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I Had Become the Target: On Taylor Swift and the Power of Revisionism


This article is a preview of the LARB Quarterly, no. 41: TruthBecome a member or subscribe today to get this issue plus the next four issues of LARB Quarterly.

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TO HER DROVES of fans, Taylor Swift has always blurred the line between storyteller and historian. Despite being insanely famous for the better part of two decades, Swift’s greatest strength as a songwriter is her ability to twist the already-scrutinized details of her celebrity life and relationships into universal fairy-tale parables. A chance encounter with her popular musician ex backstage at an awards show becomes an awkward night of “standing alone in a crowded room” (“The Story of Us”). An unspecified betrayal from a Victoria’s Secret model becomes “the words of a sister [that] come back in whispers” (“it’s time to go”)—a formulation as readily applicable to locker-room gossip as to potentially losing the rights over your masters to Scooter Braun. I should say “allegedly” in front of all of these examples, because Swift rarely, if ever, mentions her muses by name.

Knowing the intricacies of Swift’s personal life is not a prerequisite to enjoying her music; not every listener who has contributed to her pop-cultural dominance knows about “Bleachella,” or that photo on the boat with the blue dress. Yet the real-life inspiration behind her songs—the “lore,” as Swifties call it—has been nearly as central to her most obsessive fans’ fixations as the records themselves. Swift knows it; her team knows it; the NFL knows it now too. She billed her ludicrously profitable new arena show, the Eras Tour, as a three-hour career retrospective drenched in spectacle. This makes perfect sense, as Swift has good reason to use the tour to heavily promote all 10 of her studio albums: her latest release, Midnights (2022); the three prior LPs she couldn’t tour because of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the remaining six, which Swift is now in the process of rerecording and rereleasing after her former label, Big Machine Records, sold their masters to Braun in 2019.

Swift has painted the rerecordings as a project she was initially reluctant to take on, even if it would mean regaining full legal control of her music. (As a songwriter, Swift retains the publishing rights on her first six albums.) “I’d run into Kelly Clarkson and she would go, ‘Just redo it,’” she told Time in December, when the magazine named her 2023’s Person of the Year. “My dad kept saying it to me too. I’d look at them and go, ‘How can I possibly do that?’ Nobody wants to redo their homework if on the way to school, the wind blows your book report away.” (The high school metaphors never end.) Nevertheless, these rerecordings have provided Swift with a unique opportunity to revisit not only old songs but also her public image at the time they were released. It’s inevitable that each “Taylor’s Version”—the suffix given to the rerecorded albums/songs—has prompted a retrospective discussion of the album’s actual content, whether it be about the enduring strength of Swift’s songwriting, the improvement in her vocals, or the subtle yet controversial changes made to each track’s production. What has been less predictable (and honestly, more of a selling point for these albums) is how each has offered up a postmortem on that exact point in Swift’s career, a reexamination initiated, narrated, and presented entirely by Swift herself.

This comes in part through the rerecordings’ “vault tracks,” songs that were ostensibly written during the original album’s production but left on the cutting room floor. Most of these songs were never known to the public prior to Swift recording them for the new albums, except for one: “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault).” When it was announced for the 2021 rerecording of Red (2012), Swifties both laughed at the title and jumped for joy, as it meant the world was finally getting the fabled “original” extended cut of a track considered by fans and critics alike to be one of Swift’s best.

Since it first appeared on Red over a decade ago and organically became a fan favorite despite never being a single, “All Too Well” has had its origin story told and retold over the years by Swift and Liz Rose, her co-writer on the song. They’ve claimed that it stemmed from an impromptu jam session between Swift and her band on tour, while she was going through a particularly painful breakup; Swift’s mom asked the sound guy, who happened to be recording the rehearsal on CD, to give her a copy. Rose then helped Swift pare the track down from a protracted airing of grievances—described as 10, 12, 15, or even 20 minutes long, depending on the exact interview—into its five-and-a-half minute studio version. Like the other vault tracks, we have no idea what “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” sounded like in its original form, as it was never released to the public. The track on Red (Taylor’s Version), recorded in 2020–21 like the rest of the album, is meant to be an approximation, at least lyrically, of what Swift’s unheard first draft may have been.

If this all sounds a little mythical, that is by design. For one, fans were already teased with excerpts from the original “All Too Well” cut before Red (Taylor’s Version): in another example of Swift monetizing her own archives, she included, in Target-exclusive editions of her 2019 album Lover, booklets of her own diary entries from ages 13 to 27, one of which contained a few scattered lines from the “All Too Well” demo. None of these lyrics appear in the 2021 rerecording. There’s also the now-infamous line about a “fuck the patriarchy” keychain that led a few skeptical listeners to think that Swift could not possibly have written it back in 2011. As Olivia Craighead argued in Gawker (in an article that, like the rest of the Gawker archives as of this writing, has been completely wiped from the internet), the phrase “fuck the patriarchy” did not reach cultural ubiquity until later in the 2010s. Ben Zimmer at Slate even investigated the history of the phrase using Google Trends to determine when Swift may have first heard it.

