REVIEW: She never goes out of style — Taylor Swift through the years

Taylor Swift at the piano while one of her cats plays along, featured in the documentary ‘Miss Americana,’ which tells the story of Taylor Swift’s journey and emotional growth throughout her career. Promotional artwork courtesy of Netflix.

It’s a name that comes with a big reputation. Whether you know her soulful country hits of the early 2000s, her pop anthems, or her latest folk-indie project Folklore, you’ve definitely heard of Taylor Swift. Praised for her ability to experiment within different genres and criticized for her seemingly endless amount of breakup ballads, Swift has made an enormous mark on the music industry over her fourteen years in the spotlight. Her latest album Folklore, released July 24th, has Swift breaking records for the highest number of Spotify streams in a day and surpassing Whitney Houston’s previously held record of 46 weeks at the top of the charts as a female artist. Seeing Swift tear up the charts (and our hearts) once again makes it the perfect time to look back on how far this artist has come over the course of her career.

The “Old Taylor” classics

Swift’s first three studio albums Taylor Swift, Fearless, and Speak Now mark what long made the name Taylor Swift synonymous with the idea of pop culture’s “good girl” as Swift trademarked sweet and innocent love songs. These projects follow a similar country genre as they put the young singer-songwriter on the music industry’s map. 

Swift’s first self-titled studio album was released in 2006 when the artist was sixteen years old, featuring songs she wrote her freshman year of high school. It sets the stage for Swift to become a renowned singer-songwriter as well as a household name. While some songs have more of a country feel than others, each celebrated or lamented the wonders of young love with the help of a guitar or even occasional fiddle. Despite Swift’s age at the time of writing the album, there is a striking maturity to the lyrics. Songs like “Cold as You” and “Tied Together With a Smile” perfectly describe facing heartbreak at the hands of someone who never truly cared, or the pain of trying to hold everything together but still “coming undone.” Her first single, “Tim McGraw,” captures the essence of the album as it describes a young girl reminiscing about a summer love. Swift’s innocent yet honest lyrics shine through as she sings, “I was right there beside him all summer long / And then the time we woke up to find that summer had gone.” Other tracks like “Our Song” and “A Place in This World” hold just enough country twang and upbeat energy to be instant anthems for the teenage hearts in all of us. Taylor Swift is a tough opening act to follow, and yet Swift does, again and again.

Taylor Swift’s next studio release in 2008 brought Fearless, seemingly a second chapter to her debut album. From first kisses to first breakups, Swift continues her exploration of the “roller coaster kind of rush” (according to “The Way I Loved You”) of young love in an album full of quintessential teen beats. This is the age of Taylor’s music that brings us the iconic “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story.” The songs are light, fun, and still refreshing as she mixes thoughtful lyrics with a country style. Some of the lesser known tracks on this album such as “The Other Side of the Door” once again remind audiences of Taylor’s talent for producing heartfelt music. The song shows the confusion, stubbornness, and longing that follows an argument between a couple. Swift sings how she wishes the romanticized version of her boyfriend “[standing] outside my window throwing pebbles / screaming ‘I’m in love with you’” were real, instead of the two of them carrying on in a silent treatment. Once again, Swift unleashes an album full of the highs and lows of love that are very real to younger audiences especially — all while maintaining a wholesome and lovable public personality. She makes us smile every time we hear the songs, and it’s almost as if Swift knew she was expected to keep us smiling with each new release. 

Enter Speak Now, released in 2010, the third solidification of the image Taylor built up for herself in her previous projects. It’s a more mature collection of songs, as ballads like “Dear John” and “Back to December” show that Swift has now faced heartbreaks that cut deeper than before. She branches out a bit further still by producing songs that tell more creative stories than those of her previous albums. The project’s titular track tells the story of a girl crashing the wedding of her ex-lover or friend (we never explicitly find out their relationship) in an attempt to save him from a lifetime of misery. A tall tale, yes, but still a demonstration of Swift exploring her abilities in storytelling. While she matures, she does so charmingly as she maintains elements of classic country and simultaneously builds her own unique country-pop genre. It’s not an unexpected album, but it’s certainly not an un-enjoyable one either.

Finding a new “Style”

At this point, Swift slowly begins to shift away from the expectations pop culture had for her. She trades out the fiddles for synthesizers and the lyrics plainly describing feelings for ones with deeper metaphors. Fans who were watching closely noted the subtle but sure changes in style and genre of her Red album, and were not the least bit surprised when Taylor caused the music industry to do a double take with the release of her fully pop album 1989 just two years later. 

