And — perhaps more importantly — should she?
By: Stephanie Davoli
Taylor Swift performing “Better Than Revenge” on the 2011-2012 Speak Now World Tour. Photo retrieved from Taylor Swift Evolution on Youtube.com.
We’ve all said and done things we wish we could take back but, as hard as we try, we just can't. The same undoubtedly goes for Taylor Swift, whose critics and fans have been asking her to address her past misogynistic lyrics for over 10 years.
While Taylor can’t completely erase her past mistakes, she has the opportunity to make some changes when she re-records Speak Now, her third studio album, which was originally released in 2010. Due to a bad business deal made with Big Machine Records when she was just 15, Taylor is currently in the process of re-recording her past albums to ensure that she’ll eventually be the sole owner of all her music. As a huge Swiftie, I’m so happy that she has been able to stand up to these powerful men and take back what's hers in such a graceful way.
However, since it’s been known that Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) is coming, there's been some controversy over some of the album’s lyrics. “Better Than Revenge,” an angry, vengeance-fueled song directed at a past lover’s new girlfriend (the “past lover” in question was allegedly Joe Jonas, and the “new girlfriend” was apparently Joe’s now-ex, Camilla Belle), has particularly come under fire. With lyrics like, “She’s not a saint, and she’s not what you think. She’s an actress,” and “She’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress,” I can see why so many people want Taylor to make changes when she gets back in the recording booth. But is it really necessary?
Wait… What’s Feminism?
Before I go any further, I’d like to state that, yes — I am a feminist! And I’m not saying that as a defence for what I’m about to argue because, as we all know, self-proclaimed feminists can also be very sexist. I also recognize that my opinions are likely influenced by some amount of internalized misogyny that, as hard as I try, I can’t entirely rid myself of (more on that later).
As I was writing this, I was thinking of saying something along the lines of “and I know that feminism means something different to everyone…” but actually, no, it doesn’t (and shouldn’t). Everyone’s individual journeys with feminism may differ, but feminism is simply support for the equality of the sexes in every conceivable, achievable way. While it seems like a pretty simple thing to get behind, countless suffragette movements and years of fighting have proved that it is incredibly more nuanced than one may initially think. Do I believe that we’ll see complete equality in our lifetimes? No, and the mere fact that I’m writing this piece proves that — but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive for equality anyways.
Through her years of activism, it’s clear that Taylor is also a feminist. Taylor has not only spoken up for gender equality but she’s also taken legal action against misogyny. She’s repeatedly shown that her personal journey with understanding feminism has dramatically developed as she’s gotten older, despite her younger self’s mistakes. But really, who could blame her for this? Society has used incredibly sexist labels to define her since she was in her late teens. If I’d been slut shamed by the whole world for simply dating a few guys throughout my 20s — which is a perfectly normal thing to do — I would have a complicated history with internalized misogyny, too.
It’s also worth noting that Taylor has significantly distanced herself from “Better Than Revenge.” In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, Taylor acknowledged that the piece was mean-spirited and harmful, while explaining that she was only 18 when she wrote it and simply didn’t know any better. She hasn’t performed the song in years, either. This, to me, shows that she recognizes its destructive lyrics and is maybe even ashamed of her past self for writing them.
I hope that she doesn’t actually feel that way, though, because I don’t think the song’s harsh sexist tone was entirely her fault.
Taylor Swift performing “Better Than Revenge” on the 2011-2012 Speak Now World Tour. Photo retrieved from Pinterest.
“Taylor was a victim of a misogynistic culture — one which showed women that their value was intrinsically linked to the men they were romantically involved with.”
Is the song flawed? Yes, absolutely. Do the lyrics include slut-shamey things you should probably never say to anyone? Yeah. But was it also a product of its time? 1000% yes.
What started as an angry post-breakup revenge song has turned into a time capsule of what life was like for many women in the 2000s. Taylor was a victim of a misogynistic culture — one which showed women that their value was intrinsically linked to the men they were romantically involved with. An element of this still exists today, and looking at how the media treated countless female celebrities during that time shows just how bad it was.
While many criticize “Better Than Revenge” for being unfairly sexist towards the new girlfriend, the song’s history proves that Taylor wrote it to call out her ex, as well. “Better Than Revenge” is actually a rebuttal to a Jonas Brothers song that addressed Taylor and Joe’s breakup, which also emphasized how much Joe was better off without her. Off of the Jonas Brothers’ 2008 album, Lines, Vines and Trying Times, their song “Much Better” begins with Joe singing, “I get a rep for breaking hearts, now I’m done with superstars. All the tears on her guitar. I’m not bitter.” This was a direct reference to Taylor, alluding to her 2007 song “Teardrops On My Guitar.” Taylor acknowledged “Much Better” in “Better Than Revenge” with lines such as, “Let's hear the applause. C'mon show me how much better you are,'' and “'Cause you're so much better.” Gaining the context of these lines is essential to understanding the entire message behind the song, which shows that Taylor meant for it to hold Joe accountable, as well.