But I think the definitive proof that “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” is an act of revisionism comes more simply, and requires no data analysis: the new portions of the song, particularly its ending, are far more retrospective than the fresh-wounded grief and anger found in the lyrics that first came out on Red: “I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age […] And did the twin flame bruise paint you blue? / Just between us, did the love affair maim you too?” To me, these lines read as emanating from someone who has had more than a few years to look back on a relationship—and who has also come to consider the age difference and subsequent power dynamics involved, which weren’t explicit in the “All Too Well” that first appeared on Red. Paired against the rawer lines from when the breakup was fresh (“Back before you lost the one real thing you’ve ever known”), it’s obvious which parts were written by the older Swift. And while there’s something compelling—even profound—in hearing an artist examine the same heartbreak from two very different stages of their life across one song, you almost have to ignore the officially spun backstory for “All Too Well” in order to gain that insight.

Swifties have a reputation for scrutinizing every last lyric and crafting extremely intricate timelines of Swift’s life, and quite a few have broken kayfabe to debate these discrepancies online. But by and large, “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” has been embraced as the definitive “director’s cut” of an already beloved record. It is the longest song to ever reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and Swift’s performance of it on the Eras Tour is one of the show’s climactic moments. The “All Too Well” short film that accompanied the rerecording, which Swift directed, further mythologizes the real-life story behind the song, or at least how the public saw it—the film’s autumnal, plaid-clad aesthetic bears a striking resemblance to those maple-latte paparazzi shots of her and actor Jake Gyllenhaal. With each new detail that Swift shares about the song’s inception, there’s a greater dissonance between the song’s power as a raw, brutal parsing of heartbreak and the fantasy inherent in taking Swift entirely at her word.

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Art, even autobiographical art, is not factual recounting, though there is an outdated precedent of judging the work of female musicians as being necessarily more “personal” than most. It’s a restrictive and sexist notion that has historically boxed women artists into one mode of expression. What Swift has done, through her diaristic style of writing, is to expand her perception of the world outward, so that she becomes both the defining and the default viewpoint on her career. When 1989 (Taylor’s Version) was released this past fall, Swift included a prologue that reflected on the media’s probing of her personal life leading up to the album’s original release just nine years ago:

You see—in the years preceding this, I had become the target of slut shaming—the intensity and relentlessness of which would be criticized and called out if it happened today. The jokes about my amount of boyfriends. The trivialization of my songwriting as if it were a predatory act of a boy crazy psychopath. The media co-signing of this narrative. I had to make it stop because it was starting to really hurt.

None of what Swift is saying here is untrue. She was painted as a “serial dater” in tabloid articles and became the butt of late-night monologues for seeming to date a new actor, singer, or Kennedy every few months. Chelsea Handler called the frequency of men she dated “embarrassing”; an extended ribbing from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler when they hosted the 2013 Golden Globes led Swift to quote Madeleine Albright in a Vanity Fair interview: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” While maybe not as abhorrent as the public shaming of Britney Spears a few years (and one paradigm of celebrity culture) earlier, it’s clear with hindsight that Swift was treated unfairly by the press for exhibiting dating behavior pretty typical of someone in her late teens and early twenties. The obsession with whom she was partnered with and whom she might write a song about next—not to mention the assumption that she was “driving men away” through clinginess, or manipulating the romance for her songs—carried an ugly air of misogyny.

Still, I find “slut-shaming” to be a striking word choice. For as much as Swift was vilified by the media for her dating habits, she also went through great pains during this period of her career—the early 2010s, following the release of Red—to avoid sexualization. On the street and at press events, she was photographed in 1950s-inspired outfits or, as she later called it, “housewife” fashion: polka-dot dresses, silk button-downs with plaid skirts, twee accessories. This was a popular style at the time—the era of ModCloth and New Girl (2011–18)—but also a trend that Swift deliberately chose over others. In her music, Swift wouldn’t swear or talk openly about drinking until 2017’s Reputation, released when she was 27. Even on 1989 (2014), references to sex were opaque and euphemistic (“The lights are off, he’s taking off his coat”), like the camera panning over to a window in a Hays Code–era film noir.

