Around the October 2012 release of Red, when Taylor Swift had spent the gossip year linked with several boys — Jake Gyllenhaal, John Mayer, Taylor Lautner — and seemingly written songs about all of them, it became clear that the narrative of her life was spinning out of her control. So Swift changed the conversation: She stopped hanging out with boys (or at least viable boyfriend boys), and started hanging out with girls instead. Lots and lots of girls. And she documented it all on social media, mostly on Instagram, showing the world what cool, fun, awesome friends she had.
Thus began a new phase of Taylor Swift's life: Strategic Girlfriend Collecting. It's garnered her a lot of positive press; she's been trumpeted by the New York Times for her emergence “as a single-and-loving it cheerleader for girl power,” with “a clique of BFFs — including Karlie Kloss, Lena Dunham, and Lorde — in her corner.” Us Weekly, People, and the gossip blogs have overflowed with reposts of Instagrams of Swift and her coterie; Glamour editor Cindi Leive has gone so far as to claim Swift has “made friendship cool.”
And the “reinvented” Taylor Swift “really likes” her life: “I have friends around me all the time. I started painting more. I’ve been working out a lot. I’ve started to really take pride in being strong. I love the album I made. I love that I moved to New York.” It’s a sweet life of Chicks Before Dicks, of playing house with Karlie and being your best self.
Certainly she hasn't made friendship uncool. It's simply that the friends Swift chooses to present to the world serve to support crucial, carefully crafted components of Swift’s image. She isn’t coldhearted or utilitarian in her friendship so much as savvy to the ways in which the production of celebrity is, at its heart, utilitarian — and it takes a lot of labor to make something as manufactured as a celebrity image look as natural as Taylor Swift and Lorde on a beach, just being the wacky and carefree young women that they are.
But natural is precisely what all of Swift’s feed looks like: a bunch of (beautiful) friends just hanging out. Shopping, goofing around, taking selfies. Being 25(ish), and posing with their best sides to the camera. These friendships certainly do emanate an aura of cool, but they’re also each calculated to reflect a particular component of the Swift image. Lena Dunham and Rookie editor Tavi Gevinson suggest she’s an enlightened feminist without her having to come out and say it. The recent appearances of the sisters of the girl band of the moment Haim give her indie cool cred, balanced out by the mainstream cred of Justin Timberlake, Jay Z, and Beyoncé, all of whom made an appearance in her birthday Instagrams in November.
Swift seemingly doesn’t discriminate according to age or source of fame: One day she hangs out with 35-year-old Jaime King, best known for her role in The CW’s Hart of Dixie; the next she’s with 18-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, lately of True Grit and Romeo and Juliet. She’s all-American enough to bake cookies with figure skaters (Gracie Gold) and hang out courtside with Amanda Seyfried and Kate Upton, but crucially still makes time for select friends from home (including Tennessee best friend Abigail Anderson, a name familiar to anyone who’s listened to Swift’s hit single “Fifteen”).
Swift works hard to show she’s no friend snob — her wholesome birthday parties and 4th of July gatherings mingle all levels on the celebrity pyramid — even if they are, with few exceptions, white and skinny. The flattening frame of Instagram puts all her friends on the same playing field and invites you to feel like you could be part of it — a fantasy actualized in Swift’s numerous fan posts, which effectively catapult the fan to fame. Superfan Gena Gabrielle, whose bridal shower Swift “crashed” earlier this year, has 15,000 Instagram followers. With such benevolence, Swift comes across as the ultimate in magnanimity: the opposite of the Regina George insult Katy Perry flung her way earlier this year.
Of all the friendships, Lorde’s seems the most strategic. In the lead-up to the September 2013 release of Lorde’s EP Pure Heroine, the New Zealand artist told Australia’s Metro Magazine that “Swift is so flawless and so unattainable, and I don’t think it’s breeding anything good in young girls” (she later clarified and pseudo apologized on her Tumblr). At some point during this time — it’s unclear exactly when — Swift started texting her and sent her flowers to celebrate the release of her album, and by November, the two were hanging out at Shake Shack in New York; in 2014, Swift’s Instagram found them on the beach and going to cooking class. Carefully planned friend outings, appropriately photographed, that together suggest that Lorde and Swift, the golden yin and dark and twisty yang of contemporary pop, aren’t at war, but in harmony, oftentimes literally.
With the noted exception of Katy Perry, Swift doesn’t cultivate rivals so much as neutralize them: Take her posing with upstart pop competitor Ariana Grande, who also performed at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, whom Swift pulled into an Instagram shot and smothered, captioning it “Oh my god she couldn’t be cuter.” She applied a similar strategy with British pop star Ellie Goulding, Swift Taylor first smotherfriended in 2012 and Instagrammed, photo-of-a-photo style, with the caption “Ellie Forever.” And even if Grande and Goulding wanted to reject Swift’s advances, their publicity team would undoubtedly tell them not to: a Swift Instagram appearance arguably makes you more visible, especially to a target demographic, than a magazine cover.
The smother is Swift’s modus operandi, whether it’s with boys or girlfriends: from 0 to 100 real quick. She doesn’t have hook-ups or casual acquaintances; she has forever loves and best friends forever. At least that’s how she manifests her relationships, both in lyrics and in social media. Which is exactly how she became friends with current BFF Karlie Kloss: According to now well-recited Swiftian lore, Taylor’s first friendship overture arrived in a February 2012 Vogue cover story, in which she exclaimed, “I love Karlie Kloss...I want to bake cookies with her!” More than a year later, they hung out at the 2013 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, with Swift singing (in a dress) and Kloss walking the runway (in wings and lingerie).
