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This guide will help you discuss the following questions:

  • Why is Taylor Swift so popular?
  • What is Taylor Swift’s worldview?
  • How has Taylor Swift’s music changed throughout her career?
  • What does it mean to be a good role model?

Taylor’s Version

On a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, actress Dakota Johnson reflected on how it felt to attend the show’s 40th anniversary special in 2015. The screen flashed an image of Johnson surrounded by other celebrities, and she remarked, “Crazy to be standing so close to someone who would become the most powerful person in America.”

The image then zoomed in, not to the man behind Dakota—soon-to-be 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump—but to the smiling blonde a few rows down, the freshly-crowned AMA pop star, Taylor Swift.

The joke carried a hint of truth. Swift’s musical career spans 18 years, and during that time, she has won 14 Grammy Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award, 40 American Music Awards, 39 Billboard Music Awards, and 23 MTV Video Music Awards. She holds 118 Guinness World Records and, in 2023, was named TIME’s Person of the Year. Every single one of her albums has gone platinum (including re-recordings of previous albums). Her “Eras” tour is the first tour in history to gross over $1 billion, and her most recent album, The Tortured Poets Department, broke multiple Spotify streaming records, including most-streamed album in a single day.

Taylor Swift’s cultural dominance gives us a clear example of why parents need to have conversations with their kids about faith and culture. Taylor doesn’t just peddle love songs; she has a worldview and a belief system. Even if her songs aren’t explicitly about her religion or lack thereof, teens who listen to her are absorbing her perspective.

And even if you ban Taylor’s music from your home, the culture is saturated with her. You’d still hear her at the grocery store, in commercials, and blaring from someone’s car as they drive past.

Teens care about Taylor Swift—though for some, “caring” means disliking her, or actively cultivating disinterest. For parents, talking about Taylor can be a space to step into teens’ world and encourage them to press deeper into the ways they are being influenced by popular culture.

Let’s dive into a brief overview of Taylor’s life and discography, give some insight into how she uses sexual imagery and profanity in some of her lyrics, and examine the question of whether or not the most famous singer in the world is a good role model.

Taylor 101

In the hands of a dedicated Swiftie, the written tale of Taylor’s life would probably rival “War and Peace” in both length and complexity (and could probably still be called “War and Peace”). Because you likely don’t have the time or interest to read a work of that magnitude, here’s a brief timeline.

  • Taylor Swift was born in 1989 and spent much of her childhood on a Christmas tree farm. She was something of a musical prodigy and her family helped her start looking for a record contract when she was only 11.
  • When she was 15, Taylor signed with Big Machine Records. Her first album was a country record called Taylor Swift. Teen and tween girls were especially fond of this release.
  • Her second record, Fearless, debuted in 2008 and rocketed Taylor to household name status. This record garnered attention from both the country and pop music scenes.
  • In 2010, Taylor released Speak Now, the first album she wrote completely by herself. The album was enormously successful, and Taylor embarked on her first tour.
  • Red was released in 2012 and, while deemed “country,” had massive crossover appeal. Songs on Red alluded to high-profile romantic relationships with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, socialite Conor Kennedy, and musician Harry Styles.
  • In 2014, Taylor moved to New York City. She released 1989, which marked her official crossover into pop. 1989 was produced with several well-known creatives including Jack Antonoff, who would become a frequent collaborator.
  • Taylor’s first massively publicized personal controversy spawned her 2017 album, reputation. That album addressed an ongoing feud between Swift, Kanye West, and his then-wife, Kim Kardashian. At the close of 2017, Taylor began dating British actor Joe Alwyn.
  • In 2018, Taylor entered a bitter legal battle with Big Machine Records and producer Scooter Braun over the ownership of the masters for all her previous albums. She signed with Universal Music Group, which would produce all of her following studio albums.
  • In 2019, Taylor released the bubblegum pop album Lover, a distinct departure from the edgier reputation. The Lover tour was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Taylor released two albums in 2020, the sister albums folklore and evermore, co-written with Jack Antonoff and The National band member Aaron Dessner. These 2020 albums garnered her a new demographic of fans with their indie-folk sound and imaginative, less autobiographical lyrics.
  • A deeply personal documentary called Miss Americana revealed some of Swift’s political opinions and mental health struggles. It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020 before a wider release on Netflix.
  • Taylor officially lost the rights to the masters she recorded with Big Machine. She decided to re-record all her earlier albums under her new contract with Universal Music Group. The re-recorded albums would feature previously unreleased material (called “Vault” tracks) and new song arrangements. These re-recorded albums were dubbed “Taylor’s Versions.” The re-release project began in 2021.
  • At the end of 2022, Taylor released Midnights. She also announced the “Eras Tour.” The mammoth tour setlist included selections from all of her previous albums. The tour has been the highest-grossing music tour ever, earning over $1 billion.
  • At the beginning of 2023, Taylor’s six-year relationship with Joe Alwyn ended. Swift controversially moved on with Matty Healy, the lead singer from indie band The 1975. That relationship was short-lived, and only a few months later Taylor began a very public relationship with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
  • In April of 2024, Taylor released The Tortured Poets Department (or TTPD for short). TTPD was a surprise “double album,” clocking in at a startling 31 songs and 2+ hours.

