So my brother comes home the other day," Taylor Swift says, "and he goes, 'Oh, my God – I just saw a guy walking down the street with a cat on his head.'"
As an ardent fan of ready-made metaphors, as well as of cats, Swift was excited by this. "My first reaction was, 'Did you take a picture?'" she says. "And then I thought about it. Half of my brain was going, 'We should be able to take a picture if we want to. That guy is asking for it – he's got a cat on his head!' But the other half was going, 'What if he just wants to walk around with a cat on his head, and not have his picture taken all day?'"
For Swift – four-time multiplatinum-album-maker, seven-time Grammy winner and billion-time gossip-blog subject – being famous is a lot like walking around with a cat on your head. "I can have issues with it," she says. "But at the end of the day, I can't be ungrateful, because I chose this. But sometimes – sometimes – you don't want to have a camera pointed at you. Sometimes it would be nice if someone just said, 'Hey, I think it's really cool that you have that cat on your head. I think that's interesting.'"
It's 1300 hours in the San Fernando Valley, and Project Sparrow is in full effect. In a nondescript parking lot at a soundstage in Van Nuys, California, a Blackwater-esque platoon of personal-security professionals stands at the ready. Every doorway and stairwell is guarded, and every window is blacked out. The occasion: a Taylor Swift video shoot.
In 2014, a Swift shoot requires the kind of operational secrecy and logistical complexity rarely seen outside of a SEAL raid. Before Project Sparrow – the code name chosen by the video's director, Mark Romanek – there was Project Cardinal, a multiweek mission where Swift's social-media team scoured the Web for a representative group of fans to appear in the video. When one girl posted a photo of her invitation, she was quickly uninvited, then presumably renditioned to whatever CIA black site holds Swift's enemies. (Jack Antonoff, of Bleachers and fun., who has recently co-written several songs with Swift, says that "just having her songs on my hard drive makes me feel like I have Russian secrets or something. It's terrifying.")
At the moment, Swift is in a makeup chair in her dressing room, getting false eyelashes applied. She's wearing a black miniskirt, black tights and a fuzzy pink top with a cartoon drawing of a cat, and her wavy blond hair is pinned back tight. She's five feet 10, but she looks much taller, even with her lanky legs wrapped underneath her like a pretzel twist. "I need lunch like, whoa," Swift says, and an assistant tells her there's a sushi order happening. "Oooh," she purrs. "Get a boatload."
See Taylor Swift like you never have before in behind-the-scenes footage from Theo Wenner's cover shoot here:
The video is for Swift's soon-to-be-Number One single, "Shake It Off," which she'll perform for the first time at the VMAs later this summer, but which at this point only a handful of people outside the room even know exists. There are worries about spies and recording devices. "Don't even get me started on wiretaps," Swift says seriously. "It's not a good thing for me to talk about socially. I freak out." As for who might bug a Van Nuys production office on the off chance that Swift is inside: "The janitor," she says, as if naming one candidate among hundreds. "The janitor who's being paid by TMZ. This is gonna sound like I'm a crazy person – but we don't even know. I have to stop myself from thinking about how many aspects of technology I don't understand."
Swift pauses, as if weighing just how paranoid she's comfortable with sounding. Then she plows ahead. "Like speakers," she says. "Speakers put sound out . . . so can't they take sound in? Or" – she holds up her cellphone – "they can turn this on, right? I'm just saying. We don't even know."
Swift says she never feels completely safe, especially when it comes to her privacy. "There's someone whose entire job it is to figure out things that I don't want the world to see," she says. "They look at your career, they look at what you prioritize, and they try to figure out what would be the most revealing or hurtful. Like, I don't take my clothes off in pictures or anything – I'm very private about that. So it scares me how valuable it would be to get a video of me changing. It's sad to have to look for cameras in dressing rooms and bathrooms. I don't walk around naked with my windows open, because there's a value on that."
And yet, despite the DEFCON-3 level of security, in a lot of ways Swift has never felt more free. She has a new album out in October, 1989, that she's insanely excited about, because it signals her transition from a country star who likes pop to a straight-up pop star. She recently bought a luxe apartment in New York. And despite what you may have read in the gossip press, Swift hasn't been involved with a man in quite some time. She's not dating. She's not canoodling. She's not even sexting. Taylor Swift is single and loving it.
