From McGraw to Midnights: A Retrospective of Taylor Swift’s Album Eras and Aesthetics

When did Taylor Swift turn into Taylor Swift? It’s not a simple query to reply. Swift is the consummate skin-shedder, ceaselessly toeing the road between self-expression and self-creation. On this sense, she’s also the consummate millennial: taught from youth to craft a persona, just for human emotion to blow it up. The difference is Swift, unlike so many her age, seems to thrive on this cycle. As much brand as flesh and blood, as much an inventor as historian (and, these days, re-inventor), Swift typically understands how she’ll be perceived higher than those tasked with perception. These traits make her an interesting, complex celebrity, but an undoubtedly masterful storyteller.

Swift shouldn’t be inauthentic, but neither is it difficult to note her maneuvers behind the scenes. Even her frequent use of “Easter eggs” in lyrics, music videos, album artwork and her own wardrobe invite fans to pay witness not simply to her genius, but to the lengths she’s gone to prove it. The trick is she wants us to feel in on the not-so-secret secret. As she sings in a track off her newest album, Midnights, “Nobody desired to play with me as a bit of kid / So I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since / To make them love me and make it seem effortless / That is the primary time I’ve felt the necessity to confess.”

It’s price exploring, then, how the course Swift has charted each shaped and stifled this love. Each of the singer’s 10 fundamental studio albums have arrived packaged with their very own “aesthetic,” as a lot of her fans are desirous to dissect. (They confer with the periods surrounding her albums as their very own “eras.”) With each release, Swift morphed and evolved, retooling herself while wrestling to disclose more truth.

So when did Swift the human turn into Swift the icon? Or, perhaps, when did Swift realize she may very well be each? Different critics and fans will let you know different stories: that she found herself in the course of the launch of her first solo tour; that she peaked years ago; that she’s at her most artful today; that she didn’t have true control until she began reclaiming her old songs. None or all of those theories may very well be true. Below, we’ll examine each of the artist’s so-called “eras,” keeping in mind the one obvious truth: Swift is just completely satisfied we’re being attentive.

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Taylor Swift (2006)

At first, the teenage Pennsylvania native referred to as Taylor Swift was a rustic darling through and thru. Her self-titled debut album, featuring soon-to-be hits including the wistful “Teardrops On My Guitar” and “Tim McGraw,” was buoyed by the Nashville twang she worshipped growing up—and adopted to slot in. Appropriately, she donned the cowboy boots to match.

Those early years saw Swift transition from patronized underdog to opening act (she performed ahead of stars including George Strait and Brad Paisley), cementing her ingenue status but coloring inside the lines of country music marketing. Still, she was smart enough to lean into a picture that heralded her as each the Next Big Thing and the girl round the corner, enticing but approachable. Swift opted for prom-like gowns on the red carpet and boho-lite sundresses for photo shoots and concert appearances, but her unrestrained curls and winking charm spoke of a talent that may soon eclipse the constraints of her genre.

Major Songs:

  • “Teardrops On My Guitar”
  • “Should’ve Said No”
  • “Picture to Burn”
  • “Our Song”
  • “Tim McGraw”

Major Moments:

  • Made Nashville her home base
  • Signed with Big Machine Records
  • Became youngest person to win Nashville Songwriters’ Association Songwriter/Artist of the Yr award
  • Dated Joe Jonas

taylor swift fearless era

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Fearless (2008)

Finally, headliner status: With the discharge of Swift’s sophomore album, the true craze began in earnest. Outfitted in an array of mini dresses and princess gowns, schoolgirl skirts and sparkles, Swift launched her first solo tour with Fearless, a bolder, more confident sophomore album that was no less romantic than her debut. Armed with hits including “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me,” she began to modify her cowboy boots out for heels, but her lucky number 13 remained painted on the back of her hand. Although technically a rustic album, Fearless marked Swift’s most blatant first steps toward pop crossover as she earned fans (and play time) outside of the fundamental country stations.

The era also featured Swift’s earliest forays into the celebrity drama that may chase—and, at times, devour—much of her profession. Throughout the singer’s acceptance speech on the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Kanye West stepped onto the stage to interrupt, arguing that Beyoncé was more deserving of the win. (Swift and West would go on to reconcile, only to fall out again years later.) The bonds between Swift’s lyrics and her personal relationships snapped into sharp focus as former romantic partners spoke out about her—either directly or not directly—following their breakups. Tabloids capitalized on the fascination to (mostly) disappointing results, but ultimately the media blitz worked within the star’s favor: She was now not just an artist but a personality.