None of this prevents anyone from being slut-shamed, and I do believe that there was a streak of anti-promiscuity underlying much of the media fixation on Swift’s dating life (especially because it counteracted the “happily ever after” romances found in her earliest music). But hindsight is also 20/20: after spending much of the 2010s distancing herself from the “feminist” label, Swift’s framing of her treatment at this time is one of several recent gestures she’s made towards a larger feminist discourse. Much like how the new version of “All Too Well” places more emphasis on its age-gap relationship than the original, the 1989 (Taylor’s Version) prologue boils down her personal struggles during this time to a more general understanding of sexist treatment towards women. In an effort to appear more relatable, she flattens the nuance of what made the specific jabs against her so pernicious.

Swift actually had a peerless analysis of her public image at this time back on 1989 itself—in the lyrics of the song “Blank Space,” still one of her biggest singles to date, where she writes in the voice of the man-eating seductress the tabloids believed her to be. “That was the character I felt the media had written for me, and for a long time I felt hurt by it,” Swift told GQ in 2015. “I took it personally. But as time went by, I realized it was kind of hilarious.” The music video for “Blank Space,” filmed on a swanky Long Island estate, portrays Swift as a mad psychopath who “wears animal print, unironically.” She repeatedly gets into violent confrontations with her paramour, stabbing his portraits on the wall and beating up his Aston Martin with a golf club—before clinging to him, begging him to stay.

The satire was shrewd in two ways. First, by belittling the gossip rags’ perception of her, Swift reclaimed that characterization for her own gain. It is no longer a “gotcha” to call Swift calculating or savvy, largely because she has continued to co-opt this accusation into a compliment through songs like “Mastermind” and “Vigilante Shit” (both from Midnights). And second, though the heightened hysterics of the “Blank Space” video may suggest otherwise, she turned her conflict with the press into a universally legible take on how women are painted as crazy, conniving, or obsessive in their relationships with men.

There’s also a conundrum posed by these album rereleases and how Swift is retroactively framing each of their “eras,” because really, each album has two eras: the time during which it was written and recorded, and the promotional period shortly before and after it was released, when Swift based her entire aesthetic and media presence around its central thesis. In the 1989 (Taylor’s Version) prologue, Swift is referencing the former period, when she was writing songs for 1989 but still outwardly promoting and touring for Red. Yet “the 1989 era,” for most people who remember it, conjures up images of her in the Anna Wintour bob, discussing her connection to ’80s pop music and, less charitably, becoming a cultural lightning rod in think piece after think piece about her group of friends known, temporarily, as “The Squad.” (And that’s to say nothing of the discourse that followed: a dispute with Nicki Minaj on Twitter that turned into a larger discussion about white feminism, her silence during the 2016 election, everything that happened with Kanye or Kim Kardashian.)

Defining these albums as products is to definitively link them to a specific point in time, delineating artificial “phases” in which Swift’s public image changed overnight, organizing history in a way life cannot be. Presumably, Swift will address her 2014–16 kerfuffles with Reputation (Taylor’s Version), as part of that album’s translation into the syntax of a new era.

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Righteousness is not the undercurrent of Swift’s rerecording project—it’s practically the entire point. Since the masters buyout in 2019, Braun has made his way into Swift’s lyrics as an unnamed villain who “sits on his throne in his palace of bones” (“it’s time to go”). Meanwhile, Big Machine label head Scott Borchetta’s sale of the recordings has been portrayed as nothing short of a literal funeral (“my tears ricochet”). With Swift on the cusp of being a billionaire, she’s long past the point where she can conceivably frame herself as the underdog. And she is well aware of that fact—perhaps you’ve heard her hit song “Anti-Hero.” But it’s become such a rallying cry for her fandom—really, a foundation, ever since she put out “Mean” in 2010—that the sentiment has been hard to let go of.

It’s not a stretch to say that Swift has benefited from a certain degree of speculation surrounding her work and who it may be inspired by (the queer readings of her music alone have spawned an entire subculture). But after years of positioning herself as a maligned adversary of the media, Swift is quick to stamp out any interpretation that she doesn’t find suitable. On November 30, Swift’s publicist, Tree Paine, who is now something of a celebrity herself, made a rare statement from her personal account on Twitter/X, calling out the popular gossip influencer Deuxmoi for their repeated claims (“fabricated lies,” Paine called them) that Swift and her ex-partner Joe Alwyn were secretly married. “This is an insane thing to post,” Paine wrote, attaching a screenshot from a recent Deuxmoi Instagram story where they repeated the claim. “It’s time for you to be held accountable for the pain and trauma you cause with posts like these.”

Along with potentially forming the basis for litigation, Paine’s use of the phrase “pain and trauma” brings to mind a number of recent instances where celebrities have emphasized their personal experience as evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the press. In a December Instagram caption, Billie Eilish, who had just received a Variety Hitmakers Award for her song “What Was I Made For?,” wrote, “thanks variety for my award and for also outing me on a red carpet at 11 am instead of talking about anything else that matters i like boys and girls leave me alone about it please literally who cares stream ‘what was i made for.’”

