Sad Dad Swiftie Wonders, Who is Taylor Swift?

Bryan James Henry
21 min readJul 24, 2023


Where do I begin this story? I guess New York City, winter of 2015, is one place to start. My wife and I flew up from Houston, where we live, to visit two friends living in Manhattan. Upon our arrival to their apartment, we were greeted with Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” blasting from their stereo in our honor. I didn’t know the song, or who wrote it. Of course, I did know who Taylor Swift was, in the abstract. I had heard of her. She was a country singer who then started making pop music. That was the totality of my understanding. I didn’t have a positive or negative opinion of her. I was indifferent. I attribute some of my ignorance about Taylor Swift to timing. I graduated high school in 2005, and she released her first album the next year. Perhaps, I would have been more exposed to her music had I not been in college with firmly established musical interests. In high school, my favorite songwriter was Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins. In college, I did a deep dive on Bob Dylan. My attraction to them stemmed from their ability to capture the entire spectrum of the human experience in their lyrics and music. They are both artists who have never stopped evolving or making new music. If you are unfamiliar with either of them, just know that there is a large musical chasm between, in Corgan’s case, songs like “Space Boy” and “An Ode to No One,” and in Dylan’s case, “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” In my youthful arrogance and self-importance, I believed that these were “serious” artists and I tended to only listen to “serious” music (Yes, I also listened to Radiohead). After the trip to New York City, I started listening to Taylor Swift’s 1989 while cleaning the house. At the time, I told myself it was a guilty pleasure or that I listened to it ironically. What’s wrong with some pop while you mop, right? Did I think Taylor Swift was a “serious” artist? No. If, at this moment, you think I’m a pretentious douche, then that’s understandable. If you want to hear the story about how I became a “Swiftie” who now considers Taylor Swift one of the greatest American songwriters since Bob Dylan, then keep reading.

Lover With Loved Ones

Like I said, while listening to 1989 I did not consider myself a Taylor Swift fan. I was completely ignorant of her music before 1989 and never listened to it. I knew she had won some awards for her country music, but it didn’t interest me. When Reputation was released in 2017, I didn’t even know about it. Things changed in 2019 with Lover. My daughter, who had travelled with us to New York City in 2015 while in the womb, was now a 4-year-old and Lover was some of the first music that our family listened to (and enjoyed) together. I’m talking dance parties in the living room, the album constantly playing in the car, and eventually being performed by a little person wearing a tutu. My wife and I believe strongly in equality and inclusion, so of course we appreciated “The Man” and “You Need To Calm Down.” My daughter’s favorite song was “Paper Rings” and we had to explain to her that the line “I hate accidents…” was not a reference to peeing your pants in the car. She also enjoyed saying the “bad” word (stup*d) in “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince.” In short, we just had so much fun and made so many memories listening to this album. Taylor Swift was suddenly part of our family, important to the people most important to me, in ways that Dylan and Corgan were not. I loved listening to Lover not just because it was a great album with great songs, but because I loved listening to my daughter sing.

Being a “sad dad,” a term borrowed from The Atlantic article “Taylor Swift and the Sad Dads,” with a penchant for the emo/indie scene, my two favorite tracks were “Lover” and “The Archer.” I heard something deeper and more profound in these songs. These weren’t pop songs. They also weren’t country songs. Again, forgive my arrogance, but listening to those songs I heard potential in Taylor Swift to become something more. More than what, you ask? Well, more than 1989, which is all I had heard at that point. I still viewed Taylor Swift as a pop artist, an extremely talented pop artist, but not a “serious” songwriter. Listening to these two songs, I felt that she could, if she chose, revert toward her country origins in an interesting way by doing a more indie/alternative/folk thing. If she wanted to, she could write entire albums with this sound, and it could be brilliant stuff. It wasn’t just the music that hinted at something more, it was the lyrics too. “The Archer” was the first time one of her songs made me look in the mirror and examine myself.

