I want to start off by saying that Taylor Swift has never been particularly political with her music, and the choice to identify as a feminist is completely up to her and her only. The purpose of this very informal analysis is to view more clearly whether her reputation as definitely-not-a-feminist is deserved.
I listened to and read the lyrics of each song on her five albums, then gave each song a rating from 1-10: 5 being neutral, 1 being not feminist at all, and 10 being the most feminist. Then I assigned to the album the mean of all the song’s scores. The scale is very subjective, but I tried to keep in mind the overall message of the song, as well as its potential effects on young female listeners. Songs in which she dedicated the entire meaning of her life to a man were rated less than 5. This is also dependent on the assumption that these songs reflect her thoughts and values, which although she writes her own music, may not always be true.
Picture to Burn off of Taylor Swift’s eponymous debut album has a very feminist theme in that she recognizes and calls out a bad ex-boyfriend and the sexist adjectives men so often call women. Unfortunately, it also has a homophobic lyric so I knocked off some points. The best and worst parts of the song are in the same stanza.
So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy,
That’s fine, I’ll tell mine you’re gay
I want to point out that, especially on her Fearless album, her least feminist songs are also her most popular. Her audience can identify with them, so why wouldn’t she keep writing hopeless love songs? The music video for You Belong With Me (1) won the 2009 VMA award over Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (10), which led to one of Kanye West’s more infamous moments.
This album got the lowest score. It has a lot of themes of love at first sight, and hating the woman who stole her man. She has publicly spoken about Better Than Revenge:
“‘I was 18 when I wrote that,’ she reminds me. ‘That’s the age you are when you think someone can actually take your boyfriend. Then you grow up and realise no one can take someone from you if they don’t want to leave.'” From this article on The Guardian.
One song that shines above the others on this album is Dear John. It beautifully captures what it feels like to be in an emotionally abusive relationship. It points out the injustice she faced, and ends with an empowered resolve.
But I took your matches before fire could catch me, so don’t look now
I’m shining like fireworks over your sad empty town
Taylor’s shift from country to pop was somewhat gradual, but Red marks her official switch to pop. This album shows a much more empowered Swift who is more cautious about relationships. It seems that she is beginning to put her own needs before a man’s.
1989 actually is somewhat political in nature. Shake It Off and Blank Space show that she is very aware of what people say about her and calls out the sexist nature of her reputation. There is also a stanza in Welcome to New York which might be an attempt to correct her homophobic lyrics from 2006.
And you can want who you want
Boys and boys and girls and girls
There aren’t any songs rated a 1 on my scale on this album nor the previous one, and there are only two songs rated 2 between the two albums. So even if her songs aren’t becoming more feminist, they are certainly becoming less non-feminist.
Taylor Swift’s mild feminism affected me tremendously from the ages 13-18. I remember stumbling across Our Song on YouTube in 2006, listening to it obsessively, and then begging my mom to buy me her first album when I spotted it laying by itself on a table at Sam’s Club. (It was fate). Her music was relevant to me at the time when I thought impressing boys was everything. Yes, I consumed a lot of harmful “boys are everything” messages from her songs, but those messages weren’t new. I also consumed some “boys can be cruel, it doesn’t mean it’s your fault” messages that became extremely valuable to me later on.
In conclusion, Taylor Swift is not my #1 feminist role model, but her music met me where I was, and then helped prep me to become who I am now; and I think that her value is often overlooked.