When I was young—seven or eight years old—I spent nearly every afternoon after school perched high in a southern magnolia tree in my family’s front yard tucked away in the southeast corner of Texas. I daydreamed and looked at bugs, trying to disappear long enough to miss my dreaded ballet class and grasping for a shred of solitude from my four older siblings. I curled my arms around a knobby branch and wrote songs. Usually, I simply sung them out in whispered half-gibberish tunes that disappeared as quickly as I’d made them up, but sometimes I wrote them down in a neon orange faux-fur notebook that I’d co-opted from my sister’s drawer one night. I wrote about the great thrills of any safe eight-year-old’s life: my favorite traits about each of my friends, the stray cats that skirted the yard, and how hurt I was when my older brothers made fun of me. This whole singing thing was not much more than an extended bit—I was certainly no child star in the making. I wore a Hannah Montana wig around the house and made my mom film “music videos” of me dancing around and performing my half-formed tunes. One afternoon, I lay on the couch humming and asked my mom, “Why can’t a song last forever?” I didn’t know it then, but I was on the brink of one of the most difficult periods of my young life, and in the midst of perhaps the last time that I ever embodied my true self.
Around this same time, another girl who spent her childhood running around a backyard and humming songs, Taylor Swift, released her second album. Fearless, which she wrote when she was seventeen and eighteen years old, was released in November of 2008, and in 2010, it made her the youngest person to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. She has since been dethroned by Billie Eilish, but unlike Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Swift’s Fearless is an unrelenting, unselfconscious testament to the teenaged-girl experience. Over upbeat fiddles and acoustic guitars that skirt the boundaries between pop and country, Taylor sings, in her scratchy, at times over-reaching voice, about high school cheerleaders, first kisses, and childhood memories with her mom. Throughout the album, we witness a teenager grappling with the realities of the world and coming to terms with her place in it. In the lead single, “Love Story,” Taylor daydreams about a wild-rush romance like Romeo and Juliet’s while daring to imagine it with a happy ending (in the music video, she wears a princess ball gown and sings on the balcony of a castle, waiting for her prince). It is followed by “White Horse,” a song about losing faith in a relationship, in which she sings, “I’m not a princess/ this ain’t a fairytale… I was a dreamer before you went/ and let me down.”1 It is difficult to express the gravity of hearing these songs as a young girl. Although I did not become a dedicated Taylor Swift fan (often referred to as Swifties) until a few years later, hearing songs on the radio that so closely matched my lived reality from someone who looked and lived so much like I did set the scene for my relatively healthy childhood and adolescence. Taylor Swift made being an adolescent girl a romantic, beautiful existence, something to be cherished, not run away from.
Back in 1994, before Fearless was written, before Taylor Swift ever picked up a guitar, psychotherapist Mary Pipher wrote a book called Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. The book details the phenomenon of adolescence in girls, specifically by engaging with Pipher’s own research with girls she saw in therapy in the 1990s, many of whom, by the age of sixteen, had developed drug or alcohol addictions, contracted STIs, or were acting out or performing poorly in school. She combines these with studies of her own daughter, who was in adolescence at the time, and her daughter’s friends and classmates. The book was republished in 2019, in collaboration with Pipher’s daughter, Sara, now a schoolteacher and a mother herself, to include the lived experiences of adolescents in the 2010s.
