Taylor Swift’s debut album Taylor Swift was released 10 years ago today.
It’s hard to remember a time before her outsize cultural influence, which spans not only country and pop music but Twitter, “good girls,” confessional writing, capitalism, the music streaming wars, “squad goals,” red lipstick, white feminism, tabloid culture, Tumblr memes, music videos, Coca Cola, and the unbearable creepiness of John Mayer.
In fact, it’s so hard to remember a moment in time that didn’t exist in the shadow of Swift’s unstoppable, bazillion-watt light that we might as well not even try. Let’s just walk through the last 10 years, dwell on the biggest, most Swiftian moments, and struggle once again to understand how — for better or for worse — we ever lived without her.
2006: “Tim McGraw”
I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Taylor Swift’s voice. I was 12 years old, in the back seat of my mom’s mini van, on the way to the gas station to get gas station cappuccinos. We were in rural America, I knew every Tim McGraw song, and Taylor Swift was shimmery, sincere, perfect. Everything she wanted me to believe she was, I believed. I had never been in love, but she had.
2007: “Our Song”
“Our Song” is a clever idea that sounds like it was jotted down in a diary in the middle of the night.
“Our song is the slamming screen door
Sneakin’ out late, tapping on your window
When we’re on the phone and you talk real slow
‘Cause it’s late and your mama don’t know”
It’s almost too clever, and that’s because it was genuinely written by a prodigious 14-year-old before she’d learned to tone herself down. The music video features three enviable prom dresses, and it’s a teen’s Fantasia, replete with rose pedals and polka dot pedicures and rotary phones. It is hard to overstate the thrill of realizing that a girl can make millions off repackaging and selling her diaries — “diary” being a word used to pigeonhole the personal writings of women as sentimental, frivolous, and devoid of power.
2008: “You Belong With Me”
This song is a problem, the beginning of “The Taylor Swift Problem,” which will be initially regarded as a contrarian take and coalesce into something close to popular opinion over the next eight years.
“She wears short skirts
I wear T-shirts
She’s cheer captain
And I’m on the bleachers”
The casting of other women as one-dimensional sluts competing for the attention of men, the rock-throwing, the bitterness — it’s all classic teen angst and it’s all behavior Swift struggled to grow out of. Regardless, the album that “You Belong With Me” was featured on, Fearless, was released in October of 2008 and became the best-selling album of 2009.
2009: The musical monologue
Before Taylor Swift was known for having fistfuls of celebrity boyfriends, she was known for having one celebrity boyfriend: Joe Jonas. Their 2008 break-up spawned one of the most bitter, revolting singles she ever released: 2009’s “Better than Revenge.” It also hitched her star to the Disney marketing monolith right before she was about to have another momentous encounter.
This was the year Swift took off not just as a country star, but as a force in popular culture. She hosted Saturday Night Live just weeks after Kanye West notoriously interrupted her VMA acceptance speech. She delivered a ruthless, funny, actually very catchy musical monologue in which she roasted Kanye and Joe Jonas and confirmed rumors that she was dating Twilight’s Taylor Lautner with a literal wink to camera. She was an excellent host — funny, smart, a good actress. That’s crucial: she’s a good actress.
Incidentally, in “Better Than Revenge” she lambasts Jonas’ new girlfriend for being an actress (and “better known for the things that she does on the mattress.”) She also points out, in the precise, no-nonsense phrasing she had been too shy to use before and hasn’t had to use since: “I always get the last word.”
2010: Valentine’s Day
The same year that Taylor Swift won the Grammy for Best Album for the first time (the youngest winner of that award in the ceremony’s history), she appeared briefly in a terrible film opposite her temporary celebrity boyfriend Taylor Lautner. The role she plays is a bubblegum-mouthed teen romantic who goes on and on about an enormous teddy bear that her boyfriend gave her, then flips out when he doesn’t like the shirt she made for him. She’s playing a parody of herself for the very first time, four years before she presents that as a brand new, media-shaking idea in the Beyoncé-cribbing music video for “Blank Space” (which has been viewed over one billion times).
2011: “The Story of Us”
This video is perfect: the guitar line, the pony tail, the title cards, the angst, the anxious pulse, the adrenaline, the private school. This song is the Gossip Girl mania exploited to its logical end, and repurposed for a broader, middle American audience. This is the first time video in which Swift’s nervous posturing isn’t just sweet and charming — it’s deliberately alluring, and paired with bottom lid eyeliner.
This song appears on the same album as “Dear John,” a six-and-a-half-minute evisceration of sleaze-ball John Mayer that is so raw and cheesy and blistering as to be second-hand embarrassing even half a decade after the fact. It’s on the same album as “Innocent,” the cringe-worthy ballad Swift wrote in an attempt to publicly flaunt an olive branch in the general direction of Kanye West. It’s the same album as “Mean,” a weird song about how an old man music critic doesn’t like Swift and she doesn’t like him. The same album as “Better than Revenge.” It’s a petty, off-kilter, strange album and it contains this perfect song. Swift can falter all she wants because when she delivers a knock-out she really delivers.
