The Profile Dossier: Taylor Swift, America's polarizing pop titan
"You are not the opinion of someone who doesn't know you."
Taylor Swift has mastered the art of self-reinvention.
As a teenager, Swift established herself as a shining star in the world of country, with her eponymous debut studio album in 2006, which featured the singles "Teardrops on My Guitar" and "Our Song." Eight years later, she successfully crossed over into pop with her album 1989. She then played with the electro-pop sound in her next two studio albums, Reputation and Lover.
Most recently, Swift surprised fans and dropped two albums in the middle of the pandemic, in which she experimented with folk and alternative rock.
Unlike many stars who have found success in a single genre, Swift has embraced creative risk and re-invented herself at every stage in her career. Some might consider re-invention calculating, but Swift considers it progress.
"You've got to allow yourself that grace to put on a certain lifestyle, or a certain outfit, or a certain creative mantra — and then discard it when you outgrow it," she says.
Although Swift has turned into a full-blown brand, she still appears relatable because she's remained maniacal about warding off commodification. “The bigger your career gets, the more you struggle with the idea that a lot of people see you the same way they see an iPhone or a Starbucks," she says.
With sales of over 200 million records worldwide, Swift is one of the best-selling music artists on the planet. And the accolades are many: She has won 11 Grammy Awards, 32 American Music Awards (the most wins by an artist), and 23 Billboard Music Awards (the most wins by a woman).
Although you could argue that nothing about Swift's life is relatable, she's masterfully humanized her brand and built a mega-loyal fan base that refers to themselves as the "Swifties."
Before you call her calculating, consider this: “Am I shooting from the hip? Would any of this have happened if I was? ... You can be accidentally successful for three or four years. Accidents happen. But careers take hard work."
On becoming America's most polarizing pop star: Depending on how you feel about Taylor Swift, you either think she’s calculating or strategic. Manipulative or thoughtful. Fake or authentic. In this 2015 GQ profile, Swift sets the record straight — she’s calculating, she says, but not in the negative sense.
On becoming a pop titan: Swift was named Billboard’s Woman of the Decade for being one of the most accomplished musical acts of all time. She was just 16 years old when she released her self-titled debut album in 2006. As she turned 30 in 2019, she closed out the decade in a totally different realm of the music world from where she started. In this Q&A, Swift reflects on her public feuds, her hot-and-cold relationship with social media, and why she wouldn’t change a thing about her career arc.
On getting ‘cancelled:’ When you look at Swift’s career arc through a modern lens, the narrative changes. Would Swift’s songs about her exes be reviewed as sensationally today? Would a man dare grab the microphone out of a young woman’s hands at an awards show? Would Pitchfork refuse to review Taylor Swift’s 1989 album but choose instead to do a review on Ryan Adams’s cover album of her 1989? The answer to all of those questions is probably not. In this profile, Swift opens up about sexism, scrutiny, and standing up for herself.
On re-building her reputation: Swift has had to learn not to run from disaster. Her life has been defined by relationships, friendships and business partnerships that started and ended very publicly. At the same time, the rules around celebrity engagement have evolved beyond recognition in her 15 years of fame. In this 2019 profile, Swift opens up about self-awareness, racial privilege, Harvey Weinstein, and why we’re not entitled to her pain.
On raising her voice: As an up-and-coming artist, Taylor Swift was quiet, polite, and respectful. At 22 years old, she didn’t dare touch politics out of fear of ostracizing her fans. Eight years later, it’s her biggest regret. In this profile, Swift opens up about her political awakening, her sexual assault trial, and her current battle with Scooter Braun. Here’s why Swift believes digging up the past isn’t a form of giving in to narcissism — it’s a way of warding off commodification.
On her rejection of the conventional: By the time Swift had entered her 20s, she was everything she thought the world wanted her to be. She craved praise and lived for external validation. In this Netflix documentary, Swift reveals intimate details of her life by showcasing the daily turbulence of global fame.
On the most creative period of her life: In this rare longform interview, Taylor Swift explains how her songwriting process has evolved in the last few years. During the pandemic, she released two surprise albums. "It was a breakthrough moment of excitement and happiness," she says. "I have referred to writing these songs as a kind of flotation device because obviously,  has been hell on earth for everyone."
