Taylor Swift: ‘Pop music can feel like it’s The Hunger Games, and like we’re gladiators’ | Music
Taylor Swift: ‘Pop music can feel like it’s The Hunger Games, and like we’re gladiators’ | Music

Taylor Swift’s Nashville apartment is an Etsy fever dream, a 365-days-a-year Christmas shop, pure teenage girl id. You enter through a vestibule clad in blue velvet and covered in gilt frames bursting with fake flowers. The ceiling is painted like the night sky. Above a koi pond in the living area, a narrow staircase spirals six feet up towards a giant, pillow-lagged birdcage that probably has the best view in the city. Later, Swift will tell me she needs metaphors “to understand anything that happens to me”, and the birdcage defies you not to interpret it as a pointed comment on the contradictions of stardom.

Swift, wearing pale jeans and dip-dyed shirt, her sandy hair tied in a blue scrunchie, leads the way up the staircase to show me the view. The decor hasn’t changed since she bought this place in 2009, when she was 19. “All of these high rises are new since then,” she says, gesturing at the squat glass structures and cranes. Meanwhile her oven is still covered in stickers, more teenage diary than adult appliance.

Now 29, she has spent much of the past three years living quietly in London with her boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn, making the penthouse a kind of time capsule, a monument to youthful naivety given an unlimited budget – the years when she sang about Romeo and Juliet and wore ballgowns to awards shows; before she moved to New York and honed her slick, self-mythologising pop.

It is mid-August. This is Swift’s first UK interview in more than three years, and she seems nervous: neither presidential nor goofy (her usual defaults), but quick with a tongue-out “ugh” of regret or frustration as she picks at her glittery purple nails. We climb down from the birdcage to sit by the pond, and when the conversation turns to 2016, the year the wheels came off for her, Swift stiffens as if driving over a mile of speed bumps. After a series of bruising public spats (with Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj) in 2015, there was a high-profile standoff with Kanye West. The news that she was in a relationship with actor Tom Hiddleston, which leaked soon after, was widely dismissed as a diversionary tactic. Meanwhile, Swift went to court to prosecute a sexual assault claim, and faced a furious backlash when she failed to endorse a candidate in the 2016 presidential election, allowing the alt-right to adopt her as their “Aryan princess”.

Her critics assumed she cared only about the bottom line. The reality, Swift says, is that she was totally broken. “Every domino fell,” she says bitterly. “It became really terrifying for anyone to even know where I was. And I felt completely incapable of doing or saying anything publicly, at all. Even about my music. I always said I wouldn’t talk about what was happening personally, because that was a personal time.” She won’t get into specifics. “I just need some things that are mine,” she despairs. “Just some things.”

A year later, in 2017, Swift released her album Reputation, half high-camp heel turn, drawing on hip-hop and vaudeville (the brilliantly hammy Look What You Made Me Do), half stunned appreciation that her nascent relationship with Alwyn had weathered the storm (the soft, sensual pop of songs Delicate and Dress).

Her new album, Lover, her seventh, was released yesterday. It’s much lighter than Reputation: Swift likens writing it to feeling like “I could take a full deep breath again”. Much of it is about Alwyn: the Galway Girl-ish track London Boy lists their favourite city haunts and her newfound appreciation of watching rugby in the pub with his uni mates; on the ruminative Afterglow, she asks him to forgive her anxious tendency to assume the worst.

With her boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn, this year. ‘Our relationship isn’t up for discussion. If you and I were having a glass of wine right now, we’d be talking about it – but this goes out into the world. That’s where the boundary is.’ Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

While she has always written about relationships, they were either teenage fantasy or a postmortem on a high-profile breakup, with exes such as Jake Gyllenhaal and Harry Styles. But she and Alwyn have seldom been pictured together, and their relationship is the only other thing she won’t talk about. “I’ve learned that if I do, people think it’s up for discussion, and our relationship isn’t up for discussion,” she says, laughing after I attempt a stealthy angle. “If you and I were having a glass of wine right now, we’d be talking about it – but it’s just that it goes out into the world. That’s where the boundary is, and that’s where my life has become manageable. I really want to keep it feeling manageable.”