Swift had to start somewhere to go from a sweet country girl to the woman who runs the music industry, and that somewhere is Red. It’s easily one of the artist’s most overlooked albums as Swift excels in her experimentation with all of the unique elements of the slightly-pop, slightly-country, slightly-folk genres that make it up. The album begins with “State of Grace,” already not the kind of song expected of Taylor. It’s fast-paced, layered with different guitars and a reverberating ostinato of a background melody. The drum hits aren’t for you to clap along to anymore, but instead to add another flash of emotion. Even the timbre of Swift’s voice is different: it’s not quite so light and airy, but instead fuller and a bit deeper. Still, the song is unmistakably her. The lyrics phenomenally give quick glimpses into  “mosaic broken hearts” and their love story that left the two of them forever changed. 

And that’s only the first track. It’s precisely this mix and balance of Taylor’s new and old styles that makes Red easy to ignore at first glance, but still significant to her development as an artist. Songs like “All Too Well,” a scrapbook of memories practically too painful to open, masterfully combine imagery with catharsis. And even after the journey of letting go that Swift describes throughout the course of the album, the final track “Begin Again” shows a new, fresh person finally freed of the grip of their past relationship walking into a café to begin the heartbreak process all over again. In this clever structure and style of the album, Swift makes a statement and also overcomes critics of the album’s radio hits “We Are Never Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.” While they called Swift out for the surface-level-ness of venting about past relationships in a couple of songs, she simultaneously has an entire album behind the singles that seems to say, “Yeah, I know I make the same mistakes, but don’t we all?” It’s the culmination of Swift’s self-awareness and continued talent that makes Red a masterpiece.

Two years later, Taylor made her definitive shift into the pop genre with 1989, her fifth studio album. The project is titled after both the year she was born and the era of music from which she drew inspiration for the album’s songs. The tracks are still lighthearted and fun on the surface level (as pop culture expected Taylor to be) and hits like “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space” quickly became just about inescapable every time you turned on the radio. But looking deeper at the lyrics of both the hit singles and the hidden gems of the album, it’s clear that Swift is still incredibly aware of how people might receive her music. In “Blank Space” she embraces the crazy ex-girlfriend the media made her out to be as she sings her plans to “find out what you want / be that girl for a month / but the worst is yet to come.” Swift even entertains this boy-crazy heartbreaker image in the track’s music video, where she portrays a glamorous trophy girlfriend who pushes her (temporary) boyfriend to insanity. 

Besides playing around with her image in the media, Taylor also crafts songs of the same lyrical maturity as previous albums, but now within a different genre. A standout song, “Clean,” describes the freedom of someone finally making peace with the end of a relationship as an electro-pop background imitates the rain Swift describes as a part of the healing process. Similarly, “I Wish You Would” tells a relationship’s stories through flashbacks, as Swift has skillfully done in the past, with an energizing, techno backtrack. Swift didn’t come just to play around with pop music, but to show that her musical reach expands further than the country genre she dominated for so long. 

New Taylor, no apologies

Bringing us back to the most recent and current era of Swift’s career is what many would categorize as “New Taylor.” She now works with more of a pop-centered genre instead of a country one, and most of her singles are exclusively pop. Her 2017 album reputation follows 1989, shocking audiences as Swift switched from playing with pop to making an album full of electronic-based melodies with several tracks even using a trap style, setting the project far apart from any of her previous works. Lover came next, a much more relaxed pop album, but still a reminder that Swift had transitioned out of the country genre and had left for good. Finally, Folklore brought a surprising resurrection of the style of “Old Taylor” music mixed with the unapologetic attitude of “New Taylor.”

Perhaps Taylor’s most surprising album, reputation takes what was remaining of her lingering country-pop good-girl image and shatters it. Swift even takes the opportunity in reputation to not-so-subtly call out her enemies within the music industry and settle a vendetta with them (or really, just Kanye West). The first single release of the album “Look What You Made Me Do” shows the vengeance theme of the album and culminates the project in itself well, as Taylor sings about how she can no longer trust anyone and even explicitly says that the “Old Taylor” is dead. She is once again very self-aware (especially in the song’s music video) of how the media has portrayed her, and disliked her, for several years as she grew to be a star of the music industry. 

But amidst the theatrics that may distract some, Swift is still doing what she has done for years: telling a love story. This one differs from the others, though. The lyrics are more serious (and risqué), the musicality more intense. This is not a high school crush or a budding romance in early adulthood, but a great and powerful love. The opening track “… Ready for It?” is your first of many signs that the story to follow will not be predictable. Taylor warns her potential lover that being with her is no simple affair, as the blaring bass hints that the relationship’s “island breeze” is fleeting. She follows this with songs like “King of My Heart” and “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” portraying similar themes of an all-consuming love that Swift can’t help but fall into despite learning from previous heartbreaks. Each track includes more bass, more drums and more raw emotion than any of Swift’s older projects.  Perhaps as an extra surprise for those who listen to the album all the way through, the final track, “New Year’s Day,” is a peaceful, beautiful song that presents a stylistic contrast from the rest of the album, as it is only Taylor and the piano. No bass, no drums, just her. It seems as though she and her partner endured the tumultuous trials of love described in the previous tracks. Swift has made it to the other side of the storm “… Ready For It?” warns about. She “can tell that it’s going to be a long road,” but with her lover, she can have the highs of New Year’s Eve “midnights” and still feel secure enough to clean up bottles with him on New Year’s Day.

