Arts

in the midst of a pandemic, Taylor Swift had the busiest year of her career. Image: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum
Reading Time: 11 minutes

This is for the best

When I first pitched this article to my editor, it was almost a joke.

“Another Taylor Swift article, Aly? Seriously?”

He was right to be a little surprised — a lot of this year’s arts content has focused on the powerhouse, genre-defying musician. In my defense, though, Swift has released much more content this year than in any in recent memory: between two full-length studio albums, a documentary, and an upcoming re-recording of her second album Fearless. She has had a busy year.

The last calendar year was likely the busiest of Swift’s working life.

For most of us, though, it’s been a confusing hiatus from reality.

University students have pivoted their entire lives online, leaving behind coffee dates, concerts, and parties. The first loves Swift will be remembered for singing about are of a different and earlier time, one when secret smiles didn’t need to be inferred through cotton masks. 

Swift couldn’t have predicted a pandemic.

But, to the generation of Swifties who have stuck with her since the early 2000s, she may well have saved us from it.

Thirteen University of Ottawa Taylor Swift fans agreed to chat with me about our favourite storyteller, a feminist icon in the midst of recovering a career’s worth of work from infamous record label executive, Scooter Braun. We, the University of Ottawa Swifties, have spent this year looking up to Swift as a role model, someone able to stay creative despite the physical and political worlds crumbling around us. 

We’ve endured heartbreak to a country-pop-alternative soundtrack spanning over a decade. 

We’ve revisited our childhoods while growing up so, so quickly.

We’ve connected.

Meg Peters, PhD Candidate in the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies

“It’s nice to chat with you again.”

Meg and I first met in late 2019, when COVID-19 was predicted to be a distant, three-day news story. I’d cited her master’s thesis in my play about the British playwright Sarah Kane, and I wanted to meet her in person to talk about Kane and her work. Peters had an impeccably cool sense of fashion, could talk circles around me on intersectional feminist theory, and had fascinating things to say on Kane.

I never might have guessed at the time that she was a Taylor Swift fan.

Talking with her this time is different. It’s a phone call, of course — no coffee shops when Ontario’s on the verge of lockdown.

We get right to it.

I ask her favourite Taylor Swift song, and she immediately laughs it off.

“I’m not answering that. I like too many of them.”

“I got to know Taylor Swift when I was [an] undergrad at McMaster, and played Red over and over again while I was studying. I was one of the only girls in my class, and I felt like Elle Woods, listening to something so girly and fun while still succeeding.”

I ask if that makes Red her favourite “era,” or segment of Taylor Swift’s career.

She says yes. “It’s how I fell in love with her.”

I ask about the last year in particular — folklore and its sister album, evermore, really have been a cultural moment — and how Swift’s new music has impacted Peters’ life.

“These are two of her best albums, and it’s been great to have these sort of folk albums in the background while doing work.”

Before hanging up after a lighthearted chat, I joke that it’s funny how we’ve connected over Sarah Kane and Taylor Swift — two seemingly polar opposite artists. Kane was known for dark, psychological playwriting — Swift’s a pop artist, often portrayed as overly sugary and donned in commercial bright colours.

Peters isn’t surprised at all.

“It’s no accident that we’re both into both of these people, Aly.”

“She’s a storyteller, and a good lyricist. The calibre is there for both of them.”

Le Nguyen, second-year in political science and communications

Le Nguyen, on the other hand, has a laundry list of favourite Swift songs, and she’s not afraid to tell me about them.

“’22’ if it’s my birthday, ‘Treacherous’ if I’m going through a heartbreak or hard time. Right now I’m going through a ‘no body no crime’ phase – really any of her songs about killing people,” she jokes.

Nguyen is a fan of the Reputation era, known for its black-and-white aesthetic and electronic aural profile.

“Even though I love the songs from her other eras more, Reputation is how Taylor stood up for herself — how she got back at the media for what they’d said over the years.”

