Music

How Does Taylor Swift's 'Reputation' Fit in with The Current Political Climate?

Photo of Taylor Swift by © Sachyn Mital. See his coverage of the Reputation Tour here.

Like an alchemist, Taylor Swift turns stray thoughts and abject emotions into global cultural touchstones—and into piles and piles of cold, hard cash. What do her fans get out of it?

It's about 7:15PM in suburban Lanham, Maryland. Golden hour sun shimmers behind gossamer clouds. On the long trek from a $35-plus parking lot toward FedEx Field, we wend our way through gaggles of teenagers, mother-daughter dyads holding hands, and the occasional heterosexual couple whose male counterpart must be earning copious relationship points for his attendance. When we approach the gates, an olfactory wall of chicken finger aroma might, depending on how much you like chicken fingers, stop you in your tracks or guide you forward like a ravenous zombie. An interminable-looking line surrounds the Rep Tour merch tent, where you can purchase an iPhone case for $50 or a crop top for $70. Two policemen in army fatigues, assault rifles slung casually across their chests, chat as wave upon wave of tank-topped, jean-shorted devotees stream across their line of sight. It's Wednesday night in America, and for some reason all of us—young and old, more diverse in race and gender presentation than I'd expected—have gathered inside a massive football stadium to indulge in a collective, semi-religious ritual.

What are we all doing here? For one, we've overpaid and driven far to witness one of the world's largest pop stars march another leg on her crusade for global domination. Some of us might be genuine fans; among those visibly in that category, my favorites are a pair of waist-high twins wearing tutus, Converse high tops, big scrunchies, and knotted t-shirts with "T Swift 13" on the back and "#mybirthday #firstconcert" on the front. Others are clear attachés: these are the partners and family members who, like a guy I met in the hotdog line, spent four hours refreshing TaylorSwift.com (while watching sports on another device, he notes) in order to get his girlfriend the best possible tickets. Some, like me, are curious skeptics, conflicted admirers, dabblers in the fandom who nonetheless acknowledge the many reasons Swift deserves criticism. So here we all are, anticipating the pop star's entrance with varying degrees of excitement and hesitation.

As the sun sets, pop sensation Charli XCX pogos across the stage in a white sports bra and light-pink vinyl jacket-shorts combo, though she loses the jacket a few songs in. Charli's act reflects little choreographic forethought; even when projected onto the stadium's four jumbotrons, she looks like a girl at the party who's just slightly more stylish and a slightly more agile dancer than your average attendee. Her songs, many of which she's written or co-written, including Icona Pop's "I Love It" and her own "Boom Clap", have become iconic though, so the sloppiness projects an earned cockiness rather than an artistic limitation.

Fifth Harmony's Camila Cabello follows, delivering an A+ performance combining powerful, pitch-perfect vocals (including the occasional Mariah Carey-esque whistle note) with dynamic choreography, all executed flawlessly. Performing just before Swift, Cabello seems like the kind of burgeoning pop star who could one day unseat her headliner. Perhaps Swift admires her; perhaps she's keeping her competitors close. In any case, Cabello makes herself a tough act to follow. Both openers drum up crowd enthusiasm with speeches about "Girl Power On This Tour" and adulations for Swift herself.

Photo of Camila Cabello by © Sachyn Mital. See his coverage of this concert here.

As we await the Queen's entrance during soundcheck, FedEx Field turns into a slightly modified Hunger Games scenario. It's almost 90 degrees and water bottles cost $6 cash. "Free" water can be found at fountains generating a trickle of liquid insufficient to hydrate an adult-sized body. If, like me, you're a millennial who never carries cash, you are basically screwed, because lines for vendors who take credit cards swell to chaotic volumes and the ATMs (I checked three) are out of cash. Prone to fainting when hydration and blood sugar run low, I find myself deliberating whether to summon Katniss-level instincts toward self-preservation or to admit defeat and leave. There's a 7 Eleven five miles from here, I recall, that would sell me a hot dog for $2 rather than $7, and I have a water bottle in my car that, of course, security would not allow me to carry in. But once you've jumped through the geographic and financial hoops required to attend the Reputation Tour, it feels impossible to leave. Five miles away seems like a distant, foreign country.

I'm washing my hands in the restroom when the four-count, drum-machine-and-synth intro to "… Ready For It?" booms through the stadium and, like my fellow soundcheck stragglers, I pivot at once and race back to my seat. How is Taylor going to make her entrance? In full dominatrix mode, it turns out, clad in a sequined bodysuit and thigh-high lace-up boots, stomping and thrusting her way through sharp choreography, causing me to wonder whether I'm watching a more disciplined body-double for the Taylor we once celebrated for awkwardly dancing at awards shows. Backup dancers flock behind her; grittily filtered images of her face loom across the four jumbotrons; the song runs more or less as it does on the album. It's basically like the music video, just starring a three-dimensional Taylor rather than two. I worry that the show will be boring.