That’s the abridged version (believe it or not) of the life and career of Taylor Swift. This context will be helpful as we go album by album to discuss the themes and content that have evolved along with Taylor herself. This will create a structure for you to have conversations with your teens about the pop star who’s defined a generation.

Reflection questions: How do you feel about Taylor Swift? How do you hear her talked about?

Taylor Swift

Taylor’s debut album has far from faded from memory. “Tim McGraw,” “Teardrops on My Guitar,” “Picture to Burn,” and “Our Song” all hold special places in many Swifties’ hearts. Billboard magazine says, “Her 2006 self-titled debut, released a few weeks before her seventeenth birthday, is Swift’s foundational document.”

The themes of Taylor Swift resonated deeply with listeners. It was very much reflective of where Taylor was in life: sixteen, in the throes of high school and teenage heartbreak. Those were things her audience was thinking and feeling, too. The unique sweetness of having a crush, the thrill of a first boyfriend, and the particular horror of watching the boy you like go out with someone else wasn’t the subject of most music on the radio. But it’s exactly what teen girls wanted to hear.

The tastes of teenage girls—along with their emotions and way of speaking—are often dismissed as silly or petty. In reality, teenage girls are a cultural force to be reckoned with.

“Teenage girls can love something with elemental purity,” says Vox senior culture writer Constance Grady, “with an intensity no one else can ever quite match. That might be part of why they’re so good at deciding what’s cool: When they commit to something, they commit hard.”

When teenage girls decided they liked Taylor Swift’s debut, the rudder of her career was turned to the current, the sails of popular opinion filled out by the wind.

Parents should know…

Taylor Swift’s debut album is her most tame in terms of content. There’s no objectionable language and nothing more sexual than the occasional mention of a kiss.

Thematically, the album is equally innocent. Taylor was raised in a family that was at least nominally Christian, and her debut album came on the heels of the end of her Catholic school education.

Taylor Swift has the culturally Christian trappings of country music, like praying for a boy to like her (or praying for him to get what’s coming to him, depending on the song), but blue jeans and pickup trucks get mentioned more than God does. A few songs are about breakups and express some bitterness, but they don’t go beyond the pale of what a typical 16-year-old would write in their diary. It is music for young people, written by a young person.

Fearless

If her debut endeared Taylor Swift to a few, Fearless cemented her place in the hearts of the many. The album secured Taylor’s first mainstream chart-toppers, “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me.” It also earned her the Grammy for Album of the Year, among other awards, and she was the youngest person to be named Entertainer of the Year by the CMA Awards.

At the 2009 MTV Awards, Taylor won Best Female Music Video for “You Belong With Me.” As she was giving her acceptance speech, Kanye West charged up to the stage and took Taylor’s microphone to announce that Beyoncé should have won.

The moment set a precedent for the way that Taylor was coming to be viewed, and still is today, that she was not a “serious” artist. She wrote music for teenage girls about crushes and breakups, and dated Disney Channel stars. 

Looking at the content of Fearless, the intensity of dislike coming from Taylor’s critics seems completely baffling. The album features songs about high school awkwardness, falling in love with your best friend, and how much she loves her mom. Those who hated Taylor extended their hatred to her fans, which, considering they were mainly tweens and teens, feels like it’s less about Taylor Swift’s music and more about a cultural disdain for things that young girls like.

Parents should know…

Fearless is similar to Taylor Swift in terms of content (or lack thereof). There is no explicit language, and mentions of sexuality are tame. (A girl who wears “short skirts” is mentioned, as well as kissing.) The extra songs on the re-released Fearless (Taylor’s Version) tracklist are similarly tame. The album is less traditionally country than the debut, so the genre-related mentions of God and prayer mostly vanish—as do the references to blue jeans and pickup trucks.

“Love Story” and “Fearless” capture the general themes of the album. “Love Story” is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, reimagined with a happy ending. It ends with Romeo receiving Juliet’s father’s blessings and proposing. “Fearless” pulls back to the beginning of a relationship, but still applies the same dreamy fairytale quality to it. It describes the awkward yearning of early love but emphasizes that the right person takes away any fear of that awkwardness. It’s an encouraging message that counters the popular narrative that fear and pain are necessarily part of romantic relationships.

Speak Now

Speak Now marked something of a new era for Taylor. The album featured “Back to December” and “Dear John,” songs about two high-profile celebrity exes, actor Taylor Lautner and singer John Mayer.

Taylor had previously dated Disney’s Camp Rock star Joe Jonas, and Taylor Lautner was at the height of his acting career in 2010 when Speak Now debuted. Still, it was Taylor’s relationship with John Mayer that drew the most media attention. Taylor was already being accused of unseriousness in her music, and a relationship with someone many considered to be a serious musician brought more criticism to her than she was already facing.

