How Taylor Swift mastered the singer-songwriter blueprint

She has 11 Grammys, nine major-label albums, university courses studying her work and an unstoppable fandom... so how did Taylor Swift conquer the music industry? Ahead of her 10th record, ‘Midnights’, Zoya Raza-Sheikh explores how Swift’s songwriting is the secret to her success

Wednesday 19 October 2022 19:53 BST
<p>Swift’s encapsulation of the shared coming-of-age experience of womanhood has appealed to fans and artists alike</p>

Swift’s encapsulation of the shared coming-of-age experience of womanhood has appealed to fans and artists alike

“Haters gonna hate...” but Taylor Swift’s influence over pop is undeniable. From her staggering back-catalogue to the public reclamation of her master recordings, the Grammy-winning US artist has, at 32, achieved an extraordinary level of success. Her songs have been compared to the revered works of artists as far apart as Beyoncé, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. And as she prepares to release her 10th studio album, Midnights, it seems as though she’s yet to reach the pinnacle of her songwriting prowess.

So how does she do it? Since the beginning of her career, she’s demonstrated her ability to balance the universal with the hyper-specific. Whether it’s the intensely detailed, semi-biographical ballad “the last great american dynasty” (addressing her unusual link to the late heiress, composer and poet Rebekah Harkness) or the thinly veiled references to a fabled break-up call from her ex-boyfriend Joe Jonas in “Forever & Always”, Swift has an uncanny talent for reflecting the world’s emotional angst through her own lens.

As she’s evolved as an artist, Swift has revisited her favoured themes of love and heartbreak with a newfound sense of nuance. Early-era albums Fearless and Speak Now crystallised an adolescent innocence that we couldn’t help but root for. Then, as Swift matured with her records (Red, 1989, Reputation), she became more confident in asserting both her sound and her narrative. She became unafraid of upsetting the status quo and critics, and played around with the role of the villain – particularly in her cool, self-assured sixth studio album Reputation.

Her latest trio of records, Lover, folklore and evermore, once again reimagined expectations. Evoking distant, insular soundscapes, her alt-pop experimentations plucked lines from literary greats (Charlotte Brontë in “Invisible String” and Emily Dickinson in “Ivy”) that were woven in alongside subtle nods to her personal life.

Throughout it all, Swift has been conscious of the near conspiracy-theory level of debate her relationships have inspired online. On 21 November 2021, she sent her devoted fandom (known as Swifties) into a particularly energetic frenzy. A few weeks before, she’d announced the release of her re-recorded single “All Too Well” from Red (Taylor’s Version). The original iteration of the track, which appeared on Swift’s 2012 album Red, had already achieved near-mythical status among fans and was widely regarded as one of her greatest works. But as the new, 10-minute version surfaced, fans discovered Swift had added new lyrics and new meaning to something most thought they were well-versed in: her widely publicised relationship with Hollywood actor Jake Gyllenhaal.

Dylan O’Brien, Sadie Sink and Swift in the ‘All Too Well’ video

Yet the world-building didn’t end there: Swift also released a short film to accompany the song, starring Stranger Things actor Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien of Teen Wolf fame. “When I would write a song, I would immediately start thinking of how I want to present this on stage,” she explained at the Toronto International Film Festival. “If I made a music video for this, what would it look like?” Swift’s evident delight in telling these stories in as much detail as possible underlines her dedication as a songwriter.

She was busy honing her signature writing style long before her celebrity profile exploded. Her breakthrough was the debut single “Tim McGraw”, a country-hued tale of summer love flecked with Swift’s early-age country twang. Taken from her self-titled 2006 debut album, it marked Swift’s first ever entry into the Billboard Hot 100 and spotlighted her emerging talent as a songwriter. Since then, many of her greatest hits have illustrated her prowess in capturing sprawling romances and fleeting, loaded interactions, among them “Love Story” and “Fearless”, both from her 2008 album Fearless, and “cardigan”, which saw Swift’s literary attachment to clothing metaphors resurface in the lead single for her surprise 2020 album folklore.

“Swift has a capacity for writing songs and lyrics that are very immediate, that tap into universal emotions and experiences, and that also play with her own public image, in a way that creates this self-perpetuating loop of interest and analysis of her music,” musicologist and Switched On Pop host Nate Sloan tells me over Zoom.

Take Swift’s maximalist comeback song “Look What You Made Me Do”, which saw her clap back at the critics, media and celebrity rivals who had celebrated her public “downfall” in 2016. She switched from Romeo and Juliet romance to a Game of Thrones-style revenge epic, singing: “But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time/ Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time/ I got a list of names, and yours is in red, underlined.” For many, “Look What You Made Me Do” was a case of Swift reshaping the narrative of herself as a beleaguered pop star. Yet as specific as those lyrics were, who can say they haven’t craved revenge at one time or another?

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For fans, the success of Swift’s songwriting has much to do with the way she makes her listeners feel understood, particularly her young female audience. “[Taylor Swift] has shaped my teenage and uni years ... I will always be grateful for her music and the power of her lyrics,” journalist and fan Shahed Ezaydi says. “Her lyrics are written in a way as if she’s directly speaking to her fans, and I don’t think many artists have the ability to do that as well as Taylor does.”

