How Taylor Swift managed to pass off toxic female behavior as empowerment
Following Taylor Swift’s last, rather disappointing comeback Reputation, Swift’s newest musical attempt shows some conscious effort to reclaim her persona as the “imperfect girlfriend.” Her latest song “Me!” comes off as some egregious amalgamation of Swift’s previous musical acts — a self-aware carcass of the imperfect yet alluring girl-next-door. Her manufactured instrumentals, her embarrassing rap akin to Sesame Street, and her jarring high notes (which The Atlantic aptly describes as a “dolphin screech of a chorus”) makes her latest hit an unbearable listen. And yet, there isn’t much of a stylistic departure from her older hit “Blank Space.” So, what went wrong?
Perhaps it’s worth interrogating whether or not this persona of Taylor Swift as an emotionally volatile yet vulnerable woman, was ever genuine. Like many other girls my age, I grew up with her album 1989 and molded my image of womanhood around that persona she cultivated. Her numbers speak for themselves — selling over 10.1 million copies in 2016, and winning countless accolades from Billboard, the American Music Awards, and the Grammys. To my sixteen-year-old self, there was something very raw about the way she confessed her emotional outbreaks and jealous outrages in songs like “Blank Space” and “Style.” Her music struck a deep chord with millions of other girls.
For young girls, her feminine energy was a catharsis for all of our“perfect storms.” Her music had tapped into a slowly sobering truth of how difficult adolescence can be for women who are expected to be independent, yet emotionally resilient, yet adequately lovable, and impossibly patient. With today’s expectations of womanhood, it’s hard not to succumb to a complete emotional breakdown. The lyrics “Rose garden filled with thorns,” made me feel self-aware to my emotional shortcomings when I was sixteen. Her music had made me feel visible with my emotional boundaries and violently jealous tendencies. 1989 made me believe that my flawed womanhood can be both emotionally compromised but still beautiful. Admittedly, her resonant power is a testament to her genuinely talented songwriting.
But how do you trust a woman who has not always been trustworthy throughout her career? A woman who has always been praised for committing to the bare minimum, and very rarely spoke up as an active voice. A woman who was congratulated for standing by a liberal candidate during the 2019 congressional elections in a simple Instagram mention, despite the thousands of women of color who have put their lives on the line for female empowerment. A woman who was celebrated as a feminist icon, but failed to show up at the 2016 Women’s March. A woman who betrayed the trust of an already emotionally compromised Black musician. A woman who has continually used her white female victimhood to her advantage.
Then, there is the matter of her “perfect storms.”
At some point, you lose track of those “perfect storms.” You start counting all of the different relationships you’ve had, and you realize how genuinely mean you can be. You grow up and realize that the problem isn’t just how difficult womanhood can be with its modern emotional currency — sometimes, you’re the problem. Swift’s music lacks the longevity to grow and mature, like most women are inclined to do. Without her lyrical vulnerability, her music sounds like the incoherent babbling of every young girl in their first relationship: angry, jealous, selfish, and insecure.
On top of how manufactured “Me!” sounds, with its fake French horns and its ever-so-slightly auto-tuned chorus, the raw vulnerability that has sustained her musical career has vanished. Her music lacks the apologetic self-awareness that defined “1989.” Rather, it relishes in how cruel and violent Swift’s “girlfriend” persona can be. There’s something almost sinister in the way she sings, “I’m the only one of me. Baby that’s the fun of me.” The song wants to celebrate Swift’s genuinely troubling emotional shortcomings and violent tendencies as a quirky, relatable anthem (hence, the catatonic French horn blares). The song feels like Swift celebrating her lack of emotional maturity as an act of self-reclamation. While “1989” felt real and vulnerable, “Me!” marks the first time in Swift’s career where her music feels anything but. The true failure of “Me!” (and what Swift hasn’t realized yet in her career) is that she can’t build her musical persona solely by being a nightmare to date. At some point, girls have to grow up.