Major Songs:

  • “Love Story”
  • “You Belong With Me”
  • “Fifteen”
  • “Fearless”
  • “Without end & All the time”

Major Moments:

  • Released the primary country songs to top Billboard’s Pop Songs and Radio Songs charts
  • Launched the Fearless Tour
  • Won her first Grammys, including Album of the Yr
  • Hosted Saturday Night Live for the primary time
  • Was interrupted by Kanye West during her MTV VMAs speech, sparking years-long tension between the 2
  • Starred within the film Valentine’s Day
  • Dated Taylor Lautner and John Mayer
  • First became close friends with Selena Gomez

taylor swift speak now album art and paparazzi shots

Getty Images/Leah Romero

Speak Now (2010)

Swift learned fast that if she wanted to take care of any control over her narrative, she’d need to put in writing it herself, in every possible sense. She’d already established herself as an completed young lyricist with a useful skill: She could distill hyper-specific emotions right into a product, something digestible, cathartic and—most significantly—addicting. Those that loved Swift, then and now, at all times wanted more.

In 2010, she silenced the naysayers who argued the true credit was attributable to her co-collaborators; with Speak Now, there may very well be absolute confidence whose pen had conjured this much passion. The album was the primary Swift wrote on her own, one she also co-produced. The tracks maintained her affable femininity—the giggle near the top of the titular track “Speak Now” stands out—while affirming her aptitude for excavating her own heartbreak. “Back to December” and “Dear John” were clearly written about her ex-boyfriends Lautner and Mayer, and the intimacy of the main points inside each song brought fans closer in what was already an intense parasocial relationship. Her concert sets took on a recent performance quality, her line deliveries more dramatic, her stages exploding with fireworks.

When meeting fans or holding hands on the road with recent beaus Jake Gyllenhaal and Conor Kennedy, Swift wearing a preppier mixture of oxford heels, beanies, collared dresses and cable-knit sweaters, while her stage wardrobe retained its fairytale sweetness with a touch of the 1989-era edge to return. Perhaps most significantly, she slashed her bangs into their now-signature blunt style. With every move, Swift was inching closer to the pop princess she’d turn into.

Major Songs:

  • “Mine”
  • “Back to December”
  • “Mean”
  • “The Story Of Us”
  • “Dear John”
  • “Higher Than Revenge”

Major Moments:

  • Launched the Speak Now World Tour
  • Won multiple Grammys and was nominated for first Golden Globe
  • Dated Jake Gyllenhaal and Conor Kennedy

taylor swift red era concert images

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Red (2012)

Widely considered one in all Swift’s best records and a fan-favorite to the purpose of fervent debate, Red was so far more than a breakup album, and it inspired an era with implications beyond Swift’s personal life. With the primary drum beats of the opener “State of Grace,” the singer moved with clarity of intention: Now, greater than ever, she knew her brand. And it was equally clear how much fighting Swift was doing behind closed doors for the sake of that brand, taking larger swings on the wall between country and pop with hits like “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “22,” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” which grew into teenage anthems across the country (and inspired some memorable memes).

As Pitchfork wrote in its (eventual) 9.0 rating of the album, “Red can be the primary record where Swift directly echoes [Joni] Mitchell’s writing, a once potential and hazy inspiration now coming into view.” Swift’s lyrics are at their smartest, most poignant here, making the standout tracks not “I Knew You Were Trouble” or “22” however the sleeper hits “Begin Again” and “All Too Well,” the latter of which Swift re-recorded in 10-minute form nearly a decade after its initial release. And away from the studio Swift was cresting into true superstar status, selling out stadiums and dating heartthrobs.

Swift’s at all times been an autumn girl at heart, and the Red era was marked by her knit scarves, raincoats, and saddle-bag purses, in addition to her concert attire of high-waisted shorts, striped shirts, and ever-present sequins. A touch of scarlet accompanied her wherever she went, whether in her wardrobe or on her lips.

