Lady in red: Taylor Swift performing at the O2 Arena in London this month. Photo: Sam Hussein/Tas/Getty Images.
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Taylor Swift is for grown-ups, too

Her songs offer the sense of a technicolour future stripped of all but the most worthwhile woes. It's time she stopped the silly pep talks in between and just got on with being a pop star.

Every morning before work, an adult female friend of mine watches clips of young girls giving mascara tutorials on YouTube. Serious-faced, in calm voices, they etch their eyes like it’s the most important thing in the world. My friend says she finds it inspiring. It’s an extreme example but teenage entertainment has a place in the life of an intelligent, fully functioning grown-up that isn’t fully acknowledged. Teenage stuff represents both comfort and the glittering void of an unknown future – which we all like to be reminded of from time to time.

“Mean” is one of Taylor Swift’s best songs: a two-finger salute to bullies at school, delivered from the perspective of enormous adult success. There are thousands of thirty­somethings at the O2 Arena on 1 February with their fists in the air; people I know who bought tickets were keen to explain there was “nothing ironic about it at all”. The last time I saw Swift in London, when she was 19, her set contained an innovative name-and-shame section in which ex-boyfriends, played by actors, were shown on-screen and humiliated for being mean to her in the past.

Now that she’s 24 and has played the Grand Ole Opry, things are more age-appropriate. She wears ball gowns and tightly buttoned shirts, projecting Katharine Hepburn-style sophistication, while the ever-shortening shorts acknowledge the delayed dawning of the adult, sexy Taylor. The voice, which would sometimes “run out” during a show, is more powerful. Yet halfway through one of the slickest sets at the O2 in a long time, Swift steps forward and turns, briefly, into a moron: “I started writing songs because I wasn’t invited to parties or sleepovers and I wasn’t noticed by a guy I liked,” she says, almost six foot tall, falteringly picking her banjo. “No matter how hard you try, you can’t make someone like you if they don’t want to and all you need to worry about is how you get through it, whether it’s [by] writing in your journal, or grabbing a banjo like me . . .”

I search her face for signs of distress at having to talk like this. I think of Juliette Barnes, the country pop starlet in the American TV series Nashville (played expertly by Hayden Panettiere) – eyes flashing, lower jaw extended in anger, spitting at her manager: “When are you going to let me lose this glitter-pop crap? I am 24 years old.”

Swift spends the first 20 minutes of the O2 show – before singing anything at all – processing up and down the stalls, hugging the young audience. It’s a bold new step in artist-fan relations but it’s really boring for the 14,854 people craning their necks to see what’s going on. New models of music distribution and revenue have forced pop stars into these kinds of gushing interactions and they’re intensifying all the time: soon, the top ten super-fans in each city will sit onstage, taking turns to join the pop star in a duet. Lose the kids and lose your audience, they say – but you wonder when someone’s going to put their foot down and get on with the show. That someone ought to be Taylor Swift, because a lot of the things that children love about her are precisely what adults are coming out for, too.

I’ve got an internet radio at home. It has thousands of stations from every country in the world, sorted by category – jazz, politics, drama, Christian. There are 100 country music stations from the US on it; for many months, I have not shifted from one called My 90s Country, broadcast from Ohio, which “exists so you can relive the greatest decade in country music history”.

The 1990s were not the greatest decade in country music history but those years did give rise to many of the genre’s more lion-hearted, playfully self-reflexive songs. On a winter’s evening, I will prepare my spaghetti hoops to an evocative playlist that includes Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”, Rhett Akins’s “That Ain’t My Truck” (. . . parked in her driveway, so whose is it?) and Reba McEntire’s “Fancy”, in which an impoverished mother pushes her daughter into a life of high-class sex work. The colourful portraits of small-town life, pride, happiness, drama and jealousy simply get more enticing the further I forge ahead into adult life.

It was these romances that drew Taylor Swift to country music when she was a child living in Pennsylvania with her financial adviser dad and ex-banker mum. She started off listening to Shania Twain (“Man! I Feel Like a Woman”) and the Dixie Chicks (“Wide Open Spaces”), performed in talent shows and, by the age of 12, was writing her own songs. When she was 14, she persuaded her family to move to Nashville, where she won a songwriting contract for a deal with a small label called Big Machine (her father soon became a 3 per cent stakeholder).

In her first hits, she cleverly marked out her territory by namechecking the country music stars she would one day work with (Tim McGraw, for instance, was the subject of her song “Tim McGraw”). In her 2008 single “Love Story”, she created potent vignettes of teenage longing appropriate for a fan base a decade younger than her. The life those songs evoke (the boy next door scrambling up the drainpipe, proposing on the front porch) could not be further from her own teenage years, friendless and gawky, driven by unwavering ambition – but neither does it bear much resemblance to the life of an ordinary 14-year-old. The Swift canon traces the emotional arc of girls at an accelerated rate, with, you suspect, many experiences substituted by vivid imaginings. At 24, she is maddeningly naive and self-obsessed but brilliant – like a mainstream, country, iron-clad Lena Dunham.

The Red Tour has been travelling the earth for a year and ends at the O2, stretching five nights over 11 calendar days; she has established a kind of residency in London. She appears as a frozen silhouette for the opening song, “State of Grace” – she has never danced much, being tall and lanky, but her sense of poise is electric, like a marionette held up by the energy of the crowd.

Unfortunately, she has not lost her “Who, me?” face yet (this is the expression that inspired the meme “Taylor Swift looking surprised”, featuring footage from various award ceremonies). She uses the expression to ramp up hysteria in the crowd. That it has not been adjusted despite being the butt of so many jokes is admirable, suggesting the presence of an overbearing personality, stubborn and possibly slightly mad. There are other tasteless moments: a rock violinist; a ringleader outfit; a giant bunny for the 2012 pop anthem “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. Swift is still growing and it’s interesting to watch.

“Some people are romantics, which means they have a different soundtrack playing in their heads,” she says tonight. The disconnect between her life and art has been noted because she has apparently never had a relationship that lasted longer than four and a half months: this seems a strange criticism to level at someone who is 24, which these days – whether you believe Swift, or Nashville, or Girls – is the age at which nothing works out. Likewise, the charge that she uses these doomed trysts simply to generate song material is not something that was ever levelled at, say, Joni Mitchell in her day (Swift is playing her in a forthcoming film). The only thing that gets my goat is how she pushes the idea that there’s a certain glory in misery: love, hate, infatuation and jealousy are “fun” things to write about, she says, beaming: “Love is TREACHEROUS!”

Swift’s songs offer the sense of a technicolour future stripped of all but the most worthwhile woes. She performs the story of a lovelorn best friend in “You Belong With Me” (“She wears high heels, I wear sneakers”) in a sparkling Jessica Rabbit dress and long gloves. The difference between what you hear and what you see is where the escapism lies. You suspect the little girls in the front, with their slash of vermilion lipstick and cowboy boots, understand that – so she should stop giving the silly talks (“Bravery happens to different people in different ways,” she says in her new Keds shoes ad) and just get on with being a pop star.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.