The Ever-Evolving Taylor Swift

Today Rolling Stone is touting its latest cover story, a profile of Taylor Swift timed to the October 22nd arrival of her new album, Red, as the country-pop crossover sensation's "most candid interview ever." Who exactly is this person everyone is talking about, amid Kennedy fanfare and an album's promotional blitz?

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Today Rolling Stone is touting its latest cover story, a profile of Taylor Swift timed to the October 22nd arrival of her new album, Red, as the country-pop crossover sensation's "most candid interview ever." In truth there's nothing terribly candid in the interview, but it does make an effort to frame the 22-year-old singer as more of a lady, a gangly gamine prat-falling lady, but a lady nonetheless. The screwball elegance the article is going for befits Swift's much-talked-about liaisons at the Kennedy Compound this summer, where she was smooching up a storm with RFK's grandson, Conor. But it also doesn't tell us anything real.

Who exactly is this person everyone is talking about, amid Kennedy fanfare and an album's promotional blitz? We never really get a full picture, just some facet to satisfy the particular tone of an article.  Over the years, the media has bestowed upon Swift a veritable Breakfast Club-like list of identities. In the interest of trying to better understand this possible future Kennedy, we've broken down all the media versions of Taylor Swift that we could find.

Taylor as Prodigy

In the days when her album Fearless was making her a sensation, we saw a Taylor narrative focus on her talents as a songwriter in the face of her youth. In a 2008 piece in The New Yorker, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones labeled her a "prodigy."  In talking about her songwriting, he mentions her in the same breath as "Hank Williams, Prince, Elvis Costello, and Randy Newman." While this narrative still lingers, it's fading. In December 2011, Willa Paskin labeled Swift's childlike nature her "precociousness problem." 

Taylor as Virgin

Like a number of pop tarts before her, Taylor's virginity was once a topic of discussion. In a 2009 Cosmopolitan feature on celebrity virgins, Swift was quoted as saying: "I read a very creative rumor this morning saying I'm pregnant, which is the most impossible thing on the planet. Take my word for it." Fast-forward a year to the release of her song "Dear John," presumably about John Mayer. The narrative then became: hey, did John Mayer take Taylor's virginity?

Taylor as Role Model

Because she's a teen star that has stayed relatively free from controversy (we'll get to that later, but no drugs, alcohol, erratic behavior) the term "role model" has been thrown around. In a 60 Minutes appearance last fall she said it was her "responsibility" to be conscious of her role as an idol. Lizzie Widdicombe of The New Yorker wrote in an extensive October 2011 profile that "In a world of Lohans and Winehouses, Swift is often cited as a role model, a designation she takes seriously. 'It’s a compliment on your character,' she told me. 'It’s based on the decisions that you make in your life.'"

Taylor as Feminist's Nightmare

The descriptor "feminist's nightmare" was perhaps most popularized by a post by Reise on the queer women's site Autostraddle titled "Why Taylor Swift Offends Little Monsters, Feminists, and Weirdos", written in 2010 after Taylor won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Reise explains how Swift's songs focus on a "Madonna/Whore Complex" and how "the rush to exalt Swift is (I believe) a desperate attempt to infuse our allegedly apocalypse-bound country with a palatable conservative ideology in the form of a complacent, repressed feminine ideal."  The post elicited responses from places like Jezebel and fbomb. In an earlier example of Swift's feminist backlash, Sady Doyle at Bitch wrote that she "would argue that 'You Belong To Me' song and/or video is a triumph of girl-on-girl sexism."

Taylor as Goody-Two-Shoes

The "Goody-Two-Shoes" Taylor is an offshoot of her "role model" identity. However positive an influence Swift may be for young girls (or bad if you go with the feminist's nightmare narrative!), her golly gee persona can get frustrating. In 2009 the Daily Fill wrote a post declaring that the whole innocent "act" was "getting old."  In the years since, that sentiment—and her actions and statements encouraging it—has done anything but subside. In an interview this month in Esquire, Swift, now of legal drinking age, revealed: "I don't drink much alcohol. If it doesn't taste like candy or sparkles, I usually don't drink it." Another part of the "goody-two-shoes" label: the endless mocking of her easily mock-able awards show "surprise face."  Need any more evidence? This is a person who tweets about her cat.

Taylor as Cougar

Most recently, as she has begun dating 18-year-old Conor Kennedy, we've gotten the bizarre Taylor as cougar meme. (Remember: she also dated men who were scandalously her seniors.) Perez Hilton has said it, the Boston Herald has said it, the National Enquirer has said it. Recent rumors that she's also romantically involved with Kennedy's equally 18-year-old cousin Patrick Schwarzenegger will likely only perpetuate this iteration of the Taylor Swift story. In fact, the new Rolling Stone profile deems both Swift and fellow non-teen teen idol Selena Gomez "minicougars." (Gomez is also quoted as saying that Swift is "so tough," so maybe we need another identity category.)

Despite the ever-change media narratives about Swift, to our mind she's mostly stayed the same. She hasn't gone "Dirrty." She hasn't performed a pole dance at an awards show. Even though she is now very much not a teenager, her songs still tackle the same themes: falling in love, getting your heart broken, growing up. She recently tweeted: "I Knew You Were Trouble comes out tonight at midnight. Ready to hear more about my romantic misadventures????" As if we would think she would write about anything else. The most drastic changes to her looks have been getting bangs, dying her hair brown, and abandoning princess dresses for striped T-shirts. (That said, it's not like she has strayed from the trappings of royalty entirely, instead ingratiating herself to the American family that comes closest to it.)

For all we know about Swift's romantic exploits, it still feels like we don't know much about her, other than an armchair analyst theory that she's somewhat stuck in adolescence. It might be that, publicly, Taylor Swift simply exists best as archetype: the girl genius, the good girl, the girlie girl, and now, possibly, the bad girl. From her songs we get vagaries about her emotions—she falls in love quickly, she gets mad when she gets dumped—but the same generic quality that makes her songs such cross-genre hits also obfuscates any realness about the singer behind them. Maybe the real Taylor Swift will reveal herself one day. In the meantime, we'll likely just keep labeling her in whatever way is convenient at the time.

Insets via YouTube and the Associated Press

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.