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Reward your most loyal fans: Swift is a master at building loyalty. She finds her biggest and most loyal fans and makes them feel like they're the most important person in the room. She understands the practice of building a community better than any one of her peers. In the lead up to her albums 1989 and Reputation, she created a series of events called "Secret Sessions" where she personally scoured the internet for her most loyal fans and invited them to a listening session in her own home. She made them cookies, played her newest songs before their release, and took photos with each of them. Another time, she chose a number of fans, learned a little about them from their social media and sent them personalized presents. She even surprises her fans at their own weddings. Those small acts of goodwill are the key to humanizing your brand and building lifelong loyalty.
Aim to be interesting, not perfect: Malcolm Gladwell says that people are often drawn to things that are done imperfectly. Whether it’s art, movies, or books, people talk more about the flawed things that get stuck in their heads than they do the obvious, perfect things. “You want an aftertaste, and that comes from not everything being perfectly blended together,” he says. Swift understands this better than most. After she released her song, "Blank Space," people kept mishearing her lyric, "Got a long list of ex-lovers" as "All the lonely Starbucks lovers." The imperfection in the song made it memorable and led people to talk about it with their friends. The song was No. 1 on the charts for 9 weeks in a row.
Block the noise: Over the years, Swift has learned that social media can be a great tool for connecting with fans but it can also "inundate your brain with images of what you aren’t, how you’re failing, or who is in a cooler locale than you at any given moment." So she turned off the comments on her post. It trained her brain to not need the validation of random strangers on the internet. "I think it’s healthy for your self-esteem to need less internet praise to appease it," she says. Block the noise, and you'll learn that self-confidence is an inside job.
Stand up for what matters: In 2017, Swift won a civil case against a sleazy ex-DJ who she said grabbed her bottom after putting his hand under her skirt during a pre-concert photo opportunity in 2013. As lawyers tried to undermine her credibility, she refused to back down with bold retorts. When asked why the photo does not show the front of her skirt ruffled, she bluntly responded: "Because my ass is located on the back of my body." Use your voice in times when you know it matters.
Learn how to fight fair: At some point in your life, Swift says, you need to learn how to repair conflict quickly rather than letting it fester — especially with those you love. "I know a couple who, in the thick of a fight, say 'Hey, same team,'" she says. "Find a way to defuse the anger that can spiral out of control and make you lose sight of the good things you two have built. They don’t give out awards for winning the most fights in your relationship. They just give out divorce papers." Remember, you might “win” the argument, but you could lose the relationship.
Resilience is the ultimate weapon: Swift suffered from an eating disorder, she went to trial as a victim of a sexual assault (and won), and her mother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and a brain tumor. In the midst of all of this, Swift made a number of critically acclaimed albums. For her, music has been a form of expression and escapism from her daily life. Find a passion that gives you life and puts you in control when facing times of great uncertainty.
Own your creative output: Swift learned a big lesson about ownership when she lost control of her own albums. Swift lost the rights to her first six albums, from 2006’s self-titled debut to 2017’s “Reputation." It's surprising she didn't see this coming because Swift normally tightly controls her distribution channels by creating content and making announcements before the mainstream media can. In other words, she's in charge of her narrative. Own your creative output. Own your narrative. Own your reputation. The idea is that if you're in control of your work, you can write your own check.
Find something to look forward to: During the really hard times, you need to muster the energy to find something to look forward to. Swift uses a free countdown app to add tiny events she's excited about that are coming up in the near future. It's a good reminder that life goes on. "Sometimes we can get overwhelmed in the now, and it’s good to get some perspective that life will always go on, to better things," she says.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"You are not the opinion of someone who doesn't know you."
"Just be yourself, there is no one better."
"I'm intimidated by the fear of being average."
“There are two ways you can go with pain: You can let it destroy you or you can use it as fuel to drive you.”
"Just because there's a hurricane going on around you doesn't mean you have to open the window and look at it."
"Never believe anyone who tells you that you don't deserve what you want."
“To me, fearless is not the absence of fear. It's not being completely unafraid. To me, fearless is having fears. Fearless is having doubts. Lots of them. To me, fearless is living in spite of those things that scare you to death.”
“No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.”
"We have to live bravely in order to truly feel alive, and that means not being ruled by our greatest fears."
“I’ve always strived to be successful, not famous.”