But during the second number, "I Did Something Bad", a moment materializes that reminds me why most of us have ended up here, rubbing shoulders too closely to one another in this heat. The realization arrives just after the bridge, right before the drop, in a drawn-out version of the three-beat pause we hear on the record between the repeated phrase "So light me up" and the refrain, "They say I did something bad / So why's it feel so good"? Live, Taylor and her band expand this pause, the camera zooms in on her face, and the polished, S&M-inspired professionalism that's characterized the show so far crumbles. Her focused expression disappears and she breaks into a signature T-Swift goofy grin: slightly buck-toothed, panting visibly, gaze panning across the stadium she's filled, eyes narrowing on her admirers with a flash of conspiratorial mischief. This grin speaks volumes; without uttering a word, Taylor is saying to us, "You guys, I can't believe I did this. I can't believe we've made this together. It's me, the awkward girl sharing cat pictures on Tumblr, the girl so many of you relate to, and I'm the star of this show that you're here watching. What?!" The beat drops, and she resumes the pantomime, perhaps a little looser than before but still hitting her marks. The band jams out during the outro, rewriting its pristine source material into an almost bluesy breakdown. This is what I came for. We are no longer being performed to; we've been invited in.

Photo of Taylor Swift by © Sachyn Mital. See his coverage of the Reputation Tour here.

Swift remains both popular and an object of critical fascination because she embodies a mess of contradictions, a mess that congealed for me in that post-bridge moment from "I Did Something Bad". She's treacly but talented, shallow but relatably complicated at times. Her songs don't reach for profundity—they're mostly about past boyfriends and her own fame—but they've become talismans of hope, positivity, and community for young fans who might need those things very badly. In her music as well as her public persona, Swift rotates almost hypnotically between both ends of a much-debated spectrum that positions authenticity on one end and artifice on the other.

Such critiques could be leveled at other pop stars, such as Britney Spears—my generation's closest peer to Taylor Swift—Beyoncé, or Katy Perry. What distinguishes Swift, however, is her coming-of-age right alongside social media: her first album, Taylor Swift (Big Machine, 2006), was released the same year Twitter went live. This timing forced her to co-manage her art and her public persona in a newly transparent media environment, leaving her at times vulnerable to high-profile slip-ups, but also empowering her to connect with true fans. As Joe Coscarelli observed in the New York Times, Swift's chosen platform has become Tumblr, which enables under-the-radar interactions with regular users. As someone who's followed Swiftie blogs on Tumblr for years, I've witnessed Swift personally cheering girls on as they experience life's milestones, surprising fans with thoughtfully selected Christmas presents, and responding to their responses to her albums. Beyoncé, by contrast, remains mostly aloof on social media, releasing highly produced content at sporadic intervals.

Despite the hazards that any celebrity faces on social media, Swift has found—particularly through Tumblr—a way to break the fourth wall between stars and "stans" by establishing personal, one-on-one relationships with her most ardent followers. One could take a cynical view of this practice, labeling it just a more targeted branding strategy rather than a display of genuine interest in young people. Observing these interactions over time, however, I detect Swift's very real passion for connecting with—and learning from—their lives. But Swift, always the savvy businesswoman, eventually monetized her online following, launching a gaming app called The Swift Life in 2017 that, unfortunately, morphed into a platform for hate speech, provoked a lawsuit, and quickly tanked in download ratings. Swift's online interactions, therefore, invite suspicion for how they transmute something genuine—human interaction—into bids for financial gain. These suspicions about social media parallel longstanding critical skepticism toward pop culture produced for a capitalist market, art made to maximize sales.

As a musician, Swift partly inspired the rise of "poptimism", a critical trend that took off in the early '00s, finding some writers abandoning their fealty to "cool" genres like indie rock and instead greeting new music by Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus with a seriousness that would've been unthinkable a decade earlier. As Swift migrated from country radio to the Billboard Hot 100, she became the perfect object for poptimist inquiry, in part because she has always staked out territory, hard, on both ends of the authenticity/artifice spectrum. Her songs, particularly the early ones, contain lapidary verses that refract teenage concerns into gemlike observations about heartbreak, loneliness, unpopularity, fandom, and fairy-tale love. Her extensive catalog proves that this songwriting technique wasn't a girlish gimmick, lightening captured by chance in a bottle. Rather, this lyrical precision runs from her earliest compositions ("Our song is a slamming screen door / Sneaking out late tapping on your window" from "Our Song") through her most recent ("Your necklace hanging from my neck / The night we couldn't quite forget / When we decided to move the furniture so we could dance" from "Out of the Woods").

