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22 December 2023

Taylor Swift’s hollow empowerment narrative 

The singer’s faux-feminist branding is so convincing journalists are doing her PR for her.

By Hannah Williams

A photograph of Taylor Swift, accompanying her Time magazine Person of the Year profile, shows the singer in a grey bejewelled bustier, her arms clasped behind her head. Her armpits are calcite white, unblemished, textureless: inhumanly perfect. Her chest, though, is lightly freckled – just a couple, here and there, just a few. Looking at the photo, I imagined the discussions that must have led to this, the conversations between magazine staff and photo editors and artist PRs, the emails and the phone calls and the Zoom meetings that eventually determined which imperfections would remain, and which would disappear. The effect of this careful staging of authenticity is uncanny, like discovering that marble, up close, is trompe l’œil.

This isn’t unusual – for as long as pop stars have existed, their success has rested on this veneer of relatability, in so far as this relates to their capacity for parasocial fan attachments. The pop star must convince their audiences that it is only their ears they’re whispering in, only their hands they’re holding, even as those same fans attend stadium tours, celebrate their number one albums. Swift, even by the standards of her peers, is particularly adept at this. For her efforts, she has been rewarded with a fan base that is both astonishingly large and terrifyingly vicious, and a personal fortune and asset portfolio that brings her net worth to over a billion dollars. But while the predator-eyed accuracy, the sheer ruthlessness, of her brand of relatability is unprecedented, it is hardly without parallel. What is curious is the extent to which critics, reviewers and journalists are complicit in crafting Swift’s narrative.

[See also: Britney Spears’s American horror story]

There is a deeply telling moment in Swift’s Time profile. It arrives after the writer has spent paragraphs on Swift’s decade-and-a-half-long upward trajectory, with Swift emphasising a public falling-out with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West as the lowest moment in her career. 

“Here, Swift has told me a story about redemption, about rising and falling only to rise again – a hero’s journey. I do not say to her, in our conversation, that it did not always look that way from the outside… She looked like a superstar who was mining her personal experience as successfully as ever. I am tempted to say this. 

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But then I think, ‘Who am I to challenge it, if that’s how she felt?’ The point is: she felt cancelled. She felt as if her career had been taken from her.” 

The answer to this, of course, is that you are the journalist. That it is your job to challenge. That it is not about what your subject feels – or claims to feel – but about the facts of the matter. That the album released after Swift claims she was “cancelled” reached number one on the US Billboard chart, was certified triple platinum, was the best-selling album of 2017 in the United States.  

Instead, the interviewer tells us that Swift’s feelings are not only legitimate, but morally correct. The artist, they write, “gives people, many of them women, particularly girls, who have been conditioned to accept dismissal, gaslighting, and mistreatment from a society that treats their emotions as inconsequential, permission to believe that their interior lives matter. That for your heart to break, whether it’s from being kicked off a tour or by the memory of a scarf still sitting in a drawer somewhere or because somebody else controls your life’s work, is a valid wound, and no, you’re not crazy for being upset about it, or for wanting your story to be told.”  

To put it more concisely: Swift is empowering, that gargoyle of a word that squats, grotesque and twisted and mocking, on the ramparts of modern liberal feminism. This type of coverage of Swift’s career is not content with reaffirming that the global megastar is just like us. It also wants us to be thankful for her beneficence, for her goodness, for us to make the sign of the cross whenever we see a photograph of her out to dinner with her squad, to fall to our knees and prostrate ourselves whenever we hear “Anti-Hero” in the supermarket. It doesn’t want us to see that being mistreated by society in the way that many women are – particularly those who are poor, who barely scrape by working 12-hour shifts in minimum-wage service jobs, who have no money and no power and no control – is not the same as being uninvited from opening a tour for Kenny Chesney because the event is sponsored by a beer company and you are under the legal drinking age. A great profile of Taylor Swift would locate the crack where the two contradictory Swifts meet – the tear-stained Everygirl weeping in the mall car park and the star whose private jet topped a list of celebrity-owned planes’ CO₂ emissions in 2022 – to prise apart these competing personas and reveal the human being that exists between the two.  

It may not seem surprising that Time would scrape and bow before its Person of the Year (although the accolade is supposedly not intended to celebrate the figure in question, but simply to recognise that they have “for better or for worse… done the most to influence the events of the year”). What is more interesting is the near-universal critical adoration of Swift in the media – perhaps most notably for her re-recording series. When the master recordings of Swift’s first six albums were acquired by Kanye West’s former manager Scooter Braun in 2019 (“This is my worst case scenario,” she said at the time), Swift embarked on a project of re-recording those albums so she would retain the new masters, releasing them under their original names and the parenthesis “Taylor’s Version”.  

