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From the Bleachers to Cheer Captain: The Devolution of Taylor Swift

Michael Green
Photo: "Blank Space" music video

Whereas universality and populism mark Taylor Swift's early years, with her recent LP 1989 she has become the cheer captain she once railed against.

With the massive success of her most recent album, 1989, Taylor Swift has completed her journey from precocious teenage ingénue to Biggest Pop Star in the World. In addition to topping the singles download charts, 1989 sold four million copies in its first 12 weeks of release, numbers rarely seen since the digital revolutionaries detonated the old distribution models.

Swift is also killing it in another ostensibly "dead" form: the music video. She absolutely owns YouTube, with two of her recent videos approaching a billion views each on the channel. Her recent video for "Bad Blood" set a record on Vevo, with 20 million views in one day -- and as of this week it's got well over one hundred million views. At only 25, she’s a throwback to the biggest stars in the music industry’s heyday and its most promising long-term artist.

Controversy and backlash often accompany this level of success, but they have materialized slowly around Swift. She has effortlessly shrugged off criticism, such as that aimed at racial representation in her video for “Shake it Off”; her decision to pull her catalog from Spotify; or the way she settles relationship scores in her songs.

Fans and media haven’t begrudged her success, most likely because of her charm and talent, but also because she has so shrewdly imbued her image with a capitalist ethos. Her huge ambition and world domination grew out of a relatable all-American guitar-picking and bootstrap-pulling narrative that she began crafting when she was still in her early teens. Additionally, because her look has been a little more "wholesome" than her contemporaries like Rhianna and Katy Perry, she has, up until now, avoided our culture’s ubiquitous slut-shaming.

With 1989, however, the backlash seems to be brewing, and much of it -- as is often the case with celebrities -- is in the service of exposing the woman behind the curtain, as though somehow we’ve been betrayed to find out that her carefully crafted public persona was an act all along. Lately, the complaints have been coming fast and cutting deep: Swift is not a feminist; she's not an underdog and has been with the 1% all along; she's obsessed with her own power and celebrity, despite avowals to the contrary.

I don’t think it matters where Swift really comes from, or if her father was a rich stockbroker. When we watch their movies, do we care, for example, that Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron come from privileged backgrounds? Or that Beyoncé’s first band set her for life before she was 25? We know our favorite stars are rich and not "underdogs" in any meaningful way. The troubling issue that has implications for the wider culture is not that Swift isn't a true underdog, but rather that she’s ditching the underdog act that was so welcome, the one that built her original fan base.

Swift’s early country-pop hits, such as “Fifteen” and “Teardrops on my Guitar”, offer solidarity to the insecure, the unpopular, the shy, the inexperienced, the crush-obsessed, and the lonely. In “You Belong with Me”, from her pop crossover album Fearless, she played the soulful but invisible high school girl in the bleachers whose passion and thoughtfulness contrasts the shallow glamour of the cheer captain in her short skirts. The song became an anthem for romantically dispossessed teens.

But in pursuing pop chart dominance, Swift has transformed from populist YA role model and firebrand into superficial beauty queen, a literal Victoria's Secret model and Maxim cover girl. With her pin-up spreads and her supermodel friends, as well as a haughty rivalry with the school’s other most popular girl (Katy Perry), Swift has indisputably become the cheer captain herself. Her fans in the bleachers must feel disconcerted by this transition, if not outright betrayed.

While Swift has always projected a traditional image of Eurocentric female beauty, up until now she has usually been deft about making it beside the point. It’s easier, for example, to overlook her character’s posse of stunning friends in the video for "22" when she’s singing about "ditching the whole scene" because the place is crowded with "too many cool kids".

But her beauty is now most definitely the point, as symbolized by her highly publicized stint on the Victoria Secret’s catwalk. She has become remote and inaccessible, projecting an image of perfect hair, body, and make-up, along with designer clothes and accessories that cost as much as most people’s cars.

The music too has changed; like Swift’s image, it has become slicker and more polished. The new songs from 1989, including “Welcome to New York”, “Shake it Off”, “Out of the Woods”, and the propulsive ‘80s-esque “Style", have completed Swift’s much-publicized transition from country pop to "pure" pop; consequently, a digital chill has diminished her former warmth. The songs of 1989 are made for the club, not the high school dance. Like Swift’s magazine covers, they are without flaws. As many critics have pointed out, while some of them are quite good, they lack personality. They expose the artificiality and constructed-ness of the pop star.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this; pop stars reinvent themselves all the time. Staying on the charts and in the public consciousness means keeping things fresh. If you aren’t swimming with the sharks, you’re day-old chum. But while it may have been calculated -- she moved from Pennsylvania to Nashville at the age of 14 for the express purpose of starting a recording career -- her emergence on the music scene nine years ago felt fresh and unassuming.

Here was an articulate, talented young woman who was not just a pretty face auto-tuned onto the charts by music industry handlers, but someone with a confident, unique, and incredibly appealing voice (in both senses of the word). Her stunned reaction to the moment when Kanye West sabotaged her onstage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards was the ultimate projection of guilelessness, as though she never dreamed such things could happen in this business. It was also a significant moment in her crossover from country to pop.

Swift could not only really sing, but also play the guitar and write songs. Her talent for songwriting, above all, lent a wisdom and maturity that gave her authority and grace. Her songwriting voice was underscored by a great deal of empathy, partially because she started in country, which tends to more closely empathize with the everyday lives of its listeners. One could argue that pop, on the other hand, functions more to provide escape through glitz and glamour, through traditional notions of beauty, sex, and wealth.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Swift’s primary collaborating producers on 1989 are not only men -- Max Martin and Shellback -- but men who have produced songs by some of the most highly sexualized of contemporary female pop stars: Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera, to name a few. In fairness, the producers have also worked with artists such as P!nk, Kelly Clarkson, and Avril Lavigne, whose music resolutely expresses strong, independent female voices. Spears and Aguilera are also known for assertions of female empowerment, but their early hits “Baby One More Time” and “Genie in a Bottle”, respectively, set the template for their extreme sexualization while they were still teenagers.

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