Taylor Swift was a victim of the media for most of her 20s — her dating life was often scrutinized by tabloids and talk show hosts, and the 2016 Kim Kardashian and Kanye West scandal was one of the most talked-about celebrity feuds of that year.

Despite the negative media coverage over the years, Nguyen has remained a faithful fan: she saw Swift live at the Reputation tour, which she calls a “life-changing experience,” particularly because Swift briefly touched her hand at the concert.

When it comes to the last year, Nguyen is grateful for folklore and evermore in particular, especially for their ability to soothe and calm her down while studying and falling asleep.

She’s pumped for the Fearless re-release, too.

“I’m excited to see how she’s re-invented her songs, and to hear how her voice has grown. And the songs from the vault.”

“I get to relive my childhood.”

Ali Rizveh, fourth-year in chemical engineering

“’august’ is my most-played song of all time. Not just this year. Of. All. Time.”

That’s impressive, given that the song dropped less than a year ago. I gently roast my third source for her avid fandom.

Rizveh wasn’t always a die-hard Swiftie — folklore reeled her in last year, and evermore sealed that deal during the holiday break. Rizveh listened exclusively to Swift from late last year into early 2021, and hasn’t slowed down yet.

Rizveh cites Swift’s timing as part of the formula that made her a new Swiftie: “evermore dropped right at the start of our last exam season, and Fearless will get me through the next one.”

“These albums just fit the mood of the time period so well. This is the mood of what’s happening.”

I ask how folklore’s helped her through a difficult academic year.

She pauses.

“This is what we needed.”

I make a joke: “Ali, you may have just written the headline for this article.”

Engi Abou-El-Kheir, third-year in anthropology

It’s at this point resonances started to appear in the interviews: favourite songs start to repeat, reactions to folklore start to echo each other. 

Engi Abou-El-Kheir, like many on apps like TikTok (or “SwiftTok” as it’s so lovingly called by the Taylor Swift community), loves “All Too Well” and “august.”

She talks a little about the release process for Swift’s albums: “they’re calmer. There’s no big build-ups, they just happen.”

“I listened to her before and I’m listening now. There’s been that sort of continuity throughout the year.”

Next week, when Fearless drops, she’ll get to keep that continuity going.

“It’s something to look forward to after finals — I get to see how she’s matured, and compare it to the original.”

“Her music has evened out the craziness of the year.”

Molly Vanderburgh, third-year in theatre with a minor in law

Molly Vanderburgh, too, has found solace in “august.”

“She’s so inspiring, and she’s helped me find peace,” she says, laughing at the unintended reference to the song “peace” from folklore.

“She’s someone I can always go back to. I do my best work when she’s playing in the background, and I know her songs so well I don’t even need to pay attention.”

Vanderburgh is at an age when the Fearless re-release is an emotional one.

“I grew up with Fearless. The vault songs are already incredible. It’s just … I’ve grown up with her.”

Vanderburgh ends our chat with a passionate word in defense of Swift.

“Taylor Swift isn’t just this boy-crazy person — she’s amazing, and she’s a great songwriter. People should listen to her music and separate her art from what the media tells them about her.”

Haya Hussain, first-year in English with a minor in creative writing

Haya Hussain’s favourite songs are diverse in style, ranging from angsty piano to edgy, rock-inspired pop. “I like ‘champagne problems,’ ‘False God,’ and I always like her songs about murder,” she jokes, echoing fellow Swiftie, Nguyen.

Folklore [and] evermore is the era that made me a Swiftie, but a lot of her eras share similar vibes,” says Hussain. “Speak Now, Lover… they’re colourful, fun.”

I ask about the last year — it’s not been an easy one to be in the faculty of arts, something I understand from the first-hand experience of five years as a theatre major.

“Well… I’m a creative writing minor, so I’m writing all the time. I became a Swiftie during this whole pandemic situation, and the music has calmed me down so much… she tells stories that aren’t her own, even depressing ones, but no matter how depressing the songs get, there’s something about them that’s like a cradle.”

