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A Guide to The Taylor Swift Cinematic Universe (TCU)

One of the things that make Taylor Swift’s songs so addictive is that they exist in a larger musical universe. We’re pretty used to this in film and TV, as numerous interconnected story worlds have chased the explosive popularity of the MCU. But few artists have applied the cinematic-universe approach so extensively to music. Through her combined discography, The Taylor Swift Cinematic Universe tells a unified narrative of a woman navigating her place in the world, maturing from brash, naive youth to confident, self-assured feminist full of mature, reflective wisdom. Here’s our deep dive into the motifs and takeaways of the expansive TCU.

TRANSCRIPT

“It’s just been really fun to kind of expand the musical experience past just listening to a song.” - Taylor Swift, The Ellen Show

One of the things that makes Taylor Swift’s songs so addictive is that they exist in a larger musical universe. We’re pretty used to this in film and TV, but few artists have applied the cinematic-universe approach so extensively to music.

“In ‘Folklore’ there are a lot of songs that reference each other or lyrical parallels.” - Taylor Swift, Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions

The Taylor Swift Cinematic Universe, or TCU, tells a unified narrative of a woman navigating her place in the world. It’s a universe full of recurring characters.

Episodes pick up one after another, narrative threads resolve albums later; and it always comes back to the prime importance of love and the bravery of making yourself vulnerable.

I wanna still have a sharp pen, and a thin skin, and an open heart. - Taylor Swift, Miss Americana

Here’s our deep dive into the motifs and takeaways of the expansive TCU.

Taylor’s Version

All great stories need a compelling hero or heroine, and Taylor Swift has never disguised the fact that the narrator in her songs is a version of herself, singing about her experiences. But what’s unusual about her semi-autobiographical style is that there are actually multiple versions of her self-proxy — an array of Taylor-heroines.

When we first meet her, she’s the ordinary high schooler — she’s not high up the social hierarchy, but instead someone who’s (as a bonus track on her first album puts it) “Invisible”. Part of the reason Taylor Swift cut through so quickly was because of this relatable persona: she was a teenage girl, singing to teenage girls, about being a teenage girl.

I’m 17, never gotten married or had a kid, I’m not gonna write songs about that. But I will write about what I have been through or what my friends have been through. - Taylor Swift, Sudzin Country

The flashes of rural America on these early songs — and their firm rooting in the country genre — also play into her ordinary girl-next-door-ness. This imagery of “Taylor the Country Singer” grounds her as a peer of her audience — someone they might run into on the street.

But while she paints this rural life as idyllic, Taylor also introduces a quest narrative that turns her from an ordinary high school country girl into a more classic leading lady. When Taylor sings “I’m just a girl tryna find a place in this world,” we get the impression that that place isn’t the small-town life she’s already described, but something bigger, brighter, and further away. This narrative arc mirrors Taylor’s own journey: moving at a young age from a Christmas tree farm in Reading, Pennsylvania to Nashville to pursue becoming a musician.

And in her songs, the “Taylor the Dreamer and Striver” persona is boldly ambitious, yet sensitive and fragile; as she puts it in the liner notes of her second album Fearless, “Fearless is having fears. Fearless is having doubts… fearless is living in spite of those things that scare you to death.” Vulnerability is a theme Taylor returns to again and again — especially on the track fives of her records, which tend to be the space for the TCU to become the most introspective and tragic, or as Lucy Harbron puts it for NME: “all aboard the superhighway to heartbreak and pain.”

“I started to put the songs that were really honest, emotional and vulnerable and personal as track five.” - Taylor Swift, Instagram Live

Across these emotionally open ballads, we glimpse “Reflective Taylor,” developing the heroine’s deep, insightful power as an artist. Track five always brings the Taylor-heroine down to earth, reminding us that — even though in other spots she might elevate herself to the level of a glamorous Elizabeth Taylor or Grace Kelly — underneath it all she’s still a regular person experiencing our same insecurities and painful life lessons.

Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang of the Las Culturistas podcast make the distinction between Taylor and Tayla. For them, Taylor is the quieter, honest artist, while Tayla is the fierce, performative pop star who comes out in her more melodramatic or combative publicity-seeking moments.

“I love when she’s like a pop star, bratty, like sort of big sound, like that’s Tayla to me.” - Matt Rogers, Las Culturistas

It’s Tayla who loves the drama and sings to the haters on very public beef tracks addressing her substantial list of feuds, delivering the campy fun of videos like “Bad Blood” and its cold-blooded nemesis pretty clearly meant to be Katy Perry — while Taylor supports herself with a star-studded supporting cast (or squad) to show off who’s in her corner, so to speak.

