Taylor Swift (Getty/Jason Merritt)

With her tough testimony, did we just meet the real Taylor Swift?

She's pop music's privileged Chicken Little — but she stood strong when the sky actually fell


Gabriel Bell
August 11, 2017 5:55PM (UTC)

Taylor Swift is — at least usually — a cynical media manipulator in the form of a girl next door-turned pop star.

An Aryan fantasy ready for Instagram sharing, dissembling and getting often disproportionately raw about former boyfriends, other pop stars and Kanye West, all in the service of a carefully crafted image of the resilient victim, one she markets with truly admirable deftness.

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Her "squad" of celebrity "friends" was a managed, engineered strategy to make her simultaneously relatable and impossibly aspirational. Almost every relationship with every famous person she's dated has become grist for her one-sided, ballad-writing mill, regardless of how mundane the actual details of those breakups were. She created a rivalry with Katy Perry pretty much out of whole cloth, and then created a video pegged to it that garnered a billion — yes, a billion — views on YouTube.

Kanye West has repeatedly treated her unfairly and disrespectfully, coming at her as he would never come at a male artist. It was shitty when West said "I made that bitch famous" — yet there's a sliver of truth there: she gamed West's animosity, playing the innocent, endangered, white Fay Wray to his black King Kong to effect.

Throughout, she's positioned herself as an underdog who's fought for every inch of ground she's gained. This messaging is so compelling, so well wrought, that many have forgotten she's a genetically blessed, 5'10", conventionally gorgeous child of privilege.

Of course, she's often flipped that truth, claiming she's the victim of these massive advantages. It's the kind of white-people nonsense that sells like gangbusters. Advising people to "Shake it Off" rings false when the world around you is geared for your success. Here she comes off as a Chicken Little who knows quite well the sky isn't falling.

And, yet, it is all this that makes her testimony and her comportment in an ongoing countersuit so compelling, edifying and — darn it — fully empowering. When the sky truly did fall on her, Swift dropped the Chicken Little act and revealed the canny, strong adult underneath.

In her deposition in a countersuit against former radio host David Mueller, Swift was strong, clear and indefatigable. Remember, it was Muller who initially sued her for the loss of his job — a termination tied to his alleged groping of the pop star during a meet-and-greet at Pepsi Center in Denver on June 2, 2013. Swift did not publicize her encounter with Mueller before his legal action and is countersuing Muller — something she is under no responsibility to do — for the tidy sum of $1. It seems that, for her, this is a matter of principle.

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When pressed about the incident Swift said, "It happened to me. He had a handful of my ass. It happened to me. I know it was him.” When a lawyer suggested it might be a case of misidentification, she said, “I didn’t need a picture. I could have picked him out of a line of a thousand . . . this is not alleged. I don’t need you to grill me about the tiny details of this photograph."

"You can ask me a million questions about it and I’m never going to say something different,” she said. "I never have said anything different."

When Mueller's attorney asked the signer why the front of Swift's skirt didn't show evidence of groping in a photo taken during the alleged assault, she retorted, "Because my ass is located on the back of my body." When asked how she responded to news of Mueller's termination she said, "I didn’t have a reaction to a strange person I didn’t know losing his job . . . that was a product of his decisions, not mine . . . I’m not going to let you or your client make me feel like this is my fault."

When asked if she may have misinterpreted accidental contact, Swift replied, "There has been a lot of talk about jostling and sliding and gliding into the frame . . . This was not jostling. There was no diving into the frame…. He did not touch my arm. He did not touch my rib. He did not touch my hand. He grabbed my bare ass."

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Swift also addressed her reaction at the time in a way many, many women can relate to.  "After this happened," she said, "a light switched off in my personality." She added "I just said in a monotone voice, 'Thank you for coming.'"

No Chicken Little, this is a strong woman who can deal with, manage and overcome genuine adversity in grounded, realistic ways. When truly victimized, Swift didn't play the victim — she revealed an unintimidated survivor.

As well, she let us see the very adult, very sharp woman behind the act — a no-nonsense, direct human being who doesn't wrap herself in the shit men dump on her, but exposes and throws it right back at them.

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On the legal record and not the stage, radio or screen, Swift comes off as the kind of woman young girls really need as a role model, particularly in a post-Trump America. In her toughness, she becomes genuinely relatable. Stripped of artifice down to an uncompromising woman, she becomes actually likable even to hardened haters (raising my hand here).

Far be it from anyone — particularly a man — to tell this successful businesswoman what to do with the amazing career she has, to tell her how she should and should not act. Yet, one can't blame oneself from wanting to see more of Swift in this mold.

It's not fair to ask Swift to remake her image in vein of testimony recounting a traumatic episode, and one shouldn't expect her to. Indeed, it's not fair to categorize her on-the-record actions as a "look." But it is fair to wonder if maybe we've finally met the real Taylor Swift. If this is who she is, we should be here for it.

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Gabriel Bell

Gabriel Bell is Salon's Deputy Culture Editor. Follow him on Twitter at @GabrielJBell

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