Even after this more than extraordinary summer, Taylor seemed intent on living a “normal” life. In interviews, she talked about going to the grocery store or a park with the dreaminess most people would reserve for, well, any of the stuff Taylor did day to day (Photo shoots! Red carpets! Makeup and glitter!) — even if she had to walk wearing headphones so she “can’t hear the clicking” of the paparazzi. “I’m always analyzing everything, so I thought a lot about what my life might be like if this [fame] actually happened to me. I didn’t think I’d get to still be the same person. I would watch all these True Hollywood Stories, and it seemed like a lot of people didn’t get to live the life they loved once they’d made it.”
But Taylor seemed to have been able to bring the best of her “old life” into the frenzy of fame. “When you can still just call your best friend that you had in high school and talk about the same things you used to talk about, that’s when you know it’s okay.” When Taylor talked about love and relationships, she dwelled on them at length and in detail:
Taylor’s tendency to romanticize did not go uncriticized. Detractors accused her of everything from peddling false fairytales to young girls, to continually complaining about ex-boyfriends. She dismissed those snarks curtly: “When we’re falling in love or out of it, that’s when we most need a song that says how we feel. Yeah, I write a lot of songs about boys. And I’m very happy to do that.”
After the release of RED
and the very public ending of her relationship with One Direction star Harry Styles, Taylor’s long media honeymoon came to a sudden halt. Her ubiquity had begun to stir what felt like the beginning of a backlash. Suddenly people—and not just haters on the internet but public figures—were making fun of her. It started with Ellen DeGeneres’s relentless ribbing every time Taylor appeared on her show and then progressed to the 2012 Country Music Awards
in November 2012, at which hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley mocked her summer romance with Conor Kennedy. “Are they ever gonna get back together?” Paisley asked. “Never, ever, ever,” Underwood replied, referencing Taylor’s No. 1 “We Are Never Getting Back Together
.” “Like, never.”
After baring her heart in hit songs, Taylor now found her love life—or some distorted version of it—treated as a joke. At the Golden Globes
in February 2013, hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler got on stage and joked: “You know what, Taylor Swift, you stay away from Michael J. Fox’s son.” The joke wouldn’t have worked without the audience being aware of Swift’s highly scrutinized romantic life, the stuff of tabloid obsession. So the zinger hit home, and the audience exploded with laughter, and, as if it were middle school all over again, some went “Ooooooh.” “Or go for it, or go for it,” Poehler interjected. “No,” said Fey. “She needs some ‘me’ time to learn about herself.” That got another big laugh.
Taylor was in the ladies’ room at the time. So, she didn’t hear the sound of everybody who was anybody in Hollywood laughing at her. When she was discussing that moment in an interview with Vanity Fair
a couple of weeks later, Taylor just smiled and said, “You know, Katie Couric is one of my favorite people because she said to me she had heard a quote that she loved”—from former secretary of state Madeleine Albright—“that said, ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.’” The incident quickly became a much-followed story on the Web and Twitter. Understandably, the negative, and plainly sexist press really seemed to bug Taylor:
She smiled. “For a female to write about her feelings,” she said, “and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that’s taking something that potentially should be celebrated—a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way—that’s taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist. I’m work-crazy. That’s the thing that I’m crazy about, that I don’t stop thinking about, you know? I think they need to make up these angles because my actual personal life doesn’t have a shocking angle to it: I go to work. I come home. I occasionally go out with my friends. I occasionally go on dates. ‘She’s 23! She occasionally dates! She goes out to dinner with her friends sometimes!’ No one’s gonna click on that. They’re only gonna click on it if they ask some ludicrous question that isn’t slander because it’s got a question mark at the end of it.” In hindsight, Taylor is really proud of RED and its themes. She told Rolling Stone in 2020:
During the RED
era, the Swift-Nashville love affair still worked for both sides. She was country’s first truly global star, its ambassador not just to the nation’s mall-rat hordes but to Ireland and Brazil and Taiwan. She conferred modernity, cosmopolitanism, youth on a genre that traditionally has stood for the opposite values. The country Establishment may not be crazy about pop music, but it loved having a pop star in its midst, and was willing to follow Taylor anywhere she went, sending songs like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” to No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs
charts. Nashville barely even flinched when confronted with “I Knew You Were Trouble.
,” surely the only record with a dubstep bass-drop ever to get spins on country radio. “Country radio is much more like a family than any other group of people that I’ve met. They just say, ‘Look, we’ve known each other for years. You’ve stood by us, and we’ve stood by you. That’s how this works.’”
But Taylor’s relationship to country was not merely a matter of careerist calculation. Nashville is a song town, and Taylor has first and foremost always been a songwriter, steeped in Music Row’s values of craftsmanship and storytelling. That is also why she made a generous donation toward the country Establishment. In October 2013, she attended a gala ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Taylor Swift Education Center
at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which she personally endowed with a $4 million donation: “I love being a part of the country-music community. I’m really excited about this music education center and the fact that right now they have three different classes going on.”
