The Taylor Swift Conundrum

It’s sad to think what Taylor Swift could have meant in the Trump presidency.
09/05/2017 03:50 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2017
Taylor Swift, sitting in a bathtub full of diamonds, in a still from her latest music video, “Look What You Made Me Do”.
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Taylor Swift, sitting in a bathtub full of diamonds, in a still from her latest music video, “Look What You Made Me Do”.

I’ve spent the past two weeks being completely baffled by Taylor Swift.

I wrote last month about the importance of her Colorado trial, in which she gave bold and unapologetic testimony against a man whom a jury convicted of groping during a photo opportunity. Another author on this site published an op-ed griping that feminists had failed to show up for Swift during her trial ― a claim that I found not only inaccurate but incredibly ironic given the public and vocal “girl squad-feminist”’s complete absence from a literally inescapable conversation centering around the president of the United States admitting to committing sexual assault ― and it finally seemed as if the “Taylor is Over” party that took place after Kim Kardashian’s Snapchat frenzy was over.

So the return of Taylor, with her upcoming sixth studio album reputation, seemed like a chance for the singer to continue working her way into the public’s good graces after a period that even President Trump’s PR team would have characterized as rough. It felt like the general public were preparing to welcome home their favorite All-American good girl, as we did with Kesha whose comeback album after her difficult public period went straight in at #1.

But instead, it seems as if Taylor played the wrong hand. A lead single that dragged the entire conversation around her image back into the most toxic period of her career, “Look What You Made Me Do” was not just purely reactionary, it was boring. The woman who put out the brilliant song that is “Blank Space,” meeting her critics’ gaze with a ferociously playful acknowledgment that, yes, she too was in on the joke had released what can best be described as an unironic, coldly generic number. It brought to mind a word I had never before used to describe a Taylor Swift song: reductive. Sure, the music video helped, with the multiple Taylors trading barbs at the end serving as a heavy-handed nod to public sentiment, but even that felt less tongue-in-cheek and more self-righteously enraged. The old Taylor, dramatically murdered in the song’s bridge, would have laughed with the rest of us. The new Taylor seems determined to pin everything on others, and, by extension, us.

What I think is so disappointing about the Taylor Swift of 2017, ultimately, is that she’s not saying much of anything anymore, in her music or in her life. Not only do we live in a political and artistic moment where artists are increasingly energized to return to the tradition of resisting through their craft, but Swift in the past has been one of the most expressive, personal songwriters in the pop industry. Her vulnerable, honest lyrics were a breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by computer generated mundanity. For her to have traded in painfully direct songs for generic quasi-sexual moans in her new song “...Ready For It?” feels like a blow not just to her legacy as an artist but to an industry that desperately needs more of her kind of authenticity. Add to that her complete silence during a time when young women across the country need all the role models they can get, and when violent, racist heteromasculinity threatens to undo us, and her absence looms larger than it ought to.

In the same way that many of Swift’s fans have come after music critics and media outlets for waxing poetic about the same details of her reinvention, working them over until they lose all meaning, so Swift has erased herself from her own music. “Look What You Made Me Do” and “...Ready For It?” could easily have come out of Ariana Grande’s or Selena Gomez’s catalogues. The agency, conscious and indignantly self-determinant, that Swift exhibited on albums like Fearless and Red has been traded in for songs and videos handled by and narratively owned by men (Jack Antonoff, Joseph Kahn, Max Martin). Her controversial promotional tactics, including buying expensive merchandise for an increased chance at purchasing tickets for her upcoming tour, seem less empowering a la Sheryl Sandberg and more cynical, like a record label boss. We expect the big men to milk their fans for every cent to gain a profit, but Taylor Swift? It seems like the antithesis of her entire brand.

It’s sad to think what Taylor Swift could have meant in the Trump presidency. Sure, she would still have had an uncomfortably close relationship with Black culture in a manner that verged on downright appropriative, but that brutal honesty would have been a change of pace (and likely more successful than Katy Perry’s half-baked attempt at the same). A new generation of female singers in her image have risen to critical acclaim ― Lorde and Alessia Cara to name two ― but Swift seems more eager than I expected to let them claim her old authority. Swift will continue to be successful, to generate drama, and to win both awards and commercial acclaim. But she will do so by punching down, by taking cheap shots, and by, if her music so far is any indication, trying her best to disappear into the background. And that, honestly, is a real shame.

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