Taylor Swift Is The 21st Century's Most Disorienting Pop Star
It's not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.
The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of "woman" itself. What is a woman? It's a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. —Ann Powers
There comes a moment in a lot of Taylor Swift songs where it becomes hard to sing along. It's sometimes a concept, sometimes a perspective, sometimes a phrase, sometimes just a word — but in that moment, you realize that this song isn't about you.This song is about Taylor Swift.
In 2017's "...Ready for It?", it's the little, self-referential wink, "He can be my jailer, Burton tothis Taylor/ Every lover known in comparison is a failure."
In "Blank Space," released in 2014, it's the entire premise of the song — a joke about a woman who runs through men too quickly, and then dramatically turns on them when they aren't exactly who she wants them to be.
In "22," it's the cheeky, spoken-word "Who's Taylor Swift anyway?" that follows the line, "This place is too crowded, too many cool kids."
In "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," from 2012, it's the line, "And you would hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that's much cooler than mine." In this moment, mid-karaoke, mid-memory of your stupid ex who shouldn't be texting you, the thought might occur to you, Oh. I don't have a record, indie or otherwise. This song is not about my breakup. This song refers to a story I wasn't there for; a person I will never be.
And that is part of Swift's genius (and part of her Achilles heel). In ways both subtle and obtuse, she makes sure that all of her songs belong to her. There's a reason there aren't many Taylor Swift covers — as Swift told NPR in 2014, through her lyrics, "People have essentially gotten to read my diary for the last 10 years." It's pretty hard to cover someone else's diary.
This is an unusual quality in pop music. So many radio hits blow up precisely because they could be about anyone. Rather than relying on a particular perspective, they tap into something universal. So many songs were written for one artist and performed by someone totally different (Miley Cyrus' "We Can't Stop" was originally offered to Rihanna; Britney Spears' "...Baby One More Time" to TLC.) Certainly those songs carry different weight when sung by different people. But the themes transcend any specific artist.
Many people have surmised that Swift learned this technique — this extensive personalization — from her country roots. She's talked at length about her love of James Taylor, and her songwriting has been compared to that of artists like Dolly Parton and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Swift's first few albums, written in Nashville and steeped in the sounds of acoustic guitar, were country through and through. In 2014, when Swift released her first full pop album, 1989,performers at the Country Music Awards joked that the world of country was struck by a collective bout of "Postpartum Taylor Swift Disorder." And it's true that Swift's particular style owes a lot to country music.
But there's another genre that Swift borrows techniques from, which is perhaps equally responsible for her sound. And that genre is hip-hop.
To be clear, Taylor Swift is not a hip-hop artist. Despite the tizzy that followed the release of "...Ready For It?" — fans swore she should win the Grammy for best female hip-hop artist for speak-singing portions of that song — she does not rap. The strategic placement and quasi-ironic use of phrases like "this sick beat" and "haters gonna hate," delivered from her perfectly lined red lips, serve to underscore her "not rapperness," not diminish it. In style, in essence, in music, in person, Swift is no more a rapper than I am Beyoncé.
And yet, it's impossible to imagine that Swift didn't learn how to be a pop star by watching and listening to rappers. The lyrical storytelling; the meticulous attention to detail; the centering of her own perspective; the posturing; the commitment to a persona; the fixation on rivals, haters, and detractors; the positioning herself as marginalized and mistreated; the support of a crew: All of these are features of good rap.We know that Swift consumes rap. In 2011, she rapped a few lines of Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass" on the radio. She's been caught singing "Dilemma" at karaoke with Nelly and has filmed herself rapping along to Kendrick Lamar's "Backseat Freestyle." Later, Lamar was featured on her 2015 single, "Bad Blood." When she presented the 2015 Video Vanguard Award to Kanye West, she mentioned that one of the first albums she ever bought was West's The College Dropout. And she came of age in an era when every pop song that mattered featured a rapper.
Of the rap elements that Swift has adopted, the most recognizable might be the feud. Swift has been calling out enemies in her music for more than a decade. Her word choice may be different, her melodies gentler, but the formula is similar: Someone wrongs you, you accept the challenge, you up the ante, and eventually, you become a hardened shell of your former self.
Need some evidence?
J. Cole in "Rich N*****:" "Ain't there more to you? Don't it ever get boring to you? I realize deep down you a coward getting high off of power."
Taylor in "Mean:" "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 ... and a liar and pathetic and alone in life and mean."
Tupac in "Hit 'Em Up:" "Remember when I used to let you sleep on the couch and beg a b**** to let you sleep in the house? Now it's all about Versace, you copied my style. Five shots couldn't drop me, I took it and smiled. Now I'm back to set the record straight."
Taylor in "Bad Blood:" "Did you think we'd be fine? Still got scars in my back from your knives, so don't think it's in the past. These kinds of wounds they last and they last. Now, did you think it all through? All these things will catch up to you."
Nas, in "Ether:" "Talk about me, laugh behind my back, but in my face, y'all some well-wishers, friendly-acting, envy-hiding snakes."
Taylor in "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things:" "It was so nice being friends again. There I was giving you a second chance. But you stabbed my back while shaking my hand."
Drake in "Pop Style:" "I can't trust no-f******-body."
Taylor in "Look What You Made Me Do:" "I don't trust nobody and nobody trusts me."
It's worth noting that the only rival who has proven the least bit sustainable for Swift is Kanye West. And it's because he's a rapper. (And crucially, because he's a malerapper.) There was no pop-star playbook for Katy Perry to look at when things started popping off between her and Swift. The story goes that in 2012, Perry hired some of Swift's backup dancers out from under her, which led Swift to write the song "Bad Blood." The video for "Bad Blood" was dripping with celebrity members of Swift's infamous "squad," including Selena Gomez in a Perry-esque wig.