Major Songs:

  • “I Knew You Were Trouble.”
  • “All Too Well”
  • “22”
  • “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
  • “Begin Again”
  • “Every little thing Has Modified”

Major Moments:

  • Launched the Red Tour
  • Earned her first Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single within the U.S.
  • Dated Harry Styles
  • Feuded with fellow star Katy Perry, the idea of which might encourage the 1989 hit “Bad Blood.” (The 2 are actually friends.)

taylor swift 1989 album and concert images

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1989 (2014)

The 1989 era is maybe one in all Swift’s most memorable, and that’s no accident. The star’s face was in every single place, particularly on Instagram, where her parties and paparazzi shots with members of the so-called Squad became the stuff of legend. She moved to Latest York City; swapped her look from schoolgirl to uptown girl; replaced the oxfords with pumps and the sweaters with coordinating crop tops and skirts. A gaggle of models and celebrities became her near-constant companions, including Selena Gomez, Camila Cabello, Karlie Kloss, Hailee Steinfeld, Kendall Jenner, Cara Delevingne and Gigi Hadid.

With the introduction of her first-ever true pop album, Swift became not only a tabloid feature but a fixation. Commentators couldn’t appear to agree if she was too skinny or not skinny enough, or if her infamous shocked face was cute or annoying. Her star-packed video for “Bad Blood” spurred rampant theorizing about its not-so-subtle jabs at Katy Perry, and her messy break-up with DJ and producer Calvin Harris was extensively covered after the 2 wiped any evidence of their joint dates and vacations from social media. After Swift was spotted kissing actor Tom Hiddleston only days later, the drama reached a fever pitch with one fiery tweet from Harris: “I do know you’re off tour, and you wish someone recent to try to bury like Katy ETC, but I’m not that guy, sorry. I won’t allow it.”

In fact, then Kanye West and his then-wife Kim Kardashian got involved. After the discharge of West’s controversial “Famous” music video, which featured a wax figure of a unadorned Swift and the lyrics “I made that bitch famous”—something Swift was apparently none too pleased about—Kardashian released Snapchat videos depicting a phone conversation between West and Swift. In these videos, the singer allegedly gave approval to the song, though Swift soon hit back, posting on social media: “Where is the video of Kanye telling me he was going to call me ‘that bitch’ in his song? It doesn’t exist since it never happened.”

The 1989 era will ceaselessly be remembered for its flying-too-close-to-the-sun sear, nevertheless it was nevertheless one of the essential periods in Swift’s life. She won additional Grammys, proved her country-to-pop transition to be all but effortless, and learned when and the right way to fight for herself—perhaps best in her 2017 case against the radio host David Mueller, whom she sued for groping her during her Red tour. Swift’s fame might’ve taken a plunge after 1989, but she was already a master at comebacks.

Major Songs:

  • “Shake It Off”
  • “Bad Blood”
  • “Blank Space”
  • “Style”
  • “Out of the Woods”
  • “Wildest Dreams”

Major Moments:

  • Released her first true pop album
  • Moved to Latest York City
  • Launched the 1989 World Tour
  • Assembled the so-called Squad
  • Won additional Grammys, including Album of the Yr
  • Removed her music (temporarily) from Spotify and Apple Music in protest of the platforms’ royalty practices
  • Sued David Mueller for sexual assault
  • Faced controversy with the discharge of Kanye West’s “Famous”
  • Dated Calvin Harris, Tom Hiddleston, and Joe Alwyn

taylor swift reputation era concert images

Getty Images/Leah Romero

Status (2017)

It was the most effective of times and the worst of times. A darker, moodier Swift returned from her exile with a recent love and a recent sound, one which was sexier, angrier, and more self-protective. Long gone was the wide-eyed girl on Fearless. “She’s largely abandoned effervescence, wonderment, and narrative,” as Pitchfork put it. “Say goodbye to maple lattes and hello to whiskey on ice, to wine spilling in the tub, to Old Fashioneds mixed with a heavy hand.” Not everyone appreciated this sharp, reclusive chapter within the Swift story on the time, but in hindsight it’s difficult to assume her profession without it.

