Taylor Swift’s Giant Middle Finger
How her pop transformation signifies artistic maturity
I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with Taylor Swift.
I used to not be able to stand her when she was a teen country star, and my distaste for her only grew when Kanye West famously interrupted her at the MTV Video Music Awards. The idea that she was this fragile, helpless waif was somehow repellent. And I was supposed to feel sorry for her as she sold millions because someone was rude to her?
The fact that she was turning to a sound on her 2012 album Red that was going to include elements of dubstep and pop was even more galling. She was a fraud, I thought, cashing in on the latest trends.
However, when I saw her again at the VMAs, performing “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” with all its snark and cheekiness, I found it surprisingly irresistible. Turns out Swift wasn’t a goody two-shoes. She was shoving it up poor Jake Gyllenhaal’s ass with Adele-like vengeance, for all the world to see. And I loved it.
The arrival of her new album 1989 has the rare feeling in music these days of being an event. The fact that one of our biggest stars is evolving her sound beyond anything she’s done in the past makes it that much more noteworthy.
With the first single, “Shake it Off,” Swift unabashedly embraced her role as a pure pop diva. She was heading in this direction, yes, but she’s no longer just wading into pop’s shallow waters. She’s having a full on pool party.
In the recent tradition of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Pharrell’s “Happy,” she has created (with help from master pop songwriter Max Martin) a single almost insidious in its danceability, rhythm, and fun. It’s the kind of song that makes people get up and dance when it plays over the speakers in a doctor’s waiting room.
It’s crack (read: pop) so pure, it could play as well in the nursing homes as it does in the clubs. It debuted the first week of September, and by the third week it was certified platinum. In its first week, it was streamed 18 million times and in its second week had reached an audience of 71 million via radio play.
What makes this particular moment special, though, is that Swift is actually evolving as an artist and a persona. The big, spacious drum-backed sound of the second release, “Out of the Woods”—written with Jack Antonoff of Fun—makes the evolution even clearer. Her about-face from her country music roots is complete.
With early praise for 1989 already pouring in, it is apparent that Swift’s unapologetic embrace of pop is achieving its desired effect—allowing her music to reach a whole new set of ears.
Everything Has Changed
Swift was certainly already immersed in the pop universe before “Shake It Off,” but the song, and maybe more so the video, seem like a declaration of her complete surrender and transformation.
It likely won’t be long before we start forgetting Swift was a country music darling who found early inspiration from the likes of Faith Hill, Dolly Parton and the Dixie Chicks. Back when she was known primarily as a country artist, she had three multi-platinum albums under her belt before Red. When you watch her in the “Shake It Off” video, that seems like forever ago. Today she is no longer the sweet girl who was so rudely interrupted by Kanye. She’s defiant and sarcastic, brushing off the haters and navigating the high seas of giant, twerking booties.
We’ve seen these kinds of transformations before.
Consider The Black Eyed Peas. A lot of people probably don’t remember that they were originally an almost underground hip-hop group, working with the likes of DJ Premier, Mos Def, and Les Nubians.
Now they’re a pop juggernaut. They’ve performed at the Super Bowl. Like Swift, they’re one of the best-selling acts of all time. Swift has done $100 million in sales; The Black Eyed Peas have done $75 million.
But songs like “My Humps,” “I Got a Feeling,” and “Boom Boom Pow” inspire as much hatred as they do enjoyment. They’re so banal and clearly aimed at repetitive commercial success that they debase the craft of songwriting altogether—irresistible to the masses, excruciating to the thoughtful listener.
Back when I was in high school, Green Day actually represented a rebellious punk rock aesthetic. For a brief period, you didn’t want your parents to hear you listening to Dookie. Now they’re the soundtrack to high school graduations and Broadway musicals.
Around the same time, Snoop Dogg was a hardcore gangsta rapper. Now my mom likes him.
The thing that makes Swift stand out, though, is that going pop has actually made her better. She did things in reverse. The sweet country thing was her sellout.
When her parents moved her close to Nashville, Tennessee from Pennsylvania when she was fourteen, it was already apparent she was going to be something big. She’d already won national poetry contests, taken meetings with big label record execs and modeled for Abercrombie & Fitch.
