Taylor Swift, who is now twenty-six, has been famous since before the Obama Administration. Her last tour sold two and a half million tickets, at an average price, in the U.S., of three hundred and eighty dollars. The past decade in pop music has been marked by Swift’s shrewd, thrilling songwriting, her chirpy and intimate sound. And yet, “amazingly”—as the jacket of “Taylor Swift: This Is Our Song,” the new, nearly three-hundred-page coffee-table book documenting the pop star’s career, puts it—“after all these years, there is no great, comprehensive book about Swift for her fans.”
The Swifties have gotten their bible in “This Is Our Song,” a rich and exhaustive production that intersperses photos, tribute art, single-page fan profiles (“I love it when Taylor smiles with her teeth,” eighteen-year-old Mikayla writes), curiosities (Swift-themed crosswords, a Nancy Drew parody called “The Secrets of the Starbucks Lovers”), and laudatory commentary surrounding every release. (A 2008 New Yorker piece by Sasha Frere-Jones appears in the book, as does Lizzie Widdicombe’s 2011 Profile of Swift for the magazine.) All of this is divided into three sections: Swift’s early country phase, including her self-titled début (2006) and “Fearless” (2008); her pop-country period, encompassing “Speak Now” (2010) and “Red” (2012); and the pure-pop stage, which began with “1989” (2014).
The book, like a Taylor Swift album, presents the superstar’s life as a magic mirror for her devotees—every struggle relatable, every triumph aspirational. But “This Is Our Song,” like Swift herself, holds fascination for those outside that group as well. More than a mere scrapbook for superfans, the book is a document of a star’s self-directed ascendance; a case study of one young woman’s endeavor to extract and project colossal levels of affection; and an inquiry into Swift’s brand of American appeal and ambition, which seems both ludicrously obvious and always slightly beyond accounting.
In an eight-year-old review of “Fearless,” Robert Christgau notes the obsessive fixation on storybook tropes that marked Swift’s early songwriting. (That album’s first two singles both used the word “princess” in their choruses.) “I’m moved nonetheless by what can pass for a concept album about the romantic life of an uncommonly-to-impossibly strong and gifted teenage girl, starting on the first day of high school and gradually shedding naiveté without approaching misery or neurosis,” he writes. Since then, Swift has traded the small-town fairy-tale imagery for a glossier evocation of charmed adulthood. But the type of strength Christgau describes is still the center of Swift’s persona, which is coherent to the point of militancy and retains the energy of a person seeking unspecified revenge. Swift writes mostly about love, but her deeper subjects are image, narrative, and power; her work and her career present an exploration of how a young woman might turn one into another, and approach the top.
Swift is sometimes criticized as “calculating,” a quality ostensibly at odds with her perpetually thrilled demeanor. (She “really, really hates the word calculating,” Chuck Klosterman reported in GQ, in 2015.) This criticism strikes many of her fans as sexist—as though a woman is not allowed to plan her success. Nonetheless, the strategic quality of Swift’s ambition comes through in everything written about her. As a teen-age artist, she recognized that the market she belonged to was being underserved in Nashville, and she ostentatiously embraced the behaviors required of a wholesome female role model—not drinking until she was twenty-one, not leaving her apartment unless she felt capable of performing graciousness. In interviews, she framed this life style gratefully: she was happy to pay a fair price for her escalating fame. Her understanding of the public value of sweetness is dedicated and pragmatic: for years, she would paint canvases in her spare time and give them to radio-station managers as gifts. She repeatedly notes her childhood obsession with “Behind the Music,” her desire to learn from “the timing and decisions that were made in other careers.”
It’s delightful to observe, in a single dose, this instinct evolving on increasingly large stages. In a 2002 local news story about Swift’s performance of the national anthem at a Philadelphia 76ers game, twelve-year-old Swift told the Reading Eagle, “All of these NBA players and all of these other people were looking at me. It was really a wonderful feeling.” Six years later, she told the Eagle, “I’d be lying if I said I had this all planned. I honestly don’t know how it happened.” On that same press cycle, Swift told Rolling Stone, “When I was eleven years old, it occurred to me that the national anthem was the best way to get in front of a large group of people if you don’t have a record deal.”
Swift’s capacity for calculation is not a bad thing. It’s how she cultivated such a dedicated fan base, with her elaborately thoughtful meet-and-greets and giveaways; it’s also why she’s such a good songwriter, never letting a syllable fall out of place. Listen to 2006’s “Our Song,” which gives the new book its title: it’s the story of two lovebirds trying to find a song that Swift starts writing in the final line. Or read Tavi Gevinson’s 2013 essay about Swift in The Believer, which goes track by track through Swift’s discography, celebrating the efficiency, clarity, and persuasiveness of her style. Listening to her 2012 song “State of Grace” recently, I was reminded of the epigrammatic and evocative charge Swift can give to the most mundane situations: “We are alone, just you and me / Up in your room and our slates are clean / Just twin fire signs / four blue eyes.”
Calculation, when executed well, can render itself invisible. But no amount of calculation can guarantee the last word. This began to pose a problem for Swift a few years ago. She had been writing about her exes, leaving clues in lyrics and liner notes so that her fans could tell whom each track was referencing. (“Twin fire signs / four blue eyes,” in all its Leonard Cohen-esque beauty, is an arrow pointed toward Jake Gyllenhaal.) Gossip sites posted alarming headlines: “ Taylor Swift’s Boyfriend Shuffle ,” “ Maybe You’re the Problem ,” “ Ex-Boyfriends Beware .” Swift responded well to the gendered nature of this criticism—male artists write about their exes all the time, she pointed out, and we never hang them for it. She also professed pleasure in the game her music provided. “I don’t know why I like it so much . . . that [the song] will affect somebody else,” she told Rolling Stone. “That’s the fun part.” In that same Rolling Stone story, when Swift hears that John Mayer responded to a song she wrote about him, she “presses her hands against her ears, saying, ‘Be kind, and don’t tell me.’ ” Perhaps this is a side effect of being so skilled at commandeering stories: it becomes intolerable to imagine a story out of your control.
“This Is Our Song” is a Taylor Swift celebration, and it largely excludes the more negative criticism that Swift started to receive in 2015. By then, Swift had begun telling a different story about herself, centered on her new posse of happy, beautiful, wholesome girls. Through music videos, tour appearances, red-carpet events, magazine profiles, and, perhaps especially, Instagram, Swift deployed her “squad” the way a politician uses a campaign slogan: as a tactical positioning, a means to an end. For the most part, these celebrity friends were, like Swift, thin, beautiful, and white—a fact that attracted particular criticism when Swift initiated a racially awkward dispute with Nicki Minaj, on Twitter.
Things really started to unravel when Kanye West released his most recent album, “The Life of Pablo,” in February, 2016. West and Swift have feuded on and off for years. On one of the album’s tracks, “Famous,” West rapped, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” He tweeted that he’d gotten Swift’s blessing for this line over the phone; through a representative, Swift denied it. Months later, Kim Kardashian West posted a video of the phone call on Snapchat; in it, Swift can be heard confidently approving the lyrics. She’d only heard half of the couplet about her, apparently, but she still seemed to be caught in a lie. On her Instagram, flooded by snake emojis, Swift wrote, “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of, since 2009.”