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Taylor Swift: Dreaming in Lyrics

About the Episode

Pop star Taylor Swift has become famous for her powerful country and pop music beats. But her genius goes beyond the stage: since day one, Taylor’s been challenging bullies and the music industry and changing the music world for the better.

You can find Taylor in the new book Rebel Girls: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers! We’re celebrating all September long with two special Changemakers podcast episodes each week. Preorder Rebel Girls: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers wherever books are sold to learn about how girls just like you are changing the world.

This story was produced by Olivia Riçhard with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Frances Thomas and edited by Abby Sher. Our narrator was Anjali Kunapaneni. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved twinkling lights, chocolate milkshakes, and karaoke machines. Her name was Taylor Swift. 

Taylor was born in 1989 and grew up on a sprawling Christmas tree farm in rural Pennsylvania. Every year around the holidays, the farm transformed into a bustling winter wonderland draped in lush green holly and mistletoe. Taylor loved to stroll through the snow-capped pines and race down slick hills on her sled. But her favorite place to wander was inside her mind. There, she dreamt up entirely new worlds full of magic.

One day, while rummaging through her parents’ music collection, 6-year-old Taylor found an album cover with a lady on it who looked just like her — long blonde hair,  bright almond-shaped eyes. That woman was LeAnn Rimes, a country singer who skyrocketed to stardom at age 13. Taylor put on the album and instantly fell in love with LeAnn’s soaring vocals and dreamy lyrics. From that day on, Taylor only wanted to listen to country music.

Each song felt like a fabulous story, full of love and longing. With an opera singer for a grandmother, Taylor knew she had music in her blood. Now, she dreamed of being a country singer like LeAnn, belting out lyrics that came straight from her heart.

Soon, Taylor joined a musical theater troupe at her elementary school and found a local restaurant that hosted a weekly karaoke contest. She started competing in the contest every week, singing to a dining room full of strangers. It was terrifying at first, but Taylor learned to breathe through her nervous jitters and channel her energy into being loud and clear. When she truly focussed on the notes, it was like a window inside her heart flung open, flooding her with song. And people began to take notice.

A panel of judges gave points for star presence and pitch-perfect notes. And after a year and a half of trying, Taylor won the karaoke contest! Meanwhile, Taylor was also studying the careers of her favorite country music stars, and she learned that most of them got their start in Nashville, Tennessee, which many people called Music City USA. So, Taylor begged her mom to take her there. In Nashville, Taylor marched up and down Music Row, a street lined with all the major record labels and recording studios. She knocked on every door, handing her karaoke demo tapes to whoever answered.

Hello, My name is Taylor Swift and I – 

Hello, my name is Taylor – 

Hello, my name –

No one was interested, but Taylor refused to let that dash her spirit. She knew the stage was where she belonged. When she got back home, she signed up to sing at even more karaoke contests and county fairs too. She taught herself more songs and pitched herself to local sports venues as an opening act. Soon enough, she was singing at every baseball diamond and basketball court in town. She even got to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a packed audience at a Philadelphia 76ers game!

But as her singing career began to pick up, things at school began to slide downhill. Taylor got teased about her wild, curly hair, about being tall and gangly, and even about singing country music. 

Instead of letting all those mean words intimidate her though, Taylor decided to use her feelings about what was going on to inspire her music. She started writing her own lyrics, turning these tough moments into catchy hooks and verses. Even when she could hear people whispering rude comments about her, Taylor sat at her desk with her head high. Then, when the school bell rang, she went home and wrote a song all about it. 

Taylor threw herself into songwriting, filling dozens of notebooks with lyrics and ideas. As she wove her words into melodies, she realized something was missing: musical accompaniment! So, she decided to learn guitar. She got a 12-string guitar, which makes a rich, varied sound. It’s also a lot harder to play than one with 6 strings. 

It took blood, sweat, and tears to get good at that instrument. Literally. Taylor looked up riffs and techniques online and practiced so much, her fingers bled regularly. Still, feeling the strings thrumming against her sore skin as she sang along was truly Taylor’s favorite thing to do. And she was creating songs full of honesty and passion.

Taylor’s parents saw how committed she was to becoming a music star and they wanted to support her anyway they could. So, when Taylor was thirteen, the Swift family packed up and moved to a suburb of Nashville. There, she could be close to the big-time country music labels. This time as she headed to Music City, Taylor was determined to land a record deal. With a new demo tape chock-full of her own original songs, she marched back to Music Row

Hello, my name is Taylor Swift, and I’ve got something you need to hear. 

