Taylor Swift’s 1989: The Rise and Fall of #GirlBoss Energy

This piece belongs to a series in which I analyze Taylor Swift’s albums through the feminist lens leading up to the Eras Tour. For the first essay in the series on “Speak Now,” click here.

Taylor Swift in 2015. Courtesy of Billboard and Dave Hogan/GI.

Greetings, fellow Swifties! The results of my Instagram poll are in: it’s time to take a deep dive into Taylor’s fifth studio album, 1989. Released in October 2014, this album, produced by Big Machine Records, marked Taylor Swift’s official move away from country music and complete immersion into the pop genre.

During this time, Swift’s public image perpetuated by the media also shifted from that of an innocent young girl to a sexually charged and even manipulative businesswoman. Interestingly, this was also the era in which she suffered most severely from an eating disorder and received backlash for promoting white feminism through her “squad” of model friends, largely thin and white like her.

#SquadGoals. Photo courtesy of InStyle and Kevin Mazur/Getty Images.

The years following her explosion in popularity were marked by extraordinary controversy, culminating in the now infamous phone call with the artist formerly known as Kanye West and his ex-wife, billionaire Kim Kardashian. After this fallout and absolute crucifixion from the media, Taylor Swift largely disappeared from the public eye for nearly three years before the dawn of her Reputation era.

This album pulses with bangers, marked by six incredibly successful singles regularly played on the radio to this day. The album’s lead single, “Shake It Off” is considered to be her most successful single of all time. Although in the past I have written this single off as lyrically weak and irritating, upon closer examination, the maturity expressed in Swift’s takedown of her critics is far more nuanced than that of “Mean” in Speak Now. In essence, “Shake It Off” is the album’s crux: Taylor Swift announced to the world with 1989 that she was a grown-up pop icon and no one could take her down.

Numerous songs on 1989 are dripping with #girlboss energy. Now considered a derogatory term, “girl boss energy” rose to prominence in the mid-2010s and refers to women who are self-made, successful businesswomen acting as their own bosses. Often, critics chastise these women for chasing success at the expense of others, all while spitting out quips such as “Boss Babe!”, “Get it, girl!” or “Yassss queen!” As late as 2022, Taylor Swift is closely associated with the “girlboss” stereotype in “Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss.”

A great example of Girl Boss Energy. Courtesy of Hot Beauty Health.

In my last album analysis, I concluded that although Speak Now embodied certain feminist ideals, criticism that she perpetuated negative feminine stereotypes, such as victimizing oneself and focusing only on boys, was well-founded. What I’m curious to unravel in 1989 is whether or not Taylor Swift warranted the dialogue surrounding her as a cringe-inducing “girlboss” during this time of grave unrest and turmoil in her public image.

Before we begin, let’s form a working definition of white feminism. Typically used as a derogatory term, white feminism refers to the stereotypical feminist movement that applies to cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled, often beautiful women that neglects women of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, or those with disabilities. The media heavily criticized Swift during the mid-2010s for perpetuating this stereotype as conversations surrounding intersectionality in feminism became more prominent. 

Backstage as Hedy LaRue in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. College Light Opera Company, 2014.

1989 dropped during the fall of my senior year of college, just after I had spent a summer in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, performing with College Light Opera Company. I had just changed my major to vocal performance, and I still consider that one of my life’s most formative and enjoyable summers. Like Taylor, there was a boy I was into, but it wouldn’t work out for one reason or another. Transitioning back to academic life when I had spent all summer really “doing the thing” was incredibly difficult. I also didn’t know how to become a performer or what to do next, I didn’t feel seen or appreciated at school, and I felt a little lost. Fortunately, Taylor Swift’s fifth studio album came just in time to lift me out of my funk and make me feel “finally clean.” That’s the power of her songwriting and the best reason to embark on this morning’s journey. 

For each song, I’ll provide my favorite lyrics, a short analysis through a feminist lens, and then give a feminism score. The rankings are simply by level of enjoyment.