Building on “Beefing Taylor,” we get Taylor the “Mad Woman” who’s almost cartoonishly, gleefully angry and vengeful, making it feel fun to lean into the behaviors that tend to get women labeled “insane.”

“Got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane.” - Taylor Swift, Blank Space

In “The Man” and “mad woman”, this persona takes on a righteous, feminist anger.

In the video for “Look What You Made Me Do” — which maybe shows Taylor at her angriest, a dark spin on her as the leading lady:

“I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams.” - Taylor Swift, Look What You Made Me Do

she lines up a range of recognizable Taylors and pits them against each other.

Here she’s self-mocking through some of the least flattering versions of herself, as seen and defined by others:

“There she goes, playing the victim, again.” - Taylor Swift, Look What You Made Me Do

like the calculating, cut-throat villain from Katy Perry’s “Swish swish” or the “snake” she was branded as during her beef with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. The “Tayla” part of her enjoys clapping back at the haters, even relishing having her reputation tarnished, because (far from taking the high road) it’s a lot more fun and sells more records to fight back.

Yet despite the song’s dramatic assertion that the old Taylor(s) are dead, these versions of herself still remain key facets of her character that make up the full picture of Taylor Swift. The feuder, the emotionally vulnerable person, the down-to-earth country girl, the madwoman with an empowered, slightly cheeky rage, the naive high-schooler-at-heart — these all take a more mature form in her recent work, but they’re all still highly visible pieces of her identity as an artist.

There is also Taylor the Business Mogul, guiding her own destiny with plans to re-record her first six albums after music executive and investor, Scooter Braun, bought up the masters. This project reclaims the Taylor Swift heroine character and her journey as hers and no one else’s.

Blank Space: Taylor in Love

Then, of course, there’s the series of romantic heroes who play opposite the Taylor-heroine in stories of love and heartbreak.

In the early days, when Taylor-the-heroine is still young and naive, a lot of agency is given over to these heroes. A repeated image on her first album is the car or pickup truck.

“You’re just a boy in a Chevy Truck.” - Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw

She’s riding shotgun with her hair undone on “Our Song,” and complaining bitterly about the “stupid pickup truck you never let me drive” on “Picture To Burn.” In high school, a vehicle is status, elevating these boys in the social hierarchy. These early love stories are very archetypal; love in these small-town romances is dramatic and epic like it feels in the movies.

As she gets older, and her love life becomes more public, Taylor reverses this process — reducing men with social status to the level of a high school boyfriend. In songs about her relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, the space of the car again feels important, likening him to those high school boyfriends she once knew. In “All Too Well,” they’re “getting lost upstate,” and in “Red” the perspective flips, and it’s Taylor in the driver’s seat.

“Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street.” -Taylor Swift, Red

She’s also showing that this new love is more out of control, and maybe defined by a power imbalance — although on “We Are Never Getting Back Together” she claims that power back, transforming him into an uber-recognizable, mansplaining hipster.

Love for Taylor is also dangerous — a theme that’s prominent in the songs about a more “bad boy” romantic hero who enters the TCU scene with that “James Dean daydream” look in his eye: Harry Styles. In “Style” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” (both about Styles), the love story is defined by images of crashing down and lying on the cold hard ground; once again, we see a driver who can’t keep his eyes on the road, and whose journey could end in either burning flames or paradise. If the heartbreak in the Gyllenhaal songs stops her in her tracks, then it’s as if she’s fully aware of, perhaps even drawn to, the danger in the Styles songs.

“I guess you didn’t care and I guess I liked that.” - Taylor Swift, I Knew You Were Trouble

She also shows more sexual agency in “Style”. But the repeated refrain of “Out of the Woods,” “are we out of the woods yet,” calls to mind the feeling of a relationship that you know isn’t sustainable — with the video repeating the motif of being hunted from “I Know Places.”

“This was a relationship where it was kind of living day to day wondering where it was going, if it was going to go anywhere if it was going to end the next day.” - Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift Talks About “Out of the Woods”

What’s so striking about Styles as a character in the TCU is that Taylor’s and Harry’s real-life relationship was incredibly short-lived and (according to countless articles) over back in early 2013. So it’s the fictional Styles that looms large in the TCU — as a ghost largely embellished by Taylor’s mind, who’s also instantly recognizable to us based on our collective imagination of the figure. He’s essentially the personification of that figure all of us have a version of: The One Who Got Away, or the Great Love Who Could Have Been, with eyes “so inviting, I almost jump in,” as she sings on evermore’s Gold Rush.” That song isn’t confirmed to be about him, but it’s hard not to see this TCU recurring character in the lyrics about a boy who grew up beautiful; whose hair falls into place like dominoes while “everybody wonders what it would be like to love him.” But when Taylor says doesn’t like a gold rush, she refuses to want the boy that everyone is after, vowing instead to carve a more unusual path.