A central foundation of the book is based on psychologist Alice Miller’s concept of false and true selves. Pipher explains that Miller, in her own book, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self, “believes that, as young children, her patients faced a difficult choice: They could be authentic and honest, or they could be loved. If they chose wholeness, they were abandoned by their parents. If they chose love, they abandoned their true selves.”2 Miller’s view was that this split was initiated by parents, who, as they expressed approval or disapproval of specific actions, emotions, and ideas, socialized their children into the choice between authenticity and acceptance. Pipher explains:
This loss of the true self was so traumatic that her patients repressed it. They had only a vague recollection of what was lost, a sense of emptiness and betrayal … She encouraged her patients to recognize, grieve for, and eventually accept what happened to them as young children. Only then could they become authentic adults. 3
However, Pipher’s view is that this split between false and true self is caused not by parents, who she often saw fight for the retrieval of their daughters’ true selves, but by the culture in which a girl is raised. She explains what we all know well: a misogynistic American culture that depicts rape and violence against women on TV, that presents female empowerment as a Victoria’s Secret Angel buttressed by male validation, that breeds women simply to breed other women and strong men. Pipher cites a 2007 study from the American Psychological Association that “found that girls were highly sexualized in virtually every form of media from toys to clothes to movies and the internet. They were presented as objects of desire rather than as real people with interests, goals, and personalities of their own.”4 And flowing beneath this simultaneously is a deep cultural disdain for adolescent girls, one that is well-depicted in a recent Vox article titled “Who Runs the World? Not Teen Girls.” The author, Constance Grady, reminds us that the initial wave of Beatlemania in the 1960s was powered by a young female audience, who were ridiculed and mocked for their obsession before the rest of the world caught on too. (It is easy to imagine the same phenomenon beginning for One Direction fans in the wake of Harry Styles’ burgeoning solo career.)
Grady depicts the teenage girl demographic as one that creates and spreads new trends in popular culture, one whose cultural power is mocked by those who adopt the trends they created. Ultimately, Grady asks, “Will we ever give them the respect they deserve?”5 It is worth asking, too, why a thirty-two-year-old Kanye West felt comfortable interrupting a nineteen-year-old Swift during an acceptance speech at the infamous 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. In a 2019 interview with Vogue, Taylor explains that, early on in her career, she was not aware of sexism in the music industry: “Men in the industry saw me as a kid. I was a lanky, scrawny, overexcited young girl who reminded them more of their little niece or their daughter than a successful woman in business or a colleague. The second I became a woman, in people’s perception, was when I started seeing it.”6 The author of this Vogue profile mentions, also, that Taylor’s fifth album, 1989, was not reviewed by Pitchfork, yet Ryan Adams’s full cover of the album, released barely a year later, was. (It is worth mentioning that Ryan Adams has since been dethroned by a chain of accusations of sexual harassment and emotional abuse, mostly from young female musicians. One such victim was a teenaged bass player who, in an interview with the New York Times, remarked that the encounters eventually discouraged her from continuing her musical career.7)
In her book, Pipher suggests that adolescence is also the age at which girls begin their “rigorous training for the female role,” in which girls are “expected to sacrifice parts of themselves on the altar of social acceptance and to shrink their souls down to a petite size that fits societal expectations.”8 Pipher explains that the development of gender expectations is created by many forces in a girl’s life—parents, relatives, teachers—and her case studies show often a shift in attitudes at adolescence when girls quit playing sports and begin spending their time shopping instead. I, myself, was thirteen when my ballet teacher held me after class to squeeze the cellulite growing at the back of my thighs, and all through high school, my mother repeated over and over, “You need to study hard so you can get into a good college where you can meet a nice, smart boy who will make enough money for you and your children to live in a safe neighborhood,” no matter any academic or professional dreams I had for myself. But those women were simply playing by the rules, and they expected that I would as well. Pipher explains that adolescent girls “have the mental equipment to pick up our cultural ambivalence about women, and yet they don’t have the cognitive, emotional, and social skills to handle this information.”9 Pipher’s own observations demonstrated that, because of this, girls began to act out in response to these “cultural pressures to abandon the self,” by conforming, or by becoming withdrawn, depressed, or angry.10 In essence, Pipher argues that a cultural policing of girls so early in their development yields an unhealthy adolescence and, eventually, adulthood.
However, not all is lost. Pipher explains that the cultivation of the true self in the face of such cultural adversity can be achieved through conversations with friends, reflection, and introspection that connects young people to their community and their place in the world. She suggests that “quiet alone time encourages the cultivation of the true self with its vibrancy, authenticity, and self-knowledge.11” Pipher describes the act of joining a high school swim team in the 1990s, which allowed girls hours in the pool alone with their thoughts to cultivate their personality, and contrasts it with the situation today, in which girls are constantly distracted with podcasts, Spotify, and Instagram, making it much easier to avoid the overwhelming task of facing one’s own consciousness.12 The description makes me grateful for my time sitting up in the tree and for the hours I spent, later in high school, sitting with my guitar, turning my troubles into songs.