Unlike other young female artists like Miley Cyrus, Taylor’s image was not sexy. Speak Now featured songs like “Enchanted” and “Long Live” which yearned for fairy-tale love, and “Last Kiss” and “The Story of Us” which spoke to the kind of heartbreak that leaves you crying with a pint of ice cream in your room. But sexualization follows young female stars whether they play into it or not, and Taylor was not immune—at least, not for long.

One of the primary themes of Taylor’s music would continue to be her reactions and responses to negative press. On Speak Now, Taylor addressed the venom with lightheartedness and even kindness. In her song “Innocent,” she expressed compassion and encouragement for someone whose unkindness is born from personal pain (widely theorized to be Kanye West).

She also dismissed critics with her song “Mean.” In a music video that featured children being bullied before persevering to come out on top, Taylor smilingly sang: “Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me, and all you’re ever gonna be is mean.”

Parents should know…

The original release of Speak Now was edgier than Taylor’s previous albums—but only slightly. The spiciest the album gets is the song “Mine,” which includes the lyric, “And there’s a drawer of my things at your place.” The Taylor’s Version rerecord adjusts one edgier lyric in “Better Than Revenge” to be tamer—and less unkind—than the original, swapping the line “she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress” to “he was a moth to a flame, she was holding the matches.”

Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) does include one song that’s more mature, content-wise, than the original album. “I Can See You” was written at the same time as the original album but was not released until 2023. It includes the lyrics:

I can see you waitin’ down the hall from me
And I could see you up against the wall with me
And what would you do, baby, if you only knew? Oh
And I could see you throw your jacket on the floor
I could see you make me want you even more.

The song was not included originally, ostensibly because it’s distinctly more sexual than any other song on the album, and didn’t align with Taylor’s brand at the time. It is interesting to know that she was already writing music with this type of content in the Speak Now era.

Red

While Taylor had already been appealing to audiences outside of country music, the release of Red expanded her stardom beyond genre definition. Crossover hits like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “22,” and the titular “Red” dominated the airwaves, the charts, and nearly every award show.

The music on the album was even more personal, and the general positivity that had permeated her previous albums moved aside to make room for poppy dance tracks about movie stars and breakup anthems about said movie stars.

Essentially for the popularity of Red, 2012 marked a new peak in internet culture. YouTube thrived under the influence of creators like Rhett and Link, Jenna Marbles, and Smosh. Instagram, newly purchased by Facebook, was an endless stream of pastel-toned edits of coffee and hashtags. And, maybe most essentially to Taylor Swift, 2012 was a breakout year for the creative blogging platform tumblr.

As YouTube creator @musingsofacrouton recalls (language), tumblr laid the foundation for internet culture and cast the die for what it is today. Taylor Swift—and Red specifically—was a huge part of tumblr. Not only was Taylor herself a user of the platform, the site was populated largely by the demographic with which she was most popular: the all-powerful teenage girls.

And 2012 was, in many ways, the closest thing the 2010s had to a year of the girl. Girls loved Hunger Games and Harry Styles. They loved Sherlock and Silly Bandz. And the young women who had started listening to Taylor in middle school were in high school, coming of age and culture-making under her influence.

The relatability that Taylor had built her career on was paying dividends. Fans thought about her as someone they personally knew. And on tumblr, mainly free of the critiquing professionals and adult detractors, Taylor was the girl that girls wanted to talk about.

Parents should know…

Red (Taylor’s Version) is the first re-recorded album, chronologically, to have songs with an explicit rating. The original version has no language, but the re-release includes the song “I Bet You Think About Me” and a 10-minute extended version of the song “All Too Well,” both of which include profanity.

Red struck the cross-section of Taylor growing up and blowing up, and the album’s content reflects that. At 22 years old, the relationships she sings about have undertones of intimacy. Phrases like “you made me your own” and “say it with your hands” suggest a more mature version of Taylor. Several of the songs slip into the more intense and keyed-up post-breakup anger that she’d come to be known for, slipping away from songs like “Innocent” and “Mean” to “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.”

That said, certain songs on Red have positive themes. Some of the high school crush tone of her debut album is recaptured in “Begin Again,” “Girl At Home” is Taylor’s aggressively drawn line-in-the-sand lambasting a man trying to pick her up while his girlfriend is at home, and “Ronan” is a tribute to a little boy who passed away from cancer in 2011. Taylor connected with Ronan’s mother and wrote the song with her to honor both Ronan and other cancer patients—Taylor Swift’s own mother being one.

1989

With the release of 1989, the world hit a new level of Taylor Swift saturation. Taylor herself described it as her first official pop album, and its unprecedented success affirmed the truth of that. Unlike her previous albums, which had (increasingly more) hits among a number of “niche” tracks, nearly all 13 of the songs on 1989 fell somewhere on the spectrum between recognizable and beloved.

Katherine Jeng, who teaches a course at Rice University called “Taylor Swift’s Lyrical Evolution,” said that “Taylor Swift’s departure from country has left its mark on the genre, which has led to the evolution of the country genre we see today.”

