It’s so easy to hate Taylor Swift. It has been for years. She’s been the crazy desperate girlfriend; the serial kiss-and-teller mining her personal life for profit. She’s been a hypocrite; she’s played the victim. She’s been too loud (about her breakups) and too quiet (about her politics). She’s been too cringey, too sly, too produced. She’s too much, or not enough.
In short. She’s been a woman in the public eye.
This week, Swift has exploded the internet once again, with the news that her entire musical output has been bought by Scooter Braun; the infamous manager of Justin Bieber and (previously) Kanye West, who she accuses of “incessant, manipulative bullying” and despite Taylor’s insistence that she had repeatedly requested to buy back her catalogue, and been ignored.
In a public Tumblr post she spoke of her agony, knowing that songs “I wrote on my bedroom floor” were now in the hands of a man who had more than once shown his disdain for her. To illustrate her point, Swift shared a screengrab of a (now deleted) Instagram post of Justin Bieber’s; showing Scooter Braun and Kanye West facetiming Bieber and laughing. The caption reads ‘Taylor Swift what up’ and was posted directly after her very public fallout with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West following his controversial statements about her, in his 2016 song ‘Famous.’
“My musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it” she declared.
It was classic Taylor; a public slamming of a man who has done her wrong. The reaction was also classic; with hordes of reactions turning against her. Bieber waded in to criticise her choice to out her feelings publicly: “What were you trying to accomplish by posting that blog? Seems to me like it was to get sympathy.” Braun’s wife labelled it a “temper tantrum.” Note the pejorative language- as if she were a petulant child, not a wildly successful recording artist.
Once again, the might of the internet’s fury rose up against Taylor Swift. But have you ever wondered why?
Let’s talk about storytelling. Think what you will about the woman, Swift is a consummate storyteller. Signed at the precocious age of fifteen to be a songwriter, then a singer, her career has since been dominated by the idea of narrative- what the story is, and, crucially, who gets to tell it. Her early work is pure teenage angst, but it’s also pure Taylor, personal and unapologetic, even about her less-than-attractive qualities. Throughout her career, her work lays her bare – as vulnerable, obsessive, even, yes, a little desperate.
She has always put her own agency at the forefront of her work, not wanting other people to dictate her narrative. Yet this is a large part of what she has always been so slammed for.
She is acutely aware of public perception- frequently parodying and lambasting herself in her work, from Shake it Off and Blank Space to the entirety of her Reputation tour. When Kim Kardashian called her a snake and accidentally-on-purpose launched an attack of snake emojis at the singer, Taylor crafted an entirely new social media persona around the snake. She then built a 63-foot snake- and took it on a sell-out, worldwide stadium tour.
Don’t tell Taylor who she is, she will tell you.
The concept of her narrative being stolen from her, arguably started the moment Kanye West stole the mic from her at the 2009 VMAs; interrupting her acceptance speech to claim that Beyonce should have won the award instead. It spawned a near-decade long feud about the concept of who gets to say what about the other. When Kanye released Famous in 2016, he depicted her naked, re-writing the narrative of that VMA mic-grab as: ‘I made that bitch famous.’ Swift’s fury in response was met with Kim Kardashian leaking a video- seemingly showing Swift approving the song. When Swift responded to the leaked video, her language was again centered on the idea of someone else telling her story for her: “You don’t get to control someone’s emotional response to being called ‘that bitch’ in front of the entire world” she wrote publicly, “I want to be excluded from this narrative…one that I have never asked to be part of, since 2009”.
That initial 2009 moment was, of course, a literal representation of her voice being yanked away from her-the way so many women under public scrutiny have words said about them, for them, but are seldom given space to speak for themselves.
But when Taylor Swift takes back the mic, she is hated for it. Why is it we find women speaking their truth so uncomfortable? Why are we so unused to women standing their ground – owning their narrative?
Her battle with Scooter Braun is once again about the ownership of her story. Whatever the truth of this messy, protracted business deal is (and there has been furious online debate) it’s hard to ignore a woman staking her claim to her own work – using her voice to reclaim her voice.
Halsey articulated this when she spoke up for Taylor online this week: “no matter how much power or success a woman has in this life, you are still susceptible to a someone coming along and making you feel powerless out of spite.” Indeed, in her Tumblr post Taylor says “when that man says ‘music has value’ he means its value is beholden to men who had no part in creating it’” It neatly echoed her thinly-veiled dig at Kanye back in 2016: “People along the way will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments.”
Many artists – from Haim to Katy Perry to Todrick Hall – have rallied behind Swift, and the hashtag #WeStandWithTaylor is trending on Twitter. Yet we can all agree that the hate Swift receives will no doubt match this support.
Because when women like Taylor speak their mind, unfortunately, society still tries to take the mic off them.