The American Psychological Association released their findings on the sexualizations of girls mere months after the release of Taylor Swift’s eponymous debut album. One of the longest-lasting singles from that album is a country-radio hit called “Our Song,” which she debuted her freshman year of high school at her school’s talent show. This leads us to perhaps the most remarkable, awe-inspiring aspect of Taylor Swift: a tenacious insistence upon the value of her life and work despite being unapologetically teenaged and while rejecting contemporary expectations for the image of a young, successful female entertainer.
Taylor was born in Pennsylvania, but at thirteen, convinced her parents to move the family to Nashville so that she could have a shot at the country music industry. She was soon signed to a year-long development deal with RCA records, one of the biggest labels in the city. But RCA wanted Taylor to sing music written for her, not the work she created herself, and at the end of the year, instead of signing her as a roster artist, the label offered to simply renew her development deal for another year. But she walked away from it—an absurd move in the face of an incredible opportunity—because she believed in the music she was writing, and she believed in herself. Soon after, she played a show at the famous Bluebird Café, which was attended by an ex-label representative Scott Borchetta, who offered to sign her to a label he had not yet created, but he loved her songs and wanted her to record the music she wrote. Taylor was the first artist signed to Big Machine Records, and in 2006, at the age of sixteen, she released her first record, Taylor Swift.13 After the release of Fearless in 2008, she embarked on her first national tour, selling out Madison Square Garden in New York City in seconds. Despite a career-spanning professional relationship, Swift and Borchetta are infamously not on good terms anymore. When Swift left Big Machine Records in 2018, the entity still held the contractual rights to the master recordings of her first six albums, which she had apparently attempted to buy back over the years. But in 2019, Scott Borchetta sold the label, and her masters, out from under her for three hundred million dollars to infamous celebrity manager Scooter Braun, a key character in Swift’s internet-wide “cancellation” in 2016.14
Not only did Taylor walk away from a major country label at fifteen, but she also sat in songwriting sessions with older well-respected Nashville songwriters and consistently insisted on her own abilities. Her longtime collaborator Liz Rose said the following in an interview with BMI:
I was smart enough to stay out of the way and not try and teach her how to write a song… I think that’s why she ended up just writing with me for a long time, was because everyone was trying to go “you can’t do that” so I just kinda went, “Okay, well they’re your songs. We’ll just do whatever you want to do.”15
In the spring of 2019, Taylor performed a private acoustic show at the Time 100 Gala that honors those chosen for the magazine’s yearly list of influential people. She wore a flowing pink gown and held a guitar decorated in pink hearts. During her introduction, she soliloquized, something she is prone to do, even when performing for a stadium of tens of thousands of people: “ I’ve always looked at writing as sort of a protective armor, which is weird because … writing about your life [is] usually likened to vulnerability, but I think that when you write about your life, it gives you the ability to process your life. I use it as a way of justifying the things that happen to me.”16 She was nearing her thirtieth birthday, but she clutched her guitar awkwardly, continuing:
I first started writing when I was twelve, and when I’d be at school and I’d have a really bad day and no one would want to talk to me or something, I’d just sit there and go “no, it’s okay, I’m gonna write about this when I get home. And when I write that song, maybe I’ll feel like this day was worth it.” It sucked, but it maybe was worth it if I write something about this feeling that I’m proud of.17
Attending a Taylor Swift concert is like partaking in communion. The evolution of her crowds over time reveals how much her fans have grown up with her, but they are still consistently filled with teenage and adolescent girls dressed up in extravagant costumes holding light up signs. Concert footage from the music video for the title track of Fearless shows young girls holding signs that read, “I play guitar because of U” and “I WANT 2 B LIKE TAYLOR!!”18 The deep connection between a nineteen-year-old Swift and her young fans is best depicted through a live performance of her song “Fifteen,” one of the most beloved on Fearless and one she wrote entirely herself, from a DVD recording of the Fearless tour called “Journey to Fearless.” She performed this part of the concert on a small stage near the back of the arena, so she could be closer to more of the fans, with an acoustic guitar. She wears her classic cowboy boots and sundress with her lucky number, thirteen, painted on her hand by her mom, who drew the number every night of the tour.
