For women of a certain (young) age, Taylor Swift’s arc has long mirrored their own. That’s why her earlier work, which romanticized traditional American girlhood, resonated with the young women who grew up with her. Swift’s special talent was capturing teenage love and heartbreak in a way that rang true. But what was once precocious is now pretentious.
Like many suburban girls in the late aughts, Swift was a smart and ambitious try-hard with dreams of success, professionally and personally. Her lyrics really reflected that. They were precocious but in a deeply relatable way, clever yet simple expressions of teenage melodrama.
Like many suburban girls in the 2010s, Swift discarded some of her traditionalist notions, had a political awakening, and embarked on an urban journey of self-fulfillment, brought about by friends, glamor, cats, and wine.
Like some of those suburban girls now entering the 2020s, Swift is beginning her 30s as an unmarried woman whose self-identity is deliberately wrapped up in progressive politics. After releasing a record that suffered from overproduction, her two latest albums are pared down, striving to project an artistic and personal maturity that isn’t really fulfilled by the music.
As with many extremely successful artists, Swift seems to be hitting a self-indulgent season in her career. That’s actually totally fine. She’s earned it and amassed such a huge base of diehard fans that it’s not even a bad business decision. The albums aren’t exactly bad either.
Swift is a generational talent, and consequently, there are some undeniable bright spots lyrically, conceptually, and musically on both sister albums “Folklore” and “Evermore.” Despite her reverence for the folk songstress, however, Swift is not Joni Mitchell. She just really wants to be.
So lyrical moments that were once endearing are now cringe-inducing, mostly because they’re coming from the lips of a 31-year-old rather than a teenager. Like many women of our generation, Swift mistakes facile cultural leftism and vapid philosophizing for maturity. Girls our age grew up as the “War Against Boys” raged on, as the world changed rapidly, producing a generation of highly competent and successful career women raised on mixed messages, now fumbling for purpose but hiding it with Instagram filters. In that way, her arc is both unfortunate and representative.
It’s unfortunate because she’s better than that. Really. Maybe our maturation is stunted rather than stalled entirely. Maybe millennials will change with marriage and motherhood, finding real maturity along the way. Maybe Swift will forever personify the sexual and technological revolution’s consequences on a slice of our generation. Or maybe she’ll just start writing better lyrics.