Instead, she has swapped personal disclosure for activism. Last August, Swift broke her political silence to endorse Democratic Tennessee candidate Phil Bredesen in the November 2018 senate race. Vote.org reported an unprecedented spike in voting registration after Swift’s Instagram post, while Donald Trump responded that he liked her music “about 25% less now”.

Meanwhile, her recent single You Need To Calm Down admonished homophobes and namechecked US LGBTQ rights organisation Glaad (which then saw increased donations). Swift filled her video with cameos from queer stars such as Ellen DeGeneres and Queen singer Adam Lambert, and capped it with a call to sign her petition in support of the Equality Act, which if passed would prohibit gender- and sexuality-based discrimination in the US. A video of Polish LGBTQ fans miming the track in defiance of their government’s homophobic agenda went viral. But Swift was accused of “queerbaiting” and bandwagon-jumping. You can see how she might find it hard to work out what, exactly, people want from her.


It was girlhood that made Swift a multimillionaire. When country music’s gatekeepers swore that housewives were the only women interested in the genre, she proved them wrong. Her self-titled debut marked the longest stay on the Billboard 200 by any album released in the decade. A potentially cloying image – corkscrew curls, lyrics thick on “daddy” and down-home values – were undercut by the fact she was evidently, endearingly, a bit of a freak, an unusual combination of intensity and artlessness. Also, she was really, really good at what she did, and not just for a teenager: her entirely self-written third album, 2010’s Speak Now, is unmatched in its devastatingly withering dismissals of awful men.

‘I created an expectation that everything in my life that happened, people would see’

As a teenager, Swift was obsessed with VH1’s Behind The Music, the series devoted to the rise and fall of great musicians. She would forensically rewatch episodes, trying to pinpoint the moment a career went wrong. I ask her to imagine she’s watching the episode about herself and do the same thing: where was her misstep? “Oh my God,” she says, drawing a deep breath and letting her lips vibrate as she exhales. “I mean, that’s so depressing!” She thinks back and tries to deflect. “What I remember is that [the show] was always like, ‘Then we started fighting in the tour bus and then the drummer quit and the guitarist was like, “You’re not paying me enough.”’’’

But that’s not what she used to say. In interviews into her early 20s, Swift often observed that an artist fails when they lose their self-awareness, as if repeating the fact would work like an insurance against succumbing to the same fate. But did she make that mistake herself? She squeezes her nose and blows to clear a ringing in her ears before answering. “I definitely think that sometimes you don’t realise how you’re being perceived,” she says. “Pop music can feel like it’s The Hunger Games, and like we’re gladiators. And you can really lose focus of the fact that that’s how it feels because that’s how a lot of stan [fan] Twitter and tabloids and blogs make it seem – the overanalysing of everything makes it feel really intense.”

With Selena Gomez, Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry.

With Selena Gomez, Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry in 2011 at the American Music awards. Photograph: Lester Cohen/WireImage

She describes the way she burned bridges in 2016 as a kind of obliviousness. “I didn’t realise it was like a classic overthrow of someone in power – where you didn’t realise the whispers behind your back, you didn’t realise the chain reaction of events that was going to make everything fall apart at the exact, perfect time for it to fall apart.”

Here’s that chain reaction in full. With her 2014 album 1989 (the year she was born), Swift transcended country stardom, becoming as ubiquitous as Beyoncé. For the first time she vocally embraced feminism, something she had rejected in her teens; but, after a while, it seemed to amount to not much more than a lot of pictures of her hanging out with her “squad”, a bevy of supermodels, musicians and Lena Dunham. The squad very much did not include her former friend Katy Perry, whom Swift targeted in her song Bad Blood, as part of what seemed like a painfully overblown dispute about some backing dancers. Then, when Nicki Minaj tweeted that MTV’s 2015 Video Music awards had rewarded white women at the expense of women of colour, multiple-nominee Swift took it personally, responding: “Maybe one of the men took your slot.” For someone prone to talking about the haters, she quickly became her own worst enemy.