“Fifteen” memorializes the adolescent experience. She sings about walking in the doors on her first day of high school, meeting her best friend, Abigail, in class, and the trials and tribulations of love they faced afterward, assuring her young fans that “In your life, you’ll do things greater than dating the boy on the football team.” Near the end, she offers advice to all the girls listening:
When all you wanted was to be wanted
Wish you could go back and tell yourself what you know now.
Back then, I swore I was gonna marry him someday
But I realized some bigger dreams of mine
And Abigail gave everything she had
To a boy who changed his mind
And we both cried.
’Cause when you’re fifteen and somebody tells you they love you
You’re gonna believe them
And when you’re fifteen, don’t forget to look before you fall
I’ve found time can heal most anything
And you just might find who you’re supposed to be.
I didn’t know who I was supposed to be
Between the chorus and the bridge, she flips her curly blonde hair dramatically (one of her trademarks). She has been made fun of for it (most famously for her 2013 Grammy performance), but to me, it’s a symbol of the deeply-rooted conviction Taylor has in the value of the drama of her own life. And in a culture that mocks teenage girls and their interests, that only values them as sexual commodities, as girls learning to become submissive, accommodating women, the act of taking oneself seriously is deeply political. In performing “Fifteen” live on tour in arena after arena (venues whose standard functions often cater to hockey or basketball games) of young girls, Taylor Swift dares to romanticize and prioritize the suburban, teenaged, female experience and insist on its cultural power and importance. When I was fourteen and attended my very first open mic at a local coffee shop, I played this song and dreamed about what was to come.
I first began writing songs when I was twelve. I never became very good, but I spent nearly all of freshman year of high school with a bruised tailbone from sitting on the hard floor of my bedroom for hours playing guitar (physiologically similar to the broken tailbone my mom endured during her own wild, adolescent days riding horses). By fifteen, I had become serious about songwriting, and I attended a week-long summer songwriting program at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Immediately, I fell into a group of six other song-writing girls. It was one of the first times in my life that I met other people who were really like me, who felt the world with the same intensity that I did and weren’t afraid to shy away from it or to write it down. They were also the first people I met who were not embarrassed to admit how much they loved Taylor Swift, who was certainly a main force that inspired each of us to begin writing songs in the first place. One of these early friends was named Sarah, a girl from New York City with whom I have spent many long nights over the years walking through Brooklyn and talking about Taylor Swift. Unlike myself, Sarah is still a constant songwriter and a few years ago released her debut EP, Paper Girl. One of my favorite tracks is a song called “Second Chance.” I hadn’t known before, but Sarah told me, hushed and hunched over a tiny dinner table, like she was giving away a deep secret, that she wrote “Second Chance” just before we attended camp together, when she was sixteen. She played it in a songwriting workshop in a class at Berklee, and the male professor tore it apart with critique after critique, drawing out for the class everything that was purportedly wrong with it. But a few years later, when Sarah sent her catalog to the producer of her EP, he suggested that she record this one. Sarah told me that she was surprised, as she’d thought this whole time that it was a bad song, but her producer said that in “Second Chance,” he could feel what she was expressing and could feel that it was important to her.
“Second Chance” is dripping with teenage melodrama in a way that reflects the intensity of the teenage experience in a beautiful, fitting way. The song is about wanting a second chance at life, about realizing how quickly time takes and gives, how quickly the world changes. That moment when I realized what the passage of time truly means was a profound one for me in my early days of high school, and it seems like it was for Sarah, too. Sarah filmed a music video for the song, in which she follows a trail of sunflowers around New York City, passing through important places in her childhood, to a garden, where she is greeted by her childhood best friend. She walks through book stores and stands in front of murals playing her pink electric guitar singing:
Time flies, friends move on, people die
I want to cry for all the change in my bones.
