Think to pop culture before Taylor Swift. For many Swift fans, who’ve come of age with her voice in their ears, that’s impossible to do. And even for casual Swift listeners, it may be a challenge to think about what music was like before her presence, whether in the form of the curly-haired Nashville star or the polished pop icon.
Ten years ago Monday, Swift released her self-titled debut, a collection of songs that the 16-year-old singer wrote during her freshman year of high school. Over the next decade, her stories matured and her sound evolved, from twangy country to stadium-ready pop, over the course of four subsequent albums: Fearless in 2008; Speak Now in 2010; Red in 2012; and 1989 in 2014.
But now, more people are listening — seemingly the entire American public, in fact. The numbers tracking her subsequent rise are staggering; beyond becoming the only artist to have three albums sell more than one million copies in a week, each of her studio albums has sold at least four million units, amounts that only megastars can reach in a time of slowing album sales. She’d become the youngest artist to win an Album of the Year Grammy, her trophy for Fearless among the 10 Grammys on her shelf. She's the only female artist to win that award twice.
And by using social media the same way as her young listeners do, Swift built a massive online fanbase, one that's swelled with each subsequent release and currently numbers in the hundreds of millions of followers, with more than 80 million on Twitter alone.
In 10 years, Taylor Swift didn’t just become one of America’s biggest pop stars. She became the pop star of a generation.
Swift’s origin story is built around an artist who, from her first stint in Nashville, has ruthlessly pursued a version of fame that’s on her own terms. By the time she released Taylor Swift in 2006, she’d already signed with, and walked away from, a contract with RCA Records. “More and more I would just get suggestions that I ... sing other people’s songs,” Swift recounted in a 2011 60 Minutes interview. “And ... I just didn’t want to.”
So she walked, gambling instead on a brand-new indie label called Big Machine. It’s fitting that Swift’s career started with a battle over preserving her artistic image, as the decade has shown how she’s controlled the narrative around her persona‚ like spinning her many A-list breakups into song material.
"I've never been shy about the fact that if you enter my life, you are basically willingly entering an album," she told USA TODAY about Speak Now in 2010.
She's also spent the latter half of her career dealing with the Kanye West drama, after he bum-rushed her 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. She emerged as America’s jilted sweetheart, with even President Obama jumping to her defense to call Kanye a less-than-friendly name.
Swift isn’t alone in her PR mastery, of course — look at Beyoncé, who’s gone so far to control her public image that she hasn’t given a magazine interview in years. But the ways Swift, 26, amassed her devoted following of Swifties are emblematic of her generation.
Swift understood the value of interactions as simple as liking a fan’s Instagram photo, and she understood it at the beginning of her career, interacting with her followers online in a time before label heads fully understood the power of social media.
"Swift's career grew up alongside the advent of social media — her debut album came out three months after the launch of Twitter, two years after Facebook and at the height of MySpace," says Lyndsey Parker, managing editor of Yahoo Music, pointing to examples of Swift's innate understanding of how to connect with listeners online.
"Her 'lurker campaign' for 'Swiftmas,' when she stalked fans' social media accounts to find out what each fan really wanted and then sent them personalized gifts, was genius," she said. "And her 'no its becky' T-shirt, referencing a viral Tumblr meme, was the ultimate social media in-joke."
But Swift's songs are the reasons listeners connected so deeply with Swift in the first place. Over the course of her career, she has told her fans’ stories as both they, and she, grew up.
According to Tyler Conroy, who took part in the new fan-sourced biography Taylor Swift: This is Our Song, the singer helped guide him through his teenage years with her own stories of resilience. “I was kind of bullied for being different," he said. "I found her album Fearless, and I just really connected with the words and the messaging and since then I feel like she’s just been a big sister and best friend to me."
Her albums are full of autobiographical stories that have grown more mature with each new album, from Speak Now’s teen enthusiasm to Red’s emotional roller coaster, through 1989, an album that saw her moving to a new city and trying on more mature relationships for size.
"I have this formula for music. If I continue to write songs about my life, and my life is always changing, then my music will always be changing," she told USA TODAY in 2010.
Interestingly, Taylor Swift's 10th anniversary comes at a rare shaky moment for Swift’s reputation, following a public feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian over Famous and two less-than-graceful breakups, with musician Calvin Harris and actor Tom Hiddleston.
But if the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that Swift wouldn’t be the mega-star she is if she succumbed to the perils of celebrity. Considering her intuitive grasp of fame, she'll return, right when the public needs her. And with two years since 1989's release, perhaps it'll be with some new music.