Her old adversary Kanye West resurfaced in February 2016. In 2009, West had invaded Swift’s stage at the MTV VMAs to protest against her victory over Beyoncé in the female video of the year category. It remains the peak of interest in Swift on Google Trends, and the conflict between them has become such a cornerstone of celebrity journalism that it’s hard to remember it lay dormant for nearly seven years – until West released his song Famous. “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex,” he rapped. “Why? I made that bitch famous.” The video depicted a Swift mannequin naked in bed with men including Trump.

Kanye West invades Swift’s stage in 2009

Kanye West invades the stage to protest Swift winning an MTV VMA award, over Beyoncé, in 2009. Seven years later, their feud resurfaced. ‘When people are in a hate frenzy and they find something to mutually hate together, it bonds them. And anything you say is in an echo chamber of mockery,’ Swift says. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Swift loudly condemned both; although she had discussed the track with West, she said she had never agreed to the “bitch” lyric or the video. West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, released a heavily edited clip that showed Swift at least agreeing to the “sex” line on the phone with West, if not the “bitch” part. Swift pleaded the technicality, but it made no difference: when Kardashian went on Twitter to describe her as a snake, the comparison stuck and the singer found herself very publicly “cancelled” – the incident taken as “proof” of Swift’s insincerity. So she went away.

Swift says she stopped trying to explain herself, even though she “definitely” could have. As she worked on Reputation, she was also writing “a think-piece a day that I knew I would never publish: the stuff I would say, and the different facets of the situation that nobody knew”. If she could exonerate herself, why didn’t she? She leans forward. “Here’s why,” she says conspiratorially. “Because when people are in a hate frenzy and they find something to mutually hate together, it bonds them. And anything you say is in an echo chamber of mockery.”

Taylor Swift’s You Need To Calm Down

She compares that year to being hit by a tidal wave. “You can either stand there and let the wave crash into you, and you can try as hard as you can to fight something that’s more powerful and bigger than you,” she says. “Or you can dive under the water, hold your breath, wait for it to pass and while you’re down there, try to learn something. Why was I in that part of the ocean? There were clearly signs that said: Rip tide! Undertow! Don’t swim! There are no lifeguards!” She’s on a roll. “Why was I there? Why was I trusting people I trusted? Why was I letting people into my life the way I was letting them in? What was I doing that caused this?”

After the incident with Minaj, her critics started pointing out a narrative of “white victimhood” in Swift’s career. Speaking slowly and carefully, she says she came to understand “a lot about how my privilege allowed me to not have to learn about white privilege. I didn’t know about it as a kid, and that is privilege itself, you know? And that’s something that I’m still trying to educate myself on every day. How can I see where people are coming from, and understand the pain that comes with the history of our world?”

Live in Australia last year.

Live in Australia last year. Photograph: Don Arnold/Getty Images

She also accepts some responsibility for her overexposure, and for some of the tabloid drama. If she didn’t wish a friend happy birthday on Instagram, there would be reports about severed friendships, even if they had celebrated together. “Because we didn’t post about it, it didn’t happen – and I realised I had done that,” she says. “I created an expectation that everything in my life that happened, people would see.”

But she also says she couldn’t win. “I’m kinda used to being gaslit by now,” she drawls wearily. “And I think it happens to women so often that, as we get older and see how the world works, we’re able to see through what is gaslighting. So I’m able to look at 1989 and go – KITTIES!” She breaks off as an assistant walks in with Swift’s three beloved cats, stars of her Instagram feed, back from the vet before they fly to England this week. Benjamin, Olivia and Meredith haughtily circle our feet (they are scared of the koi) as Swift resumes her train of thought, back to the release of 1989 and the subsequent fallout. “Oh my God, they were mad at me for smiling a lot and quote-unquote acting fake. And then they were mad at me that I was upset and bitter and kicking back.” The rules kept changing.


Swift’s new album comes with printed excerpts from her diaries. On 29 August 2016, she wrote in her girlish, bubble writing: “This summer is the apocalypse.” As the incident with West and Kardashian unfolded, she was preparing for her court case against radio DJ David Mueller, who was fired in 2013 after Swift reported him for putting his hand up her dress at a meet-and–greet event. He sued her for defamation; she countersued for sexual assault.