"I really like my life right now," she says. "I have friends around me all the time. I've 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. So in terms of being happy, I've never been closer to that." Which is not necessarily the same as being happy.
There's one way into Swift's new apartment building, and much of the time it's guarded by a former NYPD officer named Jimmy, who unlocks the door for residents and visitors alike. This may be a drag for neighbors like Steven Soderbergh and Orlando Bloom, who have dropped seven figures to live at one of Tribeca's toniest addresses, but it's an unavoidable fact of life when the 24-year-old on the top floor is one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. "Most of the neighbors know what's what by now," Jimmy says, locking the door behind him. Today is a good day for Jimmy, because the elevator is working again after a brief period of being broken. "It's six floors up," he says, frowning. "And we don't travel light, if you know what I mean." I tell him I think I do know what he means, and Jimmy laughs. "The shoes alone!"
Up in the penthouse, a barefoot Swift answers the door in a periwinkle-blue sundress: "Welcome to my apartment!" In the kitchen there's an assortment of pastries from a hip downtown spot called the Smile ("They have these banana-quinoa muffins that I'm obsessed with"), and in the refrigerator are a surprising number of varieties of sparkling water. ("I have black cherry, pomegranate, blueberry, strawberry, key lime, tangerine lime . . .")
Swift shuts the fridge. "Do you want a tour?" She breezes into the living room, pointing out the fish tank filled with vintage baseballs ("I was like, 'That's so cool, they're so old!'") and some enormous scented candles ("I was like, 'That's so cool, they're so big!'"). "There's my piano," she says. "Here's my pool table that always has cat hair on it. That's my skylight." She bumps into a doorway. "That's a door that I walk into."
Swift bought this apartment about six months ago, for a reported $15 million. (Swift also bought the unit across the hall, for about $5 million; she uses it to house her security team.) It took a lot of work just to see it: It belonged to the director Peter Jackson, who had an actor friend crashing here, so the brokers didn't want to bother him much. "Sir Ian McKellen," Swift says seriously. "I think once you're Gandalf, you can always just stay in Peter Jackson's house."
Swift leads the way into one of her four guest bedrooms. "This is where Karlie usually stays," she says – meaning supermodel Karlie Kloss, one of her new BFFs, whom she met nine months ago at the Victoria's Secret fashion show. There's a basket of Kloss's favorite Whole Foods treats next to the bed, and multiple photos of her on the walls. Against another wall, there's a rack full of white nightgowns. "This is a thing me and Lena have," says Swift – meaning Lena Dunham, another recent friend. "We wear them during the day and look like pioneer women, fresh off the Oregon Trail."
Swift met Dunham in 2012, after she watched Girls and became obsessed. She went on Twitter to follow Dunham, and coincidentally saw that Dunham had just tweeted admiringly about Swift. "I was really scared she was being ironic, but I decided to follow her anyway, just in case. Within five minutes I had a direct message from her. Let me see if I still have it." She spends a minute scrolling through her phone. "I still have it! She said, 'I am so excited about the prospect of being friends with you that I added the adjective best in front of it.' 'The idea that you like my show is so thrilling, and I can't wait to lavish you with praise in person.'"
As a recent New York transplant in her mid-twenties, Swift says Girls is like her Sex and the City. "I could label all my girlfriends as Shoshannas, Jessas, Marnies or Hannahs," she says. And which would she be? "I've thought about this a lot," she says. A pause. "I'm Shoshanna."
She seems resigned to this. "Shoshanna gets excited about things, she's really girly. And when she was in a relationship that was very comfortable, she made the decision to get out and go experience new things on her own. And now she's becoming more sure of herself and taking life head-on, in a way that I can relate to. Even though I've never accidentally smoked crack at a warehouse party and run pantsless through Brooklyn." (Dunham, meanwhile, thinks Swift is more like "Hannah, minus the horrid sexual behavior. Or Marnie, if she wasn't an asshole.")
Swift leads the way upstairs to her bedroom. Asleep on her massive four-poster bed is a tiny white ball of fur. "Olivia!" Swift says, scooping her up. It's her two-month old kitten, named after Olivia Benson, from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. "Hear how loud she's purring? She's a stage-five clinger, for sure." Downstairs somewhere is her other cat, Meredith, named after Meredith Grey from Grey's Anatomy. "Strong, complex, independent women," Swift says. "That's the theme."