In many of her songs, Swift transmutes the unpleasant dimensions of young adulthood into catchy compositions that young and old alike dance to because they're sometimes silly, sometimes beautiful, but always extremely effective at beckoning a willing listener into her world. She even mixes giggles and studio chatter right into some of her poppiest songs (see "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" or "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things"). Like an alchemist, Swift turns stray thoughts and abject emotions into global cultural touchstones—and into piles and piles of cold, hard cash. To take one metric, Billboard estimates that the Reputation Tour will take in more than $400 million by the end of its six-month run.

Behind that cash, of course, lies a marketing strategy: the artifice in Swift's act that's grown increasingly hard to ignore. For example, the grin that Swift flashed during "I Did Something Bad" was not spontaneous; it was a highly calculated moment that her band, dancers, and lighting designers had programmed right down to the millisecond. Perhaps that's what worries some of us about the spell Swift casts on her young fans. She masquerades as their big sister, their cool babysitter, corresponding with them on Tumblr by night while, come daylight, plotting UPS truck takeovers and serving as the official "ambassador" of a rich, white, gentrifying version of New York City. She loves her cats but also gets to carry them on her private jet. She's a ruthless capitalist in a heartsick, diary-filling, emo teen's clothing. (Until, perhaps, she donned the dominatrix boots for this tour.)

This precise shift is what inspired my curiosity about her latest tour, for Reputation (Big Machine, 2017) strikes me as her first hard turn away from relatability. (Other critics, such as Lindsay Zoladz of The Ringer, picked up on this theme.) The new material instead represents a narrow slice of life experience with which basically no one else on the planet can identify—save, perhaps, her rival Kanye West. Reputation centers on Swift's personal battles with fame and criticism, a high-income-bracket soap opera that deserves little more than a fugue played by the world's tiniest violin, but receives a trap- and house-inspired maximalist treatment that inflates her very specific drama to blockbuster scale. The live show contains some older material, like a medley of "Love Story" and "You Belong With Me" targeting younger fans, alongside the newer, hip-hop-appropriating songs ("Endgame", "Look What You Made Me Do") about binge drinking, casual sex, and what Swift perceives to be an epic feud with Kanye West. Throughout this spectacle, Swift seems eager to please; she tries to give something to everyone. Her grab-bag approach to aesthetics reflects, on a thematic level, her commercially safe yet ethically suspect refusal to take a coherent stance toward anything happening in the wider world. And within this refusal, perhaps, lies the reason reputation-era Swift keeps pissing so many people off.

Photo of Taylor Swift by © Sachyn Mital. See his coverage of the Reputation Tour here.

What do we demand of our pop stars in 2018? Swift presents a perfect test-case for a set of questions that have come to define how pop culture gets consumed and evaluated alongside Donald Trump's frightening rise to political power. Artists must decide whether to address politics, or to keep their art insistently separate from it. Are we mere consumers to evaluate entertainment on its political merits, or can we feel okay about ignoring the degree to which an artifact engages the world in which it was made—or doesn't?

Molly Fischer outlined this concern brilliantly in The Cut, diagnosing our Trump-era pop ecosystem as undergoing a "great awokening". According to Fischer, fans align themselves with certain cultural documents as a way of signaling their political virtue, and critics risk public shaming, "cancelation", or at the very least online critique if they appraise a piece of art without reference to its political commitments—or its (shameful) lack thereof. This divide tracks with a conflict that arose among literary critics in the '80s between two interpretive methods: historicism and formalism. Generally speaking, historicists believe that literature must be considered in relation to its historical and political contexts, while formalists, who date back to the New Critics of the early 20th century, advocate for exclusive attention to a text's aesthetic properties. As Edward Said famously asked in Culture and Imperialism (1993): Is Jane Austen's Mansfield Park a fascinating example of the early realist novel, advancing such formal innovations as free indirect discourse, or is it really a book about upper-class Britons' complicity in the slave trade, since the titular estate Mansfield Park runs on capital that Sir Thomas accrues from a sugar plantation in Antigua? In an ideal world, both readings would be valid and productive, neither blind nor hostile to the other, and Said stands out as a historicist critic whose investment in postcolonial readings is matched by his sensitivity to the aesthetics of literary prose.