Believe it or not, the seven Grammys she won before Red even came out were an entry point into the world of popular music, not a culmination.
Hers may be the rare case when the pop transformation is a sign of artistic maturity. Rather than appealing to a common denominator of the least offensive, it has made her more controversial. Rather than taking a pleasant middle ground, she’s raised the middle finger.
The reaction to the “Shake It Off” video has been centered around three things, the New York Times explains: 1) Swift’s move to pop material (a sign, for certain fans, of selling out); 2) her dancing; and 3) the supposed racism in a section on twerking.
But when you actually watch the video, you’ll see it is clearly a satire—a mockery of dance, pop trends, and herself; a sendup of the absurdity of twerking in the first place. Miley Cyrus was twerking with a straight face. Swift looks at it with an eye roll and a shrug of the shoulders.
What’s interesting is that she risks alienating her die-hard country fans, while still not pleasing a more mature audience. She becomes both the embodiment of the pop moment and ridicules it at the same time. The popularity of the song speaks for itself.
The video is both quintessential pop and an Eminem-style riff on its conventions. The song itself is both self-effacing (“I stay out too late / Got nothing in my brain / That’s what the people say”)► and defiant (“I’m dancing on my own / I make the moves up as I go/And that’s what they don’t know”).►
She’s referring to what a lot of people are really mad about. She’s dated “a lot” of guys, some of whom happen to be famous (Gyllenhaal, John Mayer, Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner). Gawker said she had dated “every man in the universe,” and the New York Times questioned whether or not she was having a “quarter-life crisis.”
If it were a male artist, we’d celebrate his conquests. And since when is a 20-something woman not supposed to date? And then she has the nerve to diss her ex-boyfriends on record?
The message of “Shake it Off”—delivered in the most fun, catchy way possible—is essentially: “Too bad, haters, I can do whatever the fuck I want.”
But what’s great about Swift is that she’s sneakily brash and doesn’t make a lot of apologies. One of her new friends is Lena Dunham, and Swift told The Guardian that the Girls star made her realize she’s been “taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.”
I suspect, though, that she may not have been as unaware as she claims. Listen to the song “Mean” from her 2010 album Speak Now where she blisters an abusive boyfriend:
“And I can see you years from now in a bar / Talking over a football game / With that same big loud opinion / But nobody’s listening / Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things / Drunk and grumbling on about how I can’t sing / But all you are is mean.”
She’s too much of a stone-cold killer as a musician and songwriter, and her growth trajectory is too sharp. I’m not saying she planned to become America’s sweetheart and then flip the whole idea of what that means on its head, but she certainly has the repertoire (brains, beauty, chops) to do it.
And “mean” was prescient. This is someone who now owns a second apartment in New York next to her own apartment for her security staff. The fact that we’re getting such personal stuff from her is sort of amazing..
Eyes On The Prize
Word is, Swift stopped dating for a while, and she avoids dissing her lame ex-boyfriends this time around—although on “Out of the Woods” when she sings, “Remember when you hit the brakes too soon / 20 stitches in the hospital room,”►she’s probably talking about ex Harry Styles from One Direction.
She’s also aimed her sights at a fellow female star (Katy Perry maybe?). Swift says it wasn’t over a guy, it was a business thing. The one constant, though, she’s not really one to cross. She can take care of herself, and if Kanye interrupted her today, she’d probably take him down too.
In a way, Swift is competitive like a rapper. Musically, she’s as versatile as Elvis Presley. Commercially, she’s part of a small club that can still sell actual albums (Red did five million, 1989 may eclipse that, in a year when no other album has achieved platinum status).
There’s going to be a group of people—guys like Gyllenhaal who likely listen to indie rock and get all their music from NPR’s All Songs Considered—that will continue to see her as a silly girl. But the fact is, if that was ever what she was, that girl is dead. The older (24) Swift is bold and getting bolder. She’s simultaneously broadening her approach and solidifying herself as an artist.
Yes, Taylor Swift is pop now, more so than ever. Her songs are catchy as all hell. But good is good, and she’s good. She’s just stopped pretending she doesn’t know it.