Lips part, time heals wounds, new chapters start
I feel my heart beating through my bones.
I miss how I jumped into things without a second glance
I want those pieces back, I want a second chance20
“Second Chance” is a real-world example of Pipher’s description of the rocky opening up of the world to adolescent girls, for which solitude and focus are the best antidotes, such as those necessary to write a song. “Second Chance” is the product of an adolescent girl’s discovery of her place in the mix of things, the workings of the world, and like Pipher suggests, although a sixteen-year-old girl may not have the emotional and mental expertise to make sense of it all, Sarah was able to turn to songwriting, an act directly inspired by her admiration of Taylor Swift, to get even a little bit closer to understanding. Is there anything more sacred?
One night, a few months after my dinner with Sarah, while standing on the sidewalk, I played “Second Chance” for one of my male friends, and he laughed at it. Maybe it was disdainful, and maybe it was arrogant, but I imagine now that a sliver of it was a laugh from discomfort, perhaps at the wildness of a girl saying what she saw and felt and experienced with no reservations and no embarrassment.
A central part to Taylor Swift’s remarkable agency as a young woman and girl is her daring to bear witness to her own life in a world that didn’t ask or want her to. In her review of the 2019 release of a Netflix special featuring Taylor’s Reputation Stadium Tour, Amanda Petrusich wrote in The New Yorker about another acoustic moment in a Taylor Swift concert, this time a performance of “All Too Well.” The song is from Red, a fan favorite and widely considered her first major step toward a pop crossover. As Petrusich explains, “All Too Well,” a nearly six-minute ballad, is certainly one of the most unanimously beloved song among Swifties:
The song is about being haunted by memories of a bungled love, maybe for a little longer than you should be. “I know it’s long gone / And that magic’s not here no more/ And I might be O.K. / But I’m not fine at all,” she admits—so go the scars of love. What’s most striking about “All Too Well” is how Swift validates and reaffirms her experience; when a complicated relationship ends, it’s easy to feel bewildered and betrayed, unsure of everything that happened prior to the moment of collapse. Were you swindled? Or, worse, did you somehow invent the whole thing? Swift’s repeated assertion—“I was there”—begins to feel like a kind of corrective to whatever unkind maneuvering her ex (in this case, the actor Jake Gyllenhaal, according to Swift lore) was up to. Though later in her career she would become more brash about broadcasting her own empowerment, “All Too Well” might be Swift’s most quietly feminist moment.21
The power of Taylor Swift lies in the assertion of an angry folk-rock ballad that growls “I was there” that dates all the way back to her early days, when she propelled her teenage lived experience to the top of pop charts. The power is the insistence upon her validity as a witness, as a liver, as a dreamer. Soon before she played “Love Story,” that Romeo and Juliet song from Fearless, at the Time 100 Gala, Swift finished her opening address to the crowd: “I love that so many women came before me and opened the door that I now get to walk through who were writing about their lives, and I’m so grateful for that opportunity… One of my favorite things about female writers, about writers in general, about people who take what happens to them and they process it and they put it out into the world, is if you write, you can turn your lessons into your legacy.”22
One of the most profound moments from Reviving Ophelia is another idea stemming from Alice Miller, a final tragedy which Pipher summarizes by asserting that an authentic adulthood requires a “griev[ing] for” one’s childhood.23 Although Reviving Ophelia focuses on adolescent girls, Pipher mentions that many adult women she encountered in therapy were still bearing the consequences of their own adolescence, yet “even sadder were the women who were not struggling, who had forgotten that they had selves worth defending. They had repressed the pain of their adolescence and the betrayals of the self in order to be pleasing … They came to lose weight, to talk about their depression, or to rescue their marriage. When I asked them about their own needs, they were confused by the question.”24
In Taylor Swift’s repertoire, no woman is left behind. Through her words and her music, she invites women to reflect upon their lives and to mourn for things that have happened to them and for who they used to be. But, of course, Taylor Swift is a young, beautiful, relatively-accommodating white woman from a privileged family. She is an easy pill to swallow for our cultural gatekeepers, a convenient allowance, a well-disguised cultural abnormality who got by on innocence and charm, on a well-played “good girl” act (which requires an entire essay itself). Taylor Swift’s work is not (nor does it pretend to be) universal; it does not sum up the female experience, of course. But this fact reveals that to be so bold requires following a strict set of rules first, that to be allowed radical freedom of speech often requires a heavy helping of conventionality. This is how disastrous the current situation of women is. I dream of a Taylor Swift that becomes simply one of many, one of a few firsts in a lineage stretching far into the future of slanderers and gossips, messy and confrontational women who become increasingly loud and radical, who don’t need to be convenient and charming to be taken seriously.