It may seem a stretch to place Taylor Swift and Jane Austen under the same microscope. But the historicist / formalist divide, and Fischer's distillation of our contemporary disagreements over a similar issue, have become as good a predictor as any of whether a listener will like or loathe Swift's art. The star falls into the formalist-friendly, non-politically-engaged category; one might say Swift embodies it more squarely, and with a larger platform and profile, than anyone else making popular music today. Beyoncé's work since Lemonade (Columbia Records, 2016) has become increasingly political, while Katy Perry attempted an "awokening" of her own with Witness (Capitol Records, 2017), to mixed results. Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato, and Miley Cyrus have used their platforms to advocate for LGBTQ issues and mental health, and Swift's tour-mate Camila Cabello delivered a moving speech in support of the Dreamers at the 2018 Grammys, referencing her own experience as a Cuban-American immigrant. This trend suggests that the past few decades—and especially the past two years—have offered plenty of issues on which pop artists can confidently take some moral stand.

Swift, therefore, stands alone as the rare pop star who refuses to risk wading into the scalding waters of Trump-era social discourse. Rather than an activist, she's a disciplined craftswoman, the musical equivalent of a carpenter sawing away in the woods, building beautiful objects in total isolation. Prioritizing poetry over politics, Swift has proven herself an exceptionally talented songwriter. She has remade the ABABCBB-style pop song in her image, such that other artists have begun to emulate her sharp attention to detail and her formula of writing verses around individuated experiences and choruses that most everyone can relate to. (To be clear, she did not invent this pop songwriting method; rather, she has put her own stamp on it to the extent that you can immediately tell a Swift song when you hear it, even if it's sung by other artists.) To my ear, no other pop songwriter can craft a bridge like Swift. Over the course of six albums in 12 years, Swift has clearly demonstrated her worth on formal terms.

When one's curiosity extends beyond the hermetic bubble of a Swift song or album, however, she and her music hit a hard limit. When alt-right websites began to trumpet her as an apotheosis of Aryan racial purity, she couldn't muster a public statement decrying white supremacy. (She had her lawyers handle the matter quietly.) She encouraged fans to vote in 2016 but never indicated her preferred candidate. (And given the breadth of Swift's mostly white fanbase, it's possible that this milquetoast message resulted in a vote or more for Trump.) On her June tour stops, Swift delivered a Pride-themed speech hoping for "a world where everyone can live and love equally", but in July, she offered no words about a world in which the US government was systematically tearing 18-month-old children away from their parents.

Most relevantly, given that she is a musician, Swift has received flack for borrowing musical elements from African American culture without speaking any words in service of racial justice. Reputation builds its sonic world around trap percussion, rapped verses (see "Ready for It" and "Endgame"), and phrases like "Bass be rattlin' the chandeliers" that border on minstrelsy. In her review of the album, Ann Powers pointed out how Swift's turn to black musical forms resembles a move other white female artists have made when attempting to redirect their careers in new, racier directions. For all of these reasons, listeners and critics who believe that a piece of culture must be responsive to its worldly environment have fertile ground to occupy in decrying Swift.

Given the turmoil unfolding in the real world, this signature self-referentiality becomes almost parodic on Swift's Reputation Tour. As a journalist and fan, I've seen hundreds of live performances by artists across many genres, but never have I experienced a spectacle that was at once so large and so insistently insular in its focus. You walk through the metal detector at FedEx Field, you sense the aroma of chicken fingers invade your nostrils, and from that moment forward, you will be given no reason to let your thoughts wander outside the ruthlessly Swift-focused environment that you are sharing with 60,000 other humans. Because everyone is trying to Insta-Story and Snapchat their experience at once, you may not get cell service, so even if you do feel curious about the latest Trump-era fiasco during the show, you probably won't be able to check Twitter or the news. Every last video image, musical number, and inter-song monologue concerns Swift herself or the decidedly non-political messages she projects about distinguishing what's true (love, friendship) from what's fake (your reputation)… which, come to think of it, still relate back to Swift anyway.

On the Reputation Tour, this insularity comes off as mostly banal, with a few exceptions. At the best of times, it generates intimate connections with fans, yet at the worst, it becomes grotesque. I'll start with the grotesque, an adjective I wrote in my notes twice: first, during "King of My Heart" (my nomination for the worst song on Reputation), when Swift's ignorance of racial appropriation hit a low point. Performance aside, the lyrics lay bare her tendency to play fast and loose with black musical tropes. The line "So prove to me I'm your American Queen / And you move to me like I'm a Motown beat" positions Swift as a (white) American Queen who lays full bodily claim to "a Motown beat", whatever that sloppily generalized signifier even means. The performance confirmed my worst suspicions about that line's implication, as Swift play-acted at sexual seduction with a black male dancer who was scantily clad yet given no part in the narrative beyond his deferential and adoring physical presence. The scene called to mind Swift's "Shake It Off" video, which invited criticism for the way it positions Swift's body amidst her non-white backup dancers. Oh—and I almost forgot about the fake African drums that other shirtless dancers were banging at various points during "King of My Heart". This moment confirmed, in sharp relief, Swift's hegemony over the entire spectacle, from the garish snake-themed visual aesthetics to her command over the humans sharing her stage.

