In this week's Pop is Not A Dirty Word, columnist Douglas Greenwood reflects on Taylor Swift's tumultuous year, and how she came out the other side with a record that brought her back down to earth again.
Sometimes, in this job, I wonder if I’m too harsh on people. Or if I’ve missed out on something that’s totally skewed my perspective on an artist and their work. I’ve considered that a couple of times when I look back on things I’ve written about Taylor Swift: one of the rare, non-male pop artists whose music and opaque political stance I’ve taken issue with in the past.
In some ways, I know I was right. I stand by the fact that, despite it containing one of her best songs (that’s ‘Delicate’, by the way), her 2018 record ‘Reputation’ was, for the most part, a flimsy exercise in pop re-contextualisation; a distracted, meagrely made pop album that felt so far detached from an artist we know and love. But heck, I was in the minority: some loved it, and the woman behind it sold out multiple nights at stadiums around the globe. She was a success in the face of adversity. A star who’d successfully reclaimed their throne after a shaky year in the public eye, shaped by spats, shying away from the press and mixed reactions to the songs she was releasing as singles.
For this very column, I spoke about how disappointed I was that Swift had decided to remain apolitical throughout one of the most fraught presidential campaigns in American history, and when she came out in support of the Democratic supporter – not the tangerine 45 we were given – it felt like too little to late. She could have changed the course of things with her wide-reaching influence had she intercepted sooner. I realise now that, as much as I still think someone like Ed Sheeran is profoundly bad as a pop star, I never held him to the same standards. Should she have done something sooner? Sure. Should she be banished to hell for not doing it, now we know the reason why: that she was suffering from a life problem privately and was crippled by the weight of the world’s expectations of her to just say something? Of course not.
Let me start at the beginning. When I was 12 years old, I saved up money and asked my dad to buy me Taylor Swift’s eponymous debut album, importing it from the US because it wasn’t out in the United Kingdom yet. For little queer me, this agonising romantic country-pop was pure catnip. I loved Taylor Swift; she pre-dated Lady Gaga as my pop idol. ‘Picture to Burn’ was my ultimate bop, but album deep cuts, like Mary’s Song (Oh My My My) remain some of my favourites of her entire catalogue. For the several years that followed, I would defend her to the death. I still remember the first time I saw Taylor Swift – my own private idol – have the video for ‘Love Story’ play on the music channels after school. My own secret star was finally getting the respect she deserved.
That same feeling – one of saccharine sweet, star-crossed infatuation – is the one I felt again last Friday, when I gave ‘Reputation’s’ follow-up ‘Lover’ a chance. It is, in my opinion, Taylor Swift doing what she does best: mining that remarkable feeling of being in love with someone and living in it almost recklessly. She’s a masochist for her art; excelling in the niche she’s carved out for herself in the pop world and dazzling crowds of like-minded people in the process. If ‘Reputation’ was a momentary side-step, a conflicted portrait of an artist balancing the need to be both stoic and vulnerable, ‘Lover’ is a record that proves there is power in allowing yourself to be emotionally excavated by the people you love. It’s a brilliant, honest pop record.
So do I owe Taylor Swift an apology? Well, since she’s returned to a place where she’s comfortable with press, she’s been quizzed by several journalists – including Laura Snapes in an immaculate Guardian profile – about her shortfalls while silent. I get it now. Clarification and conversation, it seems, will always make all the difference.