On the night of my 10th birthday, I forced my mom to drive 30 minutes to Jacksonville’s Avenues Mall so I could spend the little birthday money my distant relative sent me on Taylor Swift’s brand-new album, “Speak Now.” A year of me popping that disk into my pink CD player and screaming lyrics I didn’t necessarily relate to in my room followed.
On my 11th birthday, my mom bought us tickets for my first ever concert: the Speak Now World Tour. Costumed in the infamous “You Belong with Me” music video t-shirt and with Swift’s lucky number 13 painted on my hand, I sat in the nosebleeds with my mom and cried the whole concert. Little has changed since then.
Nearly a decade later, I’m 19 years old, a college student and burgeoning adult. I sit in my dorm room with my laptop open to the livestream of the American Music Awards (AMAs) and Taylor Swift’s 11-minute top-hit medley performance begins, and I immediately start crying—not as hard as fifth-grade me cried, but crying nonetheless.
Taylor Swift was the first artist who was chiefly mine. I grew up adopting whatever music my two older brothers were listening to at the time, which ranged from Green Day to Tupac, Anti-Flag to Johnny Cash, Rocky Horror Picture Show to The Rolling Stones. But when I discovered the archive of Taylor Swift music videos in the music section of Comcast’s On Demand, I found a woman confident in her femininity, who sang about things both frilly and carefree. I spent years trying to be my older brothers—wearing band t-shirts, playing manhunt outside, pretending that I liked playing Mercy—but upon Taylor Swift’s entry into my life, I began to embrace my own femininity and sensitivity. It was my first big life lesson: I could be my own person, and that wouldn’t change my relationship with my brothers nor myself.
When looking back on this past decade, you can see Swift’s fingerprints all over it—not just in my own coming-of-age, but on music and culture as a whole. With four multi-platinum albums, 18 top 10 singles, 10 Grammys, and two Billboard Woman of the Year awards, Swift has fortified herself as a powerhouse in the music industry. As I matured into teenagedom and eventually adulthood, Swift grew out of her Nashville country roots and into an international pop star.
But with this stardom comes controversy. Though male artists are rarely criticized for writing break-up songs, Swift’s frequent discussions of her romantic triumphs and pitfalls in her lyrics made her a target for derision by Twitter and real-life critics alike. The relentless public then targeted Swift for her feud with Kanye West, her drama with other female celebrities, her letter to Apple Music and, more recently, her exploitation by record executive Scooter Braun. Though Swift has painted herself as the victim in these situations, not everyone buys Swift’s “nice-girl” persona. Because of these polarizing debates, a person’s stance on Taylor Swift became a type of personality test—like a zodiac sign or Type A-Type B identification. Are you Team Swift or against her? And whatever your answer is, prepare to defend it.
But people fail to realize that the beauty of Swift lies within her controversial nature. Yes, she can be argumentative and dramatic—but the artist is first and foremost a fighter, and someone who always knows how to land on her feet. Swift will often handle these feuds with songwriting (because yes, she writes all of her songs). With bops like “Mean,” “Shake it Off,” “Look What You Made Me Do” and “You Need to Calm Down,” Swift asserts herself through her success. She turns any drama that plagues her into a money-making song that she performs in front of millions of fans. “Reputation” as a whole is a bounce-back album about triumphing through her lows and becoming a better person because of it. In a world of Twitter fights and tumultuous political debates, Swift acts as a model of how to grow from her struggles.
Swift played a pivotal role in one of the defining movements of the decade, the #MeToo movement, which created a space for victims of sexual assault to be heard. In 2017, Swift won her assault case against radio personality David Mueller, who reportedly groped her bottom during a photo-op. Swift famously sued for a single dollar in damages, which became a symbol among the movement. With a known assaulter entering the Oval Office in 2017, Swift’s lawsuit acted as a powerful headline that inspired women to come forward about their own experiences, regardless of the regressive administration in power. Taylor Swift, among the other “silence breakers,” stood proudly on Time Magazine’s 2017 person of the year issue. From her early days of naiveté, flowy dresses and curly hair to powerfully posing on the cover of Time, Swift has grown centuries in the past 10 years.
Knowing all that Swift has gone through this decade, and considering that Swift’s music has been there for me through all my messy stages of growing up, I couldn’t help but cry as I watched her relive the past 10 years on stage at the AMAs. Following her performance, she was honored with the “Artist of the Decade” award which, to me, encapsulates more than her monetary and musical success—it recognizes her special relationship with fans around the globe. As we move into the 2020s, I am confident that Taylor Swift will continue to empower her audience, write bops and act as an emblem of what it means to overcome.