But if there’s anything to take away from the album as a whole, it’s that Swift is done trying to make everyone happy. Her music and career are her own.

With the release of Lover in 2019, she solidifies this statement yet again, but no longer needs an album full of rebellious beats to say so. Lover is a collection of melodies fitting pretty clearly in the pop genre, yet Swift continues experimenting with sounds and styles skillfully. “Death By A Thousand Cuts” is a perfect example of Swift’s artistry. The song is lyrically exceptional, especially at the bridge where in an “All Too Well” -esque catharsis, Swift lets out the pain of trying to find oneself again after “a great love / one for the ages” ends prematurely. Behind the lyrics is a glorious piano tremolo that makes the song exciting every time it is played, as the piano adds energy and emotion to each line. On the more electro-pop side of the album are tracks like “Cruel Summer,” telling a forbidden love story with a chorus that is guaranteed to get stuck in your head all day long. And of course, what is Lover without “Lover”? The album’s title track emulates the journey Swift is describing of finding a long-term and fulfilling relationship, surpassing the quick and fleeting flings from when she was younger. Swift has grown up. Her musicality is more developed, her songs more lyrically mature. And fans could now eagerly await to see what she has in store after two or three years of working on a new project. 

But, of course, when a global pandemic hits, all bets are off the table. 

Swift quietly worked on and recorded an indie-folk album Folklore during her quarantine and released it July 24th, surprising her fans and the music industry all at once. The project pulls elements from all of the “stages” of Taylor’s career. It gives the lyrical songwriting she’s long been praised for, and allows a glimpse outside of pop hits into a more complex side of her creative process. Folklore tells several stories throughout its 16 tracks, emulating the album title in each. As Swift shared with fans via Instagram the day before the project’s release, it began with imagery. Swift then began turning these images into stories, and stories into songs. The album follows different characters, from teenage lovers to an old widow, yet Swift simultaneously shares her own experiences through singing in these different perspectives. 

The most notable element of the album lies in its intricate lyrics. Swift’s songs are poetry first and foremost, as they weave together moments and emotions to show rather than tell stories. Lines like “August sipped away / like a bottle of wine / ‘cause you were never mine” from “august” and “Hell was the journey but it brought me heaven” from “invisible string” allow Swift to portray speakers having a complex relationship with love, as they feel the scars it left behind, yet are still hopeful for new beginnings ahead. Perhaps her most melancholy album, Folklore also evokes images of loneliness in tracks like “mirrorball” as the speaker admits that they may be “shimmering beautiful,” but when they “break, it’s in a million pieces.” Pictures like this one, capturing apparent beauty and innocence being met with a harsher, darker reality become a constant motive throughout the album, as Swift chooses to tell the stories of the broken and exiled more than the prom queens and golden boys on which her other albums arguably focused.

“But if there’s anything to take away … it’s that Swift is done trying to make everyone happy. Her music and career are her own.”

If nothing else, Swift commits to the theme of the Folklore album. She utilizes unique background instrumentals and features in each track that allow the folk-indie genre to shine through. From the plucking guitar string intro of “invisible string” to the soulful harmonica intro of “betty” to the operatic opening vocals of “my tears ricochet,” each song has its own distinct sound while still inexplicably belonging on the same record as the others. Each track is unfiltered and flows naturally, stripped of any unnecessary layers. There are no lurking flashy pop tracks tailored to be instant radio hits. As intended, no songs celebrate the bliss of ignorance. While happy memories or perspectives are still shared, there’s a bittersweet component to them, acknowledging that the speaker isn’t young and innocent anymore — and neither is Taylor Swift. She too has matured throughout her years in the spotlight as a celebrity and music sensation. 

Folklore could be called a reflection of an era, if perhaps a short one. Both for Taylor Swift as an artist or an individual, but also for American culture itself. The focus on poignant images and lingering memories underlines that the most formative pieces of one’s life can be the most tumultuous. It is undeniable that American culture has been forced into conflicting and tumultuous times. And yet, Taylor Swift managed to say without making an album explicitly political or controversial that we are at a moment in time where we can reflect on our individual and shared experiences that shaped us and decide what stories we will write for the next generation. As “seven” put it, “Passed down like folk songs / our love lasts so long.” Swift has placed the pen in our hands now: what stories will we pass down to last for “so long”? The ones with happy endings, the ones full of regret, or the ones where there is an honest reflection of the past and the future is created with hope? Only time, wondrous time, will tell. 

Elizabeth Dyer is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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