“I’ve been the archer / I’ve been the prey”

That line really caused me to reflect. I don’t pretend to be unique in this, but as a kid and teenager I was someone who took shit from other people, but also tore others down. I was bullied, and I was the bully. Why, in my early 30s, was a Taylor Swift song making me think about things I had said to someone in 10th grade? Only good songwriting does that…

Folklore Foretold

Then, to my delight, folklore was released in July 2020. And it was basically what I had told my wife I would love for Taylor Swift to do on her next album! The sound was, initially to my ears, completely different from her previous material. Later, as I listened to the rest of her albums, I saw more intimations of what would fully develop in folklore. The album was incredible. The music. The lyrics. The storytelling. The album became for my family, as I can only assume for so many others too, part of the soundtrack to our life during the pandemic. It literally played almost every day in our house. Songs took on entirely different, and personal meanings, in the context of what was going on in the world.

“I’ve been having a hard time adjusting…

I just wanted you to know / That this is me trying.”

“Watch you breathe in / Watch you breathing out.”

Then, in December 2020, our second daughter was born. Every single day for the first six months of her life, she fell asleep during at least one nap listening to folklore while we wore her in a baby carrier. I will never forget the rhythmic bouncing to “the 1” and “cardigan.” She was guaranteed to be asleep by the end of “exile.” To this day, almost three years later, if we are driving to Austin or somewhere on the Texas coast and she needs a car nap, we just put on folklore and she’s out in five minutes. Recently, however, she has started singing “the 1” so falling asleep takes a little longer. She only sings the last word of each line, but it’s quite adorable to hear.


Dylan, Corgan, and Swift, Oh My!

Of course, December 2020 also brought evermore. I couldn’t believe our luck that another new album was being released, but I also wasn’t surprised. She was clearly going through one of the most creative periods of her career and we just happened to be there to have our lives enriched by it. Unlike some fans who apparently view evermore as something akin to a collection of B-sides, I see folklore and evermore as a double album. For me, it’s her version of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Corgan’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which were also written during the height of their creativity. I’m not suggesting that Taylor Swift peaked with these two albums, just that there are similarities here for those willing to see them. Recall, Dylan produced three iconic albums in 1965–66: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Likewise, Corgan and The Smashing Pumpkins produced approximately 60 tracks released as Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in 1995 and The Aeroplane Flies High in 1996. The productivity during these periods, for both artists, was intense.

Similarly, Swift released four albums from 2019–2022: Lover, folklore, evermore, and Midnights. She has simply been on an artistic tear. Say what you will about Dylan and Corgan, maybe you’re a fan or maybe you can’t stand their voices, but they are still making high quality music. Taylor Swift is only 33 years old. We can only imagine how much music she will produce over the course of her life if she follows in Dylan’s footsteps, who continues to write new songs at the age of 82! Corgan, likewise, just released a triple-album with The Smashing Pumpkins at the age of 56. Of course, there is no pressure on Taylor Swift, as an artist, to do anything. She should, and hopefully will, produce new music on her timeline and nobody else’s. In fact, we have experienced such a burst of creativity the last few years, fans should probably not be surprised, or disappointed, if it takes a few years for the next album to arrive.

