What hasn’t already been said about Taylor Swift? Once heralded as a rising country sensation who’s made a somewhat controversial turn to mainstream pop, one could argue she’s made the LeBron James move to the Miami Heat equivalent in the music industry. Still, girls worship the ground she walks on, women envy her beauty, men think she’s hot, and just about everyone in the world listens to her music when it’s not even on Spotify. So… why don’t I like Taylor Swift more?
You know, it got pretty out of control there for a couple of years because it would be like, every article was like, ‘Taylor Swift standing near some guy, WATCH OUT guy.’ And you know, every single article was kind of like, had these descriptions of my personality that were very different from the actual personality. My first reaction was like, ‘man, that’s a bummer, this isn’t fun for me.’ But then my second reaction ended up being like, ‘hey, that’s actually kind of a really interesting character they’re writing about.’
Contrary to popular belief, Taylor Swift can perform live. At least, she’s capable of doing so. She does much better in acoustic settings like in the video above and her comfort on the guitar is a testament to her musicianship. She frequently writes her own songs, and although she clearly lacks the vocal chops of country/pop performers the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift does not lack overall musical talent.
Maybe I’m just not in her target demographic–I’m not a big fan of country. Heck, I’m not even an advocate of contemporary pop music. Sex, money, drugs, and throw in an occasional heartfelt love song here and there. To put things in perspective, I almost exclusively listened to Beethoven and Chopin until I started getting into Broadway musicals and movie soundtracks.
So perhaps I am not the best judge of pop artists today, but there is an alarming pattern that arises when one listens to Taylor Swift’s early music. Looking at Teardrops On My Guitar, Taylor Swift chronicles an all too familiar experience of the friend-zone. Swift sings, “He’s the reason for the teardrops on my guitar.” As if it wasn’t obvious from the title, You Belong With Me is also about being friend-zoned. Even Love Story doesn’t sound as fearless as the 2010 album title might suggest. Swift falls into stereotypes in multiple instances, painting Juliet as a princess who needs saving and portraying popular high school cheerleaders as being, well, bitchy.
It’s easy to regurgitate media’s backlash against Taylor Swift’s obsession with boys. In her defense–and as someone who’s not too far removed from my own high school experience–I imagine that I would’ve written songs about the same stuff if I could even write songs at the time. Also, we have to consider that she was home-schooled and was maybe appropriating internalized stereotypes from TV and film.
No, I think the real underlying problem here is the fact that she victimizes herself in all of these big hits. The guy is an object of interest and Swift’s lyrics imply that the dude is totally stupid not to realize how much Swift’s character loves him. We’re meant to feel bad for Swift, but instead I want to know why she even likes the guy. This is in stark contrast to songs like Legend’s All of Me which focuses on his love for his wife, or Adele’s Someone Like You which weeps without antagonizing anyone. And furthermore, Swift’s main character in her early days simply refuse to be an agent of change, opting to cry and mope in self-pity instead of trying to win the guy over or engage in any productive behavior.
I don’t require any artist to be a feminist–even those who claim to be–but I think it’s another thing to try to make me feel bad for someone who has experienced extreme success. And worse, trivialize her struggles to her plight for boys. I’m not trying to say that this is all Taylor Swift wrote about during the time of her first two albums, but the songs that got popular definitely do not give me an impression of Taylor Swift as a sophisticated songwriter the magnitude of her fame and fortune might indicate.
Taylor Swift does make the transition into more distinguished songwriting in her next album, Speak Now, which probably has to be my favorite. I really like Back to December, which finds Swift speaking from a more apologetic and hardened perspective. The Story of Us is another love story, but this time having both characters of the story flawed and believable. Then there’s the music video to Ours, which is one of the few of Swift’s (or of the pop music industry) that left a deep impression on me.
However, much of her growths showcased in Speak Now is deterred by Red, an album that stoops back to tropes that pervaded her earlier singles. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together has Swift being more assertive, but still antagonizing men in general instead of rejecting notions of romantic feelings altogether. I Knew You Were Trouble plays off of the same themes, and Begin Again has a music video trying to brand Swift as a perfect, angelic human being. In my mind, few artists are as transparent and exerts as much effort in maintaining a particular reputation. In almost every interview I’ve seen her in, this seems to preoccupy her thoughts and concentration. She simply takes things too personally, cares too much about herself, and desperately wants to please everyone. This unfortunately comes across through her music.
I will never forget a car ride I had with friends back from South Carolina to Ohio. We all, excitedly, decided to go on a Taylor Swift streak, each taking turns picking out the next song to play through the speakers. In the long playlist that was compiled, only overstaying its welcome close to the hour mark, Blank Space stuck out to me as a particularly unique song. And I’m not just talking musically–despite my objections to Taylor Swift, I do find most of her tunes to be catchy and worth listening to. In Blank Space, Taylor Swift doesn’t victimize herself, choosing to take on a role other than I’m-so-perfect-feel-bad-for-me-when-people-don’t-love-me. The song seems perfectly aware that it’s coming from a privileged point of view instead of dismissing the fact that Taylor has millions of dollars and has been on a ton of dates. Her character is an active psychotic in the story, almost reeling in the prospect of messing up the lives of future, next-in-line boyfriends. The song simply has no interest in preserving any favorable or conservative image of Taylor Swift, and maybe that is why I love Blank Space so much. Untangled from a subtle form of self-promotional marketing, it is distinctly void of the typical Taylor Swift narrative. Perhaps all Swift needed was a blank space–a clean canvas–for her songs to operate in.