As Taylor Swift approaches her upcoming 30th birthday, happening on December 13 of this year, she’s begun taking stock of the things she’s learned over the course of her first three decades on the planet. In March, she let fans in on a handful of them—30 of them, to be exact—via a self-penned piece in Elle and near the very top, perhaps belying its importance to the superstar, is the following:
“Being sweet to everyone all the time can get you into a lot of trouble. While it may be born from having been raised to be a polite young lady, this can contribute to some of your life’s worst regrets if someone takes advantage of this trait in you. Grow a backbone, trust your gut, and know when to strike back. Be like a snake—only bite if someone steps on you.”
As the last few years have proven, Swift has certainly grown unafraid to bite as a means of defending herself and the things she believes in. Not bad for someone whose so-called silence invited accusations of standing for nothing from critics.
Take this weekend’s response to the news that celebrity music manager Scooter Braun, whose list of past and present clientele includes Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Kanye West and Demi Lovato, was the new owner of her entire music catalogue, thanks to his media holding company Ithaca Holdings LLC. reaching a “finalized” contract” with Big Machine Label Group, Swift’s former record label, to acquire the company. The deal, made for a reported $300 million, includes Big Machine Music, which means that Braun retain ownership of the master recordings of each of the six albums she’s released to date, as well as music from other artists such as Reba McEntire, Sheryl Crow and Lady Antebellum. And, as Swift admitted in an incendiary Tumblr post, it left her feeling “sad and grossed out.”
After explaining that she’d hoped to own her work prior to departing Big Machine for Universal Music Group (Big Machine’s distributor) in November of last year, only to be offered a deal to “‘earn’ one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in,” as she wrote, she walked away from her past so that her future wouldn’t be tied to a company that founder Scott Borchetta was clearly intent on selling to the highest bidder.
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“Some fun facts about today’s news: I learned about Scooter Braun’s purchase of my masters as it was announced to the world,” she wrote. “All I could think about was the incessant, manipulative bullying I’ve received at his hands for years.”
As she explained in her post, she felt that Scooter’s fingerprints were all over West and wife Kim Kardashian West‘s attempts to assassinate her character in the aftermath of the “Famous” lyrics debacle, which infamously find the rapper claiming that he “made that bitch famous,” appearing in a screenshot of a FaceTime call between Bieber and West that the former shared with the since-deleted caption “Taylor swift what up” that she believes was intended to “bully [her] online about it” and allowing then-client West to release “a revenge porn music video which strips my body naked.”
“Essentially, my musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it. This is my worst case scenario. This is what happens when you sign a deal at 15 to someone for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept. And when that man says, ‘Music has value,’ he means its value is beholden to men who had no part in creating it,” she continued. “When I left my masters in Scott’s hands, I made peace with the fact that eventually he would sell them. Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine the buyer would be Scooter. Any time Scott Borchetta has heard the words ‘Scooter Braun’ escape my lips, it was when I was either crying or trying not to. He knew what he was doing; they both did. Controlling a woman who didn’t want to be associated with them. In perpetuity. That means forever.”
Taylor’s move to take the two men involved in the deal to task has, predictably, drawn a line in the sand in the music industry, with folks like Brendon Urie, Halsey, Iggy Azalea, BFF Todrick Hall and other BFF Selena Gomezs mom Mandy Teefey publicly supporting Swift, while Bieber, Lovato, and Scooter’s wife Yael Cohen Braun, who accused Swift of bullying her husband by going public with her beef, thereby sending her fan base his way, coming out in support of him.
While the minutiae of the deal and who knew about what when remains unclear, with Borchetta and Cohen Braun both furnishing receipts of some sort in their rebuttals to Swift that challenge her timeline, what is clear is that Swift is speaking up not just to shine a light on an injustice she’s experiencing, but also to prevent other impressionable artistic youth from falling prey to the same sort of contract she willingly signed back in her early teens.
“Thankfully, I left my past in Scott’s hands and not my future,” she wrote. “And hopefully, young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation. You deserve to own the art you make.”
It’s hardly the first time that Swift has vociferously defended herself while also trying to move the needle forward for those less fortunate than her, be they artists or women in general.
Back in 2013, Swift informed bosses at Denver’s KYGO-FM that morning show personality David Mueller had sexually assaulted her, groping her at a meet-and-greet event as they posed for a photo alongside Mueller’s then-girlfriend Shannon Melchor. “When we were posing for the photo, he stuck his hand up my dress and grabbed onto my ass cheek,” she explained to TIME in 2017. “I squirmed and lurched sideways to get away from him, but he wouldn’t let go. At the time, I was headlining a major arena tour and there were a number of people in the room that saw this plus a photo of it happening. I figured that if he would be brazen enough to assault me under these risky circumstances and high stakes, imagine what he might do to a vulnerable, young artist if given the chance. It was important to report the incident to his radio station because I felt like they needed to know. The radio station conducted its own investigation and fired him.”
Two years after the radio host saw his employment status at the station go from “current” to “former,” he filed suit against Swift, accusing her of lying and suing him for making him lose his job. He wanted $3 million in damages. As result, she brought a countersuit against Mueller for assault and battery, taking him to trial.
By 2017, she was on the stand, showing an unflappable, steely determination to defend herself in the face of a man who’d wronged her and a legal team intent on discrediting her. When asked why the photos of the incident didn’t show the front of her skirt wrinkled as evidence of any wrongdoing, she answered plainly, “Because my ass is located at the back of my body.” When she was asked if she felt guilty about Mueller losing his job, she responded, “I’m not going to let you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault. Here we are years later, and I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions—not mine.”
In the end, the jury threw out Mueller’s unfair dismissal case, ruling in Swift’s favor, awarding the singer the symbolic $1 dollar she’d asked for. In a statement released after the verdict was rendered, she said, “I acknowledge the privilege that I benefit from in life, in society and in my ability to shoulder the enormous cost of defending myself in a trial like this. My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard. Therefore, I will be making donations in the near future to multiple organizations that help sexual assault victims defend themselves.”
A year later, Swift spoke to fans during a Tampa, Fla. stop on her Reputation Stadium Tour about the incident, thanking them for sticking by her during a “really, really horrible” time in her life. “I just think about all the people that weren’t believed, or the people who haven’t been believed, or the people who are afraid to speak up because they don’t think they will be believed,” Swift said. “And I just want to say that I’m sorry to everyone who ever wasn’t believed because I don’t know what turn my life would have taken if people hadn’t believed in me when I said that something happened.”
Over the years, Swift has also used her superstar muscle to advocate for what she believes she and all other artists deserve during this streaming revolution. In 2014, after penning an article for the Wall Street Journal in which she argued that “music should not be free” and that artists shouldn’t “underestimate themselves or undervalue their art,” she pulled her entire discography from Spotify.
“Music is changing so quickly, and the landscape of the music industry itself is changing so quickly, that everything new, like Spotify, all feels to me a bit like a grand experiment,” Swift told Yahoo that November, defending her position. “And I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists and creators of this music. And I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.”
The following June, she penned an open letter to fans, explaining why they wouldn’t be able to find her latest album, 1989, wouldn’t be made available on Apple Music once the service launched. As she explained, her issue lay with Apple Music’s decision not to pay artists during its free three-month trial for users to sign up. “I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company,” she wrote, adding that she was speaking on behalf of fellow musicians who had some hesitation at speaking out against the tech company.
“These are not the complaints of a spoiled, petulant child. These are the echoed sentiments of every artist, writer and producer in my social circles who are afraid to speak up publicly because we admire and respect Apple so much. We simply do not respect this particular call,” she added. “We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.”
A day later, Apple announced that it would, indeed, be paying artists during the free trial period.”When I woke up this morning and saw what Taylor had written, it really solidified that we needed a change,” Apple’s senior vice president of internet services and software Eddy Cue told Billboard in an interview after tweeting that the company was changing course. “And so that’s why we decide we will now pay artists during the trial period.”
By 2017, in time to celebrate 1989 selling over 10 million albums worldwide and, maybe, to tweak then-frenemy Katy Perry‘s launch of new album Witness, Swift’s music was back on Spotify and added to Amazon Music and Google Play as well.
At every turn, Swift has revealed herself to be someone who has certainly found that backbone she wrote about in Elle. After West claimed he made her famous, he accepted Album of the Year at the 58th Grammy Awards with a speech that didn’t mention the rapper by name, but spoke to him just the same. “As the first woman to win Album of the Year at the Grammys twice, I wanna say to all the young women out there: There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame,” she said. “But if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you’ll know that it was you and the people who love you that put you there, and that will be the greatest feeling in the world.”
When Kardashian West branded her a snake as she shared the questionably-recorded audio of a phone call between Swift and West as he was crafting “Famous,” she took the animal iconography on as a central motif in her next album and tour, which became the highest-grossing domestic tour by a woman ever.
“A few years ago, someone started an online hate campaign by calling me a snake on the internet,” Swift wrote in Elle. “The fact that so many people jumped on board with it led me to feeling lower than I’ve ever felt in my life, but I can’t tell you how hard I had to keep from laughing every time my 63-foot inflatable cobra named Karyn appeared onstage in front of 60,000 screaming fans. It’s the Stadium Tour equivalent of responding to a troll’s hateful Instagram comment with ‘lol.'”
When speaking with a German news outlet to promote new single “ME!” in May, she was asked if her 30th birthday meant she was going to settle down, get married and have kids soon. She shut that s–t down, saying, “I really do not think men are asked that question when they turn 30. So I’m not going to answer that.”
As she’s become more politically active, endorsing progressive candidates in her adopted home state of Tennessee, emphatically calling out President Trump, and advocating on behalf of the LGBTQIA community during this most recent Pride Month, after years of being criticized for sitting silently on the sidelines, she’s opened herself up to criticism from those who wish their pop stars would shut up—unless they’re spouting views identical to their own, of course. But it’s no different to the criticism she faced when she was silent, or when she dared to demand fair compensation for her art, or when she simply wanted to be believed as a victim of sexual assault. All of which she’s learned to look past.
“I learned to block some of the noise,” she wrote in Elle. “Social media can be great, but it can also inundate your brain with images of what you aren’t, how you’re failing, or who is in a cooler locale than you at any given moment. One thing I do to lessen this weird insecurity laser beam is to turn off comments…I’m also blocking out anyone who might feel the need to tell me to ‘go die in a hole ho’ while I’m having my coffee at nine in the morning. I think it’s healthy for your self-esteem to need less internet praise to appease it, especially when three comments down you could unwittingly see someone telling you that you look like a weasel that got hit by a truck and stitched back together by a drunk taxidermist. An actual comment I received once.”
As for those in real life who are bringing her strife—like, say, Braun and Borchetta, currently—she’s got a plan for dealing with that, as well.
“Banish the drama. You only have so much room in your life and so much energy to give to those in it,” she wrote. “Be discerning. If someone in your life is hurting you, draining you, or causing you pain in a way that feels unresolvable, blocking their number isn’t cruel. It’s just a simple setting on your phone that will eliminate drama if you so choose to use it.”
In other words, put quite simply, she’s learned how to shake it off.