“Having dealt with a few of them, narcissists basically subscribe to a belief system that they should be able to do and say whatever the hell they want, whenever the hell they want to,” Swift says now, talking at full pelt. “And if we – as anyone else in the world, but specifically women – react to that, well, we’re not allowed to. We’re not allowed to have a reaction to their actions.”

In summer 2016 she was in legal depositions, practising her testimony. “You’re supposed to be really polite to everyone,” she says. But by the time she got to court in August 2017, “something snapped, I think”. She laughs. Her testimony was sharp and uncompromising. She refused to allow Mueller’s lawyers to blame her or her security guards; when asked if she could see the incident, Swift said no, because “my ass is in the back of my body”. It was a brilliant, rude defence.

“You’re supposed to behave yourself in court and say ‘rear end’,” she says with mock politesse. “The other lawyer was saying, ‘When did he touch your backside?’ And I was like, ‘ASS! Call it what it is!’” She claps between each word. But despite the acclaim for her testimony and eventual victory (she asked for one symbolic dollar), she still felt belittled. It was two months prior to the beginning of the #MeToo movement. “Even this case was literally twisted so hard that people were calling it the ‘butt-grab case’. They were saying I sued him because there’s this narrative that I want to sue everyone. That was one of the reasons why the summer was the apocalypse.”

She never wanted the assault to be made public. Have there been other instances she has dealt with privately? “Actually, no,” she says soberly. “I’m really lucky that it hadn’t happened to me before. But that was one of the reasons it was so traumatising. I just didn’t know that could happen. It was really brazen, in front of seven people.” She has since had security cameras installed at every meet-and-greet she does, deliberately pointed at her lower half. “If something happens again, we can prove it with video footage from every angle,” she says.

The allegations about Harvey Weinstein came out soon after she won her case. The film producer had asked her to write a song for the romantic comedy One Chance, which earned her second Golden Globe nomination. Weinstein also got her a supporting role in the 2014 sci-fi movie The Giver, and attended the launch party for 1989. But she says they were never alone together.

“He’d call my management and be like, ‘Does she have a song for this film?’ And I’d be like, ‘Here it is,’” she says dispassionately. “And then I’d be at the Golden Globes. I absolutely never hung out. And I would get a vibe – I would never vouch for him. I believe women who come forward, I believe victims who come forward, I believe men who come forward.” Swift inhales, flustered. She says Weinstein never propositioned her. “If you listen to the stories, he picked people who were vulnerable, in his opinion. It seemed like it was a power thing. So, to me, that doesn’t say anything – that I wasn’t in that situation.”

With Harvey Weinstein at The Giver premiere.

With Harvey Weinstein at The Giver premiere. ‘He picked people who were vulnerable, in his opinion. It seemed like it was a power thing. So, to me, that doesn’t say anything – that I wasn’t in that situation.’ Photograph: Marion Curtis/Starpix/REX/Shutterstock

Meanwhile, Donald Trump was more than nine months into his presidency, and still Swift had not taken a position. But the idea that a pop star could ever have impeded his path to the White House seemed increasingly naive. In hindsight, the demand that Swift speak up looks less about politics and more about her identity (white, rich, powerful) and a moralistic need for her to redeem herself – as if nobody else had ever acted on a vindictive instinct, or blundered publicly.

But she resisted what might have been an easy return to public favour. Although Reputation contained softer love songs, it was better known for its brittle, vengeful side (see This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things). She describes that side of the album now as a “bit of a persona”, and its hip-hop-influenced production as “a complete defence mechanism”. Personally, I thought she had never been more relatable, trashing the contract of pious relatability that traps young women in the public eye.


It was the assault trial, and watching the rights of LGBTQ friends be eroded, that finally politicised her, Swift says. “The things that happen to you in your life are what develop your political opinions. I was living in this Obama eight-year paradise of, you go, you cast your vote, the person you vote for wins, everyone’s happy!” she says. “This whole thing, the last three, four years, it completely blindsided a lot of us, me included.”