The TCU also features a series of less central love interests. Sometimes her breakup songs border on beef tracks too, as with “Dear John”, a track five meditation on how John Mayer wronged her.

“Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with?” - Taylor Swift, Dear John

But what’s maybe most interesting about Taylor’s use of love songs is that she’s never strayed from singing about romance, even though this has been used as a stick to beat her with.

Ginny: “What do you care? You go through men faster than Taylor Swift. - Ginny and Georgia, 1x10

On Lover she fully embraces this image of herself, and she’s more explicit than ever about who she’s singing about — “London Boy” doesn’t quite reference Joe Alwyn by name, but it’s a clear outline of their relationship.

“Took me back to Highgate, met all of his best mates.” - Taylor Swift, London Boy

Alwyn even breaks through to a deeper level of the TCU, becoming a co-creator on Folklore and evermore, though he fittingly adopts a character name, authoring his own fictional persona within the story universe. Yet even as the drama of her romantic life has lessened with this stable relationship, the importance of love remains central in the TCU. In the TCU, love is the emotion that underpins everything, and that draws out so much of who we are — for better or worse.

While you might expect that the Taylor-heroines’ well-documented lessons in heartbreak might have turned her into a more closed-off person, over time her greatest strength, both musically and personally, is that she continues to make herself vulnerable, even with a more clear understanding of the risks.

In her early track fives, there’s a sense that she’s viewing her vulnerability as a weakness. In “Cold as You” the narrator calls herself, “a mess of a dreamer with the nerve to adore you.” In “White Horse,” when Taylor sings, “I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairytale… this ain’t Hollywood, this is a small town,” the heartbreak feels deflating. She’s let down that real relationships don’t match up with her youthful, idealized notions of love.

Then, in her discussions of 1989, she describes a turning point where she no longer goes into relationships expecting them to be the one, but with “that realization that it’s the anomaly if something works out.” Skipping ahead to the two track fives that we know are about Joe Alwyn, in Reputation’s “Delicate” she is stripping herself down to her rawest understanding that vulnerability is a risk you have to be willing to take:

And then there are these moments where it’s very like ‘oh my god what if my reputation actually makes the person that I like not wanna get to know me?’” - Taylor Swift

And in Lover’s “The Archer”, she is confronting the reality of her past, taking a break from the joys of her new happy relationship to face her tendency toward self-sabotage.

The past is still present in the TCU, just as much as we might not like to admit it, this is often true in our lives. Taylor’s previous loves are framed as ghosts — ephemeral and distant, yet specters which nonetheless can’t fully be gotten rid of. Still, when she sings, “my mind turns your life into folklore; I can’t dare to dream about you anymore,” whether or not this is inspired by Styles or another, it’s really about the person we imagine a love within our dreams — an ideal to which no reality can compare. Even more so than any particular real person, it often feels that Taylor is talking about a more mythical dream man or ghost she’s forever found in her music. In the video for “Willow,” she’s united with a soulmate figure across different time periods and worlds that, crucially, she accesses through her piano.

“I loved the feeling that I got immediately upon hearing the instrumental. […] It felt like somebody standing over a potion, making a love potion dreaming up the person that they want and the person they desire. -Taylor Swift, Interview with Apple Music

The Last Great American Dynasty

In the permanent-feeling love story that began on Reputation and solidified on Lover, a chapter also closed. A more mature-feeling Taylor seemed to be looking forward in her personal life.

So what would be the next phase of the TCU?

“Would I not be able to write breakup songs anymore? I love breakup songs!” - Taylor Swift, Tiny Desk Concert

2020’s Folklore and evermore begin a new chapter in which Taylor builds out the universe through a larger cast of point-of-view characters. Taylor had written in other characters’ voices before.“Mary’s Song” on her debut album was a love story from the perspective of her neighbors, but here she is reaching for stories that aren’t hers and using them to add new shades and textures to the TCU. On “The Last Great American Dynasty”, she channels her “Mad Woman” side into the story of another rebellious woman who flouted convention, New York socialite Rebekah Harkness, who once dyed a neighbor’s dog key lime green in a fit of anger (and whose Rhode Island house Taylor happens to own).