While often lambasted as a cringey argument against her 1989-era “cancellation,” Status in reality revealed probably the most about this Swift 2.0 in its softer moments. “Delicate,” “Dress,” and “Latest Yr’s Day” spoke to a fluttery, fragile peace Swift had discovered inside herself after falling from grace. Unlike the wild candor of her earlier albums, Status spoke to the sacred intimacy of a recent relationship, one she’d maintain to at the present time with the low-key actor Joe Alwyn. This Swift was battle-scarred, sure, but she was also stronger. Echoing the tongue-in-cheek ferocity of 1989’s “Blank Space,” Swift swatted on the tropes so often hurled against her: that of the spoiled child, the promiscuous pop star, the drama queen, the hopeless romantic. And she or he cleverly snatched a motif thrust at her as an insult—the treacherous snake—by making it the symbol of her recent era. Snake statues lined the stage on her Status tour, her skin dotted with serpentine jewelry as her wardrobe grew heavier, darker, but no less glittering. It was a type of armor, and it suited her well.

Major Songs:

  • “Look What You Made Me Do”
  • “End Game”
  • “Delicate”
  • “Dress”
  • “Getaway Automotive”
  • “…Ready For It?”

Major Moments:

  • Wiped her social media accounts
  • Became probably the most awarded female musician in American Music Awards history
  • Launched Status Stadium Tour
  • Released the Status concert film on Netflix

taylor swift lover era concert images

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Lover (2019)

Just as quickly as she’d embraced the shrouded cape of Status, Swift shed the maroon lipstick for the intense, effervescent pink of the Lover era. This, perhaps, was Swift at her campiest—and, depending on whom you ask, her most delightful. Within the titular track of the star’s seventh album, she swore to be “overdramatic and true” to her partner, a delicious promise each self-deprecating and self-indulgent, a line Swift can straddle like no other. The album did away with Status’s edgy theatrics for bouncy synth-pop, filled with upbeat riffs and swooning trills. (It was also the primary album to feature anything resembling a political statement from Swift, through her pro-LGBTQ rights anthem “You Need To Calm Down.”) She filled her closet with Stella McCartney, with pastel denim jackets and bubble-gum pink Gucci loafers, dip-dying the ends of her hair blue. What on the surface seemed superficial—the rainbow explosions of the “ME!” music video, as an illustration—solidified into something real with the exacting rhythms of “False God” and “Cornelia Street.”

Swift was completely satisfied and in love, having fun with the longest and most private relationship of her life, one each she and Alwyn have continued to guard with religious attention to detail. She dropped a raw and revealing documentary, opening up about her struggles with disordered eating and her stance on politics, and appeared within the gleefully disastrous musical adaptation Cats. But away from the highlight, she was strategizing for what The Latest York Times proclaimed “The Pop Music Civil War of 2019.” After her record label Big Machine was purchased by Ithaca Holdings and the music manager Scooter Braun, giving them the rights to her old masters, Swift called the business deal her “worst-case scenario” and announced she would re-record her old albums. The move marked a departure within the long-accepted problematic practices of music ownership and distribution, and further solidified Swift’s status as a formidable self-advocate.

Major Songs:

  • “ME!”
  • “The Man”
  • “Cruel Summer”
  • “You Must Calm Down”
  • “The Archer”

Major Moments:

  • Went to bat with Ithaca Holdings and Scooter Braun
  • Released first album from her recent cope with Universal Music Group and Republic Records
  • Appeared within the film Cats
  • Released the Netflix documentary Miss Americana

taylor swift folklore era images

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folklore (2020)

After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Swift’s plans for a Lover tour, she retreated into isolation, from which she conjured the atmospheric, indie-adjacent folklore. Working with The National’s Aaron Dessner, she dropped the album as a surprise in the course of the lonely, agonized summer of 2020, delighting fans in such desperate need of the cathartic escapism the album offered. With the mood and intention of a grand reset, folklore is by far probably the most fictional of Swift’s albums. But it surely isn’t any less introspective than Swift’s prior works—a storybook portrait of Americana, nostalgia, and wanderlust, knitted along with Swift’s breathy alto and melancholy chords. In “the last great american dynasty,” “madwoman” and “mirrorball,” her capability for allegory and metaphor crystallized into something prismatic and powerful, proving once and for all that Swift could deliver a magnum opus from greater than just her autobiography. This was also, notably, her first time collaborating with Alwyn, who penned a couple of lines under the pseudonym William Bowery.

While largely unable to perform live attributable to pandemic restrictions, Swift worked her magic from afar, donning a summery cottagecore aesthetic of gingham and polos and lace, her bangs mussed and braid untidy. In black and white photos, she romped through forests and fields in chunky boots and spaghetti-strap dresses, ceaselessly self-mythologizing. When she announced on Instagram one November night that she had “not loads happening in the meanwhile,” fans were smart enough to not consider a word.