The number one thing they absolutely drill into you as a country artist, is ‘Don’t be like the Dixie Chicks!’

She recently said she was “dismayed” when a friend pointed out that her position on gay rights wasn’t obvious (what if she had a gay son, he asked), hence this summer’s course correction with the single You Need To Calm Down (“You’re comin’ at my friends like a missile/Why are you mad?/When you could be GLAAD?”). Didn’t she feel equally dismayed that her politics weren’t clear? “I did,” she insists, “and I hate to admit this, but I felt that I wasn’t educated enough on it. Because I hadn’t actively tried to learn about politics in a way that I felt was necessary for me, making statements that go out to hundreds of millions of people.”

She explains her inner conflict. “I come from country music. The number one thing they absolutely drill into you as a country artist, and you can ask any other country artist this, is ‘Don’t be like the Dixie Chicks!’” In 2003, the Texan country trio denounced the Iraq war, saying they were “ashamed” to share a home state with George W Bush. There was a boycott, and an event where a bulldozer crushed their CDs. “I watched country music snuff that candle out. The most amazing group we had, just because they talked about politics. And they were getting death threats. They were made such an example that basically every country artist that came after that, every label tells you, ‘Just do not get involved, no matter what.’

With her mother

With her mother, who recently experienced a cancer relapse. The new album features a track written for her: ‘You make the best of a bad deal/I just pretend it isn’t real,’ Swift sings, backed by the Dixie Chicks. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/AMA2010/WireImage

“And then, you know, if there was a time for me to get involved…” Swift pauses. “The worst part of the timing of what happened in 2016 was I felt completely voiceless. I just felt like, oh God, who would want me? Honestly.” She would otherwise have endorsed Hillary Clinton? “Of course,” she says sincerely. “I just felt completely, ugh, just useless. And maybe even like a hindrance.”

I suggest that, thinking selfishly, her coming out for Clinton might have made people like her. “I wasn’t thinking like that,” she stresses. “I was just trying to protect my mental health – not read the news very much, go cast my vote, tell people to vote. I just knew what I could handle and I knew what I couldn’t. I was literally about to break. For a while.” Did she seek therapy? “That stuff I just really wanna keep personal, if that’s OK,” she says.

She resists blaming anyone else for her political silence. Her emergence as a Democrat came after she left Big Machine, the label she signed to at 15. (They are now at loggerheads after label head Scott Borchetta sold the company, and the rights to Swift’s first six albums, to Kanye West’s manager, Scooter Braun.) Had Borchetta ever advised her against speaking out? She exhales. “It was just me and my life, and also doing a lot of self-reflection about how I did feel really remorseful for not saying anything. I wanted to try and help in any way that I could, the next time I got a chance. I didn’t help, I didn’t feel capable of it – and as soon as I can, I’m going to.”

The Grammy awards, 2016.

The Grammy awards, 2016. On 29 August 2016, she wrote in her diary in girlish, bubble writing: ‘This summer is the apocalypse.’ Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Swift was once known for throwing extravagant 4 July parties at her Rhode Island mansion. The Instagram posts from these star-studded events – at which guests wore matching stars-and-stripes bikinis and onesies – probably supported a significant chunk of the celebrity news industry GDP. But in 2017, they stopped. “The horror!” wrote Cosmopolitan, citing “reasons that remain a mystery” for their disappearance. It wasn’t “squad” strife or the unavailability of matching cozzies that brought the parties to an end, but Swift’s disillusionment with her country, she says.

There is a smart song about this on the new album – the track that should have been the first single, instead of the cartoonish ME!. Miss Americana And The Heartbreak Prince is a forlorn, gothic ballad in the vein of Lana Del Rey that uses high-school imagery to dismantle American nationalism: “The whole school is rolling fake dice/You play stupid games/You win stupid prizes,” she sings with disdain. “Boys will be boys then/Where are the wise men?”

