Love her or hate her, Taylor Swift can’t go unnoticed. The pop superstar has sold over 170 million records and could eventually become one of the top ten best-selling artists in history, and she’s just 27 years old. She’s definitely doing something right. We can’t deny Taylor’s a talented musician and song-writer; her lyrics are simple yet powerful, with down-to-earth verses that don’t pull their punches and manage to talk to an entire generation of teens with their themes of love and heartbreak. This on-the-nose quality has made Taylor a common target of criticism, especially directed at her tendency to sing in a very straightforward manner about her ex-boyfriends, important sources of inspiration for her music.
Her status as one of the biggest pop stars in the world at the moment has made her a permanent target of media scrutiny, which means her private life and relationship drama are so public they can make bigger waves than most hard news headlines. This has brought about an interesting phenomenon where every new Taylor Swift album is carefully analyzed, song by song, trying to figure out which ex-boyfriend she’s referring to. Rolling Stone has entire articles looking for clues and speculating as to whether Jake Gyllenhaal or John Mayer, for example, were the subjects mentioned in the singer’s latest hits.
Taylor seems to be unbothered by this dynamic, saying that as long as it serves as a motivator for people to pay closer attention to her lyrics, she doesn’t mind. She even leaves clues scattered in her album booklets, a series of letters that, when put together, spell out messages to exes, such as “I love you doesn’t count after goodbye” in “State of Grace,” or shout-outs to her friends, like “Ashley Dianna Claire Selena” in “22.” The first one was quickly linked to her relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, her love interest from 2010 to 2011. It’s an interesting game that makes her music even more direct in its message, an aspect hated by some and praised by others.
A clear example of detractors is John Mayer, whom she dated briefly in 2009-2010. The musician complained about her song “Hey John” being unfair to him and described her talking about his failures as a boyfriend as “cheap songwriting,” a position echoed by many of her critics. Meanwhile, defenders of Taylor signal the hypocrisy that’s inherent in such a stance, as it seems to only flutter everyone’s feathers when she does it, even though heartbreak has been an ever-present theme in pop music. Some artists are even celebrated for singing about their past relationships, such as Adele or Sam Smith, even if their approach is different.
Besides the constant debate regarding the artistic value of her approach to failed relationships, there’s an obvious sexist undertone to the criticisms thrown at her, which has been pointed out time and time again. When male performers diss on ex-girlfriends —Kanye West in “Blame Game” or Ed Sheeran in “Don’t”— the public reaction isn’t as big as it is when female musicians do it. Male celebrities with never-ending lists of famous ex-girlfriends are celebrated —Leonardo DiCaprio, Derek Jeter— while Taylor’s constantly lambasted when she breaks up or finds a new partner.
Whichever side you prefer, it’s hard to argue that her formula isn’t effective. By drawing inspiration for her music from areas of her life that can seem too personal, or obviously addressing certain famous ex-boyfriends in her songs, Taylor has positioned herself as an approachable celebrity and one of the go-to singers when in need for a breakup soundtrack. Pop stars thrive on marketing, and the fact that Taylor Swift dominates headlines and generates debate with her love life, keeping us guessing who her next song will talk about, is an effective strategy that gives free advertising to her albums, no matter the reasoning behind or whether it’s all a publicity stunt or the genuine intention of a musician that generates art from the anger and contempt everyone has felt after a breakup.
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