One of the ways Swift achieves this is by leaving “Easter eggs”, where familiar images or phrases crop up in different songs and their accompanying music videos. For journalist Kitty Robson, this contributes to Swift’s way of “transporting” audiences into her universe: “It offers intimacy, but also a way to feel so close to her and the feelings she’s describing.”

As Sloan puts it, Swift tends to open on those universally felt emotions before zeroing in on her own feelings. “The perspective starts open-ended and narrows to this more specific, particular experience,” he explains. “It’s very satisfying because you get this whole global perspective moving to a local one.” Swift’s literary sensibility is a talent 20-year-old Canadian artist Renforshort has observed and been inspired by. “Taylor Swift’s writing is undeniably exceptional. It will forever set her apart from other artists,” she tells me. “Her ability to be so open yet so broad [means the listener can] interpret but still understand what Taylor was intending. I take a lot of inspiration from that.”

‘Taylor Swift’s writing is undeniably exceptional’

Swift’s encapsulation of the shared coming-of-age experience of womanhood has appealed to fans and artists alike. As Norwegian singer-songwriter Girl in Red (real name Marie Ulven) says: “I’ve had Taylor Swift songs [soundtracking] my entire life! I started covering her songs. She inspires me all the time because she continues to produce great art even though she’s been through so much shit being a female artist. You can hear that Taylor Swift cares so much about the music she makes and she loves doing it, nothing can stop her.”

Inevitably, as one of the world’s most successful female artists, Swift has been the subject of misogynistic criticism, including complaints that she only writes about her own relationships, and wildly inaccurate claims that she doesn’t write her own songs. “There is a different set of standards that female artists like Taylor Swift have to navigate in the music industry,” Sloan says, citing Kristin Lieb’s 2013 book Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry. “[Lieb] argues that women face more pressure from the music industry to reinvent their identities, their brands, and their musical profile than their male counterparts do.”

He points out that a song such as “No Body, No Crime”, from Swift’s 2020 album evermore, follows a woman involved in a murder mystery, “but no one is going and thinking of that as an actual confession. It’s clearly a narrative. Yet when Taylor Swift writes a love song, it’s not greeted with the same kind of circumspection; it’s immediately dissected and analysed for evidence.” Where fellow pop giants Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran go virtually unchallenged when it comes to their romantic songs, Swift is grilled time and time again.

When Taylor Swift writes a love song, it’s not greeted with the same kind of circumspection; it’s immediately dissected and analysed for evidence

Nate Sloan

“No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says it about Bruno Mars. They’re all writing about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love life, and no one raises a red flag there,” she pointed out on Good Morning America in 2014. Yet, years later, the singer had to defend herself against Blur frontman Damon Albarn, who claimed Swift “doesn’t write her own songs”. Swift was quick to correct him. “I write all of my own songs. Your hot take is completely false and SO damaging,” she wrote on Twitter. “You don’t have to like my songs but it’s really f***ed up to try and discredit my writing.”

Swift’s ability to publicly navigate criticism while staying on top of her artistic game has served as a unique cultural litmus test: can we begin to respect art created by famous women, particularly when it explores love stories and womanhood? By the time she released her colossal synth-pop record 1989, produced by close friend Jack Antonoff, her characteristic songwriting and diaristic flair had well and truly become ingrained in the pop sphere, to the point that myriad artists – from Olivia Rodrigo to Phoebe Bridgers – have proudly aligned themselves with the Swiftian school of songwriting.

Last year, American singer-songwriter Gracie Abrams told Teen Vogue how she credits the musician’s forthright sentimental style as an inspiration for her own lyricism. “She is, for me, one of the blueprints for vulnerability as a young woman,” she said. “I just respect the s*** out of her with everything that she does. I’ve always been so inspired at every stage of my life as a fan of hers.”

Given her unique brand of intricate songwriting, It’s no surprise that Swift has been able to transcend the typical pop-artist career span. Her dexterity as a writer, as she revealed during her acceptance speech after winning NSAI’s Songwriter-Artist of the Decade Award, boils down to three formerly “secret” genres. Labelling them her “quill lyrics”, “fountain pen lyrics” and “glitter gel pen lyrics”, she demonstrated a playful self-awareness that runs parallel with her keen literary sensibilities.

In a nod to this complexity and skill, Swift’s work has now been adopted by the academic world. Earlier this year, New York University’s Clive Davis Institute introduced its first course on Taylor Swift. The University of Texas is offering its own songwriting course, where students can study Swift alongside William Shakespeare and American literary classics.

“We’re using Swift’s songs to see some basic literary tropes and paradigms in action (the work of metaphor, simile, free indirect discourse),” Professor Elizabeth Scala, who sees Swift as a relevant bridging gap between contemporary and historical fiction, tells me. “She tells great stories, uses vivid images, and has lovely turns of phrase and diction. I find her creativity contagious. Academics tend to love books, film, music that makes us think. Taylor Swift makes me think, and once that lightbulb went off, the course was born.”

Swift now has more than 15 years’ worth of experience to pour into her latest projects. With Midnights only a matter of days away, she has only offered us glimpses of the themes that will run through her milestone 10th album. Yet it seems inevitable that we will see much of the same magic she has conjured in her previous work. As she said in her NSAI speech: “A good song transports you to your truest feelings and translates those feelings for you. A good song stays with you even when people or feelings don’t.”

‘Midnights’ is out on 21 October

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