Taylor the Teacher

Having become, in my mind, a full-fledged Taylor Swift fan listening to folklore and evermore, I was excited and intrigued by the re-release of Fearless. What a unique way to encounter an artist’s back catalog, hearing the material re-recorded in the present. I assume that I’m not the only person unfamiliar with Swift’s earlier albums who is now encountering them for the first time as she re-releases them. My daughter was 6 when Fearless was re-released in 2021 and she immediately fell in love with it. For a while, Fearless replaced everything else in the car and at home. She started taking my phone, reading the lyrics as the songs played, and performing them in the backyard. Listening to my first-grader sing “Fifteen” I could see the future flashing before my eyes. Shit was going to get real soon. Before I knew it, she would have a boyfriend or girlfriend and heartbreak and everything that must be navigated during adolescence. For now, most of the lyrics went over her head and she had a very basic understanding of the word “crush” increasingly being discussed at school. She even got into an argument with a friend about whether girls could have crushes on girls. She was told that girls couldn’t marry girls, so we had to have a conversation about the law and religion. We explained that her friend was objectively, in a legal sense, incorrect. It was the law that girls could marry girls. We then explained that some people, a lot in Texas where we live, don’t think that girls should marry girls. Then, we talked about “You Need to Calm Down” and Pride month. We, like too many parents who identify as “religious nones,” explained to her that we needed to respect other people’s views even though they would often not respect ours. It wasn’t our place to attack people’s religious beliefs even though they would often use religion as a reason to attack others. This wasn’t the first time in our house that Taylor Swift had been applied to a real-world issue. That same year, my daughter started hearing sexist comments from some boys at school: “Girls aren’t good at sports.” “Girls aren’t good at science.” My wife turned to “Shake It Off” to inspire resiliency and confidence in the face of haters.

“Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake /

I shake it off, I shake it off”

Reputation and Red

I think it was between the re-release of Fearless and Red that we first listened to Reputation. My only impression of the album was that it was somehow “edgier” than the others but was still a pop record. One of my wife’s best friends, a devoted Swiftie who lives in North Carolina, swore by the album, saying it was one of her best despite some negative reviews and reactions. To be honest, I didn’t like some of the songs at first. We also decided that our daughter wasn’t old enough to listen to some of them. She has a very intense personality, and we just didn’t need her to have lines like these in her life:

“They say I did something bad /

And I’d do it over and over and over again if I could”

“Ooh, look what you made me do…”

She always loved the villain in movies, so it came as no surprise that Reputation became her new “favorite” album. She loved the harder sound and whole attitude of the record. Over time, we came to recognize that the album wasn’t that different from her other material, especially the second half of the record, which has some real gems. “…Ready For It?” became our daughter’s go-to song before her soccer games. As a family, we now had a full appreciation for how multi-faceted Taylor Swift was: country, pop, and indie folk. The next re-release we experienced was Red, which seemed to include all three genres of music. Somewhat akin to Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, which can be understood as a bridge between his folk and rock material, Red seems to be the transition from her country origins to pop, and on a few tracks, even hints at the indie folk sound to come. The album cover for the re-release even reminded me of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. The cover of Midnights would be, for me, an even more explicit nod to iconic Dylan album covers from the mid-1960s.

Music, Music, and More Music

With the re-release of Red, we felt like we had pretty much heard it all, but more was on the way. My family has simply been overloaded with Taylor Swift music (and not in a bad way). Longtime fans should recognize just how much material we have been exposed to for the first time in a span of just four years: Lover (2019), folklore (2020), evermore (2020), Fearless (2021), Reputation (2021), Red (2021), Midnights (2022), and Speak Now (2023). It has truly been a whirlwind experience. As newer fans, we just happened to start listening to her music while she was re-releasing her earlier albums. It would be like starting the Harry Potter series after the sixth book or movie was released. What other people experienced over fifteen years we experienced in five. We could binge Taylor Swift in ways that others hadn’t been able to. At home or in the car, we haven’t needed to ask what artist we’re going to listen to, but rather which Taylor Swift album. Like I said, we were more than grateful to have discovered Reputation and then benefit from two re-releases within one year. I couldn’t believe it when news broke that another new album would be released on my birthday, October 21, 2022. What a gift! Thanks Tay! For weeks, we awaited the release of Midnights and wondered if she would be going on tour soon. My wife and I, having literally raised our second child on folklore during the pandemic, committed to going even if tickets were $500. We were just gonna do it.

