Taylor Swift arriving at the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscars Party. Photo: Getty
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Taylor Swift’s success makes me hopeful for the future of humanity

Poet laureate of women’s inner lives, resolute booster of the girls who love her, healthily selfish, and heartily unconcerned with what the haters think about her: we could all do well to spend a bit of time in Taylor’s world.

There was a moment this year when I decided, actually, the next generation of girls has every chance of doing all right. The moment was the climax of a Taylor Swift concert at the O2 Arena, with Swifty as the ringmaster of a fantastical circus, dressed in red sequinned coat tails and top hat, singing “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – and the audience sang it back. All around me, teens and tweens lifted up their handmade LED signs and flashing torches of allegiance to their heroine, and they raised their voices too and chanted along: “We-ee are, NEVER, EVER, EVER getting back together!” And I thought: you lot aren’t going to take any nonsense from boys, are you? As they spilled out into the night outside the dome, with lyrics painted on their faces, every girl there had been anointed with knowledge most women take several heartbreaks to acquire: guys just aren’t worth the anguish, but you should matter to you.

Swift is probably about to be the biggest thing in the world, and that’s one of the rare events that makes me feel hopeful for our species. Unequivocally, I love her. “Shake It Off”, the lead single from her new album 1989, has debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 (the album is named for the year she was born: implausibly, she’s still only 24, and has been in the business for a decade). Though Swift is surely used to smash hits and sell-out tours, this is likely to be an even more gargantuan form of success as she crosses over definitively from country-pop to POP-pop. “Shake It Off” itself is an endlessly relistenable manifesto of screw-you, as Swift enumerates some of the duller criticisms aimed at her (“Got nothing in my brain”/“Go on too many dates”) before dispatching them magnificently in the chorus: “Just shake it off, shake it off.”  

The video is possibly even more joyous, with Swift scampering to keep up with ever-changing troupes of dancers, and goofily failing, before the screen fills with fan kids freaking out delightfully to the song. It’s the perfect synthesis of the Taylor triple-threat: close to her audience (Swift was one of the first stars to build a fanbase on Myspace, and she still leaves unbearably sweet comments on her fans’ Instagram pictures), not too serious about her public image, and super respectful of hard work and talent. (There’s been justified criticism of the twerking section for insensitivity to the racial politics of white stars using black women’s sexualised bodies as props, but there’s also no doubt that the twerkers – like the ballerinas, the gymnast, the cheer team and the rest of the dancers – have been recruited for being absolutely amazing at what they do.)

Actually, it’s part three of the Taylor equation that is rapidly becoming my favourite thing about Swift: she’s manifestly unfaffed about looking aloof or sexy, but she knows she’s an A-grade songwriter, and she expects her due for it. “They can say whatever they want about my personal life because I know what my personal life is, and it involves a lot of TV and cats and girlfriends,” she said in a recent Guardian interview. “But I don’t like it when they start to make cheap shots at my songwriting. Because there’s no joke to be made there.”

Her last album, Red, has an almost inexhaustible supply of lyrical brilliance – the intoxicating invocation of falling recklessly in love on “Treacherous”, the gleeful celebration of being young and having fun in “22”, the chilly and sly “Last Time” that twists from desperate relationship-saving promise to irrevocable dumping in the last chorus. But I secretly believe that the most heartfelt line of all is one of the sick burns she delivers to the ex in “Never Ever”. “Go and listen to some indie record that’s much, much cooler than mine,” scoffs Swift. She doesn’t care what the try-hard boys think. She knows she’s good.

She knows she deserves to get paid, too. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal about the future of the music industry (Taylor Swift wrote an op-ed for the WSJ! She is truly a renaissance woman), Swift sounded an unusual note of optimism about the financial viability of the recording industry: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” Whether audiences will universally fall into line after a generation raised in Napster libertarianism is unclear, but what matters is that Swift clearly isn’t going to tolerate a set of rules that don’t value her correctly. It’s a principle that she expands on, too: “My hope for the future, not just in the music industry, but in every young girl I meet… is that they all realise their worth and ask for it.”

Until recently, Swift distanced herself clunkily from feminism. “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life,” she told the Daily Beast in 2012, and the world echoed to the sound of Swift-loving feminists shouting “Noooooo! You have made a fundamental error about the nature of both society and feminism there, Taylor!” But last week, she revised this in the Guardian interview: “I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities … I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.” Poet laureate of women’s inner lives, resolute booster of the girls who love her, healthily selfish, and heartily unconcerned with what the haters think about her: Taylor’s world is one we should all spend more time living in.

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

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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.