What actually happened is that, in a cover story for Variety’s Power of Women issue, Eilish went on record as being “attracted to [women] as people. […] I’m physically attracted to them. But I’m also so intimidated by them and their beauty and their presence.” Later that week, on the red carpet for the Hitmakers Awards, Eilish was asked by a different Variety reporter if she had “mean[t] to come out in that story,” to which Eilish responded, “No, I didn’t, but I kind of thought, wasn’t it obvious?” (As an aside, the red carpet reporter said, “We need to get to a point where [people] don’t even have to come out.”)

As her post on Instagram made clear, Eilish was justifiably irritated by having her sexual orientation be the main takeaway from her cover story, which was meant to highlight her career achievements. To echo the Variety red-carpet reporter, it would be lovely if a famous person’s queerness no longer made headlines, nor had the potential to jeopardize their job in the entertainment industry, as it often unfortunately still does. But Eilish framing this incident as Variety “outing” her mischaracterizes what happened in a way that could have had serious ramifications for the journalists involved, and has the unintended consequence of devaluing what forcibly outing someone actually means. In other words, to get a bit Conflict Is Not Abuse about it, perhaps Eilish was overstating the harm done to her in order for it to be taken seriously.

This brings us back to Swift’s Time Person of the Year profile, which caused quite a stir on journalism Twitter—as depressing a phrase as there is to write in 2024—for a passage near its conclusion. The profile writer, Sam Lansky, is listening to Swift once again retrace the redemption arc that led her to create Reputation, positioning that album as a triumphant return from a career on the brink of death. Lansky notes—to the reader, not to Swift—that the album’s lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” was a number one hit and that Reputation sold almost 1.3 million copies in its first week of release—which, to anybody but Swift, would be evidence of an uninterrupted string of successes from 1989 to its successor. “But then I think, Who am I to challenge it, if that’s how she felt?” Lansky writes.

The point is: she felt canceled. She felt as if her career had been taken from her. Something in her had been lost, and she was grieving it. Maybe this is the real Taylor Swift effect: That she gives people, many of them women, particularly girls, who have been conditioned to accept dismissal, gaslighting, and mistreatment from a society that treats their emotions as inconsequential, permission to believe that their interior lives matter.

In another time and place, where celebrities didn’t exercise unprecedented control over their public image via social media, thus rendering the art of the magazine profile a shell of its former self, a reporter might have pushed back on Swift’s retelling. (Although, let’s be honest, Time Person of the Year has never really been the place for that, and that’s almost certainly why Swift agreed to the interview.) What’s more revealing of Swift’s approach as a storyteller is how, gradually, she has convinced the public to take her emotional experience as the definitive truth. In a Defector blog post responding to the profile, Kelsey McKinney notes that pop stars “have become so good at telling their own personal narratives, and at speaking candidly about the difficulties and trials of fame (which do seem real), that they become completely cocooned from reality.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon—when speaking of actors or particularly magnanimous musicians, you can make the argument that it’s a bonus for their craft if they operate on their own plane of existence. I also don’t think it’s possible to overstate the effect that the recent reckoning over Britney Spears, first through a New York Times documentary and most recently through her memoir, has had on the way celebrities, and female pop stars in particular, are covered in entertainment journalism. Certainly, it has led to a greater discussion of how women in the public eye, and women in general, fall victim to “dismissal, gaslighting, and mistreatment” regarding their lived experience—a conversation that, contrary to what Lansky implies, Swift has not been the primary innovator of, not even in music.

I’d like to believe that there is a way to accurately present an artist’s way of seeing the world, and their place in it, while acknowledging the subtle ways in which they’ve tweaked, shaped, or mutated the details to fit the story they’re trying to tell. Or that it’s possible to be a fan of someone’s work without taking everything they say at face value. Stan culture has led many people to believe that these things are incongruent with each other, but given that online fan communities are—and I don’t mean this facetiously—the primary archivists of pop culture as it stands, an incredulous eye towards how the last icons of monoculture are presenting themselves is now more important than ever.

I think back to how Swift wrote “All Too Well” as a song built not only on catharsis and the exorcizing of old demons but also, fittingly, on memory—the elements of the past that stick with us, and the mnemonic details (autumn leaves, traffic lights, a red scarf) that become placeholders for the emotions we may have felt at the time, allowing us to mythologize our own experience. Swift’s most devoted fans have put insurmountable trust into how she has presented her hero’s journey, in no small part because, through her music, she has reflected the truth of their own lived experience back to them. She’s made it easy, even preferable, to conflate her memory with our own.





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