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What Taylor Swift can tell us about modern pop


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Let’s get this out of the way – we all know ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is bad. Like bad, bad. An emphatic pre-chorus can’t save this absolute failure of a diss track; all politics aside, it has as much bite as a castrated Chihuahua.

But what’s become evident over the past few weeks – which have seen Swift discussed relentlessly on social media, attacked in hundreds of think pieces from journalists, and rise effortlessly to the top of the charts – is that we just can’t get enough of her thrilling, twisted narrative. 

In order to gauge a truer picture of Swift’s career and how she has crafted this Machiavellian image, we need to start where it all began, with her eponymous debut album. 

Taylor Swift was released in 2006 to widespread critical acclaim. Jon Caramanica of The New York Times described it as "a small masterpiece of pop-minded country, both wide-eyed and cynical, held together by Ms Swift's firm, pleading voice." Swift’s music itself has never really been the problem, and at this point her innocent country tunes paired with her squeaky clean image gave no real stories to the media.

Swift’s early career earned her a Grammy nomination and various boyfriends. But this is the point at which Taylor’s grandiose narrative began: her messy breakup from Joe Jonas fuelled countless songs on her next album, Fearless, and, along with her breakout single ‘Love Story’, this allowed her to carefully position herself as a wounded soul.

Taylor Swift’s victimhood has already been played out in a now infamous Buzzfeed article, which charts her progression from Fearless to 1989 and examines how she has positioned herself carefully as a victim of men (Kanye), other female stars (Katy Perry), and the media (despite her glowing reviews), in order to boost sales under the guise of marketplace feminism.

We do need to acknowledge the fact that a lot of the hate directed towards her is cruel, unnecessary, and fuelled more by misogyny than any of her own calculated actions – she is undeserving of vile comments and death threats – but it’s interesting to see how, at first, her tactics paid off, but with the rise of social media coinciding with her rise to fame, her innocence has backfired.

It tells us a lot about how pop has changed when we see a former innocent country girl slowly being exposed as a crass manipulator and a savage liar – often not by journalists, but music fans themselves. In an age where 'wokeness' is just as integral to an artist as the music they make, to see a white, middle class, heterosexual country singer consistently plead her innocence and deny her privilege just doesn’t cut it anymore. Yes, Kanye disrupting your first major award is insulting, but it doesn’t require four album’s worth of suffering. We’ve got bigger problems.

And, when it comes to these ‘bigger problems’, Swift’s stance has been vague at best. Her attempts at conveying inclusivity by creating an all-star ‘squad’ founded on sisterhood managed to be nothing more than an exclusive clique, and her brand of feminism tackles pillow fights over pay gaps and gender inequality.

A few weeks ago, she won a court case against ex-radio DJ David Mueller, who allegedly groped her at a concert in 2013. She was awarded $1. Ostensibly, this was a symbolic case aiming to highlight sexism in the industry rather than playing to her advantage, but it was timed perfectly just before the release of her new single. As much as her actions are admirable, it’s hard not to question whether this was done to posit her emergence as a ‘woke’ superstar.

But what does this tell us about modern pop? From the beginnings of popular music, pop stars have been relentlessly criticised for their stance on social and political issues – this is nothing new. But the culture surrounding this has changed.

Fans have become more aware of the issues facing their communities and social media has allowed them to voice their opinions more freely; now, we can attack stars directly, and this comes with both its advantages and its problems. Swift’s case is proof of the damaging effects that social media can have on one’s career. Calling out and shaming has become increasingly prevalent in online communities and, for pop stars such as Swift, no longer does playing the victim work. In our social media culture where wokeness is rife, there’s nowhere for those in the upper echelons of pop to hide. 

But Swift’s social media presence is more complex than that. Unlike many pop stars, she doesn’t engage with users on a one on one basis. In fact, her social media presence goes against the grain of many pop stars – she is almost absent, her Tweets reduced to PR stunts, her style impersonal and restrained. This isn’t to suggest that this isn’t effective: a few weeks ago, her Twitter was wiped clean and a brief video of a snake was posted, sending the Twittersphere into a frenzy. In a world of oversharing, this blankness paid off.

And she isn’t the only one. Comparisons to Beyoncé emerge when we compare the pair’s social media engagement. Bey’s Twitter and Instagram accounts are equally impersonal, transforming her posts into news worthy events rather than small glimpses into her inner world. But where the two stars deviate is in what they choose to engage in. Swift is concerned with the likes of Heat magazine, feeding glossy lifestyle mags with cover stories about her long list of lovers, whereas Bey aligns herself with Hillary Clinton, the Black Lives Matter movement, and intersectionality. Taylor Swift shows us that restrained marketing can work – but not when your posts are dead behind the eyes.

Yet, despite this, it’s hard to look away. Through the development of her five albums, Taylor has gone from innocent country girl, to being sexually liberated, moving to the big city and, now, enacting her revenge on the media. Naturally, we associate each of these albums, and their biggest singles, with the tabloid drama that surrounded them. Her rise and fall from American sweetheart to the liar that launched a thousand snake emojis is a tragedy that would leave the Bard shaking in his boots.

And that’s what makes Taylor Swift so endlessly fascinating – it feels as if, this whole time, she has known exactly what she is doing. As much as her image has derailed, Taylor Swift appears to be a pop star in complete control of her own myth. 

Her odyssey reveals to us that modern pop prizes wokeness, that social media doesn’t have to be about oversharing, that victimising yourself and involving some of the world’s most famous stars in your narrative will lead to your downfall, but that this will ultimately keep Heat magazine’s fire ablaze for longer. Tabloid hotshots and triggered Twitter users can make a career – and this is something that Swift has mastered perfectly. It’s what makes her the top trend on Twitter and, ultimately, what has led to her breaking the record for the most streams of one song on Spotify, with eight million listens, in the first day of release.

Yes, ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is terrible. When the track was played at Manchester Pride last weekend, it was met with fervent boos. “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh! ‘Cause she’s dead,” she snarls before the last chorus hits. She might be right – but I can’t wait for her resurrection.

Reputation will be released on November 10th. 

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