Musicologist Nate Sloan took the sentiment even further, acknowledging that the impact of Taylor’s pop shift in 1989 was a ripple that turned into a tsunami the music industry is still feeling: “Taylor’s songs achieve a universality that strikes at a listener’s emotional core… This quality makes her songs appealing across wide demographics and helps establish her as a paradigmatic pop star of the 21st century.”

Releasing 1989 was also a move that cut Taylor off from the dedicated country music scene. In a lot of ways, she owed her career to country music. It was her opening set for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s tour that first gained her public attention, she’d written with famous country music stars, and the CMA had reliably awarded her music.

Liking Taylor Swift was no longer a question of genre (Do you like country music, like Taylor Swift?). It became a question of liking Taylor herself.

It was a question that many answered with a resounding yes. While a number of her fans disliked the genre switch, it opened Taylor up to an entirely new pool of people; those who hadn’t liked her because they didn’t like country suddenly didn’t have to contend with that issue.

The themes and subjects of 1989 borrow from and build on her previous albums, setting the standard for the two categories that most of her music would fall squarely into going forward: relationships and fame.

Her extremely public breakup with One Direction member Harry Styles led to songs like “Out Of The Woods” and “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” finding the sweet spot between personal revelation and relatability. Sure, she was singing about him in “Style” (not hard to read into that title), but a “James Dean daydream look in your eye” could ostensibly be found in the average Swiftie’s crush too.

The other aspect of 1989, which was more visible in this album than its predecessors, was Taylor’s reactions to being a celebrity. The sticks-and-stones dismissal of “Mean” was updated to a dancey pop empowerment anthem in “Shake It Off.” And, more notably, “Blank Space” set the standard for what would become a reliable Taylor Swift posture when responding to criticism: playing into the character of a crazy, obsessive, relationship-addicted manipulator to both acknowledge and scoff at the stereotype.

Sure, the “Blank Space” music video cast Taylor as an unhinged ex-lover as a joke, but the understated suggestion was that she was smarter and more intentional about her behavior than she was before. This was a message she also affirmed elsewhere. In the music video for “Bad Blood,” Taylor recruited a bevy of her famous friends, including Selena Gomez, Karlie Kloss, Zendaya, and Cara Delevigne, to dramatize an action movie representative of a feud she had with Katy Perry.

Returning to “Style,” Taylor gave the world a picture of who she was now, someone with “good girl faith and a tight little skirt.” She claimed both the high ground and the darker, sexier version of herself that she was still building. She was 25 now, and firmly grown up—an adult writing music for herself and anyone who cared to listen, which turned out to be, well, almost everyone.

Parents should know…

As mentioned, 1989 draws out a “sexier” Taylor Swift with “Style,” as well as these lyrics for “Wildest Dreams”: “His hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room” and “He’s so tall, and handsome as hell.”

In “Is It Over Now? (From the Vault),” she questions: “You search in every maiden’s bed for somethin’ greater / Was it over when she laid down on your couch? / Was it over when he unbuttoned my blouse?” and notes that even as she was potentially experiencing some level of suicidal ideation (“I think about jumpin’ / Off of very tall somethings”), people only cared about her body and sexuality (“Only rumors ‘bout my hips and thighs / And my whispered sighs”).

1989 (Taylor’s Version) also contains a Vault song called ““Slut!”” (The double quote marks there aren’t a typo; the title of the song is styled as a comment in and of itself, echoed through the lyrics.) Taylor is reflecting on the backlash she received for dating a popular guy (Harry Styles), the comments she got, and how she’s willing to go through it to be with him. Per “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” it wasn’t worth the trouble.

reputation

Though the album does have some love songs, reputation is remembered more for making a definitive statement about Taylor’s image. The opening of the reputation tour said as much: a massive screen flashed images of media sources commenting on Taylor and her career, as a cacophony of voices casting judgment became increasingly jumbled before coalescing into three, then one word: “Taylor Swift’s reputation… reputation… reputation.”

The album was released following the massively publicized and divisive feud between Taylor and Kanye West. Seven years after the incident at the MTV Movie Awards, West had once again taken shots at Taylor after taking credit for her fame and asserting sexual influence over her in his song “Famous.”

Taylor spoke out about how upset she was about the song, which resulted in a video being released of West reading some of the lyrics of “Famous” to Taylor over the phone with Taylor (seemingly) approving of them. In the follow-up to the video, Kim Kardashian—West’s then-wife—vaguely tweeted about Taylor, using the snake emoji. Taylor co-opted the image of a snake to feature heavily in the artwork surrounding reputation. 

reputation wasn’t just a response to West or the media; it was Taylor’s reinvention. In the song “Look What You Made Me Do,” she delivered the now-iconic line “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? ‘Cuz she’s dead!” She debuted a new bleach-blond shag, switched out twee dresses and thick scarves for glittering bodysuits, and traded her signature red lipstick for black. Finally, and most importantly, she retreated from the public eye, beginning a six-year relationship with actor Joe Alwyn that was kept mostly private.