Behind the cover story: Josh Eells on what it's really like spending time with Taylor:
She steps onto her patio and climbs the staircase up to the roof deck. "Careful," she says. "It's construction central." A forest of skyscrapers surrounds her; the Freedom Tower looks close enough to touch. Swift gestures to a set of planters: "Those are hydrangeas, and over there are the roses and basil and rosemary." Heading back downstairs, she passes an antique lamp with the inscription CALADIUM SEGUINUM on it. Swift took Latin in high school, but says she isn't sure what it means. (Later, I look it up. It turns out it's a homeopathic remedy for male impotence.)
For years, Swift was terrified to move to New York. "I was intimidated by it for so long," she says. But now that she's here, she loves it. She can walk down the street to get dinner, or go furniture shopping with friends in Brooklyn. Even the paparazzi are better, she says. "They don't provoke me, or ask weird questions. And a lot of them are long-lensing it – which, if you have to have paparazzi in your life, is such a better way." She likes it so much she's trying to recruit friends to move here – like her buddy Selena Gomez. "Project Selena," Swift says. "I think I can do it."
Back in the living room, Swift settles into the couch with a muffin and starts talking about her Fourth of July. She invited a bunch of friends up to Rhode Island, where she has a house in a fancy community called Watch Hill. It was raining, and the day looked like a bust, until her friend Jaime King's husband came up with the idea to buy eight Slip 'N Slides and lay them end to end like some unholy Slip 'N Slide centipede. Even with the rain, the slides still weren't slippery enough, so they got a bunch of olive oil and poured it all over themselves. ("There was a dangerous level of slipperiness," Swift says.) Later they all went to the beach, which is normally full of Swift-gawkers ("Hotel fees have doubled in the year we've been there," Swift says), but was empty that day because of the rain. That night they cooked a huge feast, with Swift assigning everyone jobs ("You make salad dressing! You chop apples for apple pie!"), and afterward they played Celebrity, the game where everyone puts a bunch of famous names in a hat and takes turns drawing one and trying to make their team guess. The game got a little heated, because one team had a lot more famous people on it, which gave them what some guests thought was an unfair advantage. (Swift: "It was like, 'You dated him! 2010!'") But in the end, everyone was appeased, and the game went on as planned. And did Swift's team win? She smiles. "Of course we won."
Swift bought the Rhode Island house in April 2013, for a reported $17 million. The old summer estate of a Standard Oil heiress, it boasts water views in every room and a seagull Swift named George Washington that swims in her pool. Swift calls it her "dream house," but it's also been the source of some of her first truly negative press. The trouble started when she redid her sea wall, which she says hadn't been updated since the house was built in 1929. She hired a team of engineers, who spent all winter rebuilding it; she thought she was doing something nice, until some locals got angry and accused her of ruining the beach. (TMZ: "Taylor Swift Neighbors Pissed: You're Screwing With Our Coastline!!")
It wasn't long before the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council stepped in to say that Swift hadn't done anything wrong. Still, for Swift, the wall became sort of a metaphor for haters in general. "There will always be people who grumble about things," she says. "But when they saw what it looked like when it was finished – it looked so much nicer! The other wall had all this graffiti on it – it looked old, and not in a good way. But it was a problem, so I fixed it. Nothing has changed about anyone's beach experience, except that now my house won't fall on them. So, you know. Sorry not sorry."
The only way to hear 1989 in full is to borrow Swift's iPhone, which is white and silver and covered in kitten stickers. There are 13 songs in all, plus a handful of bonus tracks, filed under the unbreakable code name "Sailor Twips." (She will only play them over headphones, because of wiretaps.) There are also hundreds of voice memos containing sketches of chords and melodies, which is how most of her songs start out. Antonoff (who also happens to be Dunham's boyfriend) says that for one song they wrote together, he sent Swift a track "and literally 30 minutes later she sent me back a voice note that sounded exactly like the record."
As the title suggests, 1989 was influenced by some of Swift's favorite Eighties pop acts, including Phil Collins, Annie Lennox and "Like a Prayer"-era Madonna. (Given that 1989 is also the year Swift was born, she necessarily got into them later, usually via VH1's Pop-Up Video.) The album was executive-produced by Swift and Max Martin, with whom she first collaborated on her 2012 single "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." Officially, it's not even finished yet: Somewhere in Sweden, Martin is tinkering until the very last minute to ensure the drum sounds are as up-to-date as possible.
Swift's last album, 2012's Red, straddled the line between country and pop. "But at a certain point," she says, "if you chase two rabbits, you lose them both." So this time, she set out to do full-on "blatant pop music." A casual fan won't notice much difference, but to Swift and her brand, it's a big step. She says she won't be going to country-awards shows or promoting the album on country radio. When she first turned in the record, she says the head of her label, Scott Borchetta, told her, "This is extraordinary – it's the best album you've ever done. Can you just give me three country songs?"
"Love you, mean it," is how Swift characterizes her response. "But this is how it's going to be."
The other big change on 1989 is that for the first time in years, there are no diss tracks dishing about Swift's exes. A few of the songs are about her relationships and love life, but they're mostly wistful and nostalgic, not finger-pointy or score-settling. "Different phases of your life have different levels of deep, traumatizing heartbreak," Swift says. "And in this period of my life, my heart was not irreparably broken. So it's not as boy-centric of an album, because my life hasn't been boycentric." In fact, she suggests, she hasn't dated at all since breaking up with One Direction singer Harry Styles more than a year and a half ago. "Like, have not gone on a date," she says. "People are going to feel sorry for me when you write that. But it's true."
Swift says dating is hard for her. For one thing, there's the logistics. "Seventy percent of the time, when a guy asks me out, it'll just be a random e-mail," she says. Some movie star will get her address from his publicist and e-mail her cold. Usually she politely rebuffs them – but even if someone did penetrate that line of defense, building a relationship is hard.
"I feel like watching my dating life has become a bit of a national pastime," Swift says. "And I'm just not comfortable providing that kind of entertainment anymore. I don't like seeing slide shows of guys I've apparently dated. I don't like giving comedians the opportunity to make jokes about me at awards shows. I don't like it when headlines read 'Careful, Bro, She'll Write a Song About You,' because it trivializes my work. And most of all, I don't like how all these factors add up to build the pressure so high in a new relationship that it gets snuffed out before it even has a chance to start. And so," she says, "I just don't date."
(That goes for hooking up as well. "I just think it's pointless if you're not in love," Swift says. "And I don't have the energy to be in love right now. So, no.")
Truth be told, Swift sounds a tiny bit jaded – which, for a "self-professed hopeless romantic," maybe isn't the worst thing to be. "It's not like I've sworn off love," she says. "My life is just not conducive to bringing other people into it right now. I'm very childlike and romantic about lots of things, but I'm realistic about this."
Swift pauses, searching for a metaphor that will help her explain herself. "Have you heard of the Loneliest Whale? There's this whale – I think Adrian Grenier is making a documentary about it. It swims through the ocean, and it has a call unlike any other whale's. So it doesn't have anyone to swim with. And everybody feels so sorry for this whale – but what if this whale is having a great time? Because it's not bad that I'm not hopelessly in love with someone. It's not a tragedy, and it's not me giving up and being a spinster. Although I did get another cat." She laughs. "I asked around: I was like, 'Does two cats count as cats?' But then I thought, what imaginary guy's perspective am I thinking about this from? Someone is going to think I'm undateable for a lot of reasons before they think I'm undateable because I have two cats."
Since she's been single, Swift has been acquiring girlfriends with the fervor she once devoted to landing guys. (For instance: Two years ago she told Vogue she wanted to be friends with Kloss; now they're going to the gym together and taking road trips to Big Sur.) Swift says this is another byproduct of being single. "When your number-one priority is getting a boyfriend, you're more inclined to see a beautiful girl and think, 'Oh, she's gonna get that hot guy I wish I was dating,'" she says. "But when you're not boyfriend-shopping, you're able to step back and see other girls who are killing it and think, 'God, I want to be around her.'" As an example, she cites her pal Lorde, whom she calls Ella. "It's like this blazing bonfire," Swift says. "You can either be afraid of it because it's so powerful and strong, or you can go stand near it, because it's fun and it makes you brighter."
Earlier in her career, Swift deflected questions about feminism because she didn't want to alienate male fans. But these days, she's proud to identify herself as a feminist. To her, all feminism means is wanting women to have the same opportunities as men. "I don't see how you could oppose that." Dunham says Swift has always been a feminist whether she called herself one or not: "She runs her own company, she's creating music that connects to other women instead of creating a sexual persona for the male gaze, and no one is in control of her. If that's not feminism, what is?"
Swift's focus on sisterhood cuts both ways, because when another woman crosses her, she's equally fierce about hitting back. The angriest song on 1989 is called "Bad Blood," and it's about another female artist Swift declines to name. "For years, I was never sure if we were friends or not," she says. "She would come up to me at awards shows and say something and walk away, and I would think, 'Are we friends, or did she just give me the harshest insult of my life?'" Then last year, the other star crossed a line. "She did something so horrible," Swift says. "I was like, 'Oh, we're just straight-up enemies.' And it wasn't even about a guy! It had to do with business. She basically tried to sabotage an entire arena tour. She tried to hire a bunch of people out from under me. And I'm surprisingly non-confrontational – you would not believe how much I hate conflict. So now I have to avoid her. It's awkward, and I don't like it."
(Pressed, Swift admits there might have been a personal element to the conflict. "But I don't think there would be any personal problem if she weren't competitive," she says.)
As is often the case, Swift dealt with her emotions by writing about them. "Sometimes the lines in a song are lines you wish you could text-message somebody in real life," she says. "I would just be constantly writing all these zingers – like, 'Burn. That would really get her.' And I know people are going to obsess over who it's about, because they think they have all my relationships mapped out. But there's a reason there are not any overt call-outs in that song. My intent was not to create some gossip-fest. I wanted people to apply it to a situation where they felt betrayed in their own lives."
Swift prides herself on never explicitly saying whom her songs are about, and she's not going to start with this one. Yes, she sprinkles clues in her liner notes and makes winking references onstage, but she tries to keep them obscure enough to maintain some modicum of mystery (or at least plausible deniability). She's so disciplined on this front that she won't even say any of her ex-boyfriends' names out loud – so when she does slip up, even in the most innocent way possible, it's highly entertaining.
Swift is still talking about "Bad Blood" when she starts to explain why she wants everyone to know it's about a female. "I know people will make it this big girl-fight thing," she says. "But I just want people to know it's not about a guy. You don't want to shade someone you used to date and make it seem like you hate him, when that's not the case. And I knew people would immediately be going in one direction—" As she suddenly realizes that she just accidentally referenced her ex-boyfriend's band, Swift goes white. She buries her face in her hands. "Why?!" she howls, cracking up. It's a classic Taylor Swift Surprised Face, only for real this time.
Swift won't say much about her relationship with Styles, other than that they're now friends. But talking to her, it seems clear that many of the songs on 1989 that are about a guy are about him. There's "I Wish You Would," about an ex who bought a house two blocks from hers (whom she implies was Styles). And "All You Had to Do Was Stay," about a guy who was never willing to commit (ditto). Then there's the song that sets a new high-water mark for Swiftian faux secrecy – a sexy Miami Vice-sounding throwback about a guy with slicked-back hair and a white T-shirt and a girl in a tight little skirt that is called – no joke – "Style." (She allows herself a satisfied grin. "We should have just called it 'I'm Not Even Sorry.'")
Of all the songs on the album that seem to be about Styles, the most intriguing one is "Out of the Woods." Co-written by Antonoff, it's a frantic tale of a relationship where, Swift says, "every day was a struggle. Forget making plans for life – we were just trying to make it to next week." The most interesting part comes when Swift sings, "Remember when you hit the brakes too soon/Twenty stitches in a hospital room." She says it was inspired by a snowmobile ride with an ex who lost control and wrecked it so badly that she saw her life flash before her eyes. Both of them had to go to the ER, although Swift wasn't hurt. She corrects herself: "Not as hurt."
For a couple whose every move was so thoroughly documented, it's kind of shocking to think that something as newsworthy as a trip to the emergency room wouldn't have wound up on the Internet. "You know what I've found works even better than an NDA?" says Swift. "Looking someone in the eye and saying, 'Please don't tell anyone about this.'" Even so, it's impressive: The most top-secret hospital visit would necessarily involve three or four witnesses – and none of them talked?
Swift says that's sort of her point. "People think they know the whole narrative of my life," she says. "I think maybe that line is there to remind people that there are really big things they don't know about."
I didn't know what kind of coffee you wanted, so I brought options."
Two weeks later, Swift is in the back seat of an SUV idling next to Central Park, with a tray of four iced coffees balanced on her lap. Outside wait a dozen paparazzi and several dozen fans. The plan is to take a nice walk in the park – and maybe, though this is unspoken, to get a glimpse of the attention she faces daily.
Swift takes her bodyguard's hand and steps out of the car. She's dressed in the decidedly un-park-friendly outfit of a tweed skirt and crop top, pink suede Louboutin pumps, and a yellow Dolce & Gabbana bag. She navigates the muddy trail impressively in her heels, the crowd behind her swelling every few feet. In front of her, two bodyguards clear a path. Behind her, another bodyguard carries a bag of scones.
Swift turns down a dead-end path where the paparazzi can't follow and takes a seat in a gazebo on the shores of the lake. On the wooden posts are carved hundreds of initials, the stories of couples who came before – the kind of thing that might appear in a Taylor Swift song. Excitedly, Swift points at the lake: "Turtles! And ducks!" She looks at the ground. "Oh. And a used condom."
Swift says that the only time she could come to the park and have it be normal would be in the middle of the night ("which is dangerous") or at four in the morning ("which is early"). She hasn't driven alone in five years, and she can't leave her home without being swarmed by fans. ("When a sweet little 12-year-old says to their mom, 'Taylor lives an hour from here . . .' – more times than not, they'll make the trip.") Although she doesn't like to draw attention to it, she says there is a contingent of fans that think her songs contain hidden messages to them. "Think about it," she says. "Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone? Take that, add 'crazytown' to it, and it sounds like an invitation for kidnapping."
We've been talking for a while when a boat rows up carrying three teenagers – two girls and a guy. "Oh, my God!" says one of the girls. "Today is my birthday! Can I please take a picture with you?" Swift laughs. "You can, but I don't know how you're going to. You're on a boat, buddy!"
"I'll get off!" the girl says. "I'll find a way." Swift and her bodyguard reach out and help her into the pavilion. "You're going to make me cry!" she says.
"Is it really your birthday?" Swift asks.
"How old are you?"
"Seventeen," the girl says.
"Oh, that's a good year."
"I know. I'm excited."
The girl says she lives on Long Island. She and her friends took the train in for the day. "That's cute," Swift says. "Are you going to dinner somewhere?"
The girl scrunches up her face. "We were going to . . . Chipotle?"
Swift smiles. She goes to her purse and pulls out a wad of cash – $90, to be exact. "Here," she says. "Go somewhere nice."
"Oh, my God," the girl says. "Thank you!" She climbs back in the boat, and she and her friends paddle off.
Pretty soon it's time to go. One of Swift's bodyguards, Jeff, a former Marine Corps anti-terrorism specialist, comes over to brief her. "OK, we've got a six-minute walk to the exit. Twitter is going like wildfire, so some of the more obsessive fans . . ." He trails off. "We're just gonna close the gap on you and keep them back."
Swift gives her bangs one last check in her phone's camera, then she looks out at the lake. "I wish we had a boat."
She stands up to go. Immediately we're surrounded by a crush of paparazzi and fans. Even the hot-dog vendors are snapping pictures. As Swift winds her way through the park, the crowd grows larger and more aggressive; it's a little scary. "OK, everybody, we need some room, please!" Jeff says. "Step back. Give her space!"
But Swift is unfazed. "You want to know a trick to immediately go from feeling victimized to feeling awesome?" she says. She pulls out her phone and hands me the earbuds: "This is my go-to." She presses play, and Kendrick Lamar's "Backseat Freestyle" fills the speakers. As Swift bobs her head, Lamar raps:
All my life I want money and power
Respect my mind or die from lead shower
I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower
So I can fuck the world for 72 hours
Goddamn, I feel amazing
Damn, I'm in the Matrix . . .
Swift smiles wide. "I know every word."