When the latest album from her re-recording series – 1989 (Taylor’s Version) – was released in October, the praise was unceasing. Five stars from the Guardian – “It’s over for the doubters: you just can’t argue with Taylor Swift any more… You can’t argue with her positive impact on the lives of her devotees.” A 7.7 from Pitchfork. An ecstatic, slobbering review by a self-declared Swiftie in Rolling Stone. All this, despite widespread complaints from audiences about the quality of the re-recorded album (these included a high-pitched whine, static, buzzing and clicking, which her fans tried to get fixed). None of the reviews seemed to notice this. Many of them were so busy rhapsodising about Swift that they barely spoke about the music at all.  

[See also: Dolly Parton’s Rockstar is a cheesy, moving, joyful covers album]

Of course, there isn’t much else to say, considering that the majority of the album is the same as the original recording. Putting the symbolic purpose of Swift’s rerecording exercise aside, the reviewers are complicit in an artistically bankrupt exercise, and one designed for the most part to make the singer an incredibly large amount of money. Swift is an undoubtedly gifted artist, and she has produced excellent work – albums such as Folklore and Evermore demonstrate her prodigious talent. So why patronise her like this? Why patronise us?

Part of this impulse seems to stem from the supposed righteousness of the re-recording project. As that Guardian review puts it: “It’s commercially milkable, of course, but at its core this is a morally upstanding business exercise if ever there was one.” It is undeniably true that record labels’ control of master recordings, while standard practice, has long been a means of exploiting the artists on their roster – even if Swift’s deal with her former label gave her more control than most (her songs cannot be commercially licensed without her consent, for instance). Still, who better to speak out about the worst aspects of the industry than the woman who is the industry?

But while Swift’s re-recordings could have been a demand for collective change, in reality they seem like little more than an exercise in egotism and greed, repackaged as “empowerment”. The blazing light of her moral crusade is dimmed considerably when you look at the myriad ways Swift profits off the exercise, which include encouraging her fans to buy multiple vinyl and CD editions of the same albums in different colours to access “collectible artwork” (read: flimsy printed inserts) and bonus tracks, and charging £15.99 to rent (not buy) her latest tour film. Add to this the opportunistic merchandise sold through an online shop specific to each re-release: musical snow globes, acrylic knitwear, £25 keyrings. No one is obligated to buy these things – but Swift is calculated in framing herself as a wronged party, and her fans’ purchasing power as the only way to right said wrong. The gilded veneer of feminist empowerment that hangs over the project is nothing but scratch-card foil, easily rubbed away to reveal the grubby industry-standard capitalism underneath. And yet we’re expected not to acknowledge this – and so is the media.

It isn’t just Swift who elicits uncritical praise from publications. For just over a decade now, the tentacular embrace of poptimism has ensured that music journalists pay due reverence to major-label-backed commercial outfits. This was initially a welcome corrective to a music-criticism scene that once almost exclusively reserved its praise for white, male rock bands – but ten years on, it now feels as though any critical faculties have been squeezed out of music reviewing.

Like Swift herself, the movement managed the sleight of hand of making success seem like its own form of oppression, as if being dominant by every metric other than critical regard was a handicap. One remarkable sea change can be seen in the example of Pitchfork; once a bastion of self-consciously cooler-than-thou posturing became an unflagging champion of huge commercial pop acts. Its reviews now focus far more on the identity politics surrounding artists – and that of the audiences they are assumed to speak on behalf of – than they do on the music itself. (A 2017 tweet by @JucheMane that reads “Pitchfork: King PU$$Y Eater revolutionises our perception of bodies and spaces with his hit single ‘Goop on Ya Grinch’ [7.6]” only seems more prescient with each passing year.)  

There are a few reasons for this: one is the fact that few outlets even have staff music editors or writers any more. Freelancers, due to the precarity of their working situations, don’t want to lose access and aren’t afforded the protections that come with working for an outlet. Mainstream media publications are dying off, and their influence is no longer needed in the social media age – why would it be, when artists no longer need to navigate these gatekeepers to speak to fans?  

But there’s another, deeply cynical reason for this lack of analysis: fandom. It’s the reason why, despite his dominant commercial position, the mainstream music press would never laud a hugely successful artist like, say, Ed Sheeran. Sheeran, despite his international fame and popularity, simply doesn’t inspire the kind of fervent dedication that would lead a fan base to seize on all mentions of his name, whether they’re in euphoria over a positive review or Eumenidean wrath over a snub.  

For those pop stars who do, there can be no critical insight, no oversight, no examination. It’s a disservice to journalist, audience and artist alike, a Faustian bargain that leaves us only with smooth-pored photo shoots and printed hagiographies – fools of the court competing for the attention of their queen.  

[See also: I hate Spotify Wrapped]

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