Taylor Swift: Why is it so difficult to support her?

Victimhood, narcissism and ‘squad goals’ distract from genuine feminist expression

Taylor Swift’s intentions may be honourable but tangled up within this complicated web of victimhood and tired gossip is her own form of girl power.

Taylor Swift’s intentions may be honourable but tangled up within this complicated web of victimhood and tired gossip is her own form of girl power.

 

Of all the modern pop conundrums – What is a Post Malone? Is Rita Ora the Bear Grylls survivalist of music? – the one that is the true puzzler of our time is: Why is it so difficult to support Taylor Swift?

Taylor Swift concocts the sugariest of pop delights about all-consuming fantastical romances, emotional, tender-boned hymns to the first burst of passion like the beautiful Delicate and Style. These whimsical fancies sometimes feel as though they’ve come from the Brill Building era of classic songwriting but by way of Max Martin’s Scandi-Pop factory. She has the MTV generation sensibilities of Britney at her most spellbinding mixed with the sensitive soul of a Laurel Canyon troubadour. She’s hardly a controversy magnet like the troublesome Azealia Banks but the button-cute country gal is just as divisive.

Instead of celebrating her undeniable work ethic and shrewd business moves, she is routinely criticised for behaviour that other acts are similarly lauded for. She explores the same rocky relationship terrain as Adele but is never afforded the same reverence, as Swift is constantly accused of fixating on past lovers with the media casting her as Glenn Close in a Teen Vogue version of Fatal Attraction. The famous boy-toys that litter her singalong diary entries are never explicitly identified in her work unlike the name and shame list of women in the public eye that every second hip-hop artist spits out like expletives to somehow bolster their masculinity.

Swift is still thought of as the Gwyneth Paltrow of Pop, a cloying irritation under whose sweet public persona (that of a trainee Disney princess) lies a calculating megalomaniac

Swift mostly eschews press and interviews (akin to the deified Beyoncé), preferring to take control and create her own narrative by issuing edicts through her social media, managing to cut out any potential distortion and speaking directly to her fanbase which only helps to strengthen their loyalty. She previously fought against Spotify to reclaim her work, insisting on the value of music as an artform that it is something that should be cherished and respected rather than a momentary trivial distraction whose worth is diminishing. She boldly brought the DJ who sexually assaulted her to court and through her testimony shed more light on an industry where young impressionable girls are treated like disposable commodities.

Cloying irritation

Yet Swift is still thought of as the Gwyneth Paltrow of Pop, a cloying irritation under whose sweet public persona (that of a trainee Disney princess) lies a calculating megalomaniac. The star has done little to counteract this perspective as there is no one more obsessed with everyone’s opinions of her than one Ms Swift.

She is fuelled by the notion of being treated unfairly, being cast as the victim but with bombshells dropped and revelations made about her apparent complicity with Kanye West, her agreement about the content of his track Famous and her decision to release her entire back catalogue on Spotify the day that Katy Perry’s new album was launched, an unflattering light tarnished the star’s unblemished innocence. No longer the teary-eyed teen whose MTV award was stolen from her, she has transformed into someone more bulletproof but as she tries to embody this moody incarnation of Taylor on her Reputation album, it feels more artificial than ever.

There is the distinct, inescapable adolescent stench surrounding her infamous feuds with everyone from Tina Fey to Katy Perry to Kim Kardashian. These ridiculous “beefs” and her stubborn refusal to rise above certain criticism mires the 28-year-old in embarrassing high school-style dramas that makes it difficult to take her seriously especially when she’s trading Mean Girls insults on Twitter with arch-nemesis Perry. This ongoing pettiness has formed part of her brand and in a sense makes her more relatable and in tune with her teen fans who subtweet about frenemies and Tumblr their feelings whilst scanning Instagram for invented shade.

