“He said the way my blue eyes shined / Put those Georgia stars to shame that night / I said, 'That's a lie.'" That's how Taylor Swift begins her first country single, “Tim McGraw,” released 10 years ago this month. There's a weird, prescient edge in the way she sings the line "That's a lie," even in jest — a little peek at the next decade of her particular brand of confessional heartbreak. Even then, we could already tell that Taylor Swift always gets the last word.
I was 12 when "Tim McGraw" came out, and ever since then, Swift's music has followed me like a pretty, blonde apparition. Really, she's followed all of us, rising steadily from CMT-approved country to the peak of the pop charts. She's provoked and cast shadows on some of music's biggest stars, from Kanye West to Nicki Minaj, and lyrically eviscerated manipulative exes from no-name teen boys to John Mayer. Swift is far more than the 16-year-old Nashville transplant she was then — she's become an emblem of lean-in feminism and female friendship, an outspoken critic of how artists are treated in the music industry in ways that speak to people across generations.
But to grow up under the twangy reign of Taylor Swift, the patron saint of teenage white girls, was to enter into a relationship that's harder to define. At 15, Swift's voice rang out on the radio to tell me, literally, that this was "life before you know who you're gonna be." I was angry when it felt like Swift wanted me to hate girls my age for being popular cheerleaders or what they did on the mattress. Songs like "Dear John" and "All Too Well" seemed to bleed into my life at the first sting of an older boy's manipulations. As a 20-year-old writer, I found solace in Swift's openly manic "Blank Space," a sugary pop reminder to pen my own reality.
As a younger child, I looked up to the latex-clad fantasy performances of stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, lip-synching "Lucky" to my bedroom mirror, or rocking out to Gwen Stefani's lite punk rock with No Doubt. But Swift was a completely different kind of teen idol. She cultivated an image that was less like a pop fantasy built in a lab, more like an older high school peer I watched grow up from a distance. As much as people may applaud or sneer at her unique ability to crucify her exes and enemies in music, the details of the desires and pain in her music are often universal if not pedestrian. There's a small, bitter quality to the feelings in "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and "Picture to Burn" that gives those songs the ring of truth.
What's grating at times is that these girl-next-door themes have yet to leave her work, even though Swift is now an immensely successful 26-year-old multimillionaire. Swift continues to play the underdog on songs like "New Romantics" and "Shake It Off," leaning on critics' and tabloids' knocks against her for inspiration. As absurd as this can feel, though, it makes sense in the crystallized teen-girl world of her music. To focus solely on Swift and the particulars of her real life is to forget how far her reach is, and how young much of her audience remains. In an interview with Rolling Stone two years ago, Swift said that there's an emotional lag time to her music in part because of how well she knows her fans: "There's always gonna be an eight-year-old in the front row. Always," she said.
Throughout her career, Swift's music has mapped teen-girl strife in vague but poignant forms. Yes, you will be mistreated by men. Yes, you will be taught to hate the women these men might eventually date. Yes, you will be sold love as a glorious fantasy, because you're 15 years old, and later on you'll realize it's so much more complicated (or just plain nonexistent). But you can't escape it, because that's the world we live in.
To feel frustrated with Swift's music is to feel frustrated with the world that's sold to you as a young woman. Her music embodies the worst parts of teen girlhood — the jealousy, the pettiness, the diaristic writing — in uncomfortably vivid detail. All those MySpace bulletins and dramatic Facebook statuses from 2006 you wrote and deleted? Well, Swift's are up for the world to read forever. And in a way, that's admirable: If Swift's artistic growth has ever seemed awkward, it's because that's what a teen pop star in control of her voice sounds like. Her music is the explicit sound of a girl with a creative toolbox growing up into a savvier, more confident adult. It's easy to see Swift — her looks, her money, her homes — as the pinnacle of unrelatability. But her music has always, and will always, speak to a certain young, female experience devoid of a coached male gaze. For the past decade, Taylor Swift has suspended in time the wearisome trials of being a heartbroken young woman. And as she continues to outline the cutting realities of her intrinsically feminine youth, finding far more mature ways to describe her adult life, the wide-eyed, bottled innocence of teen Swift might come to haunt her, too.