At the heart of all of it, despite the music, the songwriting, the politics, the self-psychoanalysis, is that Taylor Swift was the person who gave me the courage to stand up on a stage at open mic, to write my life down into a notebook, to apply for college out of state. Taylor Swift was the only person in my life who told me that the things that I said and felt mattered and were worth writing down and sharing and relishing, that I could dream of things greater than dating a football player. She is the reason I have written this essay, and the reason that I have written anything at all. And without that example, without having a productive place to direct my wild, adolescent mind, I believe my life would have turned out much differently; I believe it would have been much more painful and tumultuous. I imagine the same is true for Sarah and my songwriting friends, and I imagine it is true for Olivia Rodrigo and Kelsea Ballerini and Camila Cabello and Girl in Red, all young, contemporary female writers who are vocal about their early and lasting admiration for Taylor Swift. I wish I could return to the southern magnolia in the front yard of my childhood home. It was so quiet up there. I was so free, before I was broken in. I know I will never return to that little girl, but every time I listen to “Fifteen” or talk to my friends, I get a little closer. I hope we can all find the courage to seek out our true selves, and I hope we never forget to write it down.
- “White Horse,” written by Taylor Swift and Liz Rose, track 3 on Taylor Swift, Fearless, Big Machine, 2008.
- Mary Pipher and Sara Pipher Gilliam, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, 25th Anniversary Edition (Riverhead Books, 2019), 29.
- Pipher, Reviving Ophelia, 30.
- Pipher, Raising Ophelia, 41.
- Constance Grady, “Who Runs the World? Not Teen Girls,” Vox, June 21, 2021.
- Abby Aguirre, “Taylor Swift on Sexism, Scrutiny, and Standing Up for Herself,” Vogue, August 8, 2019.
- Joe Coscarelli and Melena Ryzik, “Ryan Adams Dangled Success. Women Say They Paid a Price,” New York Times, February 13, 2019.
- Pipher, Raising Ophelia, 33.
- Pipher, Raising Ophelia, 37.
- Pipher, Raising Ophelia, 37.
- Pipher, Raising Ophelia, 42.
- Pipher, Raising Ophelia, 42.
- “CNN Spotlight: Taylor Swift (2014),” DelicatelyDurable on YouTube, November 15, 2014.
- Brittany Spanos, “Taylor Swift vs. Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta: What the Hell Happened?” Rolling Stone, July 1, 2019.
- “Liz Rose Panel Interview – Working with Taylor Swift on “You Belong With Me,” BMI on YouTube, February 18, 2016.
- “Taylor Swift performing at the Time 100 Gala,” Marvin Tran on YouTube, April 23, 2019.
- “Taylor Swift performing at the Time 100 Gala,” Marvin Tran.
- “Taylor Swift – Fearless,” Taylor Swift on YouTube, February 26, 2010.
- “Fifteen,” written by Taylor Swift, track 2 on Taylor Swift, Fearless, Big Machine, 2008.
- “Second Chance,” written by Sarah Gargano, track 2 on Sarah Gargano Paper Girl, Sarah Gargano, 2018.
- Amanda Petrusich, “Taylor Swift’s Netflix Special is the End of an Era,” The New Yorker, January 3, 2019.
- “Taylor Swift performing at the Time 100 Gala,” Marvin Tran.
- Pipher, Reviving Ophelia, 30.
- Pipher, Reviving Ophelia, 11.