“I had a marvelous time ruining everything.” - Taylor Swift, The Last Great American Dynasty

The reboot is also reflected in Taylor revisiting known spaces from her older material, like high school and love triangles. So on Folklore, through the intersecting narratives of “betty”, “august” and “cardigan”, we get a familiar story of a boy, James, cheating on his love, Betty, with an unnamed girl. But whereas before, the TCU only focused on the Taylor stand-in’s point of view; now we get all sides. On “betty,” we hear James’ mea culpa, as well as his insecurity and his excuses: “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything.”

“I’ve written so many songs from a female’s perspective of wanting a male apology, we decided to make it from a teenage boy’s perspective apologizing after he loses the love of his life.” - Taylor Swift, Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions

This is thrown back at him on “cardigan” when narrator Betty declares “I knew everything when I was young.” Betty tells us what it feels like to be treated like an “old cardigan under someone’s bed” while James misses her “standing in her cardigan” (an object that feels like a more fleshed-out, sophisticated version of “All Too Well’s” scarf). Meanwhile, in “august,” from the point of view of the other woman, the narrator is more self-reflective, and the song lets us empathize by grounding us in her experience of the relationship with James:

She’s like really a sensitive person who like really fell for him and she was trying to seem cool and seem like she didn’t care because that’s what girls have to do.” - Taylor Swift, Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions

Whereas on “Picture to Burn” music video, her character exclaimed:

“He let her drive the truck? He NEVER let me drive the truck!” - Taylor Swift, Picture to Burn

On Folklore, we see growth in how the two girls don’t blame each other:

“The idea that there’s some, like, some bad, villain girl in any type of situation who, like, takes your man is actually a total myth because that’s not usually the case at all. - Taylor Swift, Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions

Likewise, “invisible string” and “mad woman” are gateways into opposing character perspectives from Jane Eyre. In “invisible string,” Taylor aligns with the novel’s leading lady, referring to a line spoken by her love Mr. Rochester:

Mr. Rochester: “I have a strange feeling with regard to you, as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you.” - Jane Eyre

But in the latter, she’s identifying with the novel’s “madwoman in the attic,” Rochester’s first wife, Bertha.

The other classic Taylor Swift narrative of the small-town girl who leaves for the big city is also revisited from a different perspective on evermore. “dorothea” and “‘tis the damn season” flesh out the good part of that life she left behind, and the negative parts of her big-city success (i.e., going to LA and her “so-called friends” that make her yearn for a simpler, more authentic time. There’s a sadness for how this simpler life is pretty much inaccessible to someone as famous as Taylor with her “champagne problems,” which adds another layer to why she’s adopting these new characters’ voices.

Taylor Swift: “I try not to ever really say where I am the most.”

Tracy Smith: “You mentioned that you keep wound dressing with you?”

Taylor Swift: “Yeah I’ve had a lot of stalkers.” - CBS Sunday Morning

If the other Taylors we saw in the “Look What You Made Me Do” video are all actualized versions of who she’s been, these new characters are parallel-universe versions — people she may have become had things turned out differently.

Inhappiness,” Taylor’s mature acceptance of what her exes contributed to her life demonstrates emotional growth and seems to signal a true moving on from the past. Yet a key theme in the TCU is also staying true to the person you’ve always been. Growth is also never fully achieved but a process you have to keep working on. In evermore’s “long story short,” Taylor sings “past me I want to tell you not to get lost in these petty things,” but the album still contains the track “Closure,” which seems to be dissing Kim Kardashian and declaring “I’m fine with my spite.”

Conclusion

The TCU’s genius lies in the fact that there really aren’t that many precedents for it in musical terms. But modern culture is shaped by the fan experience, and Taylor Swift not only gets this but feeds it. She understands which characters we’re hoping to meet again; planting easter eggs, wrapping up storylines, and offering cliffhangers. Musical interpretation often comes down to filling in the blank spaces.

“I think the best messages are cryptic ones.” - Taylor Swift, Entertainment Weekly

With Taylor Swift, listeners aren’t just given license to do that, we’re encouraged to — thus becoming characters in the TCU ourselves.

SOURCES

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Harper Collins, 2010 https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/504650-i-have-a-strange-feeling-with-regard-to-you-as

Habron, Lucy. “Taylor Swift’s infamous ‘track fives’ - ranked in order of greatness.” NME, 1 Dec. 2020, https://www.nme.com/blogs/taylor-swifts-track-fives-ranked-my-tears-ricochet-2829115

Swift, Taylor. Liner notes for Fearless. Big Machine Records, 2008 https://genius.com/Taylor-swift-fearless-lyrics