I don’t like Taylor Swift.
Her music isn’t relevant to this assessment. I don’t like her. The person. Or, allowing that she is an extremely clever performer adept at constructing a version of herself for public consumption, I don’t like the Taylor Swift that Taylor Swift chooses to have us see.
I’m not alone in this weird revulsion of someone I don’t know. As an avid reader of absolute trash (I’m not a natural blonde: I spend a lot of time in hairdressers and my hairdresser has an excellent supply of tabloid magazines), I’ve noted the sneering coverage of her relationships. But last year, around the time of the ill-fated and weirdly eager Hiddleswift display, I noted mainstream media and feminist sites joining the derisive chorus. People, it seemed, had reached peak Swift. Her all-American goodness was now making us nauseous. I shrugged. After her last album release in 2014 followed by the saturation of a world tour in 2015 followed by endless pictures of perfect days with perfect friends in perfect outfits, we’d had a lot of Swift. But the coverage was starting to seem a little cruel, a little too gleeful in celebrating any slips. I didn’t like seeing a young woman torn down for her success but I shrugged again. She’d go away, tweak her brand a little, and comeback to dominate the music that gets stuck in our heads once we’d forgotten we had been so sick of her.
She went away so completely that she wasn’t publicly seen for months. Her normally active and candid social media accounts were quiet, sharing simply the odd promotional shot or birthday shout-out. She didn’t even host her annual Independence Day party (usually replete with all her famous friends). What a master media manipulator, I mused.
And then, last month, she was back. With new music, a new style and a new boyfriend. But this time, the press was instantly savage. As was I. And it was nothing to do with her music. Editorials seemed to clutch at wild and flimsy justifications for this dislike: her music video rips off Beyoncé! She’s playing the victim card! She’s perpetuating the angry, black man stereotype by positioning herself as an innocent ingénue in her rift with Kanye! She’s an evil capitalist mastermind for telling her fans to buy, buy, buy merchandise to ensure privileged access to tour tickets! There is legitimacy in these criticisms, but, to me, they didn’t seem to explain the whirlwind of bitterness. It’s not Swift, that has changed, really. It’s society.
The world Taylor Swift has emerged from her latest chrysalis into is deeply changed from the one she ‘left’ in 2016. This is a world that brooks no ambiguity in one’s position regarding the political battlelines drawn. And yet in this most politically charged environment, Swift is silent. Swift’s is a career built on mass appeal, on statements of personal empowerment that can be interpreted to ensure they offend no one. She hails from a red state, and her mainstream domination owes much to her early success in the famously conservative country music industry. Many of her fans would have voted Trump. In this context, her silence starts to look if not self-interested at least self-protective. And why not? She’s an entertainer. Why wade into the mess that is American politics?
Except that in 2017, it seems that everything has been lit with a torch of social passion, and much of the energy of this moment is coming from young people, women, and members of the arts community. This is an age where Teen Vogue is providing some of the best political analysis of the year. This is an age where eviscerating critiques of social inequality are happening not in our parliaments but on our stages. This is a moment where to be silent is to be incredibly out of touch. Silence, in 2017, seems to be a luxury of immense privilege.
It is a weak argument to simply compare Swift to other more politically active musicians and we should not necessarily expect political leadership from pop stars – except that Taylor Swift is an avowed feminist, uses female empowerment as an extensive motif in her music and personal branding, and has invoked feminism in her criticism of others’ behaviour, including Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, and Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. So it is reasonable to be disappointed by her curious silence amidst the electrifying Women’s March movement, and her lack of engagement on the myriad social issues specifically targeting her fan base – particularly young women and the LGBTIQ community – in a Trump presidency.
Until we look more critically at Swiftian feminism that is. Taylor Swift’s is a personal empowerment brand of feminism: aspirational, mercantilist, neo-liberal. It is focussed on the achievements of the individual. It tells a story of individual talent triumphing over the odds, not of the structure that creates and protects those odds. It is ignorant of – or reluctant to examine – its own privilege: white, tall, thin, straight and conventionally beautiful and wealthy. In Taylor’s performance of female friendship, there are some brown bodies and some bigger bodies, but these are by far the exception. And all of them seem merely to be superficial accessories. Another thing to aspire to, to collect, to spend money on obtaining.
This feel good ‘feminism’ was fine for entertainment before Trump, before Brexit, before white extremists felt the world was safe for them to start publically burning things again, before Australia decided to rip itself open as it mused on whether human rights were indeed rights for all. In 2017, white and blonde and tall and thin and silent is the ultimate goal according to the new regime. Taylor Swift could be another Ivanka Trump, her individual success apparently refuting any suggestion of discrimination or inequality. Her obedience is what ensures acceptance. But for those not accepted by the establishment, to merely champion individual success, to not acknowledge and challenge systems of oppression, to be silent, is to seem complicit. In neo-liberal Swiftian feminism, it is Taylor Swift that profits, not we along with her.
There is an important and laudable exception to Swift’s attempt to stay silently uncontroversial, and a disappointing example of the feminist and mainstream media showing a reluctance to accord credit where it was due. In August this year, jurors in a civil trial agreed with Swift that she had been assaulted by a DJ during a public appearance. Swift used this decision to advocate that victims of sexual assault be believed and heard, and to defend a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Acknowledging that her wealth gave her an opportunity to pursue the case, a privilege often out of reach for assault victims, she pledged to donate money to organisations supporting victims of sexual violence. In this moment, Swift challenged the system that dismisses women’s experiences, offered courage and precedent to young women, gave a voice to those without her platform, and sought to identify and rectify the inequalities of money and legal power that protect male perpetrators. It was a rare moment of politics, of noise, and it was powerful. Perhaps we should be hopeful this experience will empower Swift to continue to engage with social issues. Perhaps we should be disappointed that a high profile victim of sexual assault chose not to link her experience with the cultural impact of a President who boasts that he can commit sexual assault with impunity.
It’s not just Taylor Swift, of course, that has fallen fowl of our new expectation for socially conscious engagement. Three years ago the tall, white, thin, conventionally beautiful and straight Iggy Azalea’s first two singles achieved the kind of success that had until then only been reached by the Beatles. In 2017, Izzy’s reputation is as tattered as a post-party piñata. Any attempt to engage with Azalea’s appropriation of and profit from black culture has been met by her rebuttal that this criticism is sexist. Azalea’s failure to think with nuance about her privileges as a white woman shows that, like Swift, she grasps the feminist tenets that are most self-serving: the bits that protect the individual and the system – a system that likes female celebrities when they’re compliant, white and beautiful.
I have a sense that we’re readying for battle. If entertainers want to simply entertain, fine. But if they want to profit from engagement with the issues that are tearing Western societies apart, we expect them to have done their homework. We expect them to have an understanding of how issues of race and gender intersect to affect equality – that is, intersectional feminism. We expect that their understanding of feminism is sophisticated enough to listen to legitimate critiques of their behaviour and get better. We’re expecting a lot of our women in 2017: we want the call for equality to be for us all.
Women are taught not to make waves. And Taylor Swift has reaped great success from negotiating a fine line between celebrating women and not challenging the status-quo. And this was fine. But, as is evident from a sudden zeitgeist of criticism of Swift, this approach is becoming out of date. A violently fractured Western world has turned ‘Taylor Swift’ into a battleground, and her silent intersection with this cultural moment seems to make her complicit in our political projections onto her body. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect political leadership from pop stars, but culture and music has always been at its best when it serves as society’s truthful mirror. And in this shit show of a world, we want – we need – our heroes to be wave makers, and not just hit makers.
Image: Eva Rinaldi under Creative Commons License
Naomi Barnbaum is a Canberra-based public servant, having fled more humid climes in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in History and International Relations (First Class Honours) from the University of Queensland. Naomi’s writing has appeared in Feminartsy, and she musters her musings on www.naomibarnbaum.com. Outside of writing, Naomi loves dogs, books, music (both as performer and spectator), and truly terrible television.