6 Times Taylor Swift Paid Tribute to American Cultural Icons

Taylor Swift’s lyrics have been picked apart and dissected more than perhaps anyone in the world of modern music. Such scrutiny usually comes from fans trying to find references to her love life in the words to her songs. But there have been several times when Swift has been less circumspect about her allusions. In particular, we’ve located six occasions where Taylor mentioned some very well-known names who have had their own hold on American culture, in much the same way that she has that hold right now.

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1. Tim McGraw (in “Tim McGraw”)

It says something about Swift that, at just 14 years old (which was her age when she began writing this song), she already was paying tribute to one of her musical idols. After all, this was her first single, which is often an occasion when an artist attempts to make a statement about who they are. Instead, she focuses on making the song most resonant and believable, which is why she chose McGraw to call out in the title. His hit “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’” was a favorite of hers around that time. To this day, it’s still the only time that Swift has name-dropped another musician in the title of one of her songs.

2. James Dean (in “Style”)

On her 2014 album 1989, Swift essentially took over the pop music world in a way that few artists have done before or since. “Style” was one of the massive hits that helped her to achieve that. She tells the story of a heady evening out on the town spent by two singles who are brimming with sexual chemistry, even if their long-term compatibility might be in doubt. To describe the guy’s allure, Swift sings, You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye. It’s a nod to the superstar ‘50s actor whose life was cut short and has served as a cultural icon ever since.

3. Bruce Springsteen (in “London Boy”)

Likely inspired by Joe Alwyn, an English actor who was Swift’s boyfriend at the time she recorded this song for the 2019 album Lover, this song is full of lyrical call-outs. Swift mentions Stella McCartney, fashionista and daughter of Paul, and the intro comes from an interview with Idris Elba, who, despite being British himself, is an American cultural icon for his acting work on The Wire. But to indicate her love of America, Swift calls out perhaps the most successful rock and roll artist who was, ahem, born in the U.S.A.: And you know I love Springsteen.

4. Janet Jackson (in “Snow on the Beach”)

Swift duetted with Lana Del Rey, who has become pretty iconic in her own right, on this track from Midnights (2022). The song comes from the perspective of someone who can’t believe how fortunate they are to have stumbled upon what seems like an out-of-left-field (much like the titular phenomenon) love affair. Now I’m all for you like Janet, she and Del Rey sing in the bridge, referencing Janet Jackson’s 2001 hit “All for You.” When Jackson heard it, she posted on social media about how flattered she was by the reference, to which Swift responded with mutual admiration.

5. James Taylor (in “Begin Again”)

Swift chose to close out her 2012 album, Red, on a hopeful note with “Begin Again,” one where she meets a prospective new suitor who might be the cure to recent romantic travails. One of the key selling points: You said you never met one girl who / Had as many James Taylor records as you. Swift and Taylor had been performing together occasionally at concerts by then, duetting on “Fire and Rain” and “Love Story.” For younger Swift fans who might not know, nobody epitomized the singer-songwriter movement in the ‘70s quite like James Taylor, who emerged from the shadow of being one of the first acts signed by The Beatles’ Apple Records to become a consistently piercing writer and record-maker.

6. Elizabeth Taylor (in “…Ready for It?”)

Swift went out on a bit of an artistic limb with Reputation, the 2017 album that embraced rougher production techniques and pushed her in a much harder direction than some of her past musical forays. The title of the opening track is almost like a gauntlet being thrown down to her fans. Concerning the content of “…Ready for It?” it features Swift going to darker lyrical places to describe a chaotic but intensely affecting relationship. When she rap-sings, And he can be my jailer, Burton to this Taylor, she’s playing off her first name and the surname of famed actress Elizabeth Taylor (an American icon even though she was born in England). Liz Taylor’s on-again, off-again relationship with Richard Burton resulted in a few classic movies and even more tabloid headlines.

Photo by John Medina/Getty Images

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