16. You Are In Love

Favorite Lyric: “And you understand now why they lost their minds and fought the wars/And why I’ve spent my whole life tryin’ to put it into words”

There’s some carefully crafted lyricism in here. Still, overall it doesn’t give me anything I didn’t already get from “This Love” or “Wildest Dreams.”

Feminist Score: B because it paints a realistic romance rather than a fairytale for which Taylor had become known.

15. Shake It Off

Favorite Lyric: “It’s like I got this music in my mind/Sayin’ it’s gonna be alright”

Listen, I don’t like this song. Maybe I’m not a real Swiftie, but I’ve always found this song lyrically weak and pervasively irritating. However, upon analyzing her music through a feminist lens, this piece is critical in illustrating her transformation from a fragile young country star to a powerfully intelligent businesswoman. 

Feminist Score: A. Sure, it’s a piece co-opted by girl bosses everywhere to justify rude behavior and hustle culture, but it’s an enormously transformative and inspiring piece to independent achievers everywhere.

14. How You Get The Girl

Favorite Lyric: “Remind her how it used to be, be/Yeah, with pictures in frames of kisses on cheeks, cheeks”

This song is perplexing. It’s the only song on the album I could criticize as “filler.” However, I’m about digging deep, so I’ll do my best. This song boils down to a nonsensical list of things to do to get a girl that overall feels manipulative and derivative. However, it’s a sick beat, as Taylor might say.

Feminist Score: F. Men, if you go through a breakup with a woman, the appropriate response is to not show up at her door unannounced and refuse to leave until she breaks down and gets back together with you. Major yikes.

David Krieger/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images via Billboard.

13. I Know Places

Favorite lyric: “Something happens when everybody finds out/See the vultures circling, dark clouds”

This piece is interesting because it forces the listener to empathize with two highly successful celebrities who just want to be typical together. Still, their relationship isn’t strong enough to withstand the constant media attention. It’s neither of their faults that their relationship crumbled (RIP Taylor and Harry) but rather the intense scrutiny and pressure they constantly find themselves under. And she manages to make something so sad, so boppy once again!

Feminist Score: B. She is taking control, and they appear equally unequipped to sail the waters of their tumultuous relationship, but there aren’t necessarily any themes of feminism outwardly portrayed here.

12. I Wish You Would

Favorite Lyric: “We’re a crooked love/In a straight line down”

A quick note on this lyric- I always thought this lyric was “we’re a crooked love in a street lying down,” which makes absolutely zero sense, but late at night at College Light Opera Company in 2014, my fellow young artists and I would walk down to the beach and lay in the road and look up at the stars since there were never any cars. It always makes me smile.

Ok, feminism. I mean…meh? Just once, I’d like Taylor to drive the dang car herself (maybe she caught on to this– “and he was tossing me the car keys, fuck the patriarchy, keychain on the ground,” anyone?), and it seems to be a metaphor for her not being in the driver’s seat of her relationships. This song is reminiscent of Speak Now themes from Taylor.

Feminist Score: C? I guess?

11. Wonderland

Favorite Lyric: “Didn’t you flash your green eyes at me?/Haven’t you heard what becomes of curious minds?”

I have a definite soft spot for this bonus track. Apparent allusions to Alice in Wonderland aside, this piece romanticizes a toxic relationship in which the narrator’s man behaves in a manipulative and demeaning way. Yikes.

Feminist Score: D, only because I might be overreacting. What do you think? 

10. Style

Favorite Lyric: “’Cause you got that James Dean daydream look in your eye/And I got that red lip classic thing that you like”

Remember when Taylor Swift dated Harry Styles? It truly feels like a lifetime ago. We’re back in her “I’m sitting in the passenger’s seat, and you’re driving, and it’s hot. I’m pretty with my red lipstick on, isn’t this the American Dream” vibes of earlier albums but with a synth-pop beat. 

Feminist Score: C. It’s neither empowering nor derogatory, and it’s a jam.