This time, she got signed by RCA Records, a very famous record label. Then, Taylor’s career exploded. She started playing bigger and bigger venues. She took the stage with fierce confidence and trained her voice to reach every corner of the room. She added high-octane dance moves that had audiences cheering. One night, while Taylor was performing at a café packed with up-and-coming songwriters, she caught the attention of Scott Borchetta. Scott was a record executive with his own label, and when he heard Taylor’s voice, everything else in the room went silent. He knew he needed to represent her. When RCA offered her another one-year contract, Taylor decided to take a chance and sign with Scott instead. 

On October 24, 2006, 16-year-old Taylor took the music industry by storm when she released her self-titled debut album. It was a very personal album, about her first year in high school. Her songs sprung to life with vivid images of adolescent friendships, crushes, and heartbreaks. Taylor made millions of girls around the world feel seen and heard — maybe for the first time. The 11-track album shot to the top of pop and country charts, with five songs reaching platinum, meaning they sold over a million copies each in the United States. After the album’s release, Taylor was honored with the Horizon Award for “Best New Artist” from the Country Music Association and the prestigious “Top Female Vocalist” trophy from the Academy of Country Music Awards. And she was just getting started. 

Once she finished high school – with straight A’s no less! – Taylor poured all her energy into her music career. She wanted to explore different genres, and started experimenting outside her country music rhythms. 

In 2014, she released a new album called “1989”. It was a bold detour from her country roots. Instead of acoustic guitar and lyrics about small-town memories, she had crackling synths and punk-rock drums. She sang about what it was like being young and famous. In the song “Blank Space,” Taylor pushed back against the media’s judgments of her dating life, refusing to let other people decide who or how she loved. In “Shake It Off,” she made it clear that no rumor or hateful comment was going to get her down. The album was a radical change for not just her sound, but her identity. Taylor was singing as an adult now, encouraging listeners to trust their intuition and stand up for themselves.

Soon after she released “1989”, Taylor got a chance to put her motivating messages into action. Around this time, music streaming apps like Apple, Spotify, and others entered the market. Instead of buying songs individually, users now had the option to pay a small flat fee and get unlimited access to millions of songs. This was hard on artists: it meant a huge paycut. When Apple announced it wouldn’t pay artists for the first few months of its streaming service, she wrote another letter, this time titled “To Apple, Love Taylor.” 

“We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.” 

Who could argue with that? 

Her letter went viral, and within twenty four hours, Apple reversed its policy. Taylor’s bravery started a huge conversation about protecting artists in this streaming era. 

At the same time, Taylor was still producing new music at a dizzying rate. She also realized that in her contract with Scott Borchetta, she didn’t own the master recordings to her songs. Even though she’d written or co-written every song that she’d made at Scott’s record label, and that writing credit belonged to her, it was Scott who owned the finished song and was getting money from them. 

This was very upsetting to Taylor. She tried to buy the rights to her songs from Scott, but he refused. Instead, he sold his record label to a man named Scooter Braun, and with it the rights to all of Taylor’s songs up to that point. 

Now, Taylor was fired up. Scooter wasn’t just any random executive; he was a famous bully who’d been targeting Taylor for years. She couldn’t believe that he now owned millions of dollars worth of her music.

Still, one of Taylor’s greatest gifts was always the ability to turn heartbreak into hope. In a stroke of pure business genius, she came up with a plan​ to reclaim what was rightfully hers. She would go back through all the albums she didn’t own and re-record them under her own name so they could be completely hers.

See, Scooter owned the individual songs, but Taylor held the writing rights, which meant she could re-record and release any song she’d written! So that’s exactly what she did!

Taylor made sure to replicate each song with perfect precision, using the same band members and collaborative artists. She also added special, never-before-heard bonus tracks to each album, giving her fans a special treat. Not that they needed it — her millions of loyal followers, known as Swifties, have always been devoted to her. When Taylor shared with them how she’d been cheated out of owning her music, Swifties around the globe boycotted the Scooter-owned records, waiting until Taylor released a version all her own.

Today, with four albums left to re-record, Taylor is well on her way to owning all of her work — proving to bullies like Scooter and Scott that nobody messes with Taylor Swift. 

She is also the CEO of her own management company, where she uses her power within the music industry to support other artists. Taylor knows that art can inspire and change the world, especially when you believe in your voice, and help others find theirs too.

As she says, “My hope for the future, not just in the music industry, but in every young girl I meet . . . is that they all realize their worth and ask for it.”

Rebels, this is our hope for you too.