The year was 2008. I still remember the golden glow of Taylor Swift’s Fearless gleaming on the rack like a homing beacon for little girls across the country as I strolled through the Target CD aisle with my mom. “Love Story” was a smash hit on the radio, a song we both already knew and loved. Taylor Swift’s rise to stardom was inescapable, and before we knew it the twangy guitar riff of the title track “Fearless” was blaring in our car on the way home.
Her paradoxical appeal to both young women and conservative media was that, at the start of her fame, Taylor Swift was a "normal" girl. She sang about crushes on boys, high school cliques, her family, and first heartbreaks. She wore sparkly tassel dresses with cowboy boots, her blonde hair curled in ringlets, and a subtler version of what would become her signature red lipstick. Her power lay in her eloquent songwriting; I remember my mom looping “White Horse” as she drove me to school and telling me that Taylor Swift was a talent here to stay. She was good, smart, and pretty. She was America’s Sweetheart, and I idolized her.
This was a phrase I heard all the time on the news in reference to Taylor Swift’s image during her burgeoning career. Back then, before I understood the restrictive gender norms and conservative ideals of womanhood that her spotlight depended on, I felt happy that somebody I liked was so widely admired. According to her Netflix documentary—aptly titled Miss Americana—Taylor did not truly understand the implications of that title either. She opens the documentary by discussing her obsession with morality and image as a kid, saying, “...overall, the main thing that I always tried to be was…a good girl.”
A good girl in the country music world where Taylor Swift got her start meant following a list of contradictions. Some of the superficial ones she fit by privileged chance—being white, blonde, thin, and pretty. Yet others—being apolitical, eternally gracious, submissive to men in power, and modest—were instruments of objectifying control that no woman or person could ever embody all at once. This is the world that female musicians live in and the role they have had to play for decades. I was plainly told at nine years old by friends and neighbors that Miley Cyrus’s sexually charged 2013 VMAs performance, an act of rebellion against her Disney child star image, was evidence that the Rapture—an evangelical Christian belief about the end of the world—was coming soon. As a child, these were the consequences of a female artist stepping out of line; whether she is embracing her sexuality, using crude language, or speaking out about global issues, she will be shunned while her coveted image of “America’s Sweetheart” is revoked and replaced with a never-ending forum of public shame.
My early childhood observations of Taylor Swift’s treatment by the public eye are undoubtedly mirrored by countless young people, predominantly women, across the world. As we have grown up, acceptable norms of misogyny in the music industry have changed for the better in small ways. Taylor Swift, older and wiser, has been vocal about the treatment she endured as a teenager by the media, saying in a 2016 interview, “If I could talk to myself at 19, I would say, ‘Hey, you’re gonna date just like a normal twentysomething should be allowed to, but you’re going to be a national lightning rod for slut-shaming.’”
Older and wiser too are her fans, and over a decade after Fearless took the music industry by storm, we are watching as young girls born and raised in the era of Taylor Swift begin to enter the mainstream pop music industry. Consider Olivia Rodrigo, who has been extremely outspoken about her love of Taylor Swift. The parallels between both women’s early careers are striking, both having catapulted to fame in their late teens with self-written, coming-of-age albums alongside constant media speculation about their dating lives. Yet, Olivia Rodrigo seems determined to set a new precedent in the music industry for rising teen girl stars: she will not be cast as America’s Sweetheart.
In fact, she claims to be quite the opposite in her recent song “all-american bitch.” She appears to directly tackle the character of “America’s Sweetheart” with satirical lyrics about having a perfect body, dismissing offensive jokes, keeping an eternally positive attitude, acting her age, and excessive gratitude. References to the Kennedys and Coca-Cola as American motifs hit the nail on the head of this caricatured, ideal American woman. The use of the word “bitch” as a derogatory alternative to the usual “all-American girl” emphasizes the objectified nature of this character throughout history. A “perfect all-american bitch,” layered in heavy sarcasm, paints a blatant picture of the easily pliable, dependent girl that powerful music executives think they can mold. Olivia Rodrigo, riding the coattails of calls for justice for the last generation of teen girl stars, is using her platform to bury the America’s Sweetheart caricature once and for all.
In mainstream pop music, Olivia Rodrigo could represent a new hope for young women in the industry. Or perhaps she is just the right person, in the right place, at the right time, to drive the current wave of sentiment for female artistic autonomy toward the future. Swift’s Fearless and Rodrigo’s Guts both encapsulate the fervent, universal emotions of girlhood. Yet while Taylor Swift was cornered into walls of allusion and metaphor in her lyrics given what was acceptable in 2008, Olivia Rodrigo has been able to address the messy truth of the modern teenage girl in plainer terms. From lyrics as comical as “Every guy I like is gay” to deeper cuts like “When am I gonna stop being wise beyond my years and just start being wise,” Olivia Rodrigo addresses girlhood with a newly permissible critical eye. This puts Taylor Swift’s final lyrics on Fearless into perspective, where she belts “These walls that they put up to hold us back will fall down” which begs the question today if Olivia Rodrigo’s position is merely a product of that “change” or if the fight is still not over.
The answer lies in the melancholic rhetorical questions of the final track of Guts titled “teenage dream.” Obviously, there is still much progress to be made for young women in the music industry and the infantilization of teenage girls in general. “teenage dream” addresses the paradox that, though we may condemn the institutions of misogyny and this caricature of the ideal America Sweetheart, we are ingrained as children to strive for her elusive image of perfection, and that is a hard idea to expel. At the end of the day, we all just want to be liked. Although at the beginning of Guts, Olivia Rodrigo appears to confidently reject the toxic ideals of the America’s Sweetheart trope, the ending of the album reveals that she still deeply feels its all-consuming pressures.
As we watch the slow progress of the music industry through each generation of artists, I am happy that young girls today have Rodrigo as a role model and entry point into the world of pop music. Destroying the ingrained ideals presented by the America’s Sweetheart character is a slow process, as Rodrigo herself concedes; however, if the stark differences between what was considered taboo for women during Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo's respective early careers reveal anything, it is that great progress is possible in the span of a generation. Ten years from now it will be better, and ten years from then, today’s world will hopefully seem unthinkable.