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8 April 2021

I was a teenage Taylor Swift fan – before Fearless, she was our little secret

The success of Swift’s breakthrough record was a bittersweet moment for us, her earliest British superfans.

By Sarah Carson

It was 2008, and it couldn’t be much longer before I’d become best friends with Taylor Swift. I was 16, and for two whole years I had displayed a scrupulous devotion to Taylor that had long surpassed unhealthy. She only had one album out – her breakthrough, Fearless, was yet to be released – and I was desperate for more. Not a day went by when I didn’t tell her as much, via a comment on her MySpace page – the pink, floral Holy Land where my schoolfriends and I first discovered her music, and where we worshipped daily.

“Hi Taylor <3” it would begin. “Thank you so much for your music. ‘Sparks Fly’ is the best song I have ever heard in my life! Please put it on the new album and please, please come to the UK soon. My friends and I made a music video to ‘I’m Only Me When I’m With You’ – we are your biggest fans here, we would love it if you watched it on YouTube!! Please reply!! lovelovelove, Sarah.”

Those comments have long faded away with so many other fragments of the Noughties internet, but once again I find myself waiting for that same “new” album: on 9 April, Swift will release a new version of her second record, Fearless (Taylor’s Version), one of the six early albums she is re-recording after losing the rights to her masters.

This time, there are no sleepless nights, no daily countdowns, no frantic calls to a Tennessee warehouse to track the location of the special edition box set. But listening will take me back to a time when Swift was still just an 18-year-old country singer starting to get big in America, who no one else we knew had ever heard of. She hadn’t written “Love Story”, and was still dreaming of a crossover hit that would enter the pop charts. Our dream was to see her live – and meet her.

The themes of her early songs – hope, betrayal, confusion, exclusion – transcended geography

Before Fearless, when critics and the rest of the world started listening in, being a Taylor Swift fan was a way of showing that your tastes were different to those of your peers. Her first album – and the early bootlegs, YouTube rips and radio demos – captured the playfulness, drama and intimacy of being a teenage girl. Swift had moved to Nashville from Pennsylvania; her outsider position made her take on a Southern adolescence accessible to everyone, regardless of whether or not one’s own involved slamming screen doors, sneaking out late or boys tapping on windows. Swift’s lyrics were specific – “the moon like a spotlight on the lake”, “a redneck heartbreak who’s really bad at lying” – and featured the names of real boys she knew like “Cory” or “Drew”.

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I’d never met anyone named “Cory” or “Drew”, I’d never been cheated on and I couldn’t drive a pick-up truck, but the themes of her early songs – hope, betrayal, confusion, exclusion, and, overwhelmingly, a sense of being unremarkable but wanting to be special – transcended geography. We looked for ourselves inside her life, assumed her experiences as our own, and armed ourselves with the wisdom she’d wrought from them before us. She had 17 months on me, but milestones flash past at that age. Knowing her, in turn, helped us know ourselves.

Every day, we monitored her movements, press coverage, radio appearances and song listings on the Sony Music Publishing index, collating our findings on forums called Taylorswiftweb, Amazingly Talented and Dark Blue Tennessee. We moderated discussion boards and Tumblr pages long before Swift joined the platform herself; we’d spread physical flyers and social media posts through a street team agency called “In4merz”. Her success felt like ours, and it was easy to keep abreast of her rise when social media still seemed small and benign.

If you had the funds to prove your adoration, you could buy all the merchandise (signed sheet music, singing dolls) and track down everything she wore from Abercrombie, Topshop and French Connection, right down to the tattered leather Lucky Brand bracelet around her wrist embroidered with the words “LIVE IN LOVE”. True fans knew that was where she lifted the signature line that ended all her social posts, the one we always parroted back to her: “lovelovelove”, just one of the many edicts we clung to like talismans. The most fervently quoted was “never never never give up”, taken from a sign above a doorway on her tour bus.

We made friendships with girls around the world on those forums, met up on holiday and formed a tiny cohort of British superfans who would, in future, reconnect at every show. There was always an element of competition: demonstrating your loyalty, insight and dedication could yield exclusive rewards from within the community (the most-trusted “inner circle” of fans shared illegally accessed “rare songs” with each other), or even from Swift herself. If she saw you were a superfan, she might give you meet-and-greet passes, or invitations to album listening sessions and after-parties. She might even send you a MySpace comment.