Midnights and the F-Word

I instantly loved Midnights, although I had mixed feelings about the album’s pivot back to a more pop sound because I loved folklore and evermore so much. I did find it intriguing that she, forgive me for the esoteric words I’m about to use (I am a political theorist), seemed to have completed a dialectical movement over the last four years: Lover (the pop thesis), followed by folklore and evermore (the indie folk antithesis), resulting in Midnights (the new synthesis). Midnights seemed to be a perfect blend of the pop and indie sounds from the previous three records. And Taylor Swift had clearly discovered the F-word! I was overjoyed by this because the F-word is one of my favorites, but it did make listening to the album with my 8-year-old a little awkward. Gone were the days when “stupid” was a “bad” word. Now, she was more aware of what the actual “bad” words were. I would unintentionally drop an F-bomb at home and explain to her that it wasn’t a word she should say. So, inevitably, the question came: “Dada, why does Taylor Swift use bad words in her songs?” Response: “Well, remember, they’re not really “bad” words, they’re just words that you aren’t old enough to use yet. And, even when you are old enough, you have to learn when it’s appropriate to use them. She’s using those words to express strong feelings.” She thinks about it for a minute: “Well, when I’m old enough I’m not going to use that word.” Response: “Oh, yes you will sweetie, and you’ll use it beautifully…”

Ticketmaster Tragedy

As everyone knows, shortly after Midnight’s release the Eras Tour was announced. Like many, I registered for Ticketmaster’s “Verified Fan” status in the hope of receiving a presale code to purchase tickets. I did receive a presale code, but then discovered like millions of others that the code was worthless. I was teaching an American Government class when the presale started but had my phone out ready to go. Ticketmaster’s website never asked me for a presale code but did inform me that I had roughly 2,000 people ahead of me in the queue. “Weird but [not] fuckin’ beautiful.” A disaster. I wondered if my phone was the problem. I went to my office after class to try my laptop. Same problems. I started leaving the queue and logging back in. I did this about ten times. Miraculously, I was asked for a presale code, which I entered. Then, to my utter amazement, the seating chart of NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas appeared on my screen. I was in. I was fucking in! Assuming any purchase decision would need to be made quickly, I had already chosen which section to buy tickets in. I didn’t want to be greedy, and didn’t know how expensive certain seats would be, so I went for a practical choice of second level, slightly to the left of the stage but still looking straight on. I selected the tickets. $150 each. “Woah, that’s cheap considering what I was prepared to pay.” I tried to see how expensive first level tickets were, but the website was being janky and wouldn’t switch seats. I decided not to press my luck and quickly purchased what was in my cart. I had done it. I had purchased tickets to see Taylor Swift with the love of my life on April 23, 2023. I felt horrible for all the people who were unable to get tickets.

Covid Is an Asshole

My wife and I don’t have a great track record when it comes to big concerts. In 2017, my wife had the flu the night we were supposed to see U2’s “Joshua Tree” show. A few months later, Coldplay cancelled their show in Houston due to Hurricane Harvey. Now, with three kids and having experienced Covid ruin many, many plans over the last few years, we were skeptical whether things would work out. Our youngest would be only six weeks old when Taylor came to town! It goes without saying that my wife had reservations about leaving him for such a long period of time. My parents, now living in California, still hadn’t met him so we pitched the idea of a visit during the concert so they could babysit all three kiddos. They agreed! We have tickets! We have childcare! The day before the concert, my dad passed out at my daughter’s soccer game. We thought he had a stroke. EMS took him to the hospital. He was dehydrated from Covid-19. Both he and my mom spent the next 3 days quarantining and miserably sick in a hotel. I’m a good dad (and husband), but I wasn’t going to be able to watch our newborn by myself. He had barely been bottle fed at all at this point and the longest I had ever taken care of him was two hours. We assumed the concert would take at least eight hours including drive time, traffic, show, etc. It just didn’t seem feasible. It was also too late to re-sell our tickets on Ticketmaster with the concert less than 24 hours away. My wife stayed home, and I took our daughter to her first concert.

Swifties Unite!