9. Blank Space

Favorite Lyric: “Boys only want love if it’s torture/Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn ya”

This song might as well be the #girlboss anthem. I’ll admit that I grew tired of this song after hearing it in every restaurant, mall, elevator, bar, and shop on the planet for years on end, but after revisiting it, nearly every line is a zinger. Like Shake It Off, Taylor playfully and confidently derides her critics, with every line encompassing a sick burn. The song embodies shallow feminism typical of the mid-2010s but is powerful nonetheless. If the media thinks Taylor Swift is a boy-crazy maneater who only dates men to later spit them out for material, then that’s what she’ll give them. 

Feminist Score: A-, only because the #girlboss energy is a little intense and cringe, and I saw one too many women caption an Instagram post with “cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream” in 2015.

Courtesy of PopCrush and Dimitrio Kambouris/Getty Images.

8. Welcome to New York

Favorite Lyric: “Walkin’ through a crowd, the village is aglow/Kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats”

What an album opener. Close your eyes and imagine the first time you heard this song and how it made you feel. I once romanticized the idea of living in New York. Although that dream has passed me, the excitement of landing at LaGuardia Airport while blasting this song through my earbuds will never leave me. She is independent, lighthearted, and dancing. There is no boy in sight. This song always rang of individuality and confidence to me, and what is a #girlboss without exuberant enthusiasm?

Feminist Score: A. Why not? It makes me, a woman, feel unstoppable.

7. All You Had to Do Was Stay

Favorite lyric: “People like you always want back the love they gave away/And people like me wanna believe you when you say you’ve changed”

Well, she gave up her power here, but at the same time, she’s standing up for herself and saying hey no you left me good sir and I’m not just going to come running back to you. Either way, it is a complete jam and is overlooked as one of the best songs on the album.

Feminist Score: C+. Poor Taylor got broken up with again, but she’s not moping about it. Like a typical #girlboss, she’s an independent woman who doesn’t need a man!

6. This Love

Favorite Lyric: “Your smile, my ghost/I fell to my knees”

I can’t imagine a better sequel to “Last Kiss” than this incredible piece of raw emotional vulnerability. Folks are critical of Taylor’s lyrics that imply that she isn’t in control of her relationships and remains under the control of her partner. Although “currents swept you out again” could be considered such a lyric, the portrait of a relationship coming to a boiling point is effective and effervescent. She manages to evoke action alongside reminiscence, romanticizing the past while remaining concrete. Feminist? Not sure. Beautiful? Absolutely.

Feminist Score: C, I guess.

5. Out of the Woods

Favorite lyric: “Remember when we couldn’t take the heat?/I walked out, I said “I’m setting you free”

This song is such a vibe. The echoing, chaotic synthesizer evokes a sense of anxiety that Swift says defines the album. The lyrics honestly and openly paint the picture of a dissatisfying and crumbling relationship. For critics who claim Taylor consistently portrays herself as the victim, this song is a foray from her stereotype in which she shares in the blame for the dissolution of the relationship. Owning up to one’s shortcomings without submitting to one’s partner or allowing oneself to be gaslit is profoundly feminist.

Feminist Score: B. She’s waiting for the guy to potentially save or end the relationship, but the nuance of a more mature relationship sets this transformative album apart from previous ones.

4. Clean

Favorite Lyric: “The drought was the very worst/When the flowers that we’d grown together died of thirst”

This is an incredible and, to no surprise, cleansing song. Just a fabulous album closer. Taylor is standing on her own two feet; she’s no longer heartbroken and ready to take over the world as a newly minted pop icon. In girl boss speak (which is really just speech patterns co-opted from black and queer communities), that’s “Yas queen! Slay!”

Feminist Score: A. The arc of this album, from manipulative heartbreaker to healed icon, deserves a chef’s kiss.

Courtesy of ETONLINE.