The music itself was only half the appeal. I still wonder if it was just good timing, rather than a prophetic recognition of her talent, that meant we chose her as our idol. The other half was – and, for many fans, still is – the quest to understand her. We looked for hidden meanings in her lyrics, decoded the secret messages she hid in liner notes and crafted in-jokes and fan theories.

Taylor Swift and I were part of the first generation to shape our identities by performing them on the internet. Swift’s vulnerability and openness online, dressed up in time-worn diary-scrawl aesthetics, would have had us following her life, whether or not she was a pop star. As well as the blogs (“PLATINUM!!!! fndkjslgdfgj” “I met Shania and it was AWESOME”) and vlogs (filmed in London, or at the orthodontist) she posted, she would also regularly change her MySpace bio, letting us in a little more each time. “I will never straighten my hair to impress a guy ever again.” “I’m that really tall person that is blocking your view at a concert. On behalf of all of us, we’re sorry.” “I’m not that complicated. My complications come out in my songs.” The tone of her social media posts about Fearless (Taylor’s Version) recalls those days and blogs – her updates are similarly unbridled, full of emojis, but a little less childlike. “It was a real honour to get to be a teenager alongside you,” she wrote on Twitter in February.

Ours was a private and precious world: the more we shared her, and the older we grew, the more it seemed to slip away

People feel entitled to more of Swift now than she is comfortable to give. The same was true then. We added her friends, backing dancers, band – even Drew – on Facebook. We trawled backwards through her MySpace page to find the first ever comments left there by friends, then searched through their pages, too, until we reached her replies. There we found what we decided was the real Taylor, in many ways far more familiar to us than the perfect, well-behaved angel the industry demanded a young woman in music must be.

The real Taylor, it seemed, swore, drank and pleaded for attention from boys or other girls who might be reading. It was a youth far closer to our own than the swimming in the creek or the singing on the front porch we heard about in her music. We spent weeks speculating about the conclusions we couldn’t yet draw: would she vote for Obama in the election? Was she a Bible-belt conservative? Had she taken a chastity vow like other teenage artists at the time? Did she really drive a Hummer? We stole the private classroom banter we found online between Swift and her schoolfriends – childish references to deep-throating lollipops or shooting people with paintball guns – and bent them into our own inside jokes. Our fandom then was all-consuming, but fragile: she still felt like our secret. We were desperate for the rest of the world to listen in, but every time they did, it was bittersweet. Ours was a private and precious world: the more we shared her, and the older we grew, the more it seemed to slip away.

Two months before she released Fearless in 2008, Taylor Swift came to London. I saw the gig listing on my daily after-school Google of her name, and convinced myself the show – £10, ages 14+, King’s College London Student Union, 400 capacity – must be another Taylor Swift, a man, perhaps, who performed a totally different genre of music. I was shaking when I called my best friend to tell her. My dad rolled his eyes at the hysteria, but reluctantly allowed us to get the National Express coach down to the city unsupervised for the first time – “You’ll grow out of it.” We got lost on the Tube and ate bland, extortionately priced pasta in Covent Garden, leaving an obscene tip. We bought watered-down beers and hailed a black cab for a two-minute journey down the Strand.

On the title track, Swift urged herself and her growing cohort of teenage fans to be “in this moment now, capture it, remember it”. I remember the queue, where our chorus of girls in cowboy boots and sundresses sang “I’d Lie” and helped each other paint Swift’s lucky number 13 on the backs of our hands in sparkly eyeliner. I remember the support act, during which we begged the security guards to let us go first if she did a meet-and-greet, so we could still catch the midnight coach home to Leicester. I remember the moment she skipped out, in a black, glittery dress with her silver guitar, to “I’m Only Me When I’m With You”. Everything else – including the meet-and-greet, where I finally met my hero – is lost in a frenzy. My memory skips straight to the journey home, listening over and over to our phone recording of her new song “Love Story”, performed that night for the first time, trying to work out the lyrics.

That night marked the ending of something special. It was the last time we could ever see her in a venue so small. But it was also a beginning: the moment when being a Taylor Swift fan became, to use her own words, something more than “simply being a loser in a public place such as the internet”. It was the moment our digital bedroom devotion became real, the start of Swift’s pop career, and our first taste of adult freedoms. We were alive, independent – and fearless.

[see also Folklore reveals a more introspective side to Taylor Swift]

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