How 2016 Changed Taylor Swift Forever
For as long as I've followed celebrity culture, I've cared about Taylor Swift. I'm not a singer, and my foray into songwriting lasted about two weeks during seventh grade, but like countless others, I'm drawn to Swift as an artist and a celebrity. For years, the image she'd created for herself — that of a savvy, empowered feminist in shrewd control of her image — was both fascinating and inspiring. Few other stars, and even fewer women, have had the same power over their audiences as Swift. But over the course of this past year, her constant need to be in control started seeming not like a strength, but a fatal flaw. And instead of fans like myself being able to root for Swift's success, we found ourselves feeling frustrated with and embarrassed for a person intent on playing the victim and incapable of owning up to her mistakes.
This would all come later in the year, though. Back in January, 2016 actually seemed poised to be a relatively quiet year for Swift. The worldwide tour for her album 1989 had ended back in December, and her relationship with Calvin Harris was several calm, scandal-free months in. The biggest headlines she nabbed were about hangouts with BFF Selena Gomez and visits to her new baby godson. Yet, just a few weeks later, that would all change. When Swift took the stage at Feb. 15's Grammy Awards and called out Kanye West for that "Famous" shout-out heard 'round the world, she started a chain of events that, over the course of the year, would make it impossible for fans to support her.
At the time, however, the star's appearance at the show, just days after West rapped "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that b*tch famous" on The Life of Pablo, seemed simply like yet another display of her strength and poise in the face of criticism. West, after all, was not only wrong for calling Swift a "b*tch," but he'd also allegedly used her name in the song without her permission. Swift's rep alleged in a statement that West "did not call for approval, but to ask Taylor to release his single ‘Famous’ on her Twitter account. She declined and cautioned him about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message. Taylor was never made aware of the actual lyric, ‘I made that Bitch' famous.’”
Immediately after "Famous" was released, both Swift's star-studded friend group and countless fans came to her defense, condemning West for the offensive lyric and reminding everyone that Swift didn't owe her fame to anyone but herself. So when the star used her Grammys acceptance speech for winning Album of the Year to call out West for undermining her success, it was deemed a feminist victory and a display of her fortitude. As someone who'd supported her throughout her oft-criticized career, it was hard not to feel proud of Swift during that speech; despite unfair attacks that cut at her core, I was so impressed with how she was standing tall and empowering her countless female fans to follow suit.
Slowly, though, things began to unravel. First, there was the Kesha situation. In the midst of the singer's legal battle against the producer Dr. Luke, many stars, like Demi Lovato and Ariana Grande, publicly showed their support for Kesha and rallied others to do the same. Swift, however, stayed silent, which some fans read as a choice to keep her clean image separate from the controversial story. For many people like myself, Swift's inaction was immensely frustrating. Here was a hugely powerful star refusing to come out in support of a peer in need. Yet soon, this disappointment largely vanished, as it was revealed that Swift had donated $250,000 toward Kesha's legal costs. Whether due to the backlash or not, the star's actions satisfied, and shut up, most critics, and appeased her fans who'd hoped she'd use her power to help others with less.
After that, the next few months were relatively scandal-free for Swift. She released "New Romantics," a popular new single. She celebrated her one-year anniversary with Harris. She even earned a "Taylor Swift Award" from Broadcast Music, Inc., an honor celebrating how she'd "transformed pop culture through her songs, artistry and indomitable spirit." In April, she announced that she would be taking a break from music, and the general reaction was a mix of sadness and understanding. After all, we reasoned, someone as busy and accomplished as Swift certainly deserved some time off.
In May, however, two events occurred that would change how we viewed Swift. First, there was the release of "This Is What You Came For," a song purportedly written by Harris. At the time, Swift wasn't thought to have any involvement other than possibly inspiring the lyrics, but months later, it would be revealed through a series of angry tweets that she'd actually ghostwritten the song and wanted credit for its creation. Secondly, there was the 2016 Met Gala, during which Swift, still dating Harris, was spotted dancing with the actor Tom Hiddleston. The duo's adorable shenanigans were seen as just that: nothing more than innocent fun between two clearly platonic friends. Yet when, less than a month later, Swift and Hiddleston would be revealed as a couple, that night would be viewed in a different, less favorable light.
When those photos of Swift and Hiddleston kissing on the beach came out in early June, it marked the biggest change in Swift's image yet. At first, none of us knew what to think. After all, it wasn't even clear for a while if the photos were real, let alone if they signified that the star had moved on from her recent breakup with Harris — a split handled, at least publicly, with maturity and grace — and toward Hiddleston. But while even today, details of the pair's relationship are still murky, the weeks following those photos' release made one thing all too clear: Swift's apparent intentions, and the narrative she'd created, had become more complicated than any of us fans could've predicted.
All summer long, Swift supporters like myself waffled between defending the star from slut-shaming and questioning what was going in her mind. Her relationship with Hiddleston just didn't make sense. Even if the two were truly in love, Swift wasn't going about in the way she'd handled her previous romances. Instead of focusing on privacy and keeping things low-key, the star was flaunting her new relationship, taking Hiddleston on beach trips, European adventures, and Fourth of July celebrations featuring an "I <3 T.S." T-shirt. It all felt out of character for Swift, someone so in control of her image that letting the public create her story and spread countless rumors just didn't make sense. And as a fan, it was hard to watch. How could someone as self-possessed as her sit back while her public image got torn to shreds?