3. Wildest Dreams

Favorite Lyric: “You’ll see me in hindsight/Tangled up with you all night/Burning it down”

Man, Taylor really couldn’t catch a break during this era- remember the colonialism controversy surrounding this music video? I’ll admit it to all of you– I ugly cried so many times thinking about a boy who had fully moved on from our brief relationship while listening to this song. If that’s not peak Taylor Swift, then I don’t know what is.

Maybe it’s the steady synth-pop beat or the assuredness in her demands, but this piece holds a quiet power in heartbreak that is different from her past breakup songs.It’s another “Last Kiss” style song of 1989, but she revels in its beauty instead of wallowing in her sadness. Also– is this the first time Taylor wrote overtly sexual lyrics? I’m into it. Own your sexuality!

Feminist Score: A- because for a breakup song, she handles herself pretty well and doesn’t seem to define herself by the end of this relationship.

2. Bad Blood

Favorite Lyric: “Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes/You say sorry just for show/If you live like that, you live with ghosts”

Best lyric on the WHOLE ALBUM RIGHT HERE! Wow. The music video for this piece sparked the white feminism conversation. Swift cast all her beautiful, white model friends in this music video aimed at a feud between Taylor and Katy Perry (they’ve since made up!). The sentiment of this piece is where girl boss feminism sours. In stepping on people to attain perceived success, girl boss sentiment allows for a vindictive, ruthless attitude wrapped in a hot pink feminist bow. You go, girl! Gaining power or success at the expense of other women or important relationships is not feminist. To me, this song represented the height of #girlboss energy and contributed to its fall. Regardless, it is a total bop, and I once blew out a speaker in my car listening to this song.

Feminist Score: B, because standing up for yourself is cool, but tearing down others is not.

1.New Romantics

Favorite Lyric: “We cry tears of mascara in the bathroom/Honey, life is just a classroom”

Those of you who have kept up with my rankings for years know this is in my top three favorite Taylor Swift songs, period. It is everything to me. I think of “cause baby, I could build a castle out of all the bricks they threw at me” every time I get a rejection email. Singers are constantly singing “heartbreak as our national anthem.” The pop beat is infectious, and the sentiment exudes the poppy, optimistic flavor fueling fans of this era through power and independence. Is it feminist? In the shallow, mid-2010s way, I think it fits the bill.

Feminist Score: A.

The specific strain of feminism portrayed in 1989 as an album and Taylor Swift’s life at large at the time of its release is a fascinating cultural phenomenon. Swift is such a massive star that her actions, attitudes, and music itself can shift the way an entire generation of fans view themselves and choose to behave.

John Shearer/LP5/Getty Images for TAS via Billboard.

When 1989 dropped in 2014, Taylor Swift skyrocketed to the world’s leading pop icon, leaving her country roots behind. She was as unstoppable and admirable as the girl boss movement she embodied. However, over a year and a record-breaking world tour, Taylor Swift fell from pop’s most prominent darling to a vile, manipulative monster vilified by the media. Similarly, women who embarked on a journey of self-made, peppy entrepreneurship quickly went from feminist icons to vapid, mockable frauds who bore the brunt of male-dominated criticism. 

Is feminism worth it when it only makes space for women who are cisgender, heterosexual, white, and beautiful? With discussions surrounding intersectionality in feminism in recent years, the conclusion should be that feminism isn’t serving us as a culture unless it includes all female-identifying humans and includes discussions of race, sexuality, beauty standards, and disability. 

I don’t blame Taylor Swift for getting caught up in this rhetoric. She has since changed her ways, and her music’s messages have evolved as culture’s discussion of feminism advances. In a vital way, her music serves as a marker for the advancement of social and cultural norms.

#Girlboss energy may be declining, but 1989 will live on as a prime example of the cultural movement and continue to deserve the label as one of the best pop albums of all time. With its release, Taylor Swift proved she was truly unstoppable.

Album Feminist Score: B. Female empowerment bogged down by the girl boss movement and the misfortune of embodying the stereotype of a white feminist.

Which album should I analyze next? Let me know in the comments!


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