Major Songs:

  • “cardigan”
  • “the last great american dynasty”
  • “exile (feat. Bon Iver)”
  • “mirrorball”
  • “august”
  • “betty”

Major Moments:

  • Dropped her first-ever surprise album
  • Endorsed Joe Biden for president in the course of the 2020 election

taylor swift evermore era concert images

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evermore (2020)

Sure enough, Swift followed up folklore only a couple of months later with its wintery twin sister, evermore. Although the folklore and evermore “eras” are sometimes treated as one, it’s price examining them because the separate experiences they presented within the drawn-out weeks of the pandemic’s peak. After surprise-dropping evermore, Swift wrote on Instagram, “Previously I’ve at all times treated albums as one-off eras and moved onto planning the following one after an album was released. There was something different with folklore. In making it, I felt less like I used to be departing and more like I used to be returning.” evermore presented a possibility for an extended stay inside her own mind, where her narratives could break free from the demands of the big-stage, big-money playbook. The result was one other slow, soft, ethereal album, filled with hidden gems and made for cold nights by the hearth light.

The record also marked one other of Swift’s turning points. If Status was penned within the grey area between self-defense and self-acceptance, and Lover within the rainbow haze of being adored, evermore evokes the fluid nature of selfhood itself. This Swift is more translucent, less up in arms, comfortable moving inside the contours of her now-adult life. She can be more at peace together with her history, and the country-inspired tracks on evermore reflect that maturity.

Draped in long-sleeved floral maxi gowns, plaid wool coats and turtlenecks, her hair a muted dirty blonde, Swift won her third Album of the Yr Grammy after announcing her first re-recorded albums were already on the way in which. Inside months, each Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and Red (Taylor’s Version) hit shelves, revisiting the superstar’s old sound with the wisdom and care learned from her folklore and evermore days.

Major Songs:

  • “willow”
  • “no body, no crime (feat. HAIM)”
  • “coney island (feat. The National)”
  • “champagne problems”

Major Moments:

  • Began re-recording and re-releasing her old albums with the addendum “Taylor’s Version”
  • Won her next Grammys
  • Directed and released the music video for “All Too Well (10-Minute Version),” starring Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien
  • Received an honorary Doctor of High-quality Arts degree from Latest York University, where she gave the 2022 commencement address

taylor swift midnights era awards show images and paparazzi shots

Getty Images/Leah Romero

Midnights (2022)

Happily back within the pop seat but with the inspiration of folklore and evermore beneath her feet, Swift returned together with her tenth album Midnights in the autumn of 2022. Inspired by 13 such witching hours throughout her 32 years, the album is a paradoxically futuristic retrospective, pairing producer Jack Antonoff’s sonic indulgences with Swift’s own musings on the past. Such territory has at all times proved fertile ground for the star, but as Lindsay Zoladz wrote in The Latest York Times, “Here, Swift sounds more authentically like an envoy of millennial unease than she has in a while.”

In Red, a whimsical Swift sang, “We could get married, have ten kids and teach ’em the right way to dream.” Midnights takes a distinct stance, addressing the constant questions she and Alwyn receive about their engagement status: “Only type of girl they see is a one night or a wife.” With age and the time that comes with it, Swift views her position atop pop music’s pinnacle with a recent pragmatism, precious if not essential. Still, to call Swift a cynic might as well be sacrilege. She is just as calculating and as lovestruck as ever, toasting Alwyn with the nuanced bop “Lavender Haze” and the relaxed ballad “Sweet Nothing.” While done up within the aesthetics of the Nineteen Seventies—old Polaroids and disco glamour—Midnights actually takes cues from every one in all Swift’s past albums, melting them right into a brew potent enough to face by itself.

On the red carpet, Swift’s outfitted herself in diamonds and stars, smart suits and crowd pleasing textures; at home, in cashmere and stripes. Much of the Midnights era still awaits us: A tour is definite, as are announcements of Swift’s next re-recordings. All but assured is that the most effective is yet to return.

Major Songs:

  • “Anti-Hero”
  • “Midnight Rain”
  • “Bejeweled”
  • “Lavender Haze”
  • “Karma”
  • “You’re On Your Own, Kid”
  • “Would’ve Could’ve Should’ve”

Major Moments:

Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers film, TV, books and fashion. 

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