I felt horrible, and so did my wife, but we were both excited that our daughter was going to see her musical idol. The show was amazing. The music, the costumes, the choreography, and the stage setting. My daughter was pretty much in awe of it all. Again, her first concert and this is what she experienced. She normally goes to bed at 8:00 PM and she managed to stay up later than she ever had in her life, but her body just gave out at 10:30 PM. So, there she was, in my arms sleeping through all the songs from Midnights. She had a great time, but I think she may have had more fun dancing and singing along with her mom. And while it was special for me to take her, I also thought about my wife the whole time. I was also cognizant that there weren’t that many men at the show. Was I out of place? Did my daughter feel weird being here with her dad? I definitely felt out-of-touch in one respect: the teenage girl next us was doing something curious with her phone the entire show. She was filming, not the show, but what seemed like 30-second videos of herself, selfie-style. I’m not sure what app she was using, but I had never seen anything like this before at a concert. I literally didn’t know what was going on. The crowd, like the show itself, was a hodgepodge of people. There were clearly “country Swifties” and “pop Swifties” and “folklore Swifties.” There were lots of sequins. And cowboy hats. Two women gave my daughter a few friendship bracelets. I was clever enough to wear a cardigan to the show, but most people were wearing very meticulously planned outfits and even costumes. It felt like a theme park. Was Taylor Swift a musical Disney World? Maybe. My experience at the show in Houston is what prompted this entire essay. As I walked around admiring people’s clothes and devotion, I asked myself: Who is Taylor Swift?

Who Is Taylor Swift?

The show itself, being a journey through the different phases of her career, did nothing to answer this question. I don’t mind artists who evolve over time. In fact, I am drawn to them. Like I said, my other favorite songwriters are Bob Dylan and Billy Corgan. What I was grappling with as I watched the show, and observed the fans around me, was that Taylor Swift wasn’t who I thought she was. I had understood her as an artist who started out writing country music, then moved on to pop, and was now in an indie folk phase. To me, her current identity was as an indie folk artist. Yet, the premise of the Eras Tour made experiencing her as any one identity impossible. Furthermore, it was clear that to many fans she was still “country Taylor” or “pop Taylor.” We weren’t actually there to see the same artist. I was working through all these feelings during the show. How was I supposed to enjoy songs from Reputation after a setlist from evermore? On some level, it didn’t make sense to me. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed getting to hear songs from all her albums. Something about it just made me feel adrift.

I realized, the next day, that what I experienced was a form of grief or mourning. The Taylor Swift that I knew, and that I identified with most, had already moved on to being someone else.

“…I’m sorry / But the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now /

Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead.”

Unlike “country Swifties” who experienced her as a country artist, or “pop Swifties” who reveled in her new identities in 1989 or Reputation, “folklore Swifties” didn’t really get to experience Taylor Swift as “indie folk” Taylor. By the time she went on tour, she had already returned to more of a pop sound with Midnights and the Eras Tour, by the nature of its design, presented the folklore and evermore albums as something from the past, another phase or “era” to put on or reminisce about. Let me be clear, I do not intend to complain at all. The show was amazing. I am simply sharing the complex feelings I had during and after the show. I think the Eras Tour, as a concept, made a lot of sense given how much time had passed and how much music had been produced and re-released since her last tour. And, perhaps, it allows Taylor to indulge all her different identities, or maybe she’s trying to say she can be everything at once. It obviously makes sense from a marketing standpoint. Maybe this was by design and “none of it was accidental.” I don’t mean to sound cynical, but everyone could attend the show and get to see whatever Taylor they wanted (literally). I understand that for lifelong Swifties it was truly amazing to experience the Eras Tour if for no other reason than nostalgia and reflecting on how much you’ve been through in life with Taylor Swift’s music by your side. For me, it was amazing, but also somewhat jarring. The only actual complaint I have about the show is that she didn’t play “mirrorball” during the folklore set. For me, that song is one of her best and is the heart of the album. If she had just included “mirrorball” then it would have been flawless. There is also a thematic case to be made for “mirrorball” too, but perhaps it’s too obvious for her to sing:

