|   Insights & Views


  |   Insights & Views


Taylor Swift is ready for her history to be rewritten

Shinta Saragih/The Conversation Indonesia

Taylor Swift is famous for writing her life (and, most notoriously, her ex-boyfriends) into her music.

But she is also fascinated by history, and regularly incorporates historic figures, places and events into her songs. An avid reader since early childhood, Swift has long drawn inspiration from women of the past (both real and fictional) who challenged social conventions and were punished for not conforming to traditional gender roles.

In her most recent album, The Tortured Poets Department, Swift positions herself in a long history of women who upset patriarchal norms — women accused of “behaving badly” — while also revealing the importance of revisiting our understanding of the past based on shifting evidence.

Exploring fictional and family stories

With the albums folklore and evermore (both released in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic), Swift moved away from purely autobiographical storytelling to exploring other people’s lives.

In addition to creating a cast of fictional characters, she also delved into her family history, with moving songs about her paternal grandfather who fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal during the Second World War (“Epiphany”) and her maternal grandmother (“Marjorie”), whose career as an opera singer was limited by marital and maternal responsibilities.

‘Marjorie’ official lyric video.

‘Last Great American Dynasty’

But it’s “The Last Great American Dynasty” on folklore that marked a major shift in Swift’s songwriting. Swift recounts the life of Rebekah Harkness (1915-1982), the American composer and philanthropist who married the heir to the Standard Oil fortune and scandalized her wealthy neighbours with her eccentric behaviour.

In a surprising twist, Swift reveals that she now owns the Rhode Island saltbox house where Harkness threw her wild parties, and Swift is now the crazy woman upsetting the neighbours. Swift not only reflects on how she continues to be perceived by society and portrayed in the media, but also questions the extent to which attitudes toward women who are “different” have actually changed since the 1950s.

‘The Bolter’

Similarly, Swift appears to be alluding to how her own dating history has been recounted and scrutinized by the media. Some commentators think Swift explores the life of Lady Idina Sackville (1893-1955), the English aristocrat who scandalized upper-class society for marrying five times. Because she left her husbands so frequently and suddenly, Sackville was nicknamed “the Bolter,” (also the title of Swift’s track on Tortured Poets).

Sackville was also the inspiration for English novelist Nancy Mitford’s character the Bolter, also the name of a book by Sackville’s great-granddaughter Frances Osborne about Sackville’s life.

‘The Bolter’ official lyric video.

Swift’s track could be heard to imagine Sackville’s perspective, allowing her to explain what attracted her to these men but why she eventually sought to escape them, regardless of the social cost of taking back her freedom. It’s not clear if Swift is writing about Sackville or if she is writing about herself. Either way, we are asked again to question how much has changed for women.

Madness, misogyny, female rage

The themes of madness, misogyny, fame and female rage are at the heart of Tortured Poets, and Swift frequently invokes women of the past as a poetic device to add meaning and nuance to her stories.

In addition to likening herself to a witch, Eve and the Trojan priestess Cassandra, she references American poet and musician Patti Smith, rock legend Stevie Nicks and the hugely successful 1920s silent film actress Clara Bow, who abandoned stardom in 1933 at age 28 after being treated terribly by Hollywood.

Swift places herself within this pantheon of 20th-century American women artists who, in their different ways, fought against the sexism of the entertainment industry.

Swift is keenly aware that she is herself both active making history and a product of a particular moment in time, living in a world shaped by the events and people that came before her. While she has agency — she actually wields far more power than most — she operates within systems that continue to limit and affect her choices.

‘You’re not Dylan Thomas. I’m not Patti Smith. This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel. We’re modern idiots,’ sings Swift in the single Tortured Poets’ Department on the album of the same name.

Re-interpreting past relationships

At this year’s Grammy Awards, when Swift announced she had recorded a new album, fans assumed it would focus on the end of her relationship with actor Joe Alwyn, her boyfriend of six years with whom she had broken up shortly after the start of her Eras Tour in the spring of 2023.

But fans are now convinced that much of what turned out to be The Tortured Poets Department surprise double album is about her on-again-off-again “situationship” with Matty Healy, the controversial frontman of the English band The 1975 who was reviled by many Swifties. Fans have gone back to Swift’s previous albums to reinterpret them through the lens of this revelation.

Were the songs that had once been assumed to be about Alwyn, including those on her 2017 album reputation, actually about Healy? Were the fictional characters in folklore real after all?

Swift’s discography is her archive, each album a collection of files that she has chosen to declassify. These newly released files can help her fans fill in some of the gaps on the Swiftian timeline, and shed new light on what they already know.

Swift’s own shifting story

On the one hand, drawing renewed attention to her past work and keeping her own versions of her older albums streaming is a slick business move by Swift. But new information can also challenge previous assumptions and interpretations, and be devastating to those who hold dear a particular image of their beloved Taylor.

Swift seems to understand that history isn’t supposed to be comfortable. Just as she has reinterpreted the stories of Rebekah Harkness, Lady Idina and Clara Bow, she knows all too well that the way her story has and will be told will change over time. And she is ready for it.

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