Photo of Taylor Swift by © Sachyn Mital. See his coverage of the Reputation Tour here.

The second "grotesque" passage arrived at the very end, when the set transformed into a simulacrum of a stone mansion, perhaps a reference to the "Blank Space" video (but with no evidence of that video's self-parody). Swift and her dancers don formalwear and strut the grounds of this reference to moneyed real estate, swanning around a fake fountain and eyeing each another's ensembles approvingly. Two songs play out on this set: "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together", which works well as a girls-just-having-fun anthem, and then "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things", Swift's latest shot at Kanye, who released a damning phone recording last year that inspired a new wave of Swift criticism and, according to the song, completely ruined Swift's year of "throwing big parties / Jumping to the pool from the balcony / Everyone swimming in a champagne sea". Whatever you think of Kanye and his latest string of questionable public statements, he's recently addressed his struggles with mental illness and other traumas, and Swift's performance of opulent self-congratulation during this number felt tasteless at best.

* * *

Read through a historicist lens, Swift's performance here reflects twenty-teens American culture at its absolute worst: its drooling devotion to the pursuit of wealth, its celebration of the excessively rich and famous, its chronic blindness to racial inequity, and our collective tendency toward extreme narcissism with little regard for others' feelings. The Swift spectacle seems to have absorbed all of these energies and given them concrete form: gaudy, over-the-top, completely blind to how it all relates to the world outside the stadium.

Like many who object to the current American status quo, I spend many waking hours in righteous condemnation of others. The live show made me confront, in a slightly new way, my own complicity in late capitalism and its manifestation as politics. I paid too much for this ticket; I've streamed her albums. I'm guilty, and maybe so is everyone else who's done similar acts. But experiencing the Reputation Tour also forced an exercise in letting some of that condemnation—of myself and of others—go. I recall the girl behind me wearing a vintage Taylor shirt, or the tiny kids sitting on their parents' shoulders to get a better view. The show's best moments occur after Swift rides a glittering gondola to two side stages so she can play to the outfield fans with more intimate proximity. When she performs on these smaller stages, it's just her and her guitar. At this show, she played acoustic versions of "Dancing With Our Hands Tied" and "Haunted", missing the occasional strum and reverting to Awkward Taylor mode during the instrumental passages, rocking back and forth like a teen playing her first coffee shop open-mic. Moments like these, I believe, create a bridge between young people and the big, glitzy-chic Taylor they see projected on jumbotrons, billboards, and the sides of UPS trucks. These minimalist moments visualize a certain possibility for young fans, a first step toward pursuing a passion or cultivating an innate talent themselves.

Throughout the past century of American history, popular music has chugged along, sometimes vapid, sometimes intensely engaged with the world outside itself. It would be easy to write the Swift spectacle off as mere escapism, a carefree night out to distract from what ails us on both personal and societal levels. But I believe there's another element involved in generating the electric charge between Swift and her fans, especially during these passages where the scale collapses, the cinematic visual effects take a pause, and the squad of musicians and dancers cede focus to Swift alone and her acoustic instrument.

Putting politics out of play recenters attention onto the form itself: in Swift's case, the hundreds of short stories she's authored, set to music, that together comprise a formidable anthology. The small descriptive details—the slamming screen door, the necklaces exchanged between lovers, the "candlewax and Polaroids on the hard wood floor"—give this world visual, tactile, and emotional precision. If we discount the value of that world-building, then we are also discounting a certain kind of creative agency that we all possess to reimagine our own lives, and perhaps even to craft something beautiful out of them. When the world feels like it's falling apart, this agency to imagine something different can become a potent source of emotional sustenance. Swift is a fine singer, a decent guitar player, and an average dancer. For these reasons, she's less qualified to be a pop star than Beyoncé and a less remarkable country singer than Carrie Underwood. But her ferocious imagination is what's kept her at the center of American pop culture for over a decade. And it's also what drew a skeptical music critic, a pair of waist-high twins in tutus, and tens of thousands of diverse spectators together in a suburban football stadium on a sweltering July night.

Walking back to the car, passing hybrids and pickup trucks alike, it felt strangely invigorating to be back in the real world, as hellish and horrifying as it remained while I was temporarily somewhere else.

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