“I rewrote the bridge of “champagne problems” from the other person’s perspective — [Swift] inspired me creatively to do that.”

Hussain, too, laments the years she missed out on being a Taylor Swift fan due to media backlash and public perception.

“I remember liking her when I was really young, and now I’m sad that I missed out on her in-between years because of what the media was saying.”

Serena Topshee, third-year in translational and molecular medicine

A fan of “All Too Well,” “Clean,” and “champagne problems” (and thus my unofficial soul sister in terms of Taylor Swift playlists), Serena Topshee experienced the ultimate heartbreak due to COVID-19: the cancellation of Taylor Swift’s Lover tour.

“I saw her 1989 tour live and it was incredible, so some friends and I got tickets to see Lover in Boston. I have one friend who really likes Taylor Swift and one friend who really likes road trips, so it was going to be perfect.”

Topshee’s exaggerating, of course, about the scope of the disappointment: “it’s obviously not the biggest letdown of COVID-19 — people died — but I was still super sad when it was cancelled.”

Despite the Lover cancellation, Topshee’s remained an avid Swiftie over the course of this academic year.

“It’s been really good to have something to get excited about. Everything was cancelled, or postponed, or changed, and had to happen in some vaguely worse capacity online.”

folklore and evermore were made for when you’re vaguely sad and drinking red wine, and it was really fun to just be able to enjoy that the way it was meant to be enjoyed.”

Topshee’s experience with folklore mirrored mine perfectly, and I told her, and we laughed.

“It’s like Taylor was anticipating us when she wrote it.”

Emma Copeland, fourth-year in conflict studies and human rights

Emma Copeland’s favourite song is “Fifteen,” one of the cult classic tracks from Fearless.

So, yeah, you could say she’s excited for the album drop next week.

“I was scared she was going to take out all the Taylor twang, the country stuff. I listened to ‘Love Story (Taylor’s Version)’ and almost cried because of how good it was.”

“Supporting artists who have the same moral code as me is important, and I think it’s important to keep in mind why she’s doing these re-recordings. I don’t have to miss out on the nostalgia, but I still get to support Taylor.”

Copeland wasn’t always a Swiftie, though: an avid One Direction fan in middle school, she used to follow the Taylor Nation Twitter account solely to make fun of Swift.

“I loved One Direction and so obviously hated Taylor Swift beyond Fearless and a few songs off Speak Now. It was internalized misogyny from the media, nothing else.”

Copeland listened to folklore over the summer and fell back in love.

“Her relevance just keeps coming back.”

(One could say Swift “comes back stronger than a ‘90s trend,” eh?)

Alexa Hatzopoulos, 2013 graduate of English with minor in theatre

Alexa Hatzopoulos was the only Swiftie I interviewed to even mention Swift’s debut album, let alone name one of its tracks as a personal favourite.

“I love ‘Cold As You.’ ” (A fantastic, if sad, choice, I joke.)

That said, Hatzopoulos has loved the current era, too: “I’ve loved the feeling of having music that celebrates being inside. It’s made the year more bearable.”

Fearless symbolizes a significant passing of time for Hatzopoulos: “I was in grade 11 or 12 for the first release, and the album’s coming out again for me now as an almost-30 year old.”

“I get to go back in time. I get to go home again.”

Hatzopoulos first encountered Swift at Girl Guides summer camp, a tween with a CD player and a cabin of girls with home-burned CDs. 

“Someone said, Alexa, you have to listen to this, and it turned out to be “Mary’s Song” from Taylor’s debut album.”

“She’s followed me from childhood to adulthood.”

A.J. Hancock, fourth-year in history

“I go through Taylor Swift phases,” starts A.J. Hancock when I ask her favourite song.

“Right now it’s ‘cowboy like me’ from evermore.” The song’s a moody, mature one from Swift, one of the tracks that marks the artist’s significant songwriting growth since adolescence. 