Things only got more complicated from there. In July, it was revealed that Swift was behind Harris' "This is What You Came For," having used a pseudonym to write the hit song. In a series of tweets, Harris criticized his ex-girlfriend for trying to "bury" him like Katy Perry (her most famous "enemy") and take credit the song in order to make him look bad (Harris had been reportedly calling out Swift in Snapchats). At this, Swift's critics went wild, labeling the star a "snake" for her actions — a title that came with a corresponding emoji and became used to troll her all year long — and deeming her relationship with Hiddleston a media-courting lie.
Yet even with the news about the song, it was still possible for fans to defend Swift's honor. So she wanted credit for a track she wrote — was that so bad? So she was flaunting her new relationship — didn't she deserve to have fun? The criticism felt based in sexism, a ridiculous need by the public to tear Swift apart for dating freely and having a nice time. As I wrote in my own "The Taylor Swift Takedown Needs To Stop & Here's Why" essay back in July, "Not only is it simply offensive, but it goes against everything Swift has supposedly taught us throughout her career — that a woman's worth is not about who she dates or how long the romance lasts."
Even if we didn't fully understand Swift's motives during this time, that didn't mean the criticism was warranted. More than anyone, she understood the importance of being in front of one's own narrative. Everything she said and did, even if it confused us, had to be part of a bigger plan to tell her story exactly the way she wanted it to be told. Otherwise, fans like myself would have to admit that Swift wasn't the person that, for years, we'd all thought she was.
But in mid-July, the actions of one Kim Kardashian shattered any illusions we had left. In that "Famous" call, shared on Snapchat by Kardashian to her millions of followers, it became clear that Swift wasn't nearly as in control of her story as we'd thought. Despite what she'd said in that Grammys speech and in her now-infamous "I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative" note, it appears in the Snapchat video (which may not have shown the entire conversation) that she'd actually approved of most, if not all, of West's "Famous" shout-out. And so what seemed to many fans months earlier like an empowering, honest talk about not letting others undermine one's success was now being perceived by many as a deceptive way of making herself look like a victim, and thus the hero of her story.
For longtime fans of Swift who, up until this point, had supported her through thick and thin, the "Famous" call came as a massive blow. It's not that we'd denied she was capable of manipulation; it's that until now, that skill had seemed like an asset, not a character flaw. For years, Swift's ability to take full control of her story and rise above her critics seemed like a wise way of staying in power, the reason she'd achieved such massive success. Now, though, Swift's incessant need to construct her narrative only seemed to show her weakness — and no matter what the truth of her many disputes are, one thing seems to be clear: that she puts maintaining her own narrative first.
To realize that there was nothing defensible about Swift's actions was crushing for those of us who'd supported her for so long. If she'd responded to the Snapchat reveal with a humble, mature statement apologizing for and owning up to her actions, at least we would be comforted in knowing that she was seemingly learning from her mistakes and growing up. But instead, the statement Swift released was purely defensive, a way to deflect more blame and ignore reality rather than take responsibility for her actions. It hurt to realize that even in this career-defining situation, Swift couldn't rise to actually become the person she'd long pretended to be.
In order to regain the respect she'd lost from us, Swift would've needed to spend the following months changing her image to that of a humble, honest person who screwed up, but was keen on growing up too. Instead, nothing Swift has publicly done in the time since that Snapchat has shown she has any intention on changing, and it's hugely disappointing to see. At least publicly, she hasn't apologized to West, Harris, or anyone else. She hasn't spoken in interviews or on social media about wanting to change her ways or rid herself of the "victim" narrative once and for all. And she's continued to stay silent about issues that matter, rightfully earning criticism for being one of the few high-profile stars to not post on social media — until the absolute last minute — about the importance of voting in the presidential election.
That's not to say that there was nothing to praise about Swift in recent months. Her breakup with Hiddleston warranted some sadness, and her good deeds, like her hospital donation in the name of Jaime King's son and contribution to a fan's funeral costs, were commendable. On the 10-year anniversary of her debut album, Taylor Swift, the star posted a thank-you to fans that'd make even her biggest critic crack a nostalgia-induced smile. And she even released new music, which, whether or not it was the goal, momentarily distracted the public from her personal life.
But until she owns up to her actions — and it's looking unlikely that she ever will — it will be impossible for us fans to see her in the same light as we did just 12 months ago. For years, Swift made it her mission to be the most in-control celebrity in Hollywood, but the moment that ability slipped out of her hands, she froze. I, and so many others, have supported her through every controversy and every criticism, but the events of 2016 have proven to be the breaking point. It was one thing to root for her when the story Swift worked so hard to control was one of empowerment. But now, that story is simply one of stubbornness, a refusal to admit her mistakes and grow into the person we all, for years, had thought she already was.
Editor's Note: This article previously left out Swift's rep's statement on the Kim Kardashian "Famous" video and incorrectly implied that there is no dispute over the video's apparent meaning.