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The Evolution of Taylor Swift’s Public Image

The album cover for Taylor Swift's "reputation."
The album cover for Taylor Swift's "reputation." By Courtesy of Raphael Lovaski, Unsplash
By Siena E. Lerner-Gill, Contributing Writer

Taylor Swift released her 10th studio album on Friday, inviting reflection on her rise to popularity as a public figure. As the only female artist to win Album of the Year three times at the Grammy Awards, Swift’s stardom ascends past most of her peers’. However, as her fame grew, her relationship with the media changed significantly, progressing from writing songs with her crushes’ real names to allegedly transporting herself in suitcases for privacy.

Beginning her career in 2006 as a 16-year-old country star with curly blond hair and an accent she picked up after moving to Nashville, Swift was known for playing into “America’s sweetheart” tropes. She giggled in interviews and came up with the idea for her first single in math class.

However, Swift’s celebrity skyrocketed two years later, with the release of her sophomore album “Fearless.” The rise of smash hits “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” coincided with her first Grammy wins, the beginning of a public obsession with her relationship status, and the infamous interaction with Kanye West at the 2009 VMAs.

It was a huge year for Swift, who became an idol for young girls, a radio staple, and the subject of serious public debate for the first time. Her public image evolved to a larger version of what she was known as in 2006, as she described begging her parents to take her to Nashville the way another child might ask to go to Disneyland and reintroduced herself to the world.

She easily revealed aspects of her personal life, sharing exactly which songs on “Fearless” were about Joe Jonas on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, explaining that the intro to a song on “Speak Now” was 27 seconds long because that was the length of the voicemail he’d broken up with her in. Relatable, endearing, and innocent, Swift was willing to “do anything” to hear the sound of screaming fans.

As a musician who’d began her career by performing the national anthem at sporting events, Swift was careful to be patriotic but never political, to never swear, and to fit the bill of a polite young girl. She was the symbol of hard work and traditional family values, thanking “God, and family for moving to Nashville” when she won at her first CMAs in 2007.

She reeled in the amount of herself she was willing to share with the world in the “Red” and “1989” eras but still emphasized her relatability and catapulted into even greater fame. She wrote about teaching boyfriends how to hide from the press in “I Know Places” and did her best to shift public focus from her romantic life by highlighting her friendships on tour and in music videos like “Bad Blood,” but she remained largely quiet about political issues and was instead applauded for her ability to rise above it all.

In 2016, everything changed when Kanye West released his song “Famous”, and controversy arose regarding a lyric mentioning Swift. A back and forth of swirling accusations, rebuttals, and commentary began, as other gossip about Swift’s breakup with Calvin Harris and feud with Katy Perry went public simultaneously. People spammed her social media with the snake emoji, and as a result Swift deleted all of her posts and began the “reputation” era, during which she reclaimed the snake, did almost no public appearances, and began a new era of her relationship with the media.

“There will be no further explanation. There will just be reputation,” was the phrase Swift coined as she began the new era musically and publicly. It signaled a break from Swift’s unimposing demeanor and willingness to keep her mouth shut about politics. In October 2018, she posted on Instagram endorsing Phil Breseden, a Democratic candidate for United States senate in Tennessee, and encouraging her followers to vote.

Since then, Swift has released four new albums and two re-recorded albums. Her starpower has climbed even higher, as her newest album “Midnights” broke the record for the most-streamed album in a day in Spotify history.

Taylor Swift is an unmoving presence in popular culture, signaling that her decision to share her political opinions and move away from the people-pleasing she was so committed to has not hurt her celebrity. Although the media will never tire from discussing her romantic history, Swift has done her best to extend the stance she took with her “reputation” album, putting her art at the forefront of her public life and rarely sharing details about her now six year long relationship with actor Joe Alwyn. Now Swift leads with her music and uses her platform to amplify causes she cares about.

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