When John Travolta mistook a drag queen who plays Taylor Swift for the actual Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards, it made for a hilariously apt turn in Swift’s recent year of gender play. She’s been hanging in public with—and lobbying on behalf of—LGBTQ people, who challenge traditional notions of guyhood and girldom. She’s performed in boxy business suits and short-styled hair. Most pointedly, her new album, Lover, includes a song called “The Man,” which imagines her being a pop prince rather than princess. “I’d be a fearless leader / I’d be an alpha type,” Swift sings. “When everyone believes ya / What’s that like?”
“The Man” is one of the most straightforwardly catchy songs of Lover, and its message needs no decoding. Swift is partaking in a long pop-feminist tradition of pointing out double standards by hypothetically swapping gender. Comparisons to Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy” are inevitable. When it was released in 2008, the hit joined a lineage of similarly themed songs including Ciara’s “Like a Boy” and Bonnie Tyler’s “If You Were a Woman (And I Was a Man).” In 1982, Julie Andrews played a gal pretending to be a guy in the musical comedy Victor/Victoria, and one of her numbers was titled “If I Were a Man.” Swift’s new song recalls all of these examples, but puts their underlying social concerns in terms of celebrity image management.
Swift’s career until now has been bound up with cultural clichés about womanhood—and more specifically, girlhood. Her songs of heartbreak and longing, especially early in her run, polished up stock characterizations of her gender and age: the cheerleader, the princess, the “careful daughter.” A 2008 hit, “Fifteen,” reiterated old-fashioned warnings to young women about keeping their virginity in spite of men pressuring them not to. “Dear John,” hinged on a damsel-like image: “The girl in the dress cried the whole way home.” Later depictions of grown-up romance delighted in the fact that her “red-lip classic thing”—a certain feminine ideal—fit with her James Dean–ish guy’s guy.
If she has capitalized on womanhood—and on how society thinks about women—she has also taken on sexism. Though it wasn’t until 2014 that she called herself a feminist (she rejected the label before), her catalog all along has attacked male piggishness and entitlement. When a Denver radio host allegedly groped her at a 2013 event, she made a point of connecting her legal battle against him with the larger cause of women’s autonomy—shortly before The New York Times’ Harvey Weinstein exposé inflamed the #MeToo movement. Now “The Man” gives her her most explicit musical statement on sexism.
Typically, when pop divas imagine themselves as guys, it’s to make a point about relationships. Assemble a playlist of songs with “If I Were a Boy”–type conceits, and you hear repeated tales of men manipulating women in the context of romance, and you hear jealousy toward the sense of freedom that men are afforded. Beyoncé and Ciara both fantasized that if they were men, they’d turn off their cellphone and act single when they were out on the town. “I’ll get to know your family / Get your friends to fall in love with me / Just happens all so easily,” cooed the Pussycat Dolls on “If I Was a Man.” “And once I had my way, I’d get up, get up and walk away.”
Sometimes songs in this tradition glance up at the larger social picture. The cabaret-ish 2002 tune “If I Were a Man” from the Canadian singer Andrea Menard landed this strong couplet: “I’d be the man in mankind and the universal he / I’d never go out on a limb, because I’d be the tree.” Other songs gender-swap in the name of peace. The lovely Cowboy Junkies ballad “If You Were the Woman and I Was the Man” has a man and woman dueting about accepting each other’s vulnerability. Bonnie Tyler’s similarly titled song, a juicy slice of ’80s ham, pleads, “A heart’s a heart and we do what we can.”
Swift has written plenty of tales about men messing with women’s feelings and facing no consequences. But she doesn’t really make tracks like those anymore. On her past few albums, her love songs were about finding refuge from the ravages of fame, and her breakup songs were about being torn apart by the same ravages. There’s a newfound sense of equality in her romances—which is, perhaps, made possible by the power afforded by her wealth and success. So it’s fitting that “The Man” departs from the guys-party-while-girlfriends-pine genre. Instead, it’s about her more recent muse: her reputation.
What Swift chafes against isn’t that her gender has curtailed her life opportunities per se. It’s that it has shaped how people talk about her. Whereas she’s mocked for having dated multiple men, guys are considered “complex” and “cool” for their “conquests,” she sings. This might seem like a common complaint about “slut shaming,” but Swift’s version is specifically about fame: In the most memorable line of the song, she says that the male equivalent of her would be “like Leo in Saint-Tropez.” It’s a reference to Leonardo DiCaprio’s ever revered habit of cavorting with models in the French Riviera.
The second verse addresses double standards when it comes to careers. If she were a man, “they’d say I hustled, put in the work / They wouldn’t shake their heads and question how much of this I deserve.” Her manners and her appearance wouldn’t be as much of an issue either. It’s a celebrity’s complaint—but also one familiar to women whose workplaces don’t involve arena concerts and awards shows.
Swift might take comfort in the irony underlying “The Man,” which is that for whatever sexism she’s faced, Swift’s career has already been a showcase of overcoming double standards. “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can / Wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man,” she sings, but her “running as fast as [she] can” indeed amounted to something pretty speedy: It’s very hard to think of men who’ve had the impressive trajectory she has had in the past 12 years. You’d have to look to someone such as Drake or Ed Sheeran, who prove Swift’s arguments about (in the former case) men being cheered for dating around and (in the latter case) men putting nil effort into their self-presentation. If Swift’s song makes a familiar point, it’s still a valid one. How many more times will it need to be made before it’s not?