In many ways, reputation was the fiery explosion of the Taylor Swift that the world first knew. No more forgiveness, no more “shaking things off.” No more innocence, no more high school crushes. One bright flash of pent-up anger, and it was over.

It was this shift that brought to the forefront a question that had been brewing for several years: who is Taylor Swift for? The answer seemed obvious for years, as the legions of Swifties were an identifiable and expected demographic. But reputation was even less relatable to the average teenage girl than Red. Feuding with a rapper? Leaving a famous DJ for a Hollywood actor? Taking the whole music industry to task? Once again Taylor would lean on her fans’ interest in her personal life for support.

But that interest wasn’t necessarily appropriate for young fans to indulge in anymore. reputation was angry, sultry, and provocative. It wasn’t about tweenage love. The old Taylor, the friend of the 15-year-old, defender of the tumblr girl, was gone.

Parents should know…

reputation is the first album that really warrants a strong content warning for parents. As of this writing there has been no reputation (Taylor’s Version) released, but given the content of the album itself it’s not a stretch to think it would be fairly mature, and likely not appropriate for younger listeners. reputation features overt sexual language and themes, as well as some profanity.

Taylor sings about nights spent with her lover, and confidently declares, “My drug is my baby / I’ll be usin’ for the rest of my life.” “Dress” is outright sexual, demanding that Taylor’s lover “carve [his] name into [her] bedpost,” and saying she “only bought this dress so [he] could take it off.”

Taylor’s embrace of the villain persona also suggests that this vindictive, rule-bucking “bad girl” image is freeing and fun. She wonders, “They say I did somethin’ bad / But why’s it feel so good? / Most fun I ever had / And I’d do it over and over and over again if I could.” reputation-era Taylor Swift makes revenge look empowering, firmly asserts that all her troubles are someone else’s fault and that she’s earned the right to misbehave—narratives that (clearly) aren’t healthy.

Lover

Between the release of reputation and Lover, Taylor experienced the biggest public battle of her career.

The situation is explained in more detail elsewhere. In short, Taylor was embroiled in a public controversy with the label who’d produced all of her albums, Big Machine Records. She lost control of her masters to producer Scooter Braun, and as a result, did not have full rights to use the songs as she wanted. Taylor then ended her contract with Big Machine Records and signed with Universal Music Group. After Lover was released, she began the process of re-recording all of her previous albums, beginning with Fearless (Taylor’s Version).

Lover was reputation’s opposite in every way. From the glitter heart drawn around Taylor’s eye on the album cover to the lyrics of “ME!” (“Hey kids! Spelling is fun!”), Lover was pink, poppy, happy, and lighthearted.

A large part of the reason for Taylor’s happiness was Joe Alwyn. Many of the songs on Lover, including “Paper Rings,” “Cornelia Street,” “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” and, of course, “Lover,” were odes to her British beau.

If reputation exploded with pent-up fury, Lover spent some time dealing with her more somber emotions. In Lover’s fifth track (the unofficial place where the saddest song of every album sits) “The Archer,” she sings “I never grew up, it’s getting so old… They see right through me / I see right through me.” Despite her perfect romance, her unstoppable career, her power, and her influence, Taylor wrestled with self-doubt.

For many Swifties, Lover is Taylor’s weakest album. After reputation, pop tracks like “ME!” and “You Need To Calm Down” felt hollow. Even “The Man,” a pro-feminist anthem, seemed to lack self-awareness. Lover and its wild oscillation between glittery party girl and vulnerable poet put Taylor’s career into something of a coast.

Parents should know…

Lover is similar in tone to 1989, just more grown up. In the same daydreamy language, she mentions a crush who makes her feel “like I’m 17” but also refers to wanting to “know that body like it’s mine.” Throughout the album she brings up themes of marriage and weddings, such as in “Paper Rings” and “Lover,” although she and Alwyn never married (a subject that turns sore in future albums).

Taylor also made certain political and social values public on this record, as reflected in lyrics from “You Need To Calm Down,” like “Why are you mad when you could be GLAAD?” (referring to the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and “Shade never made anybody less gay… like can you just not step on his gown? / You need to calm down.”

Lover also includes a public articulation of feminism framed by Taylor’s experience as a woman in the music industry. In “The Man” she argues that if she’d been a man, she would have risen to fame more quickly and with less criticism. It is true that the line “When everyone believes ya, what’s that like?” was born out of Swift’s own experience with sexual harassment. But there is something about the most famous entertainer in the world claiming she’s been suppressed and second-guessed that strikes a sour chord.

folklore/evermore

The Lover era was truncated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The tour was canceled, there were no award shows or parties, no remixes or covers. Miss Americana, Taylor’s documentary named after a song on Lover, was released on January 31, 2020, and that’s all it seemed like fans would get from her as the world rapidly changed.

Then, in July of 2020, folklore was released, followed by the surprise drop of its sister album evermore in December. Of all her albums, folklore and evermore were the most stylistically exploratory. Written with her old friend, co-writer, and Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff and The National band member Aaron Dessner, both albums stepped away from pop and country to engage with indie-folk.

