Taylor Swift: What it Means to be a Woman in Music

The young girl, born in the small town of West Reading, Pennsylvania, took the world by storm after her hit ‘Love Story’ topped the international music charts. However, the last decade saw the country starlet become a full-blown pop superstar. Yet, what accompanied her music was her impact on what is expected of a woman in music and how they are perceived.

This perception also extends as a testament to the fact that women still face sexism and double-standards in the industry. Yet that doesn’t stop them from being the biggest pop phenomenon and a global force to reckon.

When she became the first woman to win ‘Album of the Year,’ the highest honour in music, at the Grammys twice, her victory was taken with a pinch of salt. Not because people doubted her then first fully pop-record ‘1989’, crooning three number one hits including the career highlight ‘Blank Space,’ but her acceptance speech was labeled to be self-centred. Swift was not new to harsh-criticism, but this time it led to her supposed ‘mid-career crisis’ to the point where the world “did not see her physically for a year.”

In 2017, she rose like a phoenix, changing gears and ditching her good-girl persona. The first single off her album ‘Reputation’ stood atop the billboard charts, and the stadium tour became the highest-grossing US stadium tour in history. It wasn’t only her music that changed, because now, that her music was drenched in themes of frustration and angst, like coming out of a person who had been wronged.

Her way of turning pain into art reached its pinnacle then, or at least one would think so. The ability of her to take her narrative into her hands with what she did best – her music – was something that has influenced new-age artists like Halsey and Kelsea Ballerini greatly.

Her most recent-release, Lover is a “palette-cleanser” and became her most critically-acclaimed album till-date. In her recent documentary, Miss Americana, her acceptance of the fact that it was her need to be liked by people is refreshingly honest. It shows how she tried to do everything right, to live up to that perfect identity she spent her entire career creating, but the social media frenzy didn’t spare her because the public decided she is “calculated”. One would think that it is not wrong for the biggest artist in the world to take her steps in a way that doesn’t have adverse consequences, especially when her every action is painstakingly dissected. However, it is not difficult to realise that this was in response to the virtue of her being a woman.

It made us realise the sexism existed even in the most supposedly ‘liberal’ parts of our society. Because when men take calculated steps, they are ‘smart,’ and when women do that, they are ‘cunning’ and ‘calculated.’ That’s simply how society works. Women are “trained” to be modest, and if there is any version of an ideal woman that exists in society, she is never supposed to be loud.

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When the singer, Kanye West lied about her approval for her song, calling her ‘bitch’ and his music video, showing her look-alike completely stripped off, the public chose to believe that Swift was the ‘cunning’ one, giving her approval and then lying about it. Yet when the conversation leaked in full, pointing her that she was telling the truth all along, nobody seemed to care. It should be pointed out that it was after her forgiving West for stealing her moment of being the first country artist to receive an MTV VMA and never saying a single bad word or acknowledging it in her interviews until that point.

Women have to go through things like this daily, and even the most powerful women in the world are not exempted from this bias. It would be interesting to think that if the roles had been reversed in this situation – of Swift and West – how the public would have reacted. However, the answer is easy to secure. She would still outrightly be shamed and West, being a man would get away with it.

In 2015, Taylor Swift wrote a letter to Apple Music, which demanded artists to be paid royalty during the trial period of the platform. This could have resulted in Apple Music, the second biggest music streaming platform, boycotting her as it was their reputation at stake. Instead, they succumbed to the demand and promised to pay every artist during the period. A few days later, she pulled back her catalog from Spotify as it did not fairly pay the stakeholders.

As expected, she was called ‘money-hungry,’ yet people didn’t realise that if she had held her catalog on Spotify, she would have gained millions. The problem wasn’t her being paid enough; it was all small indie artists, who have their livelihood based off of these streaming platforms. She could have stayed silent and gained. Yet she stood up for what she felt was right, not portraying herself “as the victim” as many would say, and spoke. Even when it was easy for her to remain silent – she didn’t. That is, in so many ways inspiring.

The girl who swore to stay apolitical all her life broke her silence by bashing Donald Trump’s policies including those related to LGBTQIA+ rights. It’s not difficult to remember that when her biggest influences did this – yes, I am referring to the former country superstars, Dixie Chicks – they were boycotted and blacklisted. For women to speak about politics is not easy, maybe because they are expected not to have opinions, let alone share them.

Politics has always been a man’s subject to dive in. Nonetheless, the learning from Swift’s predecessors didn’t prove to be enough for her. And so when she spoke, voter registrations spiked by 65,000 on Vote.org. Miss Americana shows her managers explaining how her concert attendance would reduce to half because of it, and she remains unbothered by it. It would be wrong not to acknowledge the courage and appreciate the intention behind the actions of this woman there.

It was her self-awareness that played a part in her ascent. As a 21 year old, she knew that when women write about love, they are believed to be overreacting. Swift faced backlash as her songs were said to be revengeful, and she became a “lightning rod for slut-shaming” as her number of romantic link-ups grew in the public eye. What people didn’t seem to realise that when artists like Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars did the same – told their story, in their own words, in great detail – people applauded them for it. Yet when she did, it was wrong.

When she went out with a guy after her breakup a month ago, it was wrong, but if a male artist decided to do the same, it was fine with the public. Even America isn’t devoid of the double-standards that exist between men and women, and if anything, Swift was a victim of that.

After all this time, she changed. She grew older and wiser. In her becoming of the version she is now, it saw multiple instances where both her character and credibility were questioned. Yet she single-handedly changed the definition of what it means to be a woman in music. Furthermore, while she remains to be a more complex character than this editorial piece could ever hope to cover, I’d go on to say that if people say she is calculated, then I reckon her calculations are increasingly accurate.

Md Faiz Yusuf is a Fellow of Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, author of Midnight Sun and a student at Ashoka University 

Featured image credit: Reuters