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As I long for the days of the anticapitalist Left, I now yearn for a time when I could enjoy mindlessly the musical talents of the once-great Taylor Swift.
Swift on Monday released a song and music video titled, “You Need to Calm Down.” Designed to be a summer bop for pride month, the song itself and its attenuant visual component are so stupidly constructed with strawmen and tropes that I feel I can’t analyze the thing itself in good faith.
Michelle Kim at Pitchfork wrote an incisive review of the anthem, in which she offers that “in an effort to ‘brush off the haters’ and display resilience, [Swift] doesn’t reveal any of the uncertainty and vulnerability that previously lay at the heart of her songwriting. Instead, the words are penned with the energy of a nail-painting emoji and delivered with a plastic smile.”
I had essentially the same reaction when I first heard the song. To the end of analyzing the song itself, Kim’s review should suffice. But there’s something more interesting happening here. The trajectory of Taylor Swift’s career has taken a certain downward turn that is in some ways unique, but on a metapolitical level, all too familiar.
In so hamfistedly trying to make herself a gay icon, Swift has completely sacrificed what made her truly iconic. Sadly, her degeneration to the fag hag era of female pop stardom—the phase following a failed album and preceding a butch haircut—signals a slide into mediocrity that is heartbreaking for long-time fans like me. What happened to the Taylor of “Red,” who lamented that her ex would “call me up again just to break me like a promise; so casually cruel in the name of being honest”? Or the Taylor of “1989,” who commented on her generation’s tendency to “show off our different scarlet letters; trust me, mine is better”?
It was once Swift’s authentic innocence that made her universally appealing. Before now, Swift’s lyrics consistently reflected a certain level of self-awareness. The combination of knowing herself and her willingness to say what was true about her identity and her life made for greatness of iconic proportions. But that syncretism has dissolved of late. Now, it seems that the disparities between who she once was, who she could have been, who she became, and who she is trying to be, are too disjointed to work in her favor.
Taylor Swift rose to prominence originally as a picture of feminine innocence. In the early days, there was a clarity in her voice that suggested a purity of heart. The content of her lyrics—princes, princesses, white horses, roses—was wholesome, endearing, and appealing. Even in coming of age, and to some extent losing her innocence (“Red”), Taylor never lost her joie de vivre. She remained enthralled by romance. She felt its implications deeply and expressed herself poetically.
Though the connotation of romance has been subverted to become something of a passing and perfunctory feeling attached to often sterilized sex, its natural orientation toward reproduction and family is inescapable. By aligning her own lyrics with more classical notions of romance and love, Swift for many years implicitly oriented herself toward these natural ends. She was all youth and energy. Unabashed feminine power with nothing out of sync. Pure potential.
In 2017, Swift released “Reputation,” in which she traded in that sparkling-eyed love for life for ironic detachment. For the first time in her discography, it was as if her lyrics were not her own. She incorporated cool-kid internet talk into her lyrics—“Is it cool if I said all that? Is it chill that you’re in my head?”—as well as several gratuitous references to sex and booze. The old Taylor was dead, she said, and her little size zero outfits, too! With “Reputation,” she lost her orientation, and market analysis pointed to decline.
Swift will turn 30 this year. She is childless and unmarried with a number of failed relationships under her belt. But rather than gracefully end on a high note, Swift has committed to rebranding in order to stay relevant. Her latest strategic move is to team up with other people whose fathers failed them to deliver a lispy “FUCK YOU” to anyone real or imagined who reminds them of the God-shaped holes in their hearts that fornication has failed to fill.
As if they are experiencing any real resistance in the public square. Spare me.
Swift has always had a knack for capitalizing on (utterly kosher) social trends. In a ballad she wrote many years ago about the exploitations and pitfalls of show business, she sang: “You’ve had it figured out since you were in school; Everybody loves pretty, everybody loves cool; So overnight, you look like a sixties queen.”
In the current year, much attention and money stands to be gained by grifting the gay. She knows this. Everyone does. Judging by her sharky tendencies, there might be some element of cynicism involved in her embrace of globohomo. She could just be a vapid mercenary. Doesn’t really matter either way.
The urgency and intensity with which she delivers every gay bourgeois sentiment smacks of a deep personal insecurity and desperation. Swift seems to be hiding behind a rainbow flag so as to conceal the fact that she’s lost her spark personally and (as one is deeply connected to the other) artistically. Is it merely coincidence that her bougie feminist activism increases precisely as her sexual market value decreases? What is left in life for sexually liberated women once her reproductive worth, denied for so long, diminishes completely, along with her opportunity to participate in the natural order?
There are two possibilities: sincere penance or satanic pontification. That is to say, women either may be honest about their mistakes, or refuse to acknowledge them for what they are—instead redirecting squandered would-be mommy energy toward convincing everyone else, especially other (younger and more fertile, i.e. sexually competitive) women, that down is up and up is down. Since the latter is the less immediately painful option, most disappointed women choose it. Most people try to avoid pain. If the Truth is painful, deny it. Most feminist causes are actually united in this basic inversion of reality. And because misery loves company, most who live in a world of unreality cannot stand to live alone.
Swift like so many before her has chosen to participate in that big lie. This disappointment is hardest felt because she was once so naturally beautiful, good, and true. She is now none of the above. All she has left is cheap imitation. It’s a real loss for her personally and for the music scene at large.
Taylor Swift’s latest propaganda project will age as gracefully as she and Katy Perry do. I’m now counting down the days ’til the next breakup and breakdown, the next cat adoption, and (inevitably) the day Swift engages in performative bisexuality or shaves her head. She should have chosen the rose garden over Madison Square. What a shame.
Photo Credit: Rich Fury/Getty Images for iHeartMedia