If there was one thing Taylor had never been, it was indie. But the quiet and privacy afforded by the pandemic gave her space to explore a creative side that previous albums hadn’t. The “aesthetic” of these albums was soft and earthy; cable-knit sweaters and wool overcoats—and, of course, cardigans. Taylor let her hair grow curly and conjured images of cottages, enchanted forests, and cozy nights.

The albums were also a departure, content-wise. While a few of the songs were still about Taylor’s life (like “invisible string” and “closure”) she experimented with storytelling in a way that she hadn’t before. The “folklore triangle” explored the relationship between three imaginary teenagers in various songs, “James” in “betty,” “Betty” in “cardigan,” and August in “august.” “epiphany” and “marjorie” are about Taylor’s grandparents rather than herself. And “no body no crime,” a collaboration with the sisters of the band HAIM, weaves a true crime-esque narrative about a woman who takes the law into her own hands when her best friend is murdered by her husband.

Though the outright sexual overtones of earlier music were abandoned in the folksy oeuvre, several songs on both albums earned the “explicit” label she’d previously avoided. Years before, Taylor Swift was accused of not being serious. With the lyrical and stylistic innovations on folklore and evermore, she firmly proved she was a musician with depth.

Parents should know…

Both folklore and evermore earned explicit ratings, using a swath of mature language. The more sexual overtones of reputation and even Lover are less frequent here. Some songs do have the loosely suggestive language Taylor employs elsewhere, such as “august” (“I can see us twisted in bedsheets”) and “happiness” (“I pulled your body into mine every g*****n night”).

Taylor also embraced the “witchy” imagery often associated with the “cottagecore” aesthetic folklore and evermore appealed to. There are of course conversations to be had about dabbling with alternative spirituality, even just as a style. Regardless of what faith Taylor professes, she did release “dancing witch,” “lonely witch,” and “moonlit witch” remixes of her song “willow.”

Both albums carry the theme of infidelity from the perspective of those participating in it. folklore includes “illicit affairs,” in which a woman chastises a man for calling her “baby” after ruining her life by cheating with her; “august” is told from the perspective of a girl trying to get the boy she loves to stay with her instead of returning to his girlfriend; and “betty” is ostensibly about that very boy returning to said girlfriend to apologize for cheating, assuring her that the other girl meant nothing to him. evermore runs in a similar ilk in “ivy,” in which a married woman laments having to sneak around with her lover and “drink my husband’s wine.”

Despite that particular through line, the personal aspects of folklore and evermore are soft and hopeful. Returning to her theme of public perception, songs like “closure” and “my tears ricochet” are confident and mournful by measure, allowing the vulnerability of how others’ treatment has hurt her to have a voice. Singing about Joe Alwyn (a co-writer and producer on both albums), she expresses contentment that he accepts her as a person, not the Taylor Swift, and leans into the idea of a greater plan that brought them together.

Midnights

In many ways, Midnights was not so much a singular album as it was a “best of” retrospective. When it was released, the Taylor’s Version rerecords were coming out at a steady pace, and it had been two years since evermore. Midnights, debuting in October 2022, seemed to be something of a recap of Taylor’s career, her 20s, and herself to date. The album had 13 songs (Taylor’s lucky number) which she described as coming from “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life.”

Taylor also noted that Midnights was her most confessional album yet:

I don’t think I’ve delved this far into my insecurities in this detail before… I struggle a lot with the idea that my life has become unmanageably sized and, not to sound too dark, I struggle with the idea of not feeling like a person. We all hate things about ourselves, and it’s all of those aspects of the things we dislike and like about ourselves that we have to come to terms with if we’re going to be this person.

If folklore and evermore were departures, Midnights was a return. A grown-up return to glitter and synth-pop and self-revelation; a smokier 1989, a chiller reputation, a more laid-back Lover. And, in keeping with the retrospective, the release of Midnights coincided with the announcement of Taylor’s first tour since the cancellation of the Lover tour: the record-demolishing Eras Tour.

Eras, which wrapped the globe multiple times between March of 2023 and December of 2024, was the highest-grossing tour of all time, earning more than $1 billion. The setlist, rather than focusing mostly on Midnights and including a fan-favorite song or two, was a grand recollection of Taylor’s career, album by album, era by era.

Near the beginning of the tour, Taylor’s relationship with Joe Alwyn ended, which casts the songs on Midnights into a new light. Starting with reputation and continuing across Lover, folklore/evermore, and Midnights, Taylor portrayed her relationship with Joe as an escape from fame. “Lavender Haze,” “Mastermind,” and “Sweet Nothing” spoke to the way Taylor felt refreshingly un-famous in their relationship. But as Eras rolled on, it seemed that the image couldn’t be kept up.

Because at this point, Taylor Swift wasn’t just a famous person, she was the famous person. Done with the reckoning of Lover, Taylor made peace with her fate in “You’re On Your Own, Kid”: “I gave my blood, sweat, and tears for this… And I saw something they can’t take away / ‘Cause there were pages turned with the bridges burned /  Everything you lose is a step you take.”