Swift’s been friends with model Lily Aldridge (another Victoria’s Secret Angel) since the two were neighbors in Nashville, but the friendship with Kloss has been next-level BFF-ing. They road-tripped to California, go to the gym together constantly, look really glam at Knicks games, and hang out with Swift's brother Austin. The most in-depth recent profile of Swift, released in tandem with 1989, broadcast that she kept a room for Kloss in her New York penthouse, stocked with her favorite foods.
Over the year, Swift’s feed has gradually filled with more models: more Aldridge, plus Cara Delevingne, Martha Hunt, and Candice Swanepoel. Paparazzi photos caught Kendall Jenner leaving Swift’s apartment, but Swift didn’t Instagram the visit. Maybe a reality-star friendship, no matter how high-profile, just isn’t on brand.
It’s difficult to parse exactly what attracts Swift to models: I’ve had friends explain it in terms of body-matching (Swift’s finally found her tall, wispy people) or that Kloss, like her, has juggled fame since her early teens. The writer Durga Chew-Bose told me that “being with Karlie is probably the one time when Taylor can feel invisible.” I don’t think any of these explanations is necessarily wrong. But I think there’s something even deeper about Swift’s model affinity, especially to the Kloss-like variety that currently dominate the industry.
Kloss, like the other Victoria’s Secret Angels on stage at this year’s fashion show, function as “painfully desexualized,” “listless, leggy dolls,” flattened through endless Pilates and macrobiotic diets. They have all the parts that signify sex, but these Angels are far more sex doll than actual sex. Swift isn’t going for sex doll herself — when she appeared to sing “Blank Space” wearing a teddy, a robe, and a pair of feathered slippers, she seemed much more Sexy Great Aunt — but nor has sex ever been Swift's endgame. Her wheelhouse has always been romance: the whisper of coupling to come, not the realization thereof. That’s why she refuses to show her belly button, opting instead for a ‘50s-style crop top and high-waisted pant/skirt/shorts duo.
It’s a flattering look, but it’s also very on brand: She talks in riddles in her songs because she wants you to try to solve them, and she dresses quasi-modestly because she wants you to think what’s beneath is all the more precious. She’s no pinup, though: When it comes to ‘50s idols, she’s far more similar to Natalie Wood years before the rumors of her sexual explorations emerged, and everyone just thought she was a wide-eyed girl with the best boyfriends in town.
Before her girlfriend-collecting days, Swift defined herself by the men she loved. Think of Tim McGraw, as one of her first hit songs went, and think of her. Now she’s defining herself by the women who surround her — famous and non-famous — and has succeeded, rather triumphantly, in changing the way that people talk about her life. Crucially, it’s still Taylor’s World, with a cluster of friends in her orbit, blinking in and out of visibility. But we’d never know: Part of the genius of Swift’s Instagram game is how, apart from Kloss, no one makes more than a few appearances, usually spaced over a period of months, making it effectively impossible to speculate as to an inner circle, frenemies, or fake friends. (Just last month, she shut down gossip about her once robust friendship with Selena Gomez with this post.)
In the absence of boys or friend drama, the only thing left to gossip about in Swift's life is her friendship with Karlie Kloss. Photos of them hanging out (and embracing/maybe kissing) on a balcony were quickly transformed into evidence of a relationship. Even the gossip press, which should be sated with the stream of Swift paparazzi and Instagram photos, is on board.
As evidenced by the abundance of “Kaylor” fanfic on Tumblr, there’s a serious audience and appetite for those rumors coming to fruition. But Swift’s popularity ultimately hinges on her image being mom-safe. Perhaps that’s why she can hang out with Lena Dunham but never say a word about Girls or Dunham's memoir, why she distanced herself from Gomez when she went back to Justin Bieber, and why she spends more of her time with Kloss, who spends her time promoting her charitable vegan cookie line for Momofuku, than Cara Delevingne, a model in the bad-girl Kate Moss tradition who parties with Rihanna and dates Michelle Rodriguez.
For a young woman so mindful about the power of friendship, it feels noteworthy that of the 16 acts that have opened for Swift over the North American leg of her last three tours, none have been women. In this, she’s very much alone: All other major female pop acts — Katy, Gaga, Miley — have at least one female opener. As evidenced by the success of Ed Sheeran, a slot in the Taylor Swift opening lineup has the potential to launch a career. But Swift, who loves to do things like surprise fans with Christmas gifts and give them cash for dinner, seems less interested in actual female collaboration and partnership than the appearance thereof.
It’s no coincidence that the aesthetic of 1989 is that of the Polaroid: a technology that, in its contemporary manifestation, connotes thick feelings of authenticity, immediacy, and wistful nostalgia not unlike Instagram's own filters. Look closer, though, and the Polaroid, while tangible, is still just an overexposed image, flattering vis-à-vis its limited technological capacity to show the fullness of the moment. From far away, a Polaroid can communicate bold strokes of fun, bliss, friendship. But get closer, and you see it’s flimsy, unclear, and impossible to replicate.
Additional reporting by Kelley Dunlap.
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at email@example.com.
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