2012: “I don’t really think of things as guys vs. girls”
“I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”
2013: Harry Styles
Taylor Swift and One Direction’s Harry Styles dated for a cumulative three months, over the course of about a year. He allegedly inspired Swift’s big pop crossover hit “I Knew You Were Trouble,” released in 2012. But he didn’t come into his major role in her life until long after they parted — a moment at the 2013 Video Music Awards when Swift accepted the award for Best Female Video for “I Knew You Were Trouble” and then shouted out the “person who inspired this song, who knows exactly who he is.” This, paired with what some eagle-eyed fans considered a rude wink at Harry in her Grammy’s performance earlier that year, sparked hundreds of conspiracy theories and tweets and blog posts and fan fiction essays.
Is it any wonder that her first full-blown pop album 1989, released the following year, appeared to be all about him? Not if you’ve been paying attention!
In 2015, One Direction even released a song that sounded suspiciously like the suspiciously-named Swift track “Style.” In it, Styles promises some faceless girl “if you’re looking for someone to write your break-up songs about, baby I’m perfect.” On his 22nd birthday three months later, he tweeted a lyric from Swift’s “22.”
It’s so nice to see these young babes making a buttload of money off of each other. I wish I had a friend like that! These two didn’t invent the game of profiting off of love, but they worked it to their advantage on the internet better than any pair the world had ever seen.
2014: The last honest moment
Taylor Swift’s 2014 Grammys performance isn’t available online in any official capacity. It’s not on her VEVO account, it’s not on the Grammy’s YouTube page, and it’s not so much as mentioned on GRAMMY.com. That is, I assume, because it is horribly embarrassing. She performs her 2012 song “All Too Well” while seated at a piano and backed by a small choir. Halfway through the performance she decided she regrets enlisting backing vocals and opts to belt over them. She regrets sitting too, and starts flailing her head back and forth, letting her Joni Mitchell hair sweep over the piano keys in a way that isn’t so much distracting as it is totally debilitating. It’s horrible. It’s like watching a video of yourself auditioning for a high school production of Cats. The dress is like a chintzy Halloween costume version of Megara in the Disney animated Hercules. The makeup is too much — purple and pink and navy and silver.
But the song is about Jake Gyllenhaal, and though Taylor Swift is a known liar I fully believe her when she claims that he stole her scarf and keeps it in an air-sealed drawer to remember what “innocence” smells like. The songwriting here cleaves as close to the bone as Swift ever gets, which is generally pretty close!
This is the same year that Swift takes control of her own Tumblr account as a place to post her own counter-narratives, starts spinning herself into the full-blown pop queen that she’ll emerge as with 1989, publicly disses Spotify as a soulless exploiter of art, and reverses her stance on feminism. Any one of these things could be called a calculation, but not the Grammys performance.
As embarrassingly as she behaves, she also looks like someone who’s been given a stage and decided to lay her soul bare on it for the benefit of one person. If it’s hammy and apt to go viral, all the greater are the chances it will make it to that one set of eyes and ears. It’s purposeful self-immolation, and the last time we saw Swift be honest in public. I hope Jake was watching.
2015: Bad Blood!!!
Here is a small selection of 2015 headlines that made not-very-clever plays off of Taylor Swift’s terrible song “Bad Blood.” It should give you a pretty accurate roster of Swift’s mistakes in the sloppiest year of her life.
Taylor Swift’s profitability has now entered a stratosphere in which it cannot be touched even by a catastrophic collapse of her poise. It’s a phase in which she pens open letters to Apple executives on her Tumblr and gets the rules changed, then sits back while her super-famous boyfriend does battle with Miley Cyrus and Zayn Malik on her behalf. It doesn’t matter that six weeks later she’ll draw every pop blogger into a duel over the state of white feminism and tone policing: she still got the Apple Music streaming cut she wanted, the lucrative ad spots, and the shiny new platform / sponsor for a tour documentary (announced on her 26th birthday as a victory lap).
2016: “This is What You Came For”
Speaking of victory laps: Taylor Swift just performed “This is What You Came For” live for the first time. It’s the song she secretly co-wrote with ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris, then took credit for months later only through “reps.” The whole time that he was fuming about it on Twitter, dissing her for moving on to Tom Hiddleston mere weeks after their break-up, and running from paparazzi so frantically that he nearly took a door off of his SUV, she was silent. But as we’ve been told, she always gets the last word.
From the chorus:
“Baby, this is what you came for
Lightning strikes every time she moves
And everybody’s watching her”
Happy 10th birthday to the world we live in.