Taylor Swift’s career is not one free of controversy. Over the years, Swift has received a sizable amount of criticism — some of it shallow and focused on her private life, but some of it valid, such as skepticism about her former campaign against Spotify and her use of the controversial Ticketmaster “Verified Fan” program. Though there were times when it seemed like the criticism might catch up with her, she has somehow always managed to rise above.
Swift broke the record for most Album of the Year awards by a woman with her 2020 Grammy win for “folklore.” Along with a 2020 that resulted in some of the best music she’s ever made, she’s not only proved that she’s here to stay, but also cemented her status as one of the most important musicians of the 21st century.
Her Album of the Year record is an impressive accomplishment, yet perhaps even more important is what the award symbolizes.
Swift's two previous albums, “Reputation” and “Lover,” underperformed. Although the albums sold well, neither produced as many hits as her past records. Swift struggled to succeed in the single game, an arena she dominated back in 2015.
“Folklore” is different from these two albums in that it does not feel as geared toward ensuring commercial success. It feels like a genuine expression of rich storytelling through her songwriting, as she weaved tales about love triangles, old cardigans and ill-fated summer flings.
After a few troubling years during which it seemed like Swift was beginning a downhill slide, the fact that it was “folklore” that won her Album of the Year for the third time is proof of her staying power.
The award also recognizes Swift’s talent for songwriting. The album contains some of her best lyricism yet, especially in the stand-out track “exile.”
Folklore’s win also completes a trio of sorts, as the other two albums to win Album of the Year were completely different. “Fearless” was a country album, while “1989” was pure pop. “Folklore” is, well, folksy. The fact that Swift has now created an Album of the Year-winning record in three different genres is a testament to her talent for excelling no matter the musical style.
With these accomplishments, Swift has proven herself as a songwriter who deserves to have her name heard amongst the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. I would even go so far as to give her the title of “music icon.”
But we should also consider the factors that allowed her to achieve this status — it’s not all about her talent.
Indeed, Swift’s girl-next-door image has never been quite accurate. “And she’s got everything that I have to live without,” she sings in the track “Teardrops on My Guitar” from her self-titled debut album, a strange sentiment to hear from a daughter of a stockbroker who was wealthy enough to purchase the 11-acre Christmas Tree Farm where Swift grew up. This familial affluence was probably quite helpful in allowing Swift’s parents the financial freedom to move her to Nashville, Tennessee, jumpstarting her music career.
Swift’s father also made an investment in Big Machine Records, the label which Swift initially signed to, estimated to be around $120,000.
Would Swift be where she was today without this head start? It’s impossible to say. Yet to deny that she had a leg-up and claim that all of her success has been due to talent would be to deny the influence that privilege has on whether someone achieves economic success.
And yet to deny Swift the status of “music icon” on account of this would also be silly, as there are plenty of other successful musicians who had a head start as well. In the end, we can instead choose to recognize that the matter of Swift’s success is a complex one, based on several different factors.
One of these factors is, of course, her music. Over the years, she has given us songs to dance to, songs to cry to (“All Too Well,” anybody?) and songs to comfort us through the loneliness of a pandemic. She’s enjoyed a career that consists of seven No. 1 hits, 37.3 million albums sold in the U.S. as of December 2019 — a number that has undoubtedly increased after her release of both “folklore” and “evermore” — and now three Album of the Year-winning records.
Recognize where she started, but also recognize where she has ended up. For all her flaws, Swift is undoubtedly one of the great musicians of the 21st century, and 2020 has made that irrefutable.
Molly Hayes (she/her) is a junior studying English. She plans to work in the book publishing industry.