“I’m a mirrorball / I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight…”

Speak (Cry) Now

Then, just when we thought we couldn’t get any more Taylor Swift than we’d already gotten, another re-release came with Speak Now. “Enchanted” will always be a special song for me and my daughter because we heard it for the first time at the Houston show. My daughter consumed Speak Now as eagerly as she had Fearless. She commandeered my phone for hours learning the lyrics and performing the songs in her room or on the back patio. I was not prepared to hear her singing “Never Grow Up.” What the actual fuck, Taylor? What is this diabolical shit? Did you know I could get seriously injured while driving a motor vehicle when I’m crying my fucking eyes out? For those of you who haven’t experienced this, the song starts out sweet.

“Your little hand’s wrapped around my finger / And it’s so quiet in the world tonight.”

The chorus is emotional, but you’re confident you can handle it.

“Oh, Darlin’, don’t you ever grow up / Just stay this little /

I won’t let nobody hurt you / Won’t let no one break your heart.”

Another stanza about adolescence and growing up. Cool, cool. I’ll just think about something else until the song is over. Chorus again. It hits a little sadder this time. Then, suddenly you feel yourself getting backed into a corner. You start to panic but think you can still make it out. Then, she puts a knife to your throat:

“Take pictures in your mind of your childhood room /

Memorize what is sounded like when your dad gets home /

Remember the footsteps, remember the words said /

I just realized everything I have is someday gonna be gone.”

That’s it. You’re done. You can think about cheeseburgers or your mortgage all you want. You’re crying dude.

Angel City for the Win?

Okay, so that brings me to the present. We’ll hit the road in two days to visit my parents in California. We plan to listen to every Taylor Swift album on the way (except for the self-titled album, which I still haven’t heard). I don’t know if we’ll approach things chronologically or follow the example of the Eras Tour and mix it up. I know that “State of Grace” sounds great on the highway so maybe we’ll start with Red. Thanks to some generous assistance from my parents, I was able to once again secure tickets and childcare so my wife can see the show. We have tickets for opening night in Los Angeles at SoFi Stadium. My wife has a very thoughtful outfit arranged that incorporates both Lover and folklore. I also stepped up my game and purchased a Hawaiian shirt with a collage print of every Taylor Swift album cover (it may sound ridiculous or hideous, but it’s amazing). I suppose something could still go wrong between now and the show, but I’m hopeful that we’ll have a magical evening together. I look forward to hearing my wife’s thoughts on the show and further discussing the question: who is Taylor Swift? I don’t think we’ll come up with an answer and I don’t think we’re supposed to be able to. Even if she had a singular artistic identity, it would still be her public persona. Regardless of which version of Taylor Swift any fan gravitates toward, none of us can know the real her and we shouldn’t expect to. I just hope she can know herself and has the good fortune to share that with friends and family who love her. Her music has enriched my family and I want nothing but the best for her personally and professionally. I also hope that she lives a long, healthy life and writes many, many more songs. As her artistic identity continues to evolve, the question “who is Taylor Swift?” will continue to be asked by fans and critics. Who is Taylor Swift to me? I’ll answer that question with my “Sad Dad Swiftie” Mix Tape comprised of two tracks from each album. Who is Taylor Swift to you?

“Sad Dad Swiftie” Mix Tape

1. Fearless

2. Jump Then Fall

3. Never Grow Up

4. Enchanted

5. Holy Ground

6. Sad Beautiful Tragic

7. Clean

8. New Romantics

9. Call It What You Want

10. New Year’s Day

11. The Archer

12. It’s Nice To Have A Friend

13. mirrorball

14. this is me trying

15. ivy

16. marjorie

17. Snow On The Beach

18. Sweet Nothing