When I say Taylor Swift is the best celebrity in the world that’s not a moral judgement. I don’t know if she’s a good person. I don’t know if she's the best musician in the world. I’m not qualified to make assessments of that kind — I must confess now, at the beginning of this op-ed, that I don’t even listen to her music for my own pleasure, only to satiate my own curiosity. When I say Taylor Swift is the best celebrity in the world, what I mean is: Taylor Swift is the one person alive right now who is the best at being a celebrity.
If you were to create a pop star from scratch, a person uniquely designed to sell catchy singles to Middle American teenagers right now, you would most likely end up with a creature identical to Taylor Swift. Tall, thin, blonde, good looking in a girl-next-door-sy way but not overtly sexy or threatening by any means. She possesses an asexual charm and even admits to not being sexy — the perfect image for someone who wants Middle American mothers to continue letting their children buy her records and concert tickets.
In this sex-saturated media environment, I find her lack of provocativeness novel and intriguing. She is both bland and interesting at the same time. Without using sex to sell, she has become fabulously wealthy, influential and powerful. But after ten years in the spotlight, her music needs to reflect the voice and pathos of a more mature artist. I have been hoping her music would change because it needs to. Her recent behaviour, distancing herself from celebrity feuds and “the old Taylor,” gave me reason to be optimistic.
In this, her thirtieth year, she penned an essay for Elle Magazine that I interrupted as maturation as an artist and more importantly, as a person. In it, she admits to vulnerability, human frailty, insecurity, hurt and learning from past mistakes. This is a welcome relief from an image that was just too flawless — a perfectionism that made her seem inauthentic. This is a humanising portrait which gives us a rare glimpse of the ‘flaws’ that are usually ironed out or hidden from public view.
On listening to her new single ‘Me!’, however, my optimism faded away.
Her music is not to my personal taste but I like Swift because I respect and admire people who are clearly good at what they do. Her graft shows. No one gets to that level without being good. But ‘Me!’ is not a reinvention — despite the butterfly symbolism — it’s a saccharine, pastel-coloured continuation of what she’s always done. Songs about being hurt by boys flatter girly pop stars in their 20s, they do not flatter women in their 30s. She has yet to radically depart from the themes her music has occupied for most her career.
Madonna is often credited with being the mother of pop stardom reinvention but she reinvented herself because she had to. Pop music gets dated quickly. Swift’s references to petty feuds and ‘lame guys’ have to go. It’s got to the point where using that subject matter makes her look immature and like someone who can’t think of anything new. Her music needs to contain a deeper pathos and can no longer read like a thirteen-year-old’s diary. The fans she already has should grow with her; not outgrow her.
Early indications suggest that her new album is going to be ‘more political’ — suggesting she has wisely chosen to ride the fashionable tide of wokeness — albeit cautiously. This is a radical departure for an artist who used to avoid political statements. But is it authentic? I view this about-face with some degree of scepticism as it only happened after her unwillingness to voice political opinions became conspicuous. She evaded criticism by not getting political only until she was criticised for not getting political.
What made Swift compelling as a young musician was her authentic voice as a young woman. That’s why it’s no good her being political only because it is trendy for celebrities to be political now, she has to really stand for something. As a jaded activist, I can tell you that it’s hard, costly and painful to stand for anything against the status quo. If she’s going to do politics it needs to be active and sometimes buck the prevailing trends. Manufactured, insincere activism is even worse than manufactured, inauthentic pop music.
I have more time for Swift than most but I will be disappointed if Swift turns out to be a coward. Changing from making popular Country Music to Popular Music is a change of style, it does not necessarily represent growth as an artist. She can be a ruthless careerist when she wants to be. Tom Hiddleston was seemingly cut from her life and cast aside like a gangrenous limb. Too much of a celebrity in his own right to be perfectly malleable to her agenda. Too little of a celebrity to be in her league. (Good for her, I say.)
She now needs to apply that ruthlessness to herself. Most of her music has looked inward and it wouldn’t hurt her or require much effort on her part to expand her range. Even if her politically themed tracks are safe and on-trend, as I am expecting them to be, TS7 has to reflect the voice of a woman in her late twenties. If TS7 still reads like an adolescent’s diary, then we’ll know the decline has begun. If ‘Me!’ is an accurate reflection of her new album, Swift needs to dig deeper.
Thank you for reading — I hope you found my thoughts interesting. Agree with me? Don’t agree with me? Let me know either way: @Sayde_Scarlett
Edit — 4th November 2019
Mea culpa, Swifties!
I’ve now had a chance to listen to the album in its entirety. I’m pleased to say that ‘Me!’, ‘You Need to Calm Down’ and ‘The Archer’ were not indicative of the whole album. There were some incredibly mature songs on there especially ‘Soon you’ll get better’. I just wish she’d stay out of the feuds… They don’t flatter her at all!