Kanye dig it? Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do misfired, but Ready for It? and Gorgeous hit the target. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

With her pointed “diss” tracks and the obvious, over-the-top symbolism of her videos there is an overwhelming feeling that rather than the Reputation album being the perfect chance for the shell-shocked victim to reply to her tormentors, she is instead a transparent opportunist that will reignite a dormant feud to insert herself back into the headlines and hashtags. The Shake it Off singer seems unable or unwilling to do just that. Naming her comeback single Look What You Made Me Do, it unapologetically declares that nothing had been learned that there wasn’t a modicum of self-reflection or spiritual growth to be found amongst the icy beats. The new Taylor is just like the old one but with a darker shade of lipstick and an unfortunate wet-look curly hairdo.

In her choice not to dilute the lineup with swoony, syrupy singers and to instead include this all female line-up, Swift is making a clear statement of intention

Whereas other megawatt pop stars from Lady Gaga to Janelle Monae and Beyoncé are currently challenging themselves and pushing forward into a new realm of artistic maturity, and whilst Kim Kardashian is dealing with the very adult fallout from her husband’s dissolution/elongated Andy Kaufmanesque artprank, Taylor is busy spending thousands on giant snake emojis as set design for her Reputation arena tour. It’s as though she is engrossed in performing hollow Game of Thrones tactics whilst everyone else is attempting to engage with real socio-political issues. Although there is a campy value in witnessing her terrible attempts at being the villain which is like watching someone from Gossip Girl trying to bitchslap Joan Collins. It’s the kind of deluded madness expected of egotist pop stars and infinitely more entertaining and fun than the ongoing ugliness of the family-court drama of Pusha-T and Drake.

Her stab at reclaiming the Kardashian spawned snake imagery is to align it with the notion of social media bullying, which is what she has stated throughout this tour, telling her audience that  “You shouldn’t care so much if you feel misunderstood by a lot of people who don’t know you, as long as you feel understood by people who do know you, who will show up for you”.  

Her intentions may be honourable but tangled up within this complicated web of victimhood and tired gossip is her own form of girl power. It’s a strange version that Swift has previously promoted, where her model-sized girl-gang track down her offending foes in the video for Bad Blood or on the 1989 tour where it involved testimonies from famous mates such as the members of Haim thanking her for being such a great friend, as if reaching the apex of narcissism, the ability to attend her own funeral. It was less about empowerment or celebrating women and more about the all-pervasive cult of personality.

Maybe now, with Taylor Swift recast as a powerful influence and supportive presence to women in the industry she can finally put away childish things

Navel gazing

Swift’s misguided attempts at feminist posturing and her habit of social media snafus (who can forget the schooling she was given about race by Nicki Minaj on Twitter?) is reminiscent of her friend, writer and director Lena Dunham. Theirs is a kind of self-absorption and navel gazing of the truly privileged, one who can never fully see outside the person in the mirror or the subject of the latest selfie.

The fact is the megastar doesn’t need to participate in problematic performative feminism when she can assert her influence in a more meaningful way which she has managed to do on the Reputation tour by having Charli XCX and Camila Cabello be her support acts. By inviting the two emerging stars to share her stage she is not only gifting them her vast audience but also importantly acknowledging the fact that it is women who are at the top of the pop game these days.

In her choice not to dilute the lineup with swoony, syrupy singers like heartthrobs Charlie Puth or Shawn Mendes (who may be more appealing to her audience) and to instead include this all female line-up, Swift is making a clear statement of intention. She is offering a platform of promotion to someone like the left of centre, perennial contender Charli XCX, a talented, shapeshifting songwriter, performer and producer who has somehow stayed on the edges of success even though she has worked with an array of stars such as Carly Rae Jepsen and Cardi B and has featured on an array of smash hit singles. It’s a sign that Swift wants to elevate her fellow female artists, to give someone like Charli the final push she deserves. She wants to see the runaway sensation that is Cabello sustained and fortified by this exposure to her legion of fans. Swift is trying to secure their place in the pop world one stadium show at a time, so they can eventually stand alongside her as equals in the profession rather than the familiar faces of Ed Sheeran or Future.

This generous act is more of a feminist expression than all the shallow silliness of “squad goals” and truly in line with her belief that women should help each other to triumph in the male-dominated music world. Maybe now, with Taylor Swift recast as a powerful influence and supportive presence to women in the industry she can finally put away childish things and bury that dodgy reputation once and for all.

  • Taylor Swift plays Croke Park, Dublin, June 15th and 16th
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