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Photo: "Blank Space" music video

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

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.

There Are No In-betweens Here

While Swift does call herself a feminist, the songs on 1989 mostly don’t reflect a strong interest in subverting or criticizing established gender roles or ideologies, something she did more of on her previous album Red (2012). The most provocative song on 1989, the monster hit “Blank Space”, is empowering in the basic sense that the narrator of the song refuses to subscribe to conventional notions of relationships in which women need be chaste and demure. But it also traffics in the worst female stereotypes – women are boy crazy, irrational, jealous, obsessive, and destructive. Swift sings:

Screaming, crying, perfect storms

I could make all the tables turn

Rose garden filled with thorns

Keep you second guessing like oh my god

Who is she? I get drunk on jealousy

But you’ll come back each time you leave

Cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream

If “Blank Space” is meant, as Swift claims, to be an ironic “fuck you” to sexist critics who think it’s indecorous for her to be confessional about her love life, how many of her fans get the irony? Many listeners will uncritically absorb the melodramatic stereotypes that marginalize and demean women and pressure them into traditional gender roles.

In the video to “Blank Space”, Swift transforms into Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction, complete with butcher knife. She appears as Eve with the apple. She slinks along on the floor in tight clothes and smudged black mascara. The video perpetuates the old figure of woman as dangerous temptress, as femme fatale. It’s unambiguous iconography, and if it’s supposed to be employed ironically or satirically, the video — again, watched almost one billion times on YouTube alone — fails to convey that.

The other alienating factor in the “Blank Space” video, and in Swift’s new public persona, is the ostentatious wealth on display: the mansion with its chandeliers and spiral staircases, purebred horses, custom sports cars, designer gowns and suits, and boy toys that look like Calvin Klein models. It’s a long way from the rhetorical spaces Swift used to occupy, like the high school gyms and hoedowns.

Her new “Bad Blood” video, in which she spins violent fantasies allegedly related to her feud with Katy Perry, indulges in images of wealth and conventional beauty as much or more than “Blank Space”. The video features Swift and a random selection of the most beautiful long-stemmed women she can find — buxom supermodels and movie and TV stars, gym-toned and strapped into black leather — training for a cataclysmic showdown with an ostensibly fictionalized version of Perry (a terribly miscast Selena Gomez).

The video’s reductive representation of female beauty also includes masculinizing the one non-supermodel/bombshell in the group, Lena Dunham, who shows up in a suit with a short haircut and cigar. There are no in-betweens here: either you are one of the most conventionally beautiful women in the world, or you will be characterized as having ambiguous gender/sexuality. Like many other “strong female characters” in contemporary Hollywood, they signify their strength by occupying the narrow sphere of the violent male action role. In 2015, this profligate mess is what Swift wants to put her extravagant resources into dramatizing: pyrotechnic-driven catfights with other wealthy sex-bombs.

In contrast to “Bad Blood” and “Blank Space”, consider “Mean”, from Speak Now, in which Swift takes on the voice of an abused young woman:

I bet you got pushed around

Somebody made you cold

But the cycle ends right now

‘Cause you can’t lead me down that road

And you don’t know, what you don’t know…

Someday I’ll be living in a big ol’ city

And all you’re ever gonna be is mean

Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me

And all you’re ever gonna be is mean

Why you gotta be so mean?”

“Mean” could be the apotheosis of Swift’s early populism, and her solidarity with the downtrodden and oppressed. The lyrics embody a young woman standing up to a male abuser (a common theme in country music), and it’s a perfect marriage of form and content in the way the lyrics reflect the stripped down quality of the production and a voice that sounds almost deliberately thin and reedy. The video, meanwhile, features Swift playing banjo at a hoedown interspersed with vignettes of a gay teen bullied by jocks, a young girl spurned by her classmates, and a humiliated young waitress saving her pennies for escape to college. Swift projects compassion for their suffering and loneliness, anger and derision towards their abusers, and — perhaps most crucially — great joy at their imagined future triumphs.

This is Swift at her best, slipping into character and using voice in both the narrative and the vocal sense to convey a heroine who is vulnerable and beaten down but also resolute and full of life. The video ends with the spurned little girl staring with unabashed worship at Swift, who is clearly positioned as a role model. How would that same little girl view the melodramatic ugliness on display in the “Blank Space” video? After her own experiences with bullies, why would she empathize with Swift’s immature tiff with Perry?

One can always make a case for the Charles Barkley position, regardless of its inherent disingenuousness: you are under no obligation to be a role model if you don’t really want to be one. Additionally, I’m not arguing that an adult Swift should write songs aimed only at high school students for the rest of her life. Ultimately, of course, she has the right to manage her career however she sees fit, make piles of money, and engage any subject that interests her. She has the right to revel in and flaunt her sexuality, to not give a damn about feminism at all if she so chooses, or to assert her ideas of feminism in inflammatory and non-traditional ways. She has the right to be contradictory, ambiguous, inconsistent, exploratory, and indifferent to fans.

And yet, despite all that, and despite how much control she may be exerting over it, Swift’s new persona seems like a devolution, as though her voice, body and preoccupations have been co-opted by the hegemonic processes of capitalism and by a pop music empire that sexualizes and subjugates women, even as they belt out anthems of “empowerment”.

Because there is war for gender equality raging on every front, there’s quite a bit at stake here. Like the inspired little girl in the “Mean” video, millions of young people are watching Swift’s every move. In a global patriarchal culture that continues to marginalize and objectify women and deny them equal rights, one could argue that how one of the most powerful women in the world uses her power, and the values she chooses to convey, is pretty important.

Swift is young, and she’s not going anywhere for a long time. As such, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her put out a stripped-down country album a few years from now, one that allows her to get back to her “populist roots”. In the meantime, however, it seems as though the last thing young people need from our culture is yet another cheer captain.

Michael Green lives in Tempe Arizona and teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at Arizona State University. His work has appeared in a number of publications including Salon, Senses of Cinema, The Journal of Film and Video, Bright Lights Film Journal, and The Chautauqua Literary Review, among others. What he really wants to do is direct.

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