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It all started in the Bluebird Café in Nashville, Tennessee. That is where Scott Borchetta, chief executive officer of Big Machine Records, discovered young, curly-headed Taylor Swift, which led to the release of her first single “Tim McGraw” and her self-titled debut album a short while later. That was in June 2006. 13 years later, which is also Swift’s lucky number, she has evolved from country star to pop icon. But her rise to fame has not come without obstacles.
The media tried to defeat Swift. But Swift defeated the media. Ever since Fearless, her breakout album, tabloids have teared her to shreds for writing vengeful songs about ex-boyfriends such as “Forever and Always” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” For years, Taylor Swift has been framed as a manipulative man-eater who is mining her personal life for lyrical inspiration. Media outlets have also criticized her as the reigning queen of her so-called “squad” and have accused her of always playing the victim. It was not until belting out “’Cause baby, I could build a castle / Out of all the bricks they threw at me” (Swift) on her fifth studio album 1989 in 2014 that she finally acknowledged the public’s perception of her. On the same album, Swift proclaimed that detractors can criticize her all they want; she is just going to “shake it off”. With “Blank Space,” where she sings about having “a long list of ex-lovers,” Swift played into the menacing narrative constructed around her and used it to her advantagую And it worked. She sold 1.2 million copies of 1989 in its first week alone.
Taylor Swift clearly owns her own story. What came next was the beginning of a nerve-racking feud between her and Kanye West. After interrupting her acceptance speech at the Grammy Awards in 2009, West released a song claiming that he made Swift “famous” in 2016. It was allegedly approved by Swift. But she denied that she had granted West permission over the phone to call her “that bitch” which led to his wife, Kim Kardashian, getting involved. Kardashian released an audio recording of the phone call and called Swift a “snake” on social media. Others followed her example by leaving a trail of snake emojis on Swift’s social media sites. But what could have destroyed Swift’s career only made her stronger. She did not let the snake bite her. She reclaimed it. It was at the end of August 2017.
That is when Taylor Swift posted a video of a serpent on her Instagram profile, announcing her new album reputation and releasing its first single, “Look What You Made Me Do”. In its music video, Swift boldly takes back the insidious public narrative that was crafted around her. From wearing costumes from previous music videos such as “Blank Space” to showing off snake rings and directing mannequins that look like her infamous “squad,” Taylor Swift does not take herself too seriously. She acknowledges past feuds and media headlines. The video concludes with all her past alter-egos standing in front of a plane called “reputation” and mocking her previous behavior as well as the demeanor attributed (to her?) by the media.
After its premiere, the video obtained 43 million clicks on YouTube within 24 hours. Swift clearly made the narrative work for her, not against her. The media accused her of being a manipulator, but she has become the manipulator of the media. This pattern threads its way through the whole album. The cover of reputation is divided into a blank space only depicting the album title and a second half covered in newsprint and spelling out Swift’s name. Just as the materiality of the album, the music itself is split into songs about who Taylor Swift truly is and who the media makes her out to be. She bravely concedes that her “reputation has never been worse”. But she doesn’t only address the media’s depiction of her. She also mocks it. Through selling personal magazines with headlines such as “Taylor drama: Her personal photos exposed, Swift alludes to the tabloids’ constant invasion of her privacy.
This sales gimmick worked. Swift sold 1.2 million albums in reputation’s first week. Critics praised her. Her fans celebrated her. Taylor Swift’s message is loud and clear: If someone bullies you, it “doesn’t have to defeat you. It can strengthen you instead”. What has drawn as much disdain by the media as her flings and feuds is Swift’s political silence. After being criticized for shunning any statement, Swift showed her political colors in an Instagram post in October 2018, shortly before midterm elections. Following her heartfelt proclamation, 65,000 people registered to vote. In the same Instagram post, Swift also expressed her support for the LGBTQ community. Undeniably, this support is also audible in Swift’s new single “You Need To Calm Down,” where she asks critics “why they are mad when they could be GLAAD”. The day after the song’s release, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation obtained a surge in donations of 13 dollars.
In “You Need To Calm Down,” Swift also condemns the media for constantly trying to pit women against each other, singing that “we figured you out . . . we all got crowns.” In the music video, she rounds off her rebuke to/with the media by reuniting with long-time frenemy Katy Perry in a hamburger and French fries costume, showing that their ‘beef’ has been squeezed into one giant happy meal.
It might have been a rocky road from the Bluebird Café to where she is now, and the media might have put obstacles in her way, but Taylor Swift has proven to be the narrator of her own story. She is the one in control, the steerer of her own ship, the one flipping the script. The media thought they could defeat her. Most thought they knew her; few knew how clever she is. Taylor Swift proves again and again that she is a brand, an entrepreneur who always fights back. “Snakes and stones never broke her bones,” indeed (Swift, “You Need To Calm Down”).
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