Is it cool to still like Taylor Swift? After the release of her first single in three years, "Look What You Made Me Do," the answer to that question is more confusing than ever. While her loyal fans are celebrating her comeback, it seems like the song (and now its music video) has given her detractors even more ammunition against her. But as someone whose life has been changed by Swift's music since the singer's debut self-titled album in 2006, to me, it's simple: I still love Taylor Swift. And, despite the valid criticism against her, that's not going to change.
Last year was a rough one for Swift — and for fans like me who feel obligated to defend her against her haters. Between her unexpected split from Calvin Harris, her high-profile relationship with Tom Hiddleston, and the "Famous" feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, it seemed like the hits would never stop coming. But then, Swift, who was known at that time for staying super accessible to her fans on social media, disappeared off the face of the Earth, only returning to perform at a Super Bowl party in January and to release a single, "I Don't Wanna Live Forever," with Zayn Malik for the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack.
After winning her sexual assault trial in August 2017, the clouds parted and Swift was back. She stood up for herself in court, asking for only a single dollar, and pledged herself to inspiring other women who claim they've been sexually assaulted to speak up. She also donated an undisclosed amount to Mariska Hargitay's Joyful Heart Foundation to help sexual assault survivors. Although she got much support during the trial, once she announced her album mere days later, the hate was back in full force. With an album name like Reputation, critics wondered, did that mean she would just continue to deflect blame? To her fans, it seemed like she was stronger than ever, but a loud majority immediately assumed that by singing "Look What You Made Me Do" it was more of the same.
To be fair, at face value, that's exactly what it looks like. "Look What You Made Me Do" sounds like Swift is blaming other people for her downfall, and not taking responsibility for the things that could have been her fault. Yes, the title itself is exactly what deflecting blame sounds like, but I'm not convinced that was what Swift is trying to do here. From my first listen, I knew that the song was just as satirical as her previous single "Blank Space" and seeing the music video, with its Swift U parody of her squad of supermodel friends to her legion of old Taylors cracking jokes about each other, only confirmed that. This wasn't Swift crying "poor me." Instead, she let people see exactly what "playing the victim" would look like, rather than actually playing that role in real life.
In fact, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly's Instant, her friend and backup dancer Todrick Hall explained the song's meaning like this:
“I’m assuming what she means by that is, You made me break every record, you made me out-sell everyone. You made me hire the best backup dancers in the world, you made me come out of a grave, you made me tilt a bunch of tombstones at one time ... That’s what they made her do.”
And now that the video is out, it seems pretty clear cut that this is her way of confronting the criticism rather than dismissing it. She brought up her often mocked "surprised face," pointing out that nobody could be that surprised all the time, and confronted the idea that all of her friends are women who look like models. In the video, she even robbed a streaming company, in reference to the letter she wrote to Apple about fairly paying artists. And as every Swift fan knows, anytime Swift stands up for herself like she did by releasing this video, it's easy for critics to call it blame shifting.
Case in point: the Kanye West "Famous" debacle. After the song came out, Swift used her 2016 Grammys speech to call out West without actually mentioning his name. She said:
"As the first woman to win Album of the Year at the Grammys twice, I want to say to all the young women out there, there are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame, but, if you just focus on the work and you don't let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you're going you'll look around and you will know that it was you and the people who love you who put you there. And that will be the greatest feeling in the world."
People took this to mean that Swift was playing the victim once again. Yes, Swift did approve the "famous" line, per Kim Kardashian's Snapchat leak, but she didn't approve of being called a b*tch (and why should she?) and there's absolutely nothing wrong with making it clear that someone else can't take credit for her fame. She wasn't playing the victim; she was using her platform to empower her fans — fans like me who've learned to trust themselves thanks to her music and her words. And she had a good point: She should take credit for her success, because she is the one who is responsible for it.
As much as we feel like we know celebrities' lives — Swift included — we only know so much. We can only judge her based on what she and Kardashian show us publicly, but that's not the whole story. In fact, in the "Look What You Made Me Do" video, Swift implied that Kardashian may have edited the audio before posting it on Snapchat. While it was presented in a humorous way rather than an actual accusation, it highlighted the fact that the public narrative isn't necessarily the entire story. (A source close to the situation told Bustle that what Kardashian posted was "raw unedited footage" but that Kardashian "Snapchatted bits and pieces.")
But I know, it's not just about West. One of the other reasons that Swift often gets called out is because of her flawed feminism. Her detractors claim that Swift only uses feminism for her own gain, while building her "girl power" brand and talking about her squad of women who are killing it and empowering each other. The women she surrounds herself with don't include many women of color, she has benefited from the publicity of a public feud with Katy Perry, and she doesn't seem to have a scope of feminism beyond the idea that women should support each other and be strong. It might seem like she uses the term only for her own benefit because of those flaws, but I still think that the movement is something she wholeheartedly believes in.
Unfortunately, with Swift — and a lot of other celebrities — we make it impossible for her to be the kind of feminist we think she should be. When celebrities don't call themselves feminists, we judge them; when celebrities do, but fail to express their feminism the way we want them to, we judge them too. Meanwhile, non-celebrity feminists can't always live up to those high standards, either. They're given room to grow.
I am a feminist, but I admit that I don't always understand everything that the word encompasses. I believe that women should be equal to men, and I believe that extends to all women — any race, any orientation. But I also know there needs to be space to learn how to be a better feminist — for me, for Swift, for everyone. While she still has some learning to do, if Swift calls herself a feminist, the people who look up to her are being exposed to the movement — and that's positive, no matter how you look at it.
And as for how quiet Swift remains on political matters? That's how she's always been. It's not like she was once an activist and stopped; she has never been open about her views. For some people, politics are a personal thing, and while many people look to celebrities to speak up in this volatile political climate, celebs choosing not to broadcast specific policy opinions isn't something that's unique to Swift, and yet she is one of the only celebrities getting widespread hate for it. Shortly after last November's presidential election, West met with Donald Trump and people seem to have forgotten about that, yet Swift's silence seems to follow her everywhere.
While Swift doesn't speak up about everything, she does take action when she cares about an issue. Through her testimony in her court case and her symbolic win of $1, she publicly offered support to victims of sexual assault who feel like they can't or shouldn't report their abuse. She may not have tweeted about Kesha's lawsuit, but she did donate $250,000 to her for any financial needs she had at the time. She might not have responded to the backlash against her "Wildest Dreams" video, but she did donate the proceeds from the video to the African Parks Foundation. And among many other large donations, she also gave $50,000 to New York City public schools and $4 million to start an education center for children in Nashville. Those good things still count, and, in a world filled with awful truths and so much negativity that we live in today, her kindness (and, in turn, the kindness she inspires in others) is more important than ever.
As a fan, I don't think Swift owes me (or anyone else) anything. I don't need an explanation of her feminism, and I certainly don't need an explanation of why she wasn't OK with one of the world's biggest celebrities — a man who has disrespected her publicly before — calling her a b*tch in one of his songs.
We only know of Swift what she chooses to share with us. And what I know of her, I love. I know that she creates music that has helped me through difficult times in my life, that through her lyrics I feel understood. I know that, as an insecure 19-year-old girl who struggled with her self-confidence, I stood in awe of Swift at a meet and greet in 2008 when I heard the artist I looked up to most say, "Look how beautiful you are!" I know that she surprised other fans who support her with Christmas presents in 2015, and I know that she is constantly giving back to the causes that are important to her.
That's all I need to know to keep loving her, and, unless that changes, I'll be a Swift fan for life.