So, I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but country music wunderkind-turned-pop princess Taylor Swift is coming out with a new album this October, titled 1989 after her birth year. I know, right? This is the kind of scoop that you can trust The Daily to unearth and deliver to the masses. Glad to be of service.
1989’s lead single is an aggressively upbeat Max Martin-assisted number called “Shake It Off.” It’s roughly 28 per cent meme (if you’ve managed to avoid “haters gonna hate” image macros over the last four or five years, I envy you), and 72 per cent cliché. This is a pop song, so there’s no sense in criticizing the latter assertion, but I feel justified in positing that the former is a whole new level of annoying. But that’s not important. What’s important is the song’s lyrics and how they play into the larger problems with Swift’s image: who she is as a pop star, and how she handles that.
Swift has always had a penchant for self-mythologizing, her early music heavy on fairy tale endings (sometimes literally, as in the case of “Love Story”) and floaty white dresses. But in the past few years (specifically since that infamous Kanye interruption), instead of growing up and entering reality, she has cultivated a public identity for herself as the infallible victim of reality.
Get a load of the opening lines to “Shake It Off:” “I stay out too late/Got nothing in my brain/That’s what people say.” No one says that. The general consensus among music fans is that Swift has a good head on her shoulders. She plays guitar and she writes her own songs, as opposed to many other pop stars who don’t. That’s deserving of respect. Of course, it’s bad practice to assume the writer of a song and its speaker are one and the same, but ignoring the parallels between her lyrics and her image would make me an irresponsible speculative rock critic.
To be fair, she has gotten a raw deal in the press in a lot of ways – not surprising, given that she’s a woman. Her antics as a perceived serial dater have earned her some pretty vitriolic coverage that would not even come close to a problem if she were a man. But is she using her influence to critique the way women are depicted in the press? No. Swift is above that. Instead of criticizing mainstream media or power structures, she turns any “haters” into her individual villains.
A lot of the flack Swift receives doesn’t even have much to do with her individual persona, and is instead a byproduct of her role as a celebrity. The Faustian bargain of pop stardom states that all celebrities are vulnerable to criticism in exchange for riches beyond most people’s wildest dreams. Fair? That’s debatable. Negotiable? Not really. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t be a pop diva who sells millions without getting picked on once in a while. And Swift, let me tell you something: we don’t feel all that bad for you when it happens. Whoever said money doesn’t buy happiness had obviously never been without money. Money buys security guards, expensive food and clothes, fame and regard, exotic vacations… The list goes on.
Additionally, Swift is a thin, conventionally attractive, straight, white woman. She adheres, for the most part, to patriarchal standards of beauty and behaviour. No, there’s nothing wrong with that, so sit down already. This does, however, mean that she’s in a position of considerable privilege, and she’s got plenty of power to create and perpetuate harmful images, naturally leaving her open to scrutiny and harsh analysis.
Why, then, does she feel the need to set up straw men and make it personal? In most cases, Swift just doesn’t take criticism. Or even jokes. One may recall an incident last year in which Tina Fey and Amy Poehler lobbed a softball insult at her dating habits while hosting the Golden Globe Awards. She responded to this in a Vanity Fair profile, primly citing a Madeleine Albright quote that goes something like, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” She seemed to miss the irony that Swift is not here for women in the music industry, or women in general. She is here for herself.
This is especially pertinent in light of the music video for “Shake It Off.” Oh, the music video. The clip flicks through a number of musical scenarios, with Swift slotted into the lead role – she’s a prima ballerina here, a cheerleader there. A rhythmic gymnast. And, of course, a hip hop dancer. Dressed in black-girl drag (Daisy Dukes and gold chains), she is surrounded by the anonymously twerking asses of her backup dancers, largely women of colour. It should be mentioned that all of the ballerinas were white, shot elegantly, and from the front. Racist? Racist. She’s apparently learned nothing from the media kerfuffles spurred in the past year by fellow appropriation-happy artists Miley Cyrus and Lily Allen. And if her reaction to Fey and Poehler is any indication, she’ll respond about as well as the others did when someone tries to call her out on this.
“Why can’t everyone just be nice?” she seems to be asking, right in those opening lines. “I’m being such a big girl, taking the high road,” she implies with the chorus of “players gonna play” and “haters gonna hate,” once that first question has gotten old. What Swift is doing sounds suspiciously similar to something defined as “smarm” by Tom Scocca in a Gawker article on the subject from last December; it’s incredibly long but still worth your time.
“What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance – an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm,” he writes, “is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves. Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?”
He defines “smarm” in opposition to “snark,” a reactionary tactic of the oppressed, the young, the angry. Those without power. Those who, according to Swift, should stop talking shit about Swift.
A few years ago, a slightly different Swift plucked at a banjo and sang a very similar song to “Shake It Off.” “Someday I’ll be living in a big old 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.” This sounds nothing like smarm. Maybe it’s because this bully seems to have done tangible harm. In “Mean,” both speaker and attacker are on a level playing field. We can assume that neither have over 44 million followers on Twitter.
When you’re the underdog, a little bit of self-righteousness is understandable. No one’s gonna begrudge you that. Taylor’s not the underdog anymore. She can close the Twitter window on her expensive laptop, call her agent, and buy an island or something. But she still feels the need to let us know that she’s the bigger person, that she’s taking the high road, and that all we’re ever gonna be is mean.
1989 comes out on October 27 from Big Machine Records. If you’re feeling brave, the video for “Shake it Off” is available for viewing on YouTube.