Parents should know…

Midnights was Taylor’s most mature album when it was released, with six out of 13 songs receiving the explicit rating (the Midnights: 3am Edition, a surprise release hours after the original album drop, added seven more songs, none of which were explicit). The theme of infidelity returned in the aptly-named “High Infidelity,” in which Taylor argues that her lover “brought [her] back to life,” justifying it by saying her partner “killed the one [he] loved” by “never loving [her] enough.”

There’s also a song called “Karma,” in which Taylor seems to celebrate the way her predicted comeuppance came back around. It also brings up some potentially problematic worldviews. She says that because she did the right thing, karma is friendly to her (“a cat purring in my lap ‘cuz it loves me”). But she then takes it one step further, declaring that “karma is a god.”

Karma as a concept is opposed to the Christian belief in God’s sovereignty, and referring to karma as a god is definitely spiritually objectionable. (This also isn’t the first time she’s incorporated the idea of karma into her music; in the song “Look What You Made Me Do” on reputation she sings, “The world moves on, another day another drama / But not for me, not for me, all I think about is karma / And then the world moves on but one thing’s for sure / Maybe I got mine but you’ll all get yours.”)

Taylor also returns to the theme of marriage in this album, first with “Lavender Haze,” in which she insists that she doesn’t need to get married and that it would feel reductive to fall into either category of “a one night or a wife.” After Midnights released, though, an additional song, “You’re Losing Me” was leaked and eventually officially released. The lyrics referred to her recent breakup: “I wouldn’t marry me either, a pathological people pleaser, who only wanted you to see her.” Based on this, and some music that would be released in the future, Taylor’s interest in getting married became a more prominent topic in her music, including her frustration that Joe Alwyn seemingly undermined this desire she had.

The Tortured Poets Department

So the reckoning was done, the trophy secured, the catharsis achieved, the self settled. And then Taylor released The Tortured Poets Department, and it was all undone.

If TTPD could be described as anything, it is messy. In the opening track, Taylor expressed a desire to kill her ex’s wife. She conjured images of mental asylums, avenging spirits, and alien abductions. Despite her relationship with Joe Alwyn lasting six years, the majority of the songs seemed to be either about her brief and ill-received fling with The 1975 frontman Matty Healy, or her all-American love affair with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.

The album, initially released as 16 songs, had a surprise second half that brought the total tracklist to 31—over two hours. The music had more explicit language and themes than any before it, and if reputation had been a sniper rifle aimed at Taylor’s detractors, TTPD was scattershot.

No one was innocent, not her exes (“My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys”), her critics (“But Daddy I Love Him”), her haters (“Who’s Afraid Of Little Old Me?”), Kim Kardashian (“thanK you aIMee”), not even the Swifties (“I Can Do It With A Broken Heart”), and certainly not Taylor herself.

Throughout TTPD Taylor confidently asserted that she knew she was making bad decisions, she was making them on purpose, and she didn’t care what anyone said about it. The third song on the album even started with “Oh, here we go again.”

Of all her albums, TTPD received the most mixed reviews. Some found its chaos raw and artistic, others found it overwhelming and unnecessarily convoluted. But in a way, the reviews didn’t matter. Taylor Swift appears to be too big to fail.

She could release an album of 24 hours of silence with the faint echo of a leaky faucet, and people would find a way to make it meaningful (87 drips? That’s Travis Kelce’s jersey number!) and relatable (My ex’s faucet used to leak just like that… she really gets me!).

A review by Olivia Horn in Pitchfork sums up Taylor’s position post-TTPD perfectly:

Taylor Swift’s music was once much bigger than her. A born storyteller, she gathered up the emotional ephemera of her life and molded it into indelible songs about herself, but also about young women—about their sorrow, their desire, their wit and will. She was the girl next door with the platinum pen, her feelings worth hearing about not simply because they existed but because she turned them into art.

Those days are gone. Swift, pumped up to mythical proportions by discursive oxygen, is bigger than her body of work… She is her own pantheon: a tragic hero and a vindicated villain; an inadvertent antitrust crusader and a one-woman stimulus package; an alleged climate criminal and fixer; The Person of the Year of the Girl.

Parents should know…

If there’s one Taylor Swift album that could be firmly stamped “not for kids,” it’s this one.

A good number of the songs are explicit, and those that are go full send; “Down Bad,” for example, uses f*** and its variations 18 times. Amidst the notable language is a brazen leap into sexuality. Songs refer to being “pulled into the backseat” of a car, sharing beds and showers, “fatal fantasies giving way to labored breath,” and a uniquely distasteful suggestion that Taylor’s lover “touch [her] while [his] bros play Grand Theft Auto.”

References to drinking, drug use, and even violence also find their way into the album, such as in “Fortnight” (“I was a functioning alcoholic / My husband is cheating, I wanna kill him”), “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” (“You tried to buy some pills from a friend of friends of mine / Then sank in stoned oblivion”), and “imgonnagetyouback” (“Whether I’m gonna be your wife or gonna smash up your bike / Even if it’s handcuffed I’m leavin’ here with you”).

