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.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left