My Problem with Taylor Swift

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Taylor Swift is very litigious, so we are going to use images of puppies in lieu of her likeness.

I’ve had multiple people whose tastes I respect highly praise Taylor Swift’s music or persona to me. It’s been recommended to me more times than I can recall, so I figured it was time to use my soapbox to express my objections to Taylor Swift and her music, particularly in light of the recent letter to Apple.

I listed to 1989 in full before writing this essay (on a copy I totally paid for, you know, because Swift is so vocally against granting access to her music unless you fork up $12.99). As oxymoronic as objective criticism might sound, it’s only fair.

There’s nothing objectionable about Taylor Swift’s music, but nothing particularly compelling, either. 1989 is unabashedly a pop album, employing an arsenal of impressive producers and co-writers in addition to Swift herself. There’s nothing objectively bad about 1989. Swift and her team can undoubtedly write a catchy and marketable hit. “Blank Space” is a clever acknowledgement of Swift’s relationship with the media; “Shake it Off” is a cheeky, self-aware dismissal of haters – but none of this was ever enough justification for me to “like” Taylor Swift. Perhaps I project too much onto the music I listen to, but nothing about Taylor Swift’s music ever seemed to scrape below surface level or resonate with me. Songs about my past relationships would probably not be rendered in major key tonality.

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Joan Didion has an essay called On Keeping a Notebook. In it, she writes:

“At no point have I ever been able successfully to keep a diary; my approach to daily life ranges from the grossly negligent to the merely absent, and on those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has so overcome me that the results are mysterious at best. What is this business about “shopping, typing piece, dinner with E, depressed”? Shopping for what? Typing what piece? Who is E? Was this “E” depressed, or was I depressed? Who cares?”

This is much the impression I get when listening to a Taylor Swift song – glazed over with a stream of petty details (“We were lying on your couch/I remember you took a Polaroid of us”) that fail to materialize into something meaningful. Taylor Swift is just like you, except she’s not. Her music comes from such a place of extreme elevated privilege that it confounds the distinction between the real Swift and the one presented in her music. I would like to listen to the fascinating subjective experience it must be to live life as Taylor Swift – her Secret Service-like security team, what it’s like living in multi-million dollar mansions.

But that’s not what Taylor Swift’s music is about – it’s about lighthearted pop, and the purported relatability that eludes me. Maybe I’m jaded after living here for the past several years, but “Welcome to New York” reads as a completely flat interpretation of a place full of complexity and artistic inspiration. Instead of music as a piece of art or selfhood, Taylor Swift’s song sounds like a ready-made commercial for New York City. The city that I know and bittersweetly love is nothing of “hiding beats under coats” and ruminating on “boys and boys and girls and girls”.

Perhaps that’s why I don’t like Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift’s New York City, so different from mine, is coated in a shield of artifice. It’s hard to separate the art from the artist, and Swift’s silver spoon muffles any genuine expression she might have produced. Her struggle is only ever allegorical, at best, and superficial, at worst.

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And, to me, it’s hard to claim that you pander to fangirls while simultaneously commanding your lawyers to send cease and desist letters to fans on Etsy for using the phrase “this sick beat”. Swift’s trademark warrioring also includes other similarly banal phrases like “Nice to meet you. Where you been?” and “cause we never go out of style”. Swift is determined that nobody besides herself profit from her name or image, even to the detriment of her fans.

There’s also something here to be said here about the commodification of art. Perhaps when Taylor Swift addressed Apple in her open letter last Sunday, she genuinely believed that she was speaking for independent artists. For the music business, Taylor Swift is the prominent exception and not the rule. Within the post-Internet infrastructure of excessive content, it’s hard to get someone to listen to your music, much less pay for it. In Taylor Swift’s world, the primary purpose of music becomes commodification instead of creation. Certainly the current royalty rates for music streaming are absymally low, but the paywall method only works for artists on major labels with an established fan-base – the ones who can sell out stadiums, whose albums will be sought out regardless of the platform they choose. But what of the artists that wouldn’t have been discovered without widely accessible streaming? Taylor Swift will not bite the hegemony that feeds her.

I’m not going to knock you if you do like Taylor Swift. It’s not bad music – it’s just not interesting. It’s obvious that her music has a great (healing? evangelical?) effect on the teenage girls that comprise her fanbase, even if it involves magical thinking. I think it’s great that she genuinely tries to connect with her fans and involves herself with charity. I’m all for empowering a demographic so misunderstood and paternalized. But it’s my hope that those teen girls will seek to experience more music than that pandered to them by major record labels. I hope that they can understand that art is (should be?) about self-expression, not capitalism.

For better or for worse, most music that exists on the Internet is not behind a paywall.

Photos by:
Yi Chen
Rob Bixby

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