Besides a mealy-mouthed tweet and a few mild TV comments, Perry had no substantive way to engage Swift. In fact, when Swift comes at Perry, or a critic, or one of her ex-boyfriends, it can almost feel like bullying. Because those people aren't part of the game. They don't know the rules of a public rivalry.
West, on the other hand, rises to the occasion. When he name drops Swift in a song, puts her naked likeness in a music video, goes out to dinner with her, records private conversations with her, alternates between feuding with her and praising her so much it gives you whiplash — he's playing by a well-worn rap-feud script.
So is Swift. She has capitalized on that universal appeal of rap: centering the underdog, the underappreciated, the hated, the disenfranchised. She has taken this narrative and spun it on herself and those in her ilk: the young, white, wealthy and beautiful. And she has made so many of us believe it, even when doing so is an act of mental acrobatics: that she is a target, that she is treated unfairly, that she is misunderstood and people are being mean to her. And she has made us believe, by extension, that we don't have to have giant, larger-than-life rivalries to be the heroes of our own stories. A high school romance or perceived slight will do just fine.
The appeal of this style is perhaps best described by Swift herself. After the release of 1989,NPR's Melissa Block asked Swift why she doesn't write songs about "big ideas and the big world that's outside."
Swift responded that what her younger female fans need is to look inward. "I think the best thing I can do for them is continue to write songs that do make them think about themselves and analyze how they feel about something and then simplify how they feel," Swift said. "Because, at that age — really at any age, but mostly that age — what can be so overwhelming is that you're feeling so many things at the same time that it's hard to actually understand what those emotions are, so it can turn to anxiety very quickly."
A huge part of Swift's draw is the acknowledgment of that reality, that our strongest emotions don't always correspond to the world's biggest injustices, and that we're entitled to them anyway. Her music doesn't make fans feel guilty about feeling what they're feeling. It provides space for them to be as angry or heartbroken or in love as they want to be. Her success as an artist is predicated on selling that contradiction: that you can be one of the most powerful, influential, beloved pop stars in the world, and still be victimized by the (often very normal) people around you.
And those tiny, lyrical details that Swift throws in — those are key. In "Mean," for instance, Swift spends several verses eviscerating someone before admitting that the insult that got her so upset was that he said she "can't sing." How validating, to craft an entire disgruntled ballad to convey that you didn't appreciate someone's feedback.
In 2017, members of NPR's Music team wrote that, "In hip-hop, as elsewhere, the personal is always political. Where you're at, so to speak, and how you choose to cultivate and represent that space – whether real or imagined — matters."
So where is Swift at, and how is she cultivating her space?
Well, Swift is at the top of the pop game. She is arguably the most famous pop star in the world right now. Her fan base is massive and her latest album, Reputation,has sold more than 2 million copies in the U.S. alone.
She is cultivating her space as the many things she is: a woman in a male-dominated industry, a savvy businessperson, a very famous celebrity whose every move is scrutinized. When she owns these identities, it feels honest. It's why nowadays, her best feuds, most satisfying takedowns, are directed at enemies big enough to pose a real threat to her: the media; the music industry; sexism.
But for all the qualities that make us root for Swift, there are others that make us question her — ones that she can't cultivate away. As a famous, attractive, thin, white, very wealthy woman, she is a profoundly unsympathetic underdog. She has too many advantages for most people to truly believe that she's in danger of not winning. Richer than Kanye, more influential than any ex-boyfriend or music critic or high school bully, she can no longer claim to be the small-town ingenue that so much of her early music portrayed her as being. In 2015, Dayna Evans argued that "the underdog narrative that the Swift machine has built is one of forced falsehoods; Swift is not coming from behind. She's been ahead since she started."
(It's maybe why Swift folded so quickly after a brief tête-à-tête with Nicki Minaj. When positioned against a black woman rapper talking about the barriers that black women face in the music industry, Swift's immense power and privilege shone through. And in an uncommon move, she apologized to Minaj.)
Again, it matters that Swift hasn't co-opted the look or sound of hip-hop. When Iggy Azalea — a blonde, white, Australian artist the same age as Swift — raps, "click clack, bang bang, I'm in the murda bizness," audiences intuit that she is play-acting. Hate her or love her, everyone understands that Azalea is a character — or perhaps, more accurately, a caricature of the black, male rappers that she is imitating. The fact that those black, male rappers are also often playing characters is often overlooked, thanks to racist stereotypes about black men being violent criminals.
And because Swift dresses, dances, speaks and sings the way we expect white women to, the fact that she's playing a character, too, is often overlooked. It's easy to assume that Swift really is exactly who her songs say she is. Fans trust that what she's singing is the truth.
And that's one of the differences between Swift claiming the underdog narrative and rappers doing so. Hip-hop has a history. It is a black art form built out of oppression, poverty and racism. To take on the stylistic elements of that narrative without being situated in the same reality is both brilliant and, at times, deeply unsettling.
In a 2015 GQ story, Chuck Klosterman wrote that "Swift writes about her life so directly that the listener is forced to think about her persona in order to fully appreciate what she's doing creatively."
To consume Taylor Swift's music — as so many millions of fans do — is to consume her. That includes the parts of her life that we sympathize with — the scrutiny, the bad breakups, the double standards, the loneliness. But it also includes the other stuff: manipulation, whitewashing, myopia, pettiness. And it means that our feelings about Swift's music will frequently hinge on how we feel, at any given moment, about what it means to be someone like her.
Swift uses tools from hip-hop to help fans become invested in her story, her struggle, her truth. But in many cases, to believe that Swift's truth is the full truth is to believe that she lacks agency, privilege or power. And that fact that she can make us believe that, even for a few bars, makes Swift the most disorienting pop star of our time.
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