, I can tell you — if not exactly, at least an idea of — who is on the outs in every grade at my school. There’s always someone. There’s always a pariah. And they are always defined as such by one pivotal event — an event much smaller than a framed phone call — that follows them like a shadow throughout their school careers.

Though I tend to root for the underdog — I am always the first person to (annoyingly, my friends might say) shut down gossip or hearsay — I myself am guilty of this appalling behavior. I have sat in a room with friends and shit-talked with reckless abandonment about one of these “pariahs” for over an hour. At the time, it was probably the biggest laugh I had shared in a while. Everyone pitched in, providing both personal stories and rumored stories they had heard from a friend of a friend. The mood in the room was jubilant, and you could feel a literal release coming from people. It was as if our personal grudges and petty frustrations had been caged in a dark closet for months and just now were seeing the light. But if there were other people like me in that room, they didn’t even have personal grudges against the person we were taking joy in attacking.

So why do we do this?

I think it’s easy to say that we all love to hate Taylor Swift out of pure mean hearted-ness or because she had it coming. She did, after all, try to villainize Kanye in the whole “Famous” scandal. It’s also fair to say that the lack of direct contact with Taylor makes a slight contribution to how easy it is to hate on her. But here’s the thing. We don’t love to hate Taylor Swift. We hate to love her. Taylor Swift has crafted her career from small country singer-songwriter to international pop sensation. She has dated tons of hot, famous boyfriends. She has a super fun, super exclusive girl gang of friends. She walks out of the gym looking like she could hit a casual red carpet. She’s awesome. She’s living the American dream and has done so untouchably for so long. Of course, at her first undeniable slip up, the masses tore her apart: we hate her because she is everything we ever wanted to be.

In a dream world, these convoluted emotions spurred on by poorly repressed jealousy would be reserved for those untouchable ones, those whom we can attack in public yet affirm to ourselves in private are not any worse off, perhaps comforted as they are by their riches or clout — people very much like Taylor Swift. As it were, however, celebrity slip ups, while entertaining for short bursts, can’t provide the aforementioned intimate releases of pent up aggression. For that, each and every day, we attack those closest to us. Those pariahs I described before are not bad people. Perhaps, they had said something weird on the first day or stepped on the wrong toes, and that’s why they carry the fated label. But I think that what they really possess is a spark, usually manifested as self-confidence, that the masses see as a threat to their own facades. Cowardly, we belittle their characters in our closed-door rooms. We tear them apart behind their backs to falsely build ourselves up. I think Taylor Swift has received so much hate not because she is truly awful, but because every time we, as a collective, have tried to tear her down, she always rises again, always back better than before.

This past summer, I went to Taylor’s reputation Stadium Tour. The production value was through the roof. The costumes, the dancers, the stage — every aspect was outstanding. The high production value was no surprise. Taylor Swift was the highest paid artist in 2016.⁷ She’s come a long way since her first Fearless Tour, and she owes her fans a darn good show. However, what surprised me is that I walked away feeling like I knew Taylor Swift. Pre-concert, I had thought the classic line, “Sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Because she’s dead,” was a cheap attempt at Taylor reinventing herself and therefore drawing more publicity. However, after the third larger-than-life snake graced the stage, it started to dawn on me what Taylor was doing. She was literally taking back her reputation from the millions of online bullies who have been tearing her down since 2014. By using the obvious and explicit snake symbol, Taylor made it clear that she had made her peace with the rumors, and she came out on top.⁸

More than this though, scattered throughout the entire concert were pre-recorded videos of Taylor ruminating on her personal experiences with the central themes of loneliness, betrayals of trust, and coming back from extreme setbacks. For the first time, I saw what Kimye had done to Taylor (and the subsequent internet backlash) through Taylor’s eyes. I genuinely felt for her. I felt bad for judging her unfairly. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was inspired by her bravery in openly discussing how hurt she had been. In the most egotistical fashion, I felt proud of Taylor for having come out on top of all the haters — on coming out on top of me — as if my opinion meant anything.

But then again, didn’t it? Didn’t all of our opinions contribute to Taylor’s fall from grace? Didn’t we all inadvertently, in forcing her to reclaim her identity, lead to her drastic rebirth? More than this, don’t we all play a role in outing those “pariahs” at our lunch tables? And may I ask you to consider that it is much harder to rise from being a social outcast in high school than it is to come back from a framed phone call when you are already, ba dum tss, Famous.

During the concert, as she transitioned from song to song, Taylor would recite clever monologues that acted as perfect segues from song to song. During these talks, she spoke to her fans — to me — directly. I was extremely happy to be there, to be witnessing not only Taylor’s artistic brilliance, but also her. As Taylor spoke to me as a normal person, I started to afford her the same luxury. I don’t think that this luxury is something that should be hard to afford our own classmates. Today, I still won’t go so far as to say that I am a die-hard Taylor fan. However, when I think of her now, I do give her my begrudging admiration. She did that.

¹ Now, also, reputation and Lover

² Though this essay details Taylor’s fall from grace following the 2016 Kimye scandal, I would presently argue that Taylor Swift is far less of a *figure* today, post-Lover, than she was in 2018, on the heels of reputation (though she has not lost any coins since 2018)

³ The lyrics in question are: For all my Southside n****s that know me best / I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that b***h famous (God damn) / I made that b***h famous

A snake, defined by Urban Dictionary, is “someone who you think is sincere and really nice, but then turns out to be a backstabber. Someone who acts like your best friend, but who actually is the opposite.”

The VMA incident was in 2009. Between that time and 2016, when Taylor was discovered as an evil snake, she had public feuds with Katy Perry over hiring tour dancers (2012) and Nicki Minaj over white feminism at awards shows (2015) among other drama.

For this paper, the sphere of influence is defined as my 400-student high school.

She was also the highest paid artist in 2019, narrowly beating Kayne West himself by $35 million. Furthermore, she was the second highest paid musician of the decade!

I might note that Taylor was nearly selling out Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The average resale price was $280 so the joke quite literally was on the audience.

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