Why Taylor Swift’s Red Was The Cliff Hanger To A Cultural Reset

Especially for women in the music industry.
Loading the player...

Taylor Swift had her fringe cut by Vogue, the tight curls of her teenage years were straightened, and her lips were exclusively painted red. 

WATCH: Taylor Swift performs for star-studded One World broadcast.

On October 22, 2012, she dropped her fourth studio album, Red, at the prologues of significant cultural change.

We Are Never Getting Back Together was the first single to come out, and it was clear a turn had been made from her Country routes. It was no accident as Taylor moved on to work with new writers like Swedish hitmaker Max Martin, as it was her toe-dipping mauver into a more mainstream sound.

Her pivot was a success, and the record spent seven weeks at the number one spot on the U.S Billboard 200, which, at the time, made her the first female act since the Beatles to achieve that for three albums in a row.

Nowadays, it’s common for artists to flip between multiple genres in their albums. But back in 2012, it wasn’t a common practice and Red’s ability to fit within pop, country, and rock was almost unprecedented.

Despite being a standard choice for artists now, it cost her Grammys because the Academy thought her album wasn’t cohesive enough (1989 was her answer to that criticism).

In the 12 years since its release as a collective, we have experienced more news cycles and catastrophic events than we ever expected, so it’s likely most of us have forgotten 2012.

Taylor was just 22 when she released Red. (Credit: Getty)

But for a little rewind back to when we thought the world was going to end (remember that?), let’s recount the year that was in pop culture.

Prince Harry was yet to meet Meghan Markle, and pictures of him naked in a Vegas Hotel room were leaked to the media.

Beyonce gave birth to Blue Ivy, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie got engaged, we said goodbye to Twilight, and Kim Kardashian had just started to date Kanye West. 

Taylor fit into the mould of celebrity via her dating choices at the time, she was seen with Harry Styles and Connor Kennedy, and it seemed like all the media cared about was who she had on her arm.

The year marked the birth of her feud with Katy Perry, and she wore designs by Kanye in her Harper’s Bazaar editorial shoot.

Articles like Thought Catalog’s I think I’m Starting To Hate Taylor Swift, And I Don’t Like It were published every week.

The rhetoric around the Country darling was spinning ever so slightly against her. No, not quite at the level of her 2016 dramas, but it was a prefix to that fall.

Jumping onto that growing criticism was her ex-John Mayer, who told Rolling Stone in June 2012 that her brutal but apt song Dear John from her album Speak Now hurt him.

“I didn’t deserve it. I’m pretty good at taking accountability now.” (Credit: Getty)

“I never got an email. I never got a phone call. I was really caught off-guard, and it really humiliated me at a time when I’d already been dressed down. I mean, how would you feel if, at the lowest you’ve ever been, someone kicked you even lower?

“I didn’t deserve it. I’m pretty good at taking accountability now, and I never did anything to deserve that. It was a really lousy thing for her to do.”

The media believed she was trying to act like a good girl done wrong after every breakup. Red made that clear to them despite its nuanced lyrics and self-reflection. And, sure, her analysis wasn’t completely victimless (Well, wasn’t she just 22 and freshly heartbroken?), but these days, Olivia Rodrigo is given the space to be messy, sad and hurt, in a way Taylor was condemned for. She unwittingly took the brunt of that shame so her inspired mentees could be free. 

In her 2020 documentary Miss Americana, she emotionally explained how the pressure she felt to be liked, good, and perfect led her astray during the post-Red era. It took her a year out of the public eye to get out of that hole after she feuded with Kanye and Kim.

“Throughout my whole career, label executives would just say, ‘A nice girl doesn’t force their opinions on people. A nice girl smiles and waves and says, ‘Thank you,”” Swift says in the trailer. “I became the person everyone wanted me to be,” she said.

In 2012, feminism began to enter its fourth wave as it embraced intersectionality and recognised that white feminism was a big problem.

Red was a global success an made Beatle level milestones. (Credit: Getty)

Many of those conversations took place online, and it can be credited to the first instances of cancel culture – something Tay fell victim to.

The United States and the world were starting to become sick of the golden white girl narrative, and Taylor was the perfect representation of that, which played into a distaste for the young girl.

Feminism looks a lot different now, but it was a contradictory and telling year nonetheless. Because on one side, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was meant to fight gender discrimination at work, was passed over by the US Senate and then was chucked entirely out by Republicans two years later. And on the other, in Australia, our first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, gave her famous Misogyny Speech.

“I say to the Leader of the Opposition I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not. And the Government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever,” said Julia in her speech directed at former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Taylor was being used as a punching bag for Celebrity angst well before Me Too and before women more recognised internalised misogyny.

These days we can look back on her work during Red and her influence in the public eye differently.

In 2014, Taylor released 1989 and the world kind of changed after that. But it wouldn’t have been possible without Red, her pallet cleanser into pop and onto mainstream media.

The 1980s inspired the album, and the singer credited Madonna, Annie Lennox, and Peter Gabriel as influences.

“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man.” (Credit: Getty)

She won a Grammy for Album of The Year, broke countless records, and according to Billboard Magazine, it set “the tone for the next five years of commercial pop.”

While 1989 sent Taylor to astronomical heights, she owes all that success to the silent brilliance of Red.

If her fifth studio album influenced pop sonically for a time, its predecessor has birthed artists drawn to its lyrical power for over a decade. 

It’s why we have Billie Eilish, Lorde, Phoebe Bridgers’ Stranger In The Alps, Gracie Abrams, and of course Olivia Rodrigo.

Taylor gave female artists a voice, and sure, it set the narrative up for her downfall. However, she survived and rose again alongside a new generation of heartfelt, sensitive, and confident young women ready to become the music industry.

Loading the player...

Related stories