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A Swift awakening

Oct. 4, 2017
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My first memory involving Taylor Swift consists of jumping up and down with my cousin on my her bed as fourth graders, practically touching the ceiling as we screamed about short skirts and t-shirts and pretended to know the remaining lyrics of the song.  

As a young kid, I didn’t listen to much “American” music besides what was on the CDs my dad would burn—for a while, I never felt the need to listen to anything else. Once I realized that there was a world of music I had yet to explore, I downloaded a set of eleven songs. Five of these were Taylor Swift songs that I kept on loop until I discovered internet downloads and expanded more. In middle school, I hit the “I Exclusively Listen To Punk Rock” phase, not paying much attention to Taylor Swift besides what I heard about her from friends who’d fill me in on her increasingly long list of ex-lovers. I got to know hits from her pop-exploring album Red, particularly “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” but otherwise completely forgot about her until the end of my sophomore year, after 1989 had been released and taken the world by storm. 

Taylor Swift became my go-to guilty pleasure artist due to her stunning visuals and catchy tracks from 1989. I returned to her older albums as well, subconsciously learning the lyrics to songs from Red all the way back to her first self-titled album (though I will say that I was always more of a post-Fearless Taylor Swift kind of gal). I didn’t focus on much besides her music, though. I was made aware by friends that she did some nice things for people and that she also said some mildly problematic things, but I shook it off and chose to ignore her actions rather than form an opinion.

1989 faded from my regular cycle of albums by junior year. Discussions in my English class exposed me to the prominence of microaggressions, profiling, the lack of opportunity in many areas for people of color, white versus intersectional feminism, and more. (Intersectional feminism takes into account the experiences and perspectives of women of color, LGBTQ+ women, women with disabilities, and women who are a combination of these and more. It pushes the idea that women should not be and cannot be placed in a box if there is to be equality and understanding.) Taylor Swift had been pushed to the back of my mind, the space quickly filled with an increased interest in the hip-hop and R&B music that my peers and English teacher shared as they contributed to our class discussions.

By senior year, I was no longer a big fan of Taylor Swift and had started to look at her with a more critical eye; more specifically, I had grown wary of the way she uses “feminism” to boost her brand rather than educating herself on the nuances of feminism and realizing that society is very different for white women than it is for women of color. As Rebecca Vorick says in Fem Magazine, “White feminism tightly constricts the boundaries of what it means to be a ‘woman’ instead of being inclusive of all women.” There is an overly defensive mentality that “women cannot criticize other women, and if they do, they are not feminists,” and I see this as extremely harmful to any individual’s growth as a feminist.

Even so, breaking from white feminism means embracing the fact that women and their expressions of feminism are often full of contradictions and can be both positive and problematic. The way that Swift handled her recent sexual assault lawsuit was admirable, and it demonstrates the kind of mindset that I wish we could see more of from her. I love that she said, “I acknowledge the privilege that I benefit from in life, in society, and in my ability to shoulder the enormous cost of defending myself in a trial like this. My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard.” By making this statement, Swift directed attention away from herself and instead towards a more inclusive objective. 

However, this doesn’t “cancel out” her other actions: in too many other situations, Swift has (whether knowingly or not) promoted feminism as two-dimensional and self-centered, and in doing so she has discredited many experiences of women who are not cisgender, straight, and/or white. For example, I struggled with her self-pitying reaction to Nicki Minaj’s 2015 tweets in reference to underlying racism in the music industry. I’m glad that Swift owned up to her misunderstanding in the end, but the whole argument could have been avoided had Swift not immediately jumped to conclusions. And even in the two years since that exchange, Swift’s brand of feminism has continued to feel exclusive to white women.

Swift recently revealed the upcoming release of her sixth studio album, Reputation, after grabbing public attention by clearing her social media feeds. As much as I enjoyed the music and production of 1989, which is an extremely solid pop album, problems arose with the music videos from this era. Melissa Fabello’s article for Everyday Feminism discusses basic issues with these videos, such as the implied abuse in “Blank Space”, the cultural appropriation in “Shake It Off”, and the romanticization of colonization in “Wildest Dreams”. I see similar aspects of white feminism glaring through in “Look What You Made Me Do”, such as cruel call-outs and lack of sensitivity to culture.

I will say that some of the imagery (like the dollar bill in the tub referencing her lawsuit) in “Look What You Made Me Do” was clever, but there were also scenes that smack of a continued reliance on appropriation. Of particular note are the scenes that resemble moments from Beyoncé’s iconic “Formation” video, and these similarities are especially galling since Lemonade was released only about a year and a half ago. There were similar images scattered throughout Swift’s video, but the final push was the ending dance sequence in which Swift and her dancers are standing in a pose that looks identical to Beyoncé’s “Formation”–right down to the black bodysuits. I’ve heard buzz about Swift mimicking other famous music videos, like those of Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga, but the Beyoncé parallel was far and away the most prominent one in Swift’s video because of the huge cultural impact of Lemonade, the Beyoncé album on which “Formation” appears. Though Swift may not have purposefully copied “Formation”, I feel that she needs to be more aware of her cultural surroundings. I see this as yet another case of ignorance rather than one of spite–but, of course, this doesn’t make it okay. The music video can very understandably be seen as appropriation and gentrification, but at least ignorance has hope of being shed. 

Swift’s lyrical work hasn’t matured much in all her years of writing. While listening to “Look What You Make Me Do,” I felt like I was still hearing mediocre verses from Fearless about frustration and revenge. The blame aspect of the song feels petty, not powerful. Swift tries to criticize the media for caricaturing her, but in the process excessively and unfairly bashes many of her exes and former friends.

The second single, “...Ready For It?”, confused me. The production was interesting; it started off as something very different from any of Swift’s other works and eventually brought back the enjoyable pop vibes of 1989. Unfortunately, the lyrics once again felt simultaneously simplistic and all over the place. 

Swift and many of her superfans tend to reject any and all kinds of criticism, including constructive criticism. I’ve noticed a lot of Twitter fights break out over the “Formation” parallels, accompanied by remarks that smack of subtle white feminism and not-so-subtle jabs at anyone that says anything remotely negative about Swifties’ beloved icon. 

I wish Swift would adopt a more intersectional mindset, make an effort to better understand her privilege, and use her status in a more empowering way in the long run. She has the opportunity to make space for all women to speak for themselves but has instead turned feminism into a personal defense mechanism. I’m hoping that Reputation will ultimately be a project about discovering oneself despite constant heat from the media, but I also fear from what I’ve seen in “Look What You Made Me Do” and “...Ready For It?” that it will be solely self-serving and overall just petty. I would respect Swift more if she used individual songs to step above her past actions and make a change in the long run. That said, if the songs on Reputation combine to tell a story from Swift’s changing perspectives throughout the years, starting from her debut and exploring her different personas before finally revealing a Taylor Swift with a more open point of view and expanded knowledge of experiences of others, I will be impressed. 

Ultimately, rejecting constructive comments flattens any chances for growth. Agreeing on every point is not at all necessary, but it’s important to listen to and acknowledge the perspectives of others. Though it’s impossible for all of us to completely understand each other's stories, we can learn when and how to amplify the voices around us as well as when and how to use our own.