One of the concerning themes in The Tortured Poets Department has to do with the context in which Taylor wrote it. After Taylor’s relationship with Joe Alwyn ended, she began dating Matty Healy, the frontman of The 1975. Healy has several strikes against his character in terms of his music, which runs the gamut of peppy songs about cocaine to suggesting that God made him an atheist. Perhaps more upsetting, though, is that Healy’s behavior outside of his music has been alleged to be racist, predatory, and borderline antisemitic.

Many of the songs on The Tortured Poets Department appear to be defending Healy. Taylor insists that she doesn’t care what people say in songs like “But Daddy I Love Him” and “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can).” When she criticizes her ex’s failings, it’s not any of his deeply problematic behavior that upsets her; it’s that he broke her heart.

But the most problematic aspect of The Tortured Poets Department is probably the way that Taylor uses the themes of religion and love. Religious imagery in pop music—and love songs specifically—is far from new for Taylor. Songs like “Holy Ground” from Red and “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” from Midnights carry a religious theme.

But Taylor isn’t subtle in TTPD, and assumes a Christological stance in the songs “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” and “Guilty As Sin?” In the former, she bemoans that she “would’ve died for your sins, instead [she] just died inside,” styling herself as something of an abused messiah. In the latter, she pushes the imagery further, arguing that she could “roll the stone away” and saying, “They’re gonna crucify me anyway / What if the way you hold me is actually what’s holy?” before concretely asserting “I choose you and me, religiously.”

There is something deeply unsettling about someone as influential as Taylor Swift adopting the sacrifice of Christ to talk about her boyfriend, especially when so many young people look up to her.

Reflection questions: What do you make of the arc of Taylor Swift’s music over the years? What songs/albums were you familiar with, and what was new? How has your opinion of her life/music changed after reading this?

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

In “The Manuscript,” the last song on the extended version of The Tortured Poets Department, Taylor writes, “The only thing that’s left is the manuscript / One last souvenir from my trip to your shores / Now and then I reread the manuscript / But the story isn’t mine anymore.”

Taylor Swift’s story is of a woman, uniquely talented as both a performer and a business person, finding herself with opportunities in the right places at the right times, and becoming one of the most famous and influential people on earth.

It is a story that so many of her fans have dreamed of living, or at least coming within its glittering glow and catching just the edge of a spotlight. But is it a good story? And if she divests herself of it, capturing it in a “manuscript” with a catchy beat and passing it on to her fans to carry, is it a story worth listening to?

Christians believe that beyond the stories of individuals like Taylor Swift is the overarching story of God. This is a God so beautiful and powerful that His untarnished creation was a pure joy, a God whose own Son’s unrestrained love was drawn to rescue His creatures when we shattered our own gift, a God whose Spirit’s unendingly intimate friendship buoys the hearts of those creatures until this chapter of the universe closes and the new eternal one begins.

Taylor Swift’s story fits into this larger one. And Taylor is a human, not an idea. There is sin in her, and she is also made in the image of God. She can say one thing one day and an entirely different thing the next.

In terms of what is appropriate, Taylor’s music can be rated and ranked by album: Fearless has no bad language in it; folklore does. Taylor Swift stays away from sexuality, The Tortured Poets Department leans into it. The amount of Taylor Swift media you are comfortable with having in your home is your decision.

Maybe a more useful question, then, is this: Is Taylor Swift a good role model?

And here’s the short answer: No. Absolutely not.

Looking up to Taylor Swift could create unique difficulties. She has a tendency to blame others for her own behavior and to dredge up old wounds for art when it would be kinder to let them lie. Her worldview is decidedly secular, if not in articulation then in practice. She seems fixated on karma and revenge. She swears. She dances provocatively. And she is just as broken as every other human on this planet.

When we get down to it, no human being is a perfect role model. The purpose of a role model is to set a pattern for a life that, when followed, promotes flourishing. There are, of course, healthier role models we could choose, like Maya Angelou or Benjamin Franklin—and role models that would be worrying to have, like Gengis Khan or Lord Byron.

But the only truly good role model who has ever lived, the only person who has ever offered real truth, a life that can be elevated with no sin, a man truly worthy of worship—is Jesus Christ. He is the only human we can safely look at to model our life after, because He is the only one who lived a perfect life. Following after celebrities like Taylor Swift can feel fun, exciting, and maybe at times relatable—but more than anything else, it is following Jesus, being influenced by Him, and being shaped by Him, that helps us become who we were ultimately meant to be.

Reflection: Who did you look up to when you were a teenager? Looking back, what do you make of the role models you chose? Did you turn out anything like those individuals?

Discussion Questions:

  • What do you think about Taylor Swift’s career and influence on the culture?
  • Do you think you’ve been influenced by Taylor Swift? If so, how?
  • Do you think there are some Taylor Swift songs that aren’t appropriate for some of her listeners?
  • What does it mean for an artist to “grow up,” and how might that affect their fans?
  • What are some things you like about Taylor Swift? What are some things you don’t like?
  • What do you think is the difference between admiration and worship?