The center has a classroom space, a hands-on instrument room and ongoing education opportunities. Museum officials said the new center would increase educational opportunities sevenfold going forward. “We’ve been talking about different programs I can be involved in,” Taylor said. “I hate to call it a lecture because that sounds like I’m yelling at people, but we could do a Q&A talking to students here, and a songwriters’ discussion would be really fun to have at some point.” To this day, Taylor’s ties to Nashville are strong.
Those feelings were, to say the least, reciprocated. Taylor was Nashville’s sweetheart; it couldn’t stop lavishing her with accolades and honors. In fall of 2013, the Nashville Songwriters Association International named her “Songwriter/Artist of the Year” for a record sixth time. She had been nominated for 21 Country Music Association Awards, and had won nine. Midway through November’s CMAs ceremony, a phalanx of the biggest stars in country—Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, George Strait, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, and Rascal Flatts—appeared onstage to present Taylor with the “Pinnacle Award,” country music’s highest honor that had only been given out once before, to Garth Brooks. The award was created to recognize “an artist who has achieved both national and international prominence through concert performances and record sales at levels unique in country music. The artist has also attained the highest degree of recognition within the broad expanse of music worldwide. The artist’s talent and presence will have a long-term positive impact on the appreciation of country music for generations to come.”
The rationale behind the decision to award it to Taylor was that she had taken country music to a new level, that because of her, its reach was wider and more influential than ever before. And that even though she was not just a country superstar but a superstar, period, she remained loyal to her country roots and continued to elevate the art form. Brooks won his when he was 43; Taylor was 23. This was huge. In the video accompanying the celebration, even bigger names congratulated Taylor – Carly Simon, Mick Jagger, Ethel Kennedy, Julia Roberts, to only name a few. Taylor was clearly moved by the love: “You’ve made me feel so special right now, thank you,” she said, tearing up. Tim McGraw probably stated what was on everyone’s mind that night: “While Taylor may be at the pinnacle now, who knows what new heights she decides to reach?”
A big sign for what was to come was the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which aired in December 2013. Taylor was one of the main musical guests and joined in the fun on the runway with her own themed outfits, including a flamboyant Union Jack dress for her duet with Fall Out Boy on their song “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark,” and a stunning sparkling silver mini dress to perform her own hit “I Knew You Were Trouble.” for the show’s finale. Infamously, that evening Taylor became friends with supermodels Karlie Kloss, Gigi Hadid, Cara Delevingne, and Martha Hunt. Overall, the show featuring Taylor was such a hit that she was invited to perform on the show again the following year.
One more highlight of 2013 came when Taylor attended a fundraising gala for the Centrepoint charity at London’s Kensington Palace. There, she spontaneously decided to pull Prince William onstage with her and Jon Bon Jovi for an unplanned performance of “Livin’ on a Prayer.” While most people might be shy when attending a ball at a palace with literal royalty, Taylor high-fived the Prince and decided to go for it. During an interview, William opened up about the surreal experience: “When I sat down to watch Jon Bon Jovi do his performance, I thought, ‘That’s it. My job is done. I’ll get a dinner in a minute and I might be able to have a chat to some people and, you know, I’m off-duty a little bit now.’ Little did I think what was going to happen next. I’m sat next to Taylor Swift. She’s on my left. And after Jon does his first song, there’s a pause, and she turns to me. She puts her hand on my arm, looks me in the eye, and says, ‘Come on, William. Let’s go and sing.’ To this day, I still do not know what came over me. But frankly, if Taylor Swift looks you in the eye, touches your arm, and says, ‘Come with me….’ I got up like a puppy and went, ‘Yeah, okay, that seems like a great idea. I’ll follow you.’” It was certainly a moment to remember.
After the whirlwind of 2013, Taylor was already thinking a lot about her next record. While on “The RED Tour”, she’d been writing songs and stockpiling ideas: reams of lyrics, thousands of voice memos in her iPhone. She played a few dates in London and Berlin in February and officially finished the tour in June in Asia. But she planned to spend much of 2014 writing and recording the new album, a prospect both exhilarating and terrifying to her: “I worry about everything. Some days I wake up in a mind-set of, like, ‘Okay, it’s been a good run.’ By afternoon, I could have a change of mood and feel like anything is possible and I can’t wait to make this kind of music I’ve never made before. And then by evening, I could be terrified of the whole thing again. And then at night, I’ll write a song before bed.” In 2020, Taylor looked back on that time, saying:
In the moment though, she sounded much more carefree, while also being focused on the future: “The last year of my life was so much fun. Being 22—oh my God, I was single and happy and carefree and confused and didn’t care. And I’m still kind of that way. Like, yeah, I’m dealing with a little bit of a chaotic media circus right now, but that’ll die down in a few weeks when people realize there’s nothing left to talk about.”
After wrapping up “The RED Tour” in June 2014, Taylor posted a quote by C. S. Lewis to her Instagram: “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” Little did she know how right she was. She was about to become the biggest star on the planet.