However, an 18-year-old Taylor did spend a significant amount of the song addressing the new girlfriend. While she certainly used cruel language that she would never use today, it’s understandable why she said those lines. If Taylor leveled so much of her self-worth with her boyfriend, it's no wonder that she felt such strong negative emotions against the woman that “stole” him from her. Like countless other women to this day, she was conditioned by society to pit herself against other women for male validation. While this doesn't excuse slut shaming, it's an explanation for why she presented her feelings in such a passionate way, especially as a teenager.
The slut shaming and judgemental culture of the late 2000s presented itself in some of Taylor’s other songs. In fact, “You Belong With Me,” which, in my opinion, gives off even worse “pick me” vibes than “Better Than Revenge,” was one of her biggest hits despite it being a song where Taylor is putting down another woman for the attention of a man. The song’s music video further represents this idea. In the video, Taylor plays both the “good girl” who’s crushing on a guy and his “bad girlfriend.” As the “good girl,” Taylor consistently puts the “bad girl” down. She mocks her for being a cheerleader, wearing “short skirts” while she wears “t-shirts,” and uses her position as the “good girl” to display a convoluted sense of moral superiority over the “bad girl.” I’m confident that the Taylor of today would never release a music video with this messaging, but it’s another example of how, at the time, pitting two women against each other for the attention of a man was completely normalized and accepted. When Taylor re-released “You Belong With Me” last year, she made no significant lyrical changes to the sexist lyrics.
It’s also worth mentioning that “Better Than Revenge,” unlike “You Belong With Me,” wasn’t an album single and likely won’t be released as one when the re-recorded album comes out. As such, it’s mainly Taylor’s biggest fans that know the song, and, more often than not, they’ve come to see its hurtful nature as they’ve grown up, too. It’d be a different story if the song were being marketed to a new, younger audience, but it likely won’t.
I bring up these past, not-so-great moments not to shame or discredit Taylor, but to hold her accountable. It’s also why I don’t think it's necessary to change the lyrics in its new recording. Erasing these past mistakes and attempting to play them off like they never happened would be counterproductive. If Taylor edited the song to have a different meaning, she likely would have to change a significant amount of lyrics, almost to the point where it would be a new song. This wouldn’t make sense since the purpose of her re-recording her old music is so that she’ll own versions of her work that are as close to the originals as possible. If she dramatically changes the song, I fear that many fans would simply listen to the original, which does Taylor a disservice as Big Machine Records continues to make money off the original version.
The Double Standard
My next reason why Taylor shouldn’t feel forced to change the lyrics is simple — men never face this issue.
When so much of the music released by male artists today is still deeply rooted in sexism, and they aren’t condemned for their wrongdoings nearly as often as female artists are, I don’t see why we should be pressuring Taylor. There are countless examples of this, but one that stands out the most is “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, which was released in 2013. There was quite a bit of media coverage on the dangerous implications of the song, which alludes to date rape, but only after it was already playing on radio stations across the world for months. Yet, despite the criticism, no changes were made, and frankly, I don’t think anyone expected the artists to make changes.
This is an extreme example of misogyny in current popular music. If a song with threatening lyrics like “I know you want it” can be made less than 10 years ago with relatively little backlash, then I don’t see why a song written by an 18-year-old girl when she was angry and going through a rough breakup should be so scrutinized.
While this is a highly debatable issue, it's also imperative to recognize that changing the lyrics likely won’t advance feminism in any meaningful way. Many girls still won’t have access to education, the pay gap won't close, domestic abuse cases will continue to occur, women will still be denied the opportunity to make their own reproductive choices and much more. It's grim, and while Taylor wields a lot of social and political power, the fight for gender equality is too nuanced of an issue for a lyric change on a twelve-year-old song to be of influence.
“Overcoming internalized misogyny is a messy, complicated task…”
When Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) is released, I think that she has to acknowledge the song somehow. It’d be weird not to say anything, and her critics would never let her hear the end of it. That said, I think an adequate response would be for Taylor to re-record “Better Than Revenge” with no changes, but come out with a statement addressing the song and her decision to leave it alone. Recognizing that it was a petty, immature and vindictive response to a messed up situation that happened to her when she was a teenager should be enough. I don’t believe that Taylor intended actual harm with the song at all, so explaining her mistake is all she can really do.
I realize that my defence of the lyrics is definitely rooted in some amount of internalized misogyny that I just can’t shake. Yet, the song stems from that same twisted misogyny, and I can’t be mad at Taylor for expressing that in her work. Overcoming internalized misogyny is a messy, complicated task and seeing that Taylor, a woman I greatly admire, also struggled with the same issue is kind of comforting.
I’d also like to explain that I’m not entirely against Taylor changing the lyrics. I actually cannot imagine the Taylor Swift of today singing those lines and feel like she will end up making some adjustments. However, I’m simply stating that she shouldn’t feel like she has to change them. Taylor is a brilliant, thoughtful and talented artist, and I know that whatever her decision is will not have been made lightly.
“Better Than Revenge” has truly become a cult classic, and more often than not, I see fans denouncing its misogyny while explaining why they like it nonetheless. While this isn’t always possible, there’s power in being able to hold your favourite artist accountable while still enjoying the art they’ve created. Regardless of what happens, knowing that the re-recording of Speak Now will be an act of vengeance against the men who took advantage of a young Taylor is so sweet. In fact, some may say that Taylor finally owning her work is “better than revenge” itself (I’m sorry, I had to).