We bonded over the excitement of being a Swiftie in a year otherwise devoid of excitement: “It’s been so fun to be a Taylor Swift fan this year, with the secret messages and countdowns. And there’s such drama about it all on TikTok.”

Hancock, like most of the U of O Swifties, first fell in love with Swift in the aftermath of folklore last summer. 

“It was the first full album I listened to, so the new re-releases will be like listening to them for the first time, basically.”

“I absolutely fell into the ‘it’s not cool to like Taylor Swift’ trap, but it is in fact very fun to like Taylor Swift.”

Yeah, A.J. It is.

Kennedy Fiorella, fourth-year in political science with a minor in theatre

Kennedy Fiorella loves “All Too Well” and is a folklore/evermore fan, like many of the U of O’s Swift-base.

“I was kind of absent for her middle eras, but I’m back, I’ve found my way back.”

Fiorella saw Swift live during the Reputation era, but didn’t quite catch the significance of a lot of the concert’s symbolism. 

“I’ve gone back and watched the concert on Netflix realizing, like, oh! That’s what that meant. I had no clue when I saw her live.”

Fiorella feels she has grown up with Swift, despite a three-era break from being a self-proclaimed Swiftie.

“It’s been lovely to see people reach this realization, myself included, that everything you’ve been told about Taylor Swift is wrong. Why did I hate Taylor Swift? Her songwriting ability is amazing — why was that overshadowed?”

“I’m seeing her for who she is. I’m in my 20s, and I get to listen to her re-record the stories and music of her 20s. That’s a really special relationship.”

We bond over our matching Taylor Swift cardigans and say goodbye.

Shelby Williams, 2020 graduate in theatre

Shelby Williams saw Swift live during the 1989 era, and treasures the memory.

“She was amazing, Aly. Of course she was.”

We talk a little about the structure of Swift’s songwriting, theatre students that we are: “her bridges, man. They’re so powerful. They inspire me to want to do stuff, to do work. She’s helped me stay accountable.”

Williams has loved every moment of being a Swiftie — a member of a supportive and kind community.

“It’s one of the nicest fandoms to be a part of. Swifties are kind and supportive of Taylor, they’re supportive of other people. We just want to be nice to people — it’s what Taylor would want.”

Williams’ take on the community is dead-on: interviewing 13 Swifties for this article, a task I’d been a little worried about due to its sheer scope, has turned out to be beyond lovely, with each fan being kind and patient, and more than eager to share their thoughts on the singer we mutually adore.

“Swift’s fandom has always acted on her own terms. And now, she gets to re-release her music in the same way.”

Kaitlin Power, fourth-year in communications and political science

It is perhaps Kaitlin Power’s interview (and my final one for this piece) that leaves me with the biggest smile on my face.

We start with the basics: her favourite song is “All Too Well” (which at this point, I’ve come to expect), and her favourite era is the current one, the folklore/evermore duo. She’s thrilled to be interview number 13, one of the main symbols of the Taylor Swift fandom — Swift’s been using the number thirteen as a personal logo for over a decade.

I ask Power about the last academic year, and I can hear the smile through the phone.

“I have this one prof, Hannah Wyile from one of my law classes, who knows she has three Taylor Swift fans in class. Every week she’s asked us, her three Swifties, for updates, about new albums, Taylor Swift rumours, anything. It’s always, like, ‘I need an update from my Swifties!’ ”

“We’re finishing the semester next Thursday, and Fearless drops that night. I’ll get to be the one to give her the final Taylor Swift update for the year.”

Power sums up the last year of Taylor Swift admiration perfectly: “she’s kept me occupied. She’s helped me forget about the world for a minute. She’s a woman I’ve looked up to so much and she’s been thriving during the pandemic.”

“She’s followed me between different parts of my life, and now into the classroom.”

“She’s exactly what we needed this year.”