Taylor Swift as Catastrophe. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj: what makes a great pop star alter ego?

A new name and haircut doth not an alter ego make.

Pop loves a good alter ego. Nobody wants a mild-mannered pop star, and a dazzling character is both a powerful tool for self-expression and easy to idealise. In the past decade, there’s been a flurry of female solo artists with alter egos that personify strength, defiance and sex appeal.

Taylor Swift takes this to its logical conclusion in her latest video, “Bad Blood”. In it, she stars as Catastrophe, with a host of all her beautiful, famous girlfriends in dominatrix-esque bondage with oversized weapons and aggressively punning names like Slay-Z and Mother Chucker. They form a futuristic crime syndicate that see the London skyline burn.

It’s a great idea, in theory. But somehow, it doesn’t quite work. The alter egos on display are thoroughly unconvincing. Cara Delevingne may have eyebrows explicitly designed for aiming fierce side-eye at the camera, but the same cannot be said for all Taylor’s friends: Ellie Goulding, Lena Dunham and Hailee Steinfield all look a bit lost and confused in a sea of pleather and chrome. But even the most believably intense girls are cookie-cutter versions of empowerment: standardised femme fatales with no discernible personality, even if “each individual actor/actress chose their character’s name and persona”.

Alter-egos succeed when they are expressive, taking elements of a character we already feel we know to unapologetic extremes. Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce let her roll all her strength and all her sweetness up into one ball, allowing the boldly independent side to her character we saw in Destiny's Child tracks and solo songs like “Irreplaceable” to flourish, while pushing the doubt, fear and vulnerability she equally explored musically to one side (quite literally, she dumped it on the other disc of her double LP, I am... Sasha Fierce). She uses a similar technique to bring her sexuality to the fore on her self-titled fifth album, creating slick, sensual Yoncé to conquer the embarrassment she felt about remaining sexy after becoming a mother. In an interview at the time, she explained:

In real life I was this woman, this mother, trying to get my focus and my dreams and myself back, and recording this album was such an outlet for me to escape, and create whatever world and whatever fantasy that definitely at the time was not happening. [Laughs] 

I know finding my sensuality, getting back into my body, being proud of growing up, it was important to me that I expressed that in this music because I know there are so many women that feel the same thing after they give birth. You can have your child, and you can still have fun, and still be sexy.

Nicki Minaj uses her alter ego, Roman Zolanski, as a similar outlet: through him, she lets loose of her craziest faces, her most manic laugh, her rawest aggression, and her silliest self. It's obviously significant that Minaj, a female rapper in a male-dominated industry, has a male alter ego – lest we forget the advent of pickle juice feminism after her 2010 documentary My Time Now:

When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss. He bossed up. No negative connotation behind ‘bossed up’. But lots of negative connotation behind being a bitch.

When you’re a girl, you have to be everything. You have to be dope at what you do but you have to be super sweet and you have to be sexy and you have to be this, you have to be that, and you have to be nice. It’s like, ‘I can’t be all those things at once. I’m a human being!’

Taylor usually works towards this same goal of self-expression using a different technique. Rather than creating a series of dramatically differing selves that reflect parts of her, Taylor’s fans often trace what they call her “character development”. She has moved gradually from being a country girl in torn blue jeans and ringlets, dreaming of love she’s heard about from fairytales, to one in high heels, red lips, more concerned with surrounding herself with intelligent women than chasing boys. She often accepts these contradictions in her lyrics, never rejecting that part of her that helped her to write her first album. She signs her foreword to 1989, “From the girl who said she would never cut her hair or move to New York or find happiness in a world where she is not in love... Taylor Swift”.

But even though Taylor surrounds herself with women she knows and loves for “Bad Blood” (its highlight is her power struggle with bestie Selena Gomez), the video is a stark departure from her usual efforts precisely because it seems artificial. It’s an unashamed PR stunt for her, and everyone involved, and despite the cast and context (“Bad Blood” was supposedly written after a feud with Katy Perry), the video says little about Taylor’s position as a woman in music. 

In contrast, Beyoncé and Nicki’s alter egos come from a sincere and generous desire for an embodiment of a self that would otherwise be difficult to voice. It’s why their new video for “Feeling Myself” is so successful. I would sooner have the lyrics to “You Belong With Me” tattooed on my face than criticise Taylor as an artist (her songs are heartfelt and wonderful), or pit women in music against each other – but unlike “Bad Blood”, the “Feeling Myself” video works because Beyoncé and Nicki are doing something more radical. Their alter egos are stripped away here, because they’ve already done their work: forcing onlookers to accept their multitudes. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.