As we speak, Tennessee lawmakers are trying to impose a near-total ban on abortion. ‘I can’t believe this is happening’

As an ambitious 11-year-old, she worked out that singing the national anthem at sports games was the quickest way to get in front of a large audience. When did she start feeling conflicted about what America stands for? She gives another emphatic ugh. “It was the fact that all the dirtiest tricks in the book were used and it worked,” she says. “The thing I can’t get over right now is gaslighting the American public into being like” – she adopts a sanctimonious tone – “‘If you hate the president, you hate America.’ We’re a democracy – at least, we’re supposed to be – where you’re allowed to disagree, dissent, debate.” She doesn’t use Trump’s name. “I really think that he thinks this is an autocracy.”

As we speak, Tennessee lawmakers are trying to impose a near-total ban on abortion. Swift has staunchly defended her “Tennessee values” in recent months. What’s her position? “I mean, obviously, I’m pro-choice, and I just can’t believe this is happening,” she says. She looks close to tears. “I can’t believe we’re here. It’s really shocking and awful. And I just wanna do everything I can for 2020. I wanna figure out exactly how I can help, what are the most effective ways to help. ’Cause this is just…” She sighs again. “This is not it.”


It is easy to forget that the point of all this is that a teenage Taylor Swift wanted to write love songs. Nemeses and negativity are now so entrenched in her public persona that it’s hard to know how she can get back to that, though she seems to want to. At the end of Daylight, the new album’s dreamy final song, there’s a spoken-word section: “I want to be defined by the things that I love,” she says as the music fades. “Not the things that I hate, not the things I’m afraid of, the things that haunt me in the middle of the night.” As well as the songs written for Alwyn, there is one for her mother, who recently experienced a cancer relapse: “You make the best of a bad deal/I just pretend it isn’t real,” Swift sings, backed by the Dixie Chicks.

with Tom Hiddleston in 2016

With Tom Hiddleston in 2016. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

How does writing about her personal life work if she’s setting clearer boundaries? “It actually made me feel more free,” she says. “I’ve always had this habit of never really going into detail about exactly what situation inspired what thing, but even more so now.” This is only half true: in the past, Swift wasn’t shy of a level of detail that invited fans to figure out specific truths about her relationships. And when I tell her that Lover feels a more emotionally guarded album, she bristles. “I know the difference between making art and living your life like a reality star,” she says. “And then even if it’s hard for other people to grasp, my definition is really clear.”

Even so, Swift begins Lover by addressing an adversary, opening with a song called I Forgot That You Existed (“it isn’t love, it isn’t hate, it’s just indifference”), presumably aimed at Kanye West, a track that slightly defeats its premise by existing. But it sweeps aside old dramas to confront Swift’s real nemesis, herself. “I never grew up/It’s getting so old,” she laments on The Archer.

She has had to learn not to pre-empt disaster, nor to run from it. Her life has been defined by relationships, friendships and business relationships that started and ended very publicly (though she and Perry are friends again). At the same time, the rules around celebrity engagement have evolved beyond recognition in her 15 years of fame. Rather than trying to adapt to them, she’s now asking herself: “How do you learn to maintain? How do you learn not to have these phantom disasters in your head that you play out, and how do you stop yourself from sabotage – because the panic mechanism in your brain is telling you that something must go wrong.” For her, this is what growing up is. “You can’t just make cut-and-dry decisions in life. A lot of things are a negotiation and a grey area and a dance of how to figure it out.”

And so this time, Swift is sticking around. In December she will turn 30, marking the point after which more than half her life will have been lived in public. She’ll start her new decade with a stronger self-preservationist streak, and a looser grip (as well as a cameo in Cats). “You can’t micromanage life, it turns out,” she says, drily.

When Swift finally answered my question about the moment she would choose in the VH1 Behind The Music episode about herself, the one where her career turned, she said she hoped it wouldn’t focus on her “apocalypse” summer of 2016. “Maybe this is wishful thinking,” she said, “but I’d like to think it would be in a couple of years.” It’s funny to hear her hope that the worst is still to come while sitting in her fairytale living room, the cats pacing: a pragmatist at odds with her romantic monument to teenage dreams. But it sounds something like perspective.

• Lover is out now

If you would like a comment on this piece to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email [email protected], including your name and address (not for publication).