Who would have thought that when Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” video was announced as the winner of the 2009 Video Music Award for Video of the Year, it would end like this: Taylor being carried out of her apartment inside a suitcase?
That fateful moment in 2009 was the first domino to fall in a series of events that now haunt me, but none more than the idea of Swift concocting the idea of crawling into a suitcase to avoid being seen by the paparazzi, then being carried out into the trunk of her car.
It all started off innocently enough — Taylor Swift dressing as a nerdy band version of herself and an evil cheerleader alter ego both battling for a boy for a semi-misogynistic music video fit for a high school romantic comedy (I also can’t stop thinking about the part where Lucas Till closes the curtain on her while she is obviously still writing to him, but one haunting moment at a time).
Meanwhile, that same year Beyonce was dancing some of the most iconic choreography in stilettos for her “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” music video. One of them would win the VMA for Video of the Year. It wasn’t the right one.
Yes, I spent hours watching the Taylor Swift video on the tiny screen of my iPod nano imagining myself in her shoes, but I also spent hours attempting the “Single Ladies” dance. At the tender age of 10 years old, I knew Beyonce deserved the award. So did everyone else. Especially Kanye West.
Famously, he jumped on stage in the middle of Taylor’s acceptance speech to say, “Imma let you finish but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time!” He was right, but he was wrong for it. And little did we know, his drunken interruption would transform into a feud between the two that would last for almost a decade.
In the years between the 2009 VMAs and July 17, 2017 when Taylor was carried out in that giant suitcase, the two had the kind of tumultuous interactions one would expect from a Sagittarius and a Gemini. From Taylor Swift’s barefoot performance of “Innocent” at the next VMAs, a kind of condescending song about forgiving West in the most petty way, to their Instagram-official reconciliation and ensuing fall out after his lyric about her in the song “Famous.”
After Kim Kardashian got involved at the defense of her husband (was it in this moment that she saw her future as a lawyer?) and began the association of Taylor with snakes, Swift went quiet. Really quiet. Often, she’d be seen walking sideways or backwards to avoid paparazzi, but mostly she wouldn’t be seen at all.
Now we know it was because she was in that suitcase.
She’s in it. But how?
The suitcase incident occurred less than a month before Swift wiped her social media presence to begin promoting her album, Reputation, which included the lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” – an elaborate, pointed attenuation of the feud. So it makes sense that a month before she was slated to reinvent herself away from her “good girl” image with Reputation, she’d want to keep a low profile.
What doesn’t make sense is anything about the suitcase scenario — neither the impetus nor the execution.
Everything about it fascinates me, especially the logistics. Yes, it was a Very Large Suitcase, but Taylor Swift is 5’10. How did she arrange her limbs? Did it hurt to be jostled and seemingly dropped by the security gracelessly transporting her from apartment to trunk and back? How did she get out, after, when she was safely in the car? How often did she do this? And, most importantly, how did that photographer know?
Suitcase-gate was, after all, started when a paparazzi photographer claimed Swift was in the suitcase, with no evidence. The statement was quickly but unconvincingly recanted by the website, but not the photographer. And by then it was too late. Fans were looking for clues.
The suitcase seemed to be everywhere. Pictures soon surfaced of Swift’s security again carrying the heavy black suitcase into her apartment, shortly followed by Gigi Hadid appearing at the apartment — though Taylor had never been spotted entering.
There was even a moment where fans were convinced that a photo of Tom Hiddleston, her then-boyfriend, rolling a large black suitcase into LAX had to contain Swift. And while the thought of Hiddleston literally rolling his girlfriend through the airport is hilarious, this was a stretch.
Yet I can’t help but wince, totally illogically, I know, every time I land in New York’s JFK or Los Angeles’s LAX and watch suitcases thrown haphazardly onto the carousel. I know that even if Taylor was in that suitcase in the photos, she wouldn’t be flying under an airplane and tossed around by baggage claim — but what if she was?
While there’s no proof that she was actually ever really in that suitcase, the story is too absurd to be false. Zayn Malik also confirmed that she habitually travelled around in suitcases for a while, so the story tracks.
It is not clear how long or how often Swift practiced this insane stealthiness. It’s also not clear if the suitcase era was directly caused by her feud with Kanye, though the timeline suggests it might be. What is clear is what we all to find out a month later: Swift’s most sacred possession was her reputation.
What happened on that stage in 2009 was this: Kanye made a bad, impulsive decision (which was unfortunately not his last) and embarrassed a young musician in the process. Honestly, it wasn’t about Taylor. It was about Kanye. It was about Beyonce. But to the media, it was the tragic story of an innocent white girl whose moment of happiness was destroyed.
The years following were played out versions of familiar tropes, a trope that Taylor used to her advantage. There she was, blonde and barefoot for that 2010 performance, singing a song about innocence that really seemed more about her own purity and saint-like capacity to forgive than actual forgiveness. And there she was for years, cultivating a girl-squad and giving wide-eyed acceptance speeches at every award show.
But Kardashian’s assertion that Swift was not all innocent changed the narrative. And Swift, freshly into her New York era and trying to shed the skin (so to speak) of her old self, was faced with her changing reputation. So she wrote an album about it.
In the album, the story was the same. Again, Swift was the victim. But this time, she positioned herself as a fighter who wouldn’t take anyone’s s–t. She used the songs to speak to not just West, but all the people who had broken her heart or speculated about her life in the media.
Though it was a borderline unlistenable album, it was a masterful way to spin the story, and her fans responded. One of the most quoted lines from the album is from the lead single: “I’m sorry the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now — she’s dead.”
Taylor with the “Old Taylors” in Look What You Made Me Do
And indeed she was. Swift, with that album, drew a line in the sand between the younger self and the new self. She killed off her old self and her old reputation to start anew. And to kill that old self, she had to disappear for a while, avoid speculation, hide in a suitcase.
The album would have been more dramatic had it not been preceded by suitcase-gate, which attracted the exact kind of attention Swift did not want. Now, in the public imagination, Swift In The Suitcase is the actual line in the sand, the cultural shift.
Hiding in the suitcase meant there was a new Taylor emerging from it, so speak. Gone was the Taylor whose dates in the park would go viral in seconds (Harry Styles being the collateral damage in that situation). Gone was the Taylor who was defined by her naivety. The new Taylor was ambitious and unapologetic. The new Taylor was petty and proud.
And while most of us were Very Tired of the feud and mildly amused by the suitcase, it definitely marked a change. From an oversharing teenager to a burgeoning adult, it must have been jarring to look at your life and realize you had no privacy, and that your reputation was only half in your hands.
Still, to hide in a suitcase is quite drastic. And in hindsight, the Reputation years were definitely a transition era for Taylor, filled with more than a few proverbial stumbles alongside the literal suitcase.
When whispers of the feud started again this year, Taylor was less indulgent. And again, she released an album soon after — but this one wasn’t about Kanye, or even her, really. It was Taylor focusing on her music, Taylor writing for Taylor like she had been in the beginning, before 2009 when she started writing about the media and the spectacle around her life.
This Taylor seems like the one the 2017 version of herself wanted to be. One who was
truly not phased by the tabloid drama, instead of acting like she wasn’t while pulling dramatic stunts because